When you’re serious about social distancing — as we all should be — it’s helpful to live where public land is measured in the millions of acres.
Where the only large group you’re likely to see is a herd of deer or elk.
Where the nearest person might be a couple of miles away, far enough to leave even a robust virus wheezing if it tried to bridge the gap.
(I suspect viruses don’t actually wheeze, being that they’re not really alive, but it pleases me, in these troubling times, to imagine virus particles prostrate and in agony, tiny tongues lolling.)
I strive to comply with social distancing guidelines.
It strikes me as a relatively simply precaution, and one that can stem the spread not only of coronavirus but of other less virulent but still unpleasant afflictions.
I came down with one of those brief bugs a month or so back — the sort that turns your stomach into the equivalent of a stubborn toddler who flings his dinner plate across the room — and I’d just as soon not spend any of my quarantined days slumped in front of the toilet.
I’ve had little trouble adjusting to social distancing.
I go for a walk every afternoon, and on weekdays my route usually follows a series of streets and sidewalks in Baker City.
Most days I see only a handful of pedestrians or bicylists. In the carefree pre-virus era I rarely thought it necessary to yield a sidewalk unless, say, there was a stroller involved, or a couple of young kids who looked as though they were occupying the full width of concrete.
But now, even if I see only a lone walker heading my way, I detour onto the street so as to maintain at least a 6-foot spacing. As we pass, each of us presumably outside the effective droplet range, we exchange a half-wave/half-nod gesture, usually accompanied by a rueful smile. This seems to me one of the symbols of the new society we have so unexpectedly found ourselves in.
My favorite pastime — hiking — hasn’t required even this modest accommodation.
And this has much to do with my original point about the benefits of living in Northeastern Oregon, where the population density is more akin to the 19th century than the 21st.
On the vast majority of my hikes I don’t see another person.
And when I do there’s such a surplus of space that we needn’t get close enough that we could (not that we wish to) hurl stones at each other, never mind the much less aerodynamic virus particles.
Although prior to social distancing these encounters were so rare that I usually felt compelled to hail the other person, if only to find out how we ended up sharing such a tiny patch in a veritable ocean of land.
Nowadays I take solace in that cushion, knowing that it allows me to get my boots dirty, out in the spring sunshine, without sullying my status as a responsible citizen.
Since the virus-related restrictions began, my wife, Lisa, and I have taken our kids, Olivia, 12, and Max, 9, on a few weekend hikes that were completely compliant with coronavirus-defying advice.
This required no special planning — these were the sorts of trips we made in previous years, when we took the solitude for granted rather than appreciating its epidemiological benefits.
Our first destination was Arch Rock National Recreation Trail on the Malheur National Forest of Grant County.
The namesake arch is smaller than those at Arches National Park in Utah, but it’s still a fascinating natural phenomenon well worth the modest hike. The trail is just half a mile, with a moderate uphill grade.
We didn’t see a single person, despite parking about a mile and a half before the trailhead in deference to lingering snowdrifts, which means we hiked farther on a road than on the trail itself.
This past weekend we snowshoed on the Elkhorn Crest Trail near Anthony Lake on Saturday, and hiked along the Deer Creek Road, near the Burnt River Canyon in southern Baker County, on Sunday.
Again, social distancing was a snap.
We didn’t encounter anyone on the Elkhorn Crest Trail. On the Deer Creek Road we saw a convoy of ATVs but naturally we had to step off the road to let them pass, creating the all-important distance. Most of the riders and passengers were wearing helmets in any case — and they passed us at rather more than walking speed.
Although most public land in Northeastern Oregon remains open, including roads and trails, designated recreation sites, including campgrounds, are closed.