Mountain Biking during a global pandemic, in a state with stay-at-home orders

A couple of things upfront:

First, I live in Jefferson County, CO about a mile east of NREL, which makes several trails (including South and North Table Mountains) easily bike-able from my house. Recently, Jefferson County issued a stay-at-home order for all residents, and later that day a state-wide issue was ordered. These stay-at-home orders allow for travel to and from “essential services or activities” such as getting groceries, going to the doctor, etc. It is critical to note that outdoor exercise has been determined to be an essential activity, for both mental and physical health reasons. I support these orders, see below.

Second, with wide-spread testing unavailable at the moment I believe that “social distancing” is the only defense we have against the spread of the virus right now. To accomplish this, we need to physically distance ourselves from other people, and reduce (or eliminate) the number of people we come into contact with each day.

There was a time, just a few days ago, that I honestly felt that it was acceptable to get in my truck, travel 50-60 miles to meet two friends, go backcountry skiing, and return home. My reasoning was that I bought gas close to home and used Clorox wipes on everything I touched or might touch, I drove to the trailhead alone, I kept 10-20′ distance from my ski partners the whole time, we saw WAY less than a dozen people all day and all of them were at least 30′ away, most were 100 yards or more.

A surgical strike, if you will. In an out, like a ninja. Nobody move, nobody get hurt.

And since the language of the stay-at-home order(s) can be interpreted to accommodate driving some distance to a trailhead to ride your bike, run, etc. it would be reasonable to continue this way of thinking with logic that might look something like: exercise in the outdoors is an essential activity, travel to and from essential activities is allowed, ergo driving to the trailhead is fine.

I don’t really feel that way anymore.

The ultimate goal of implementing stay-at-home orders is to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. As I said before, the best (only) defense we have right now is reducing or eliminating the number of people we each come into contact with every day i.e. social distancing.

I also believe that reducing our overall travel footprint helps accomplish this: as every gas pump handle, bathroom door knob, and trailhead gate we touch is another point of contact to either transmit or contract the virus. I picture a map in my head, and each person’s house is the center of that person’s travel radius. Your circle on the map intersects with lots of other people’s circles, like a Venn diagram. The bigger your travel radius, the more other circles you intersect with. It’s a simplistic model, but it works for me.

Wants vs. Needs

I am trying to make sure I am not conflating my needs with my wants during this time. An example looks kinda like this… procuring food is a need, and an essential activity. I like bagels, bagels are food, therefore getting an order of take out bagels is fine. So far, so good. I’m meeting my need for sustenance, and responsibly supporting a local or small business. Great.

But, what if I don’t really like the bagels from the shop in Golden that I can walk to, and I much prefer the bagels from the shop in South Denver near where I used to live? Does that mean I’m going to get in a vehicle and drive to that bagel shop to get the bagels I prefer? To me, that would be irresponsible. I have what I need close to my home, and making the choice to fulfill my need for sustenance but forgo the want to have the better bagel is more socially responsible. It considers not only my own needs, but also the needs of others (to not have me imposing my presence on them) and my impact on them. It might not be what I really want or prefer, but it more than meets my immediate needs.

Maybe I think riding Deer Creek is better or more fun or whatever than riding NTM, or either of those trails are better than STM—to where I can quickly ride to from my house. But STM fulfills my need for sunlight, fresh air, and exercise. So does walking through my neighborhood, going to the local park, or going for a road ride.

Like everything, there is a balance. My intention is to balance my needs for food, fresh air and exercise, etc. with consideration of the impact of my actions on other people. And hopefully, I can do some things in a way that gets my wants met, too.

About those other people…

I also personally believe that loads of people traveling to the JeffCo parks and trails from all over the metro area has the potential to put undo stress on the community here. Similarly, I now believe traveling to Clear Creek County to go for a ski risks putting undo stress on that community. Sure, like in my earlier example I could be in an out like the wind, minimizing contact with other people, no harm no foul. But what if I can’t?

We’ve all heard the requests from mountain and desert communities to “stay away, our medical infrastructure can’t handle visitors right now”. In many ways I believe the same can currently be said of JeffCo. Of course the medical infrastructure here is larger than, say, in Moab. But there are also a LOT more people here for those hospitals to serve. And now that so many other destinations have been commonly accepted as “off limits” I feel there is legitimate concern that people will flock here. After all, it’s where the trails are. But if the entire Denver metro just starts coming to NTM to ride and run and hike, it’s no longer a place where social distancing is able to occur. And to beat the drum the mountain communities have, what happens if you get hurt and need evacuated out of a park? Or you’re hospitalized? Or… ?

And meanwhile, wouldn’t the more urban located parks be more likely devoid of people?

To be completely fair: I think a person can travel a distance and do it responsibly, reducing their contact with others to near zero. I do NOT feel that people can or will be able to do this, en masse. People are not going stop coming to JeffCo to use the parks and trails… they’re just not. Not only are all the avid “already a trail user” users (e.g. folks who ride/run/hike multiple times a week or month) going to head to the trails, but so many first-time or really infrequent users going to do so as well. We have seen this behavior starting already, at Loveland and Berthoud Passes with so many people out backcountry skiing, and so many of them with rented gear and little experience. And since people aren’t likely able to change, a person will have to for this whole social distancing experiment to have half a snowball’s chance in hell.

Sidenote: the other day I thought of a term for the phenomenon of first-time or infrequent users mobbing the trails: I call it Mother’s Day Syndrome. I’ve lived here a little over twenty years, and my experience has been that Mother’s Day is one of, if not the, most crowded days for trail use in the immediate vicinity. It’s like every mom who’s never hiked on a trail before, when asked what they’d like to do for their special day, says “I want to go on a hike in nature with my family, the people that are most special to me.” And then they do… all of them. In droves. It feels somehow similar, right now. So many people who don’t usually go hiking, riding, etc. are now faced with self-isolation and they’re thinking “You know what I can do to pass some time that is a solo activity? I could go for a hike! Yeah!”

So what am I gonna do?

I personally think if you live close enough to a trail to ride there, a person should go for it. That’s my plan. If you don’t, my hope is that you consider your impact on others in addition to your exercise and recreation needs.

And my approach will be this: if there’s a bajillion people parked at the trailhead, nobody is practicing physical distancing, and/or the sheer number of people there would make it prohibitive for me to effectively keep my distance from others… I’ll go home. I did the weekend before I wrote this post, when I went to a “lesser known backcountry ski zone” and surprisingly found two dozen or more vehicles parked there.

It sucked, but I went home.

And I suspect that I’ll be spending more time on my gravel bike this spring than I would prefer, because trails/trailheads are going to be more crowded than I am comfortable with. Being unemployed, I might be able to figure out the “off” times where there are fewer/no people. We’ll see how it goes.

Stay safe, stay sane, stay healthy my friends.

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