The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.
– Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
While life in the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic has come to a grinding halt, and every imaginable event has been canceled, closed or postponed until further notice, the one thing that remains constant and steady and available is the outdoors. Spring has not been canceled.
In fact, the governor has ordered that all state, county and local parks waive any and all entry fees to the public in an effort to encourage them to get outside with their family, partner, friend or simply alone for some vitamin D, exercise and fresh air during these tumultuous times.
We live in an area that has direct village access to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail (WVRT), the Hudson Valley Rail Trail and the River-to-Ridge (R2R) Trail at the foothills of the Shawangunks. We are surrounded by the Minnewaska State Park Preserve, the Walkway Over the Hudson, the John Burroughs Nature Preserve and a half-dozen Scenic Hudson parks on or near the river.
With school closures, college closures, all non-essential business closures, a large portion of residents are relegated to their homes with nowhere to go except the grocery store. If ever there was a time to capitalize on the bountiful outdoor beauty that surrounds us, now is one of those times.
Just a cursory glance at visible trails like River-to-Ridge or the WVRT or parking lots to various trailheads shows weekday and weekend use unprecedented for mid-March. People are opting outside, whether to seize the opportunity of being home with their children, stave off boredom, lower anxiety, boost their immune systems, bask in the sunlight and feel the spray of a waterfall or be amidst the pine barrens, hear the peepers chorus or simply watch the tiny buds of the trees and shrubs force themselves to be seen in this global darkness.
We reached out to see if people were using this opportunity to spend more time outdoors by themselves or with their loved ones. “We’ve never been outside more together as a family of five than we have in the last ten days,” said Dr. Allison Lucchesi, who along with her husband, New Paltz Police lieutenant Rob Lucchesi, and their three daughters aged 10, 14 and 16, have been logging in the miles whenever they can be together. On Saturday, they hiked six miles together on the Mohonk Preserve: from the Undercliff Carriage Road to Godzilla (a dauntingly steep hill) back to Overcliff, “which I’m embarrassed to say I have not done since I was a preteen. My kids had never done it.” Her husband, who has trained for and competed in the Survival of the Shawangunks triathlon, is familiar with the trails, but this was the first time they hiked them as a family. “We are usually working, swimming, chauffeuring, running YBA and so on and so on.”
As Rob and Allison are both on the front lines of emergency responders, they are working all day with the kids at home alone; so, when they get home or on their days off, they make sure they take whatever opportunities they can to be together outside. “Today we did R2R from the Springtown trailhead, including the Pine Road loop and back for another six miles, so that’s 12 miles in two days.” Despite Rob having to plug into a conference call along the way, they were still able to move as a unit. They went to Slabsides at the John Burroughs Nature Sanctuary after work on Monday and the Pine Road loop on Wednesday. Next week they plan to do the rock scramble known as Giant’s Workshop off Laurel Ledge Road at the Mohonk Preserve.
Louise Rizzuto and her 8-year-old daughter Lena have been battling the isolation from school and socializing with more passive recreation as well. “We’ve definitely been taking advantage of the parks being free. I took Lena to Awosting Falls [at Minnewaska State Park] the other day; that was the first time for her. She loved it! I can’t believe I haven’t taken her before.” The mother/daughter duo has also been spending time walking the HVRT, and this weekend they spent the day at Coxing Kill, known as Split Rock, on the Mohonk Preserve. “Overall, we have been out in nature so much more than we normally would be with our busy schedules,” she reflected. “It’s has been our source of exercise, as well as keeping anxieties to a minimum. We are truly blessed to live where we do and have access to such magnificent places right in our backyard.”
Mike Otis, a professor of Engineering at SUNY New Paltz, along with his wife Lisa and their daughter, Katie, 13, have been using this societal shutdown to take their dog out and seek some exercise and adventure. “We discovered a new walk to Awosting Falls, which we really enjoyed,” said Lisa Otis, describing the walk from the Peters Kill trailhead to the falls. She said that the combination of having more family time due to the societal shutdown, along with the waived fees at the state parks, have them hiking at Minnewaska more than ever before, as well as the Mohonk Preserve.
Some residents said that they’re trying to find new areas and parks to explore to lessen the volume along the more-traveled paths like R2R. “We’ve been hiking every day,” said Emily Reardon, who, along with her husband and daughter Camille Reid, 7, have been frequenting the Mohonk Preserve, Scenic Hudson’s Shaupeneak Ridge park in Esopus and the Mill Brook Preserve in the Village of New Paltz. “The parks are really busy, so we’re trying to get out earlier at places that get busy or find new hikes, opting for distance and/or intensity to get the most out of it.” She said that her family unit lives in an apartment in the village and that getting out is key to everyone’s sanity. “If we don’t get out, we’ll all go crazy! Plus, we’re used to a lot of activity during our week, including walking to work. All of us swim and use the gym.”
While the outdoors is a great option — whether you’re sitting on your front stoop, bagging peaks in the Catskills, rock-scrambling or meandering along a well-beaten trail — social distancing practices are still being upheld, with all of the parks visitors’ centers shut down to the public until further notice and cars being parked at greater distances apart at popular Mohonk Preserve trailheads like the Trapps and Spring Farm entrances.
