What happens when the #BestOutdoorTownEVER is forced inside?

Grief. That’s what happens.

Yesterday was Day 1 of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke’s Executive Order to stay at home, and included in that order was the closure of all city parks; the celebrated Chattanooga Riverwalk; park trails at Stringer’s Ridge and Greenway Farms; and a symbol of the Chattanooga Renaissance, the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge. The city doesn’t manage all public land around Chattanooga, but in short order, the National Park System shut down all Lookout Mountain Trails within the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Battlefield Park Land; the Tennessee State Park System shut down all TN state parks, including the popular Cumberland Trail System running from Chattanooga to the Kentucky border; the Prentice Cooper TN Wildlife Management Area closed access to its trails; the Cherokee National Forest closed campgrounds; TVA closed boat ramps and shut-down paddling the Ocoee River; the Tennessee River Gorge Land Trust closed its trails; and Lula Lake Land Trust closed its open gate days even to its annual members, mostly to protect staff who work the gate. My two friends and I, who are all self-employed health professionals who have been either closed completely by executive orders or been driven to only virtual telehealth sessions, have been keeping up our mental health by meeting 2-3 times a week for a walk along different trails around Chattanooga. Yesterday, with the closures happening so fast we couldn’t keep up, we went from one parking area to another, only to find all trails were closed. We settled for standing 6 feet apart along the road by Suck Creek to process what was happening to our lives.

6-foot distancing.

Just the day before, people were allowed to use those trail systems in accordance with 6-foot social distancing guidelines. With the closure of restaurants, bars, festivals and events, for weeks the only thing left to do was to walk, run, bike, climb, paddle or fish. And for Chattanoogans, the love for those activities and the many ways in which to enjoy them in their city, is what makes Chattanooga the twice-voted #BestOutdoorTown EVER. Now, they’re indoors.

March 17, 2020 in Coolidge Park looking at Walnut Street Bridge.

Over the last three weeks a walk on the iconic Walnut Street pedestrian bridge, where it’s always uplifting to see the diversity of the Scenic City’s families enjoying a stroll over the TN River, became a deeper unifying experience, quelling fear while bridging communities within Chattanooga. One of the best symbols of Chattanooga’s Renaissance and its return to the river is closed.

While the spring ephemeral wildflowers have been in full bloom–during what is, in my opinion, one of the prettiest springs we’ve had in a while–residents took to the trails, making them more heavily traveled than I’ve ever seen. Kids of all ages were with their parents splashing in streams, climbing over rocks, looking at flowers. It made Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, which claims that children are suffering from nature deficit disorder, look like a concern of the past no longer pertinent to today’s kids. Since most of their schooling has gone virtual on screens, kids have finally been excited to be away from their devices and screens. But since now they’re confined to their yard or the streets, they’ll likely go back to their devices.

We had a brief moment of something a little better than normal. Even when we were facing financial distress, doing what Chattanoogans do in full force, getting outside, was glorious. One thing we are collectively experiencing is a new appreciation of what we value as it’s taken away from us: our places of worship, whether they be churches, synagogues, mosques, yoga studios or nature. Being in nature during the blooming of the spring ephemeral wildflowers is a sacred annual celebration of new life that occurs with Easter. We will find a way to be alive before we’re dead.

I write this knowing the threat of the virus is real. While I have been writing, New York is having a great struggle to deal with the coronavirus. It is serious. We do need to be cautious, to practice physical distancing, etc. Closing our trails is taking it too far. Gov. Bill Lee of TN in his Executive Orders 22 and 23, require people to stay at home unless they are occupied in essential activities.

Those activities deemed essential include–from his pdf of Executive Order 22– d. Engaging in outdoor activity, provided that persons (follow) the Health Guidelines to the greatest extent practicable, including, but not limited to, driving or riding in a vehicle, walking, hiking, running, biking, swimming, kayaking, canoeing, golf, tennis, or other sports or recreational activities that can be performed while maintaining the aforementioned precautions or utilizing public parks and outdoor recreation areas; provided, however, that congregating or playing on playgrounds presents a unique risk for the spread of COVID-19 and is therefore not covered as an Essential Activity. To see the full E.O. 22 or E.O. 23.

Walking the Walnut Street Bridge March 17, 2020. Week 1 of schools being closed.

It is now April 8th, and, as a psychotherapist, I’ve seen clients for 3 days, Monday through Wednesday, after the first weekend of the closure of parks, trails and greenways. Social isolation exacerbates symptoms of despair, hopelessness, loneliness and anxiety on an average day. During a pandemic, when social isolation is mandated, symptoms worsen, and access to nature trails and safe outdoor exercise is needed more than ever. Repeated by my clients is that they were coping pretty well with the social distancing and being out of work until the closure of their favorite trail. By closing parks and trails, are we doing more harm than good?

An aside beyond the scope of this article, but worth reminding people is: the goal is to slow the spread of the virus. It is not only unrealistic to stop the spread, it isn’t wise practice. We will need to have a long, slow exposure to the virus to build antibodies until the vaccine is available. We need to continue to avoid gatherings of 10 people or more when the virus can spread from 1:10 at once, thereby avoiding spreading it exponentially. But we can do physical distancing one on one, or groups of two or three, and maintain a slow spread while continuing to live. And if we can maintain our physical distance on a trail, by a waterfall, in a boat, with a fishing rod, climbing Lookout Mountain bluffs, riding along the Riverwalk to finally cross over Walnut Street Bridge, then we will be living through this pandemic well as Chattanoogans.

At Lula Lake Land Trust waterfall, Feb 1, 2020.

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