Salve for the Soul

Adventure |

How Teva Explorer and Photographer Johnie Gall rediscovered newness and awe on a rare backpacking hike in the western wilderness. Words and Photos by Johnie Gall. Additional photos by Brandon Scherzberg.

Like so many outdoor enthusiasts, I’ve spent these last months confused and frustrated by a lack of reliable information on what is and isn’t allowed when it comes to outdoor recreation in the time of coronavirus.

A month ago, The Surfrider Foundation’s answer was simple: Stay home, shred later. Long a megaphone for responsible ocean recreation, surfing, and beach access for all, the nonprofit made a blunt statement to discourage surfing with their #stayhomeshredlater prompted by rising cases of COVID-19 across the globe and surges in visitation to beaches around the country.

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From left, hers and his Grandview GTX hiking boots.

Outdoor groups such as the Access Fund and American Whitewater released similar guidelines for responsible recreation during a pandemic. Fast forward a few months and with stay-at-home orders easing up and trail and beach closures coming to an end, things are less black and white.

At some point, I decided to plan a backpacking trip that would allow me to be as safe and unobtrusive as possible. Even putting that in writing feels inherently controversial, like I’m laying myself out on a platter pre-seasoned for misinterpretation. Everyone has extremely different comfort levels concerning outdoor recreation right now, and all I can do is share my decisions while acknowledging my privilege, listening to experts, and considering my impact.

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Note: My backpacking trip required permits be secured two weeks in advance and a strict itinerary that was pre-approved by park rangers. We didn’t come in contact with anyone else the entire trip and made sure to bring our own food so we wouldn’t tax local grocery stores or restaurants. Make sure to check local restrictions, regulations and closures and plan at least two weeks in advance if you decide on a similar excursion. Do NOT plan any type of recreation near Indigenous communities or land suffering from high infection rates, and minimize your need to stop in “gateway” communities, such as those outside of national parks.

Grandview GTX hiking boots

For sure footing on rugged terrain, the Grandview GTX hiking boot has an ultra-durable Vibram® Megagrip rubber outsole.

This backcountry trip was different from the ones I’ve embarked on before. It felt like a return to observation and discovery, to the very reasons I was drawn to the outdoors in the first place. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring this ecology and geography, but after being confined to home, it seemed new and dynamic in a way that demanded my attention, down to the smallest bloom.

Instead of taking summit shots or tracking my mileage, I drew local flora and fauna (poorly, but hey, we’ve all got our pandemic hobbies) and swam around alpine lakes. It could be that I’m just out of practice after trading in hiking boots for sourdough starter for five months, but it felt like my first backpacking trip, me clumsy on all that granite talus with my too-heavy pack and renewed sense of awe.

western forests

sketching nature

I know how talking about the importance of a backpacking trip from a place of relative safety, security and privilege sounds, but hear me out: what feels trivial to some could be a lifeline for someone else. I think many of us were sucked into the productivity mindset when this all began—baking bread and sewing and creating workout challenges—all means of coping with quarantine. But, nearly half a year later, we’re still trying to survive a pandemic while also navigating some of the most important cultural, economic, political, social and environmental milestones of our time. Those simple pleasures from our pre-COVID lives? They now serve a more profound purpose in helping us cope.


Original Dorado

Johnie enjoys a well-earned refreshment wearing the Original Dorado sandals in Burnt Olive.

I’m not going to share the location of this trip, though I’m sure a few super-sleuths will figure it out based on the topography. I swear it’s not that I’m harboring some kind of localist aggression, but because these types of trips have become precious and important in all their iterations, whether they take place in the mountains or in our backyards. I don’t want to dilute the effectiveness of a local romp through the park as a salve for the soul and for all the sh*ttiness (let’s just call it what it is) that this year has brought us.

As we make our return to the outdoors, I hope it’s with a new kind of confidence in its meaning, and with a respect for the land and for others. Healing starts with the self and expands to the whole, and maybe that all starts with a walk in the woods.

alpine lake

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