When the outdoors are the exception

March 21, 2021 4:28 am

Sarah Capdeville (Courtesy of Sarah Capdeville)

MISSOULA –The group of women approaching me on the path is clearly at ease, walking shoulder to shoulder on the double-track, snow-stacked mountains glowing to the north. I came here with my dog seeking similar release, except that I’ve only found sparks to a constant, smoldering fury. There’s nothing close to six feet between the women, their faces uncovered like everyone else here. I’m the only one wearing a mask, the only one stepping into crusted snow to give space to the walkers and cross-country skiers soaking in the bands of blue sky overhead.

I’m almost always the only one. And I decide that this time I’m not going to step aside.

I understand that outdoor spaces are safer than indoor ones. Still, they’re not immune. I haven’t been inside another building besides my own house in months. I haven’t hugged my parents in a year; haven’t seen grandparents and other family and friends in longer. Like everyone else, I am sick and tired of this pandemic, but I’m also plainly sick—systemic lupus coupled with a reactive airway, among other conditions. My body is in liminal, dynamic, chronic disarray, which is another way of saying I don’t know what would happen if I contracted COVID-19. I could be OK, or that inflammation in my chest could grip tighter. Or my immune system, already attacking healthy cells and tissues, could rear up once the virus ebbs away, triggered into a multi-system blitz.

Ahead of me, the distance between myself and the woman on our shared track shortens, foot by foot. I pull my shoulders back, tilt my masked chin up. And, after a sway of hesitation, the woman does move, stepping into the berm of untrodden snow to fall in line behind her friends, which, I take from the glare she throws at me, is an enormous inconvenience.

Before lupus, I was a seasonal wilderness ranger and avid trail runner. And in grieving that diagnosis and loss of identity, I turned to front-country landscapes, only to find, last March, that these spaces had become pandemic-escape zones—not just from the virus itself, but from those of us who aren’t seen fit to recreate there in the first place. In Missoula, this outdoorsy college town and so-called progressive island of Montana, I’ve watched my community readily embrace a “normal” where the coronavirus is an inconvenience, and not necessarily a threat.

Like so many aspects of our society that this pandemic has stripped its rotting roots, I find myself staring into the face of deep-set ableism, saturated in a kind of apathy that much of this country, divided into binaries, refuses to see.

These moments on the trail are psychologically exhausting. A man rolling his eyes after I ask for space, a woman nearly stepping on me while trying to wrangle her puppy, strangers passing each other, their shoulders all but brushing. Sometimes the looks people give me are nothing more than confusion, a question whose answer I want to scream back—Because were living in a respiratory pandemic. Because my immune system exists in a constant state of overreaction. Because its the smallest of actions, gracing someone a safe buffer of air.

What this woman’s glare tells me is that the outdoors are a place where she and others don’t have to think about those most impacted by the pandemic. The intense polarization of COVID-19, especially in Western states, means our barometer is framed by extremes, and what’s left of the middle ground is often just that—ground itself, open spaces seen as neutral zones. The mistake is assuming that nature exists as an escape from collective responsibility, that our behavior in these spaces is somehow absolved because there’s big sky over our heads instead of a bank of fluorescent bulbs.

As someone living with chronic illness, the resounding message I’ve received is that if I’m so afraid of the coronavirus, then I should just stay home. But home is, always has been, outside—walls of pine, chatter of nuthatches, sky smudging to dusk overhead. With a body that trips into self-sabotage, escape isn’t an option for me. Escape isn’t an option for any of us, and insisting otherwise only reinforces the ideology that the outdoors are open to a select few.

Sometimes I wish there was one interaction, one glaringly obvious moment that I could point to as an explanation for my anger. But there never is, and I remind myself that these moments on the trail are like individual viruses, that it’s their collection as a whole doing the damage. I remind myself that I’m worthy of the space I inhabit, that my ease in these landscapes is an answer in itself — I’m already home.

Sarah Capdeville is a graduate of the University of Montana in Missoula and Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Always in search of wild places, she’s rambled high desert, glacial basins, and boreal forests 200 miles north of the arctic circle. For five seasons, she proudly wore the title of wilderness ranger in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Welcome Creek Wilderness, and Rattlesnake Wilderness, her home of homes. She lives in Missoula, where she navigates chronic illness and daydreams about the crosscut saw.

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