Maintaining social distance is no walk in the park. Executive Editor Hugh Garvey explains his decision to give up trail running for the foreseeable future

View from Griffith Park

From the peaks of Griffith Park, views of the San Gabriel Mountains have been crystal clear thanks to the drop in traffic pollution since the stay-at-home order was put in place. Not shown: the overcrowded hiking trails. Photo by Hugh Garvey

This weekend I inhaled the breath of a stranger.

It happened on a trail run in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. I was running hard uphill on a blind turn when a group of a dozen CrossFit dudes in weight vests rounded the corner, barreling downhill, sweat dripping, breath heaving, swarming me. In an attempt to avoid them I jogged toward the apex of the turn but had to stop short of where the sandy dirt gave way to a steep drop. Here the trail narrowed to about 15 feet and there was no way I could maintain the recommended 6-foot social distancing buffer zone. The incline was steep so I was sucking air. And some of it was theirs. 

Given the stay at home order in effect in California, you’d be to right to ask what the hell was I doing on that hill? I thought it was a good idea to go hiking this past weekend. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti had just explicitly encouraged Angelenos to get outside for their physical and mental well being during the stay at home order, albeit with the caveat to respect the 6-foot buffer zone. I picked what I thought was a safe spot: Griffith Park. With some 50 miles of trails and comprising 4300 acres it’s the largest urban park in the United States. 

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I’d set Beacon Hill at the park’s southeastern corner as my destination.  Saturday was the first sunny day in a week of steady rain so I knew the views at the peak would be stunning. On a clear day, even without the gloriously pollution-free air quality of late, you can see the snow-tipped San Gabriel Mountains, the cranes of San Pedro, and a glimmering sliver of the Pacific. Other people had the same idea, and for the first 15 minutes of my hike/trail run everything went smoothly. Hikers kept their distance, giving each other a wide berth on the sandy trails, but only as much as the density of people and the shifting topography allowed. Which is how I ended up inhaling the warm breath of a very fit man in a Punisher T-shirt. 

The moment literally stopped me in tracks. I know COVID-19 is not known to be transmitted through mere air, that the virus needs the aerosolized droplets of a cough or a sneeze to carry the virus onto a surface or into another person’s eyes, nose, or mouth. But for a few seconds my T-zone was the impact zone for the CrossFit guys’ breath and humidity and sweat. 

I thought about how it was just a matter of luck that one of them didn’t sneeze on me. My mind ran worse case scenarios: what if one of us was an asymptomatic carrier and coughed on the other. We’d have just passed off the virus to the other, become unwitting nodes of transmission in an “unknown community spread” moment. One of us would return to our homes, potentially creating a 10 day period of potential contagion in our isolated family units, adding both carriers and time to the vicious long tail of the pandemic. 

For the rest of the hike I became hyper-vigilant, smelling perfume and shampoo of strangers at distances much greater than 6 feet. I asked myself questions: If you’re downwind from someone who sneezes can’t that 6 feet become 12 feet? And with that my mind-clearing hike turned into an anxiety-inducing walk of shame.

The next day Mayor Garcetti rightly backpedaled his encouragement to hit the parks and tweeted: “This weekend we saw too many people packing beaches, trails, and parks. So we are closing sports and recreation at @LaCityParks. That doesn’t mean gather elsewhere. This is serious. Stay home and save lives.” I’ll go one further and share a trending hashtag circulating in communities where nature-seeking city dwellers are overrunning cities located near popular national parks and other outdoor destinations. It’s succinct and to the point and I can’t print it here verbatim so will simply paraphrase it: #staythefreakathome.

Roger that. Loud and clear. 

Editor’s Note: Since this article was published, the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation announced that due to overcrowding over the weekend all L.A. County trails will be closed until further notice.