As Colorado grapples with life’s changes, nature provides ultimate refuge

Tristan Maerz of Detroit rides Buckhorn or Upper Cap’n Jack’s trail, depending on which map you own or the company you keep, Friday, July 18, 2016. Hikers, motorcyclists, and mountain bikers have debated for years over the proper name of the section west of High Drive in North Cheyenne Canyon. Photo Credit: The Gazette, Christian Murdock.

The women weren’t used to finding the trailhead full on a weekday afternoon.

“It’s definitely weird,” Dianne Smith, 61, observed at North Cheyenne Cañon Park in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Yet she was unsurprised on this recent day of blue skies. As was her dear friend, Darlene Foster, as she approached the dirt path with her hiking poles, the bum knee be damned.

“It’s gonna be hard to keep people inside,” she said.

People here in Colorado Springs and across the nation are being tested. The coronavirus pandemic has left restaurants and bars closed for sit-in business. Sporting events and concerts have been postponed or canceled.

Perhaps more than ever, people are afraid, and more than ever, they’re struggling to find places for comfort. Even their places of prayer have closed.

But the great outdoors remain open.

“This makes me feel really close to heaven,” Foster said along the trail, surrounded by waving evergreens and birdsong, the canyon walls soaring all around.

“This just brings me peace,” Smith said. “This is everything to me right now.”

It’s been hard down in the city. Smith joined the masses in Walmart one day and witnessed the mania. “I had to stop,” she said. “I just stood there and cried.”

Now she felt far removed from that. After all, Foster said, “mountain folks are different from city folks.”

On the trail, here they were smiling at each other, remarking on the weather, wishing each other a good hike, a good day.

“It’s basically therapy,” said Laura Berry, here with a couple of college-aged friends. “It’s staying part of a community when community is being disconnected.”

As they are everywhere in public, health officials are advising social distancing on trails — 6 feet apart from other groups and individuals.

Nathan Brown, a communications specialist for the state Department of Public Health, recognized guidance is changing at “breakneck speed.” But while Gov. Jared Polis has ordered all of Colorado’s ski areas to close — COVID-19 cases have clustered around Vail and Aspen — he has so far encouraged stressed residents to seek fresh air.

Brown recently visited a busy Staunton State Park west of Denver and found hikers joyful while rightly distanced. “It was awesome to see,” he said. “It’s such a Colorado thing to go outside and hit the trail in difficult times.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is expecting an influx of visitors across the state parks. Like at national parks, events have been canceled and some visitor centers have closed. For passes, guests may pay machines rather than rangers. “But the parks themselves will stay open,” said agency spokeswoman Rebecca Ferrell, echoing the plan also for national parks.

She added: “This is a great time to be outside, but it’s also a time to be cautious and responsible and safe out there.”

Ferrell referenced a callout by the Colorado Search and Rescue Board, which worries responses could be delayed amid an anticipated surge of people bound for the wild. The uptick is clear in the Springs, judging from overflowing parking lots at city preserves.

“A lot of us in the recreation business understand what the outdoors can do for people,” said Scott Abbott, the city’s parks, trails and open space manager. “This is a pretty unfortunate way, but it’s nonetheless a way to recognize the high value of fresh air and sunshine.”

Long before these unprecedented times, great thinkers extolled the benefits.

A life lived in the present can only be achieved by walking outside, Henry David Thoreau suggested in his essay, “Walking.” Walk, Friedrich Nietzsche advised, especially when bad thoughts threaten. “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” he wrote. Beethoven walked to conjure up masterpieces. “Walk and be happy,” Charles Dickens said.

More recently, in her sweeping 2017 book “The Nature Fix,” Florence Williams reported on findings by scientists around the world.

Cortisol, the stress hormone, was found to be reduced in subjects who spent just 15 minutes in the woods. Patterns in nature such as raindrops and leaves were found to create alpha waves in brains — “the neural resonance of relaxation.”

In England, researchers found green spaces to help bridge income-related mental health disparities. In Japan, trees were found to lower blood pressure. Experiencing awe in nature could lead to greater generosity in people, another study found.

“Nature, it turns out, is good for civilization,” Williams wrote.

So it seemed to a pair of friends roaming North Cheyenne Cañon. As they went, they talked about technology, about “how people seem to be going so fast,” as Smith put it. How’d that song go? she asked Foster. “You got to stop and smell the roses …”

Usually it’s Foster, the bird lover, spotting the birds. But now it was Smith pointing out a passing blue jay.

“That’s the thing about all of this,” Smith said. “It’s making us all take a moment.”

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