This is part of a new series called Distancing, short blogs mostly taken from journal entries. I hope you’re all staying safe.
A few days ago we went on a ten-mile walk somewhere in Scotland.
The last time we were here, it was a glorious January day and the thought of a global pandemic was very far from our minds. Back then, we passed just a few people on this sunny single-track road in the middle of nowhere (literally, on the map it’s a couple of dotted lines weaving into unremarkable contours, passing several remote lochs before reaching a larger loch hidden between hills). Not exactly Munro or picnic-table territory.
Given that, I thought it would be a wise choice for a quiet walk. Bearing in mind the guidance around social distancing, we made our own lunch and put snacks in tupperwares; prepared ourselves to avoid public toilets; and pocketed the precious little supply of hand sanitiser we had left.
On the map, it’s a couple of dotted lines weaving into unremarkable contours.
When we arrived, the car park was full. It was early afternoon. We looked around warily. Nobody was in the parking area; they were all already walking. That meant that on the initial part of the path we passed a dozen groups of people returning to their vehicles, far more than our previous visit in early winter.
Each time, we gave them an excessively wide berth — we walked single file along the gravel track, or we stood in the mud at the road side, or we even moved higher onto the grass embankments above them if it was a larger group. Many times we were stared at like we were mad — as if, because we were all outdoors in a rural area, social distancing didn’t apply.
The issue we have right now is that the guidelines provided are being interpreted by some as mere suggestions, rather than rules. Take Sunday just past. The skies were baby blue and social media showed crowds gathered at food markets in London; cars crammed into viewpoint car parks in Scotland’s national parks; and bodies on beaches around Britain. There are a lot of people who just aren’t taking this seriously.
It was as if, because we were outdoors, social distancing didn’t apply.
I’ve also been reading many opinions about how this pandemic could affect rural Scotland, and how to protect those communities from the virus. Much of this discussion has been around the Highlands and Islands, and calling out those arriving in campervans from the south to escape lockdown or self-isolate in holiday style. However, writers like Alex Roddie have also been tackling what outdoor lovers should be doing in order to minimise risk to themselves and others. Despite the ongoing insistence (at the time of writing) that people have a right to go outside, what I’ve seen and read in the past few days makes me realise we must do more.
On a personal level, my partner and I have always gone outdoors — it’s a staple of our weekends. But now that the schools, restaurants and pubs are closed, going outside is one of the few recreational activities still available to the general public. That’s just one of the reasons why more people are now choosing to flock to previously quiet corners of the country for enjoyment (another is that bright orb in the sky, which we don’t often see here in Scotland).
This, by extension, means that the outdoors are no longer as quiet as us regulars once knew it. It seems that our precious forests, lochs and mountains can no longer safely be used to self-isolate, or truly practice social distancing.
As Alex Roddie has put it, “mountains don’t exist in isolation”. If we can’t trust others to take enough precautions, then ultimately it’s up to us as individuals to do what we can. There is very little during this pandemic that is safe any more, and if even the ‘safe’ spaces are busier, the only place we can responsibly be is home.
As difficult as that is to stomach for outdoor lovers — especially those who rely on the fresh air and scenery to support their mental health — we have to do it. We have to uphold this distancing as a mark of respect for the key workers, especially those in healthcare, who are dealing with rapidly-climbing cases and often sub-par resources. We shouldn’t take the risk of creating more problems for them.
If the outdoors is busier, the only place we can responsibly be is home.
We need to reassess what ‘adventure’ means for the time being. Soon we may find ourselves in a similar state as France or Italy or Spain, and be limited to a radius of a few kilometres from our homes.
So, it really is the moment to try and find the beauty and excitement in the little, local things. The birds calling to each other from the nearby trees. The leaves, vibrant green and delicately detailed, on the peace lily in the kitchen. The clouds moving past the window, an endless entertainment. All the books you haven’t read. That hobby that fell flat. The people around you that can be loved, even if you can’t see them in person quite yet.
That hike or holiday in the Highlands will just have to wait. Until then, be safe.
Postscript: Earlier today the British Mountaineering Council released this post asking that “it’s time to put hillwalking and climbing on hold”. For now, anything but the smallest local stroll (with your dog, or to the shops) should be crossed off your list.