Longtime New Paltz residents, James Ottaway Jr., (formerly the chairman of Ottaway Newspapers and the retired director of Dow Jones, Inc.) and his wife Mary, have been going for daily walks and sojourns in our local parks, weather permitting.
“We’ve been outside every day that we can,” said Ottaway. “We’ve been walking at Minnewaska [State Park], the River-to-Ridge (R2R) Trail and the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail. Ottaway said it was “amazing to see how many cars were parked along Pine Road, one of our favorite spots and at the River to Ridge trail head. There were only two parking spaces left the other day!”
When people are isolated in their homes and cut off from each other and work and the regular rhythms of daily life, it appears that the one thing that holds constant is nature.
Open space therapy
Christie DeBoer, Executive Director of the Wallkill Valley Land Trust (WVLT), got national attention last week for her website posting of a call for people getting housebound during corona virus self-isolation to get free outdoor exercise therapy.
“Dreading social distancing?” DeBoer asked. “Why not enjoy it instead on our protected lands, nature preserves and recreational trails? Our open space is your personal space.”
“Breathe some fresh air, listen to the birds, spread your arms wide (plenty of room), get some sun and be grateful for this beautiful region we live in,” DeBoer wrote. “The Land Trust invites you to hike, bike and play on some of our spectacular places, such as our 22-mile long Wallkill Valley Rail Trail — a safe space for us all.”
The next day, Christina Soto, editor of Saving Land, the magazine of the national Land Trust Alliance, which accredits the local land trust, read DeBoer’s call to the wild and commented, “This message from the WVLT in New Paltz, NY came at exactly the right time with exactly the right message…about what’s happening in the world right now.’’
Mohonk Preserve has a shift in thinking
Effective March 23, the Mohonk Preserve in Gardiner is closed to the public until further notice. In a release, the Preserve cited “severe overcrowding at parks” as the reason. “As always, the health and safety of our staff and visitors are our highest priorities and this temporary closure is a critical component of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
According to Gretchen Reed, the Preserve’s Director of Communications, the decision to temporarily close the Preserve’s lands was made by the Preserve’s executive team, consisting of its new president and CEO Kevin Case, vice-president and chief financial officer David Toman, board chair Russ Clune and chief development officer MJ Martin.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, last week the Preserve implemented heightened sanitation practices, suspension of public programs, the closure of its visitor’s center and social distancing measures (including cars.) Employees were checking membership passes, but not taking any day-pass fee transactions, suggesting a trust system where people could leave money in the box or mail in donations.
Asked what prompted such a drastic move as complete closure, Reed said, “Since the COVID-19 crisis began, the Preserve has been adjusting our policies and procedures based on the recommendations of federal, state and local government health agencies. Despite our best efforts to manage entry and maintain healthy social-distancing practices, the volume of visitation was outpacing our capacity to safely welcome people on the land.”
When asked what the litmus test was for being “over-crowded,” as the Preserve is often filled to capacity at all of its trailheads during the summer, fall and holiday weekends, Reed said that “under normal full-capacity situations, we are not managing for the current necessary safe distancing between our staff and visitors. While we were employing measures to appropriately manage parking and encouraging responsible recreation practices, the volume of visitation we were receiving was not aligned with our capacity to provide a safe experience in nature for visitors and protect our staff. It was also not consistent with the Governor’s PAUSE Plan. Congestion points like trailheads, parking areas and traditional gathering spots on the Preserve were unsafe for both our visiting public and our staff.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo has continued to encourage people who are not ill or part of a “vulnerable” population to the coronavirus to get outside (while practicing social-distancing measures) in an effort to stay healthy and curb cabin fever. To that end, he even waived all state, county and local park fees last Wednesday to encourage the public to get out in an environment where there is not a dense population of people.
When asked what led the Preserve to go in the opposite direction when its members are relying on the outdoors as one of the few healthy alternatives during a massive societal shutdown including gyms, Reed said, “Our highest priorities are the health and safety of our visitors and staff…Through a temporary closure, we can do our part to keep our community safe by limiting the number of destination visitors who come from afar to the area and reduce the potential need for first responder and acute healthcare services during a time when these services are already overburdened.” She said that the Preserve will be posting tips from its Conservation Science and Education teams to encourage them to explore the nature in their own backyards. “We will be extending all memberships for at least a month and possibly longer depending on the length of the closure.”
In terms of when the Mohonk Preserve will re-open to its membership and the public, Reed said, “While no one knows the exact trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, our intention is to reopen as soon as it is safe to do so.”
Still open to the public are the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail (WVRT), the Hudson Valley Rail Trail, the River-to-Ridge (R2R) Trail at the foothills of the Shawangunks, Minnewaska State Park Preserve, the Walkway Over the Hudson, the John Burroughs Nature Preserve and a half-dozen Scenic Hudson parks on or near the river.
With life being closed to the public as this pandemic weaves its own web, the only things that remain ours to embrace entirely are the stars, the sky, the air and the smells of burgeoning spring. When all else fails you, nature never does. To heed the advice of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”