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A balm for our time: The great outdoors calls to us, maybe now more than ever

Man looking up at stars next to campfire and tent at night Photo by tslphoto/

The golden light of an Arkansas morning fell across my sleeping bag as I crawled out to make my morning coffee. My wife, Christina, snoozed in the tent alongside our 13-year-old daughter, Ursula, who was curled tight against our new dog, a black-and-white mutt named Domino. My 2009 Toyota 4Runner was parked not far away. As the sun crept higher, the scene was both eerily familiar and strikingly far out. I am a veteran outdoors writer with a family conditioned to camping; at the same time, the dog, the truck, and the location reflected a pandemic pivot many Americans experienced last year. Let me explain.

Our original summer plan had been simple: Send Ursula to camp. Her absence, in turn, would allow me time on the East Coast to see my dad, and Christina would work from home. Then early last year the cancellations started: First, Alpengirl Camp dropped its all-girl multisport sleepaway offerings; in June, my wife was laid off; and, finally, the airlines canceled my flights. Rerouting would now require 14 hours of travel to reach Boston. Plus two more tickets. And the dog.

So, like many Americans who found their lives upended, we made lemonade out of the lemons 2020 had served us and hatched a fresh escape plan. It came in the form of a reverse Kerouac, driving from our home in Texas to New England, on a zigzag route that hit state and national parks across the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. Camping would allow us to maintain safe social distances while we got to know Domino and saw how she handled life on the road. We would explore wild American landscapes that still eluded me after years of travel writing, a plan bolstered by my files showing how open-air activities benefit our mental health.

‘A nature-rich life’

“Research suggests that people who get outdoors in nature tend to have high moment-to-moment awareness, less stress, reduced anxiety and depression,” writes author Richard Louv in his book Vitamin N, a guide to “a nature-rich life.” This was news I could use.

That’s how we found ourselves camping in mid-July on the placid shores of Lake Ouachita, in the eponymous state park an hour west of Little Rock. At 40,000 acres, the lake is the largest in Arkansas, surrounded by rolling hills and shady woodlands. We went for a short hike that morning and then continued on toward Tennessee. At midday, we pulled off the highway in Memphis and ordered lunch from Central BBQ. The sumptuous pork ribs offered a change of pace from Texas-style brisket, and we picnicked in a park alongside the Mississippi River. The day ended at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Judging from the crowds, it’s popular even in a pandemic.

A busy year for parks

Granted, in a typical year, the Smoky Mountains see more visitors than any other national park. Still, last August, amid the pandemic, the park saw a 9 percent increase in visitation over 2019. Yellowstone had its busiest September in history. The nonpartisan, nonprofit Pew Charitable Trust also carried reports that busy state parks faced epic, record crowds in Oregon, Wyoming, and, yes, Tennessee. The numbers make sense: Research conducted by the Harris Poll in October showed that 69 percent of Americans said they felt a heightened appreciation for the outdoors after experiencing the pandemic lockdown.

Being no stranger to the solace of open spaces, I felt profound sympathy toward my fellow travelers seeking a breath of fresh air in the midst of the crisis. After many months being cooped up with our kids, who were stuck on their screens for distance learning, I was actually psyched that birding, fishing, hiking, and camping soared in popularity last summer. It might have been a little crowded for some tastes, but, with economic uncertainty rivaling this ongoing, worldwide health emergency, who would begrudge outdoor retailers, including local fishing outfitters and bike shops, the extra profits? And we quickly learned that with a little legwork we could find less popular parks and quieter trails.

Finding solitude at Poverty Point Reservoir

Weeks later, after visiting my dad and racking up nearly 3,500 miles on the road, we returned home via northern Louisiana. Our final campsite was at Poverty Point Reservoir, just 20 minutes from the Monumental Earthworks, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Constructed more than 3,000 years ago, several enormous mounds—including a signature bird-shaped earthwork more than 70 feet high and 710 feet long—were at the heart of an indigenous trading center that reached its apex around the time that Queen Nefertiti ruled Egypt. Archaeologists suspect as many as 5,000 people once occupied the site, yet we had nearly the entire place to ourselves.

Nobody knows for certain what happened to the people of Poverty Point. I suspect some familes just got itchy feet. I know how that feels. My wife and I just got fully vaccinated, and as soon as summer gets here, I plan to run for the hills. We will find a place in the woods with a water view—just what the doctor ordered.

Houston-based writer Dan Oko hopes to hike sections of the Appalachian Trail this summer.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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