How escaping to nature helped Tennesseans cope with pandemic

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Elaine Boyd describes herself as an avid walker.

Typically, this means a near-daily two-mile walk through her Nashville neighborhood.

But the terrain and distance have changed in the last year. Two miles have become three. Residential streets have morphed into walks through forests, up hills and past waterfalls.

“Walking helps me feel whole,” Boyd says. “Hiking in parks takes it to another level.”

A year of working from home and forgoing in-person book clubs and dinners with friends pushed Boyd to explore a safe alternative to stay connected to the world. In January, she joined a local group called the Abundant Life Adventure Club and since then, has hiked in parks around the Nashville area every weekend.

Now Boyd jokes that when her children, who are both in their 20s and live out of state, call, and she doesn’t pick up, “Mom is probably out hiking,” they’ll say.

The outdoors has offered comfort and escape for many Southerners this year. The sudden isolation of being cut off from family, co-workers, and friends during the pandemic has driven more people to nature as an escape from the confines of the living room. Nearly 237 million Americans visited national parks this year, according to data published by the National Parks Service in February. The Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park both recorded more than 10 million visitors.

This year, the Abundant Life Adventure Club has drawn dozens of new members, including nurses, teachers, and other essential workers, according to founders Dr. Kim and Claude Walker.

The couple started the club three years ago to provide a safe outlet for people of color who wanted to explore the outdoors. The organization has expanded its membership and now offers guided hikes, organized camping, and kayaking trips for people of all skill levels.

Dr. Kim Walker, who works as an occupational therapist at a long-term care facility, said she wanted to ensure that the club could be a sustainable outlet for members of the Black community who want to explore the outdoors. The pandemic and social justice protests last summer heightened the urgency of that goal.

“Seeing the impact on the Black community during this pandemic has reinvigorated the desire for so many to go on this health and wellness journey,” she said.

Due to the growing demand for the guided activities, the Walkers began offering hikes on Saturdays and Sundays. The groups are smaller and able to socially distance in the outdoors. Joy Reed, who joined the club in January, says it helped her find a community in nature.

She moved back to Nashville a little over two years ago and was still building her social circle when the pandemic hit. Reed loves to bike and go for a walk. Now she loves exploring waterfalls and is looking forward to hiking the mountains around Asheville, N.C. in the fall. She’s also warily considering an upcoming rock-climbing excursion with the club.

“Despite the social distance, it’s a new community with people who look like me, at the same level as me. It’s something that will be a part of my life long after the pandemic is over,” she said.

For long-time hikers like Jenny Hopkins, a retired office manager who lives on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee, being in nature has never felt more essential.

She wakes up early each morning to watch the sunrise over the edge of the mountain. Twice a week, she hikes with a small group of friends. They call themselves the Wildflower Girls. Their hikes have become longer this year. They stop often to identify and admire wildflowers and wildlife along the way. Last Wednesday they clocked 7 miles, a relatively short hike, Hopkins pointed out.

“For our mental health, it has been crucial,” Hopkins said.