It's been hard. I say that, well aware I'm still employed, healthy and enjoying all the privilege of being a white, middle class male. It's hard to imagine the stress on those less fortunate. However, maybe there's a silver lining to our collective experience – maybe a greater awareness of the inequity, our petty, tribal politics and our profound disconnection from the things that truly matter.
For a great many Central Oregonians, recreation is what brought us here. Now, in our time of need, we've turned to the forests, rivers and high desert. By the looks of it, the numbers are rapidly growing. That's a good thing, particularly if it broadens access, but as trails grow crowded, so do the impacts. Impacts include social conflict, vanished wildlife and diminished water quality. We may not recognize the wildlife are missing, but it's hard to miss a rude experience. Too often the problem stems from a superficial relationship to wild places — they simply provide a scenic backdrop for burning off steam. Our favorite stereotype is the scowling, endorphin-driven Bend athlete, who arrogantly expects others to step aside while they race past. The truth is that most of us have failed to smile or share a friendly greeting as we pass. Likewise, those trail runs and rides so central to our quality of life are having a growing cumulative impact on the wildlife that depend on wild lands for their survival.
As much as I enjoy endorphins and adrenalin, deep down I know I need something deeper. For each of us, that "something deeper" looks different. For me, it's unplugging for three weeks to wander the canyons of the Southwest, long weekends birding at Malheur or time alone, waist deep in the Deschutes, rhythmically swinging a flyline for absent steelhead as dawn approaches and the canyon walls shape shift from purple shadows to ochre and tan.
While my daily workouts are important, they can't substitute for the deeper solitude and rootedness that comes with moving slowing and smelling the wildflowers. In fact, there's a growing body of research telling us we need something more, a connection to place, to see ourselves as part of nature and accept a responsibility to protect it.
Finding peace of mind is never easy, but against the backdrop of pandemic, recession, racism and inequity, while cities burn and rhetoric divides us, it's more important than ever to turn off the laptop, leave the smart phone and earbuds at home and just go for a long, slow walk in the forest. Forget about strava times and max heart rate. Instead, walk alone, find a rock to sit on or a tree to lean against, breathe deep, pause and slowly exhale. Just listen and observe. Take your time, don't rush, but notice your surroundings.
To be healthy, sane and resilient in the face of difficult times, we have to slow down and see the forests, rivers and desert as more than just a scenic backdrop for a compulsion-driven exercise routine or a fun adventure. See them for what they really are... a place that can center us, but also a delicate landscape that calls for awareness and thoughtful stewardship. Give yourself the gift of time, whether for an hour or a week to slow down and smell the wildflowers.
—Brad Chalfant, founding director of the Deschutes Land Trust and previously, co-founder of Central Oregon Trails Alliance, Deschutes Trails Coalition and an Oregon State Parks commissioner