Just about a year ago, as it became clearer that the initial “two weeks to flatten the curve” COVID-19 lockdown was going to transform into “indefinite lockdown until there’s a vaccine,” we ran an article about the three idiots you Popular Outdoorsmen readers were going to encounter in the wilderness. I stand by those words, but it’s pretty obvious that I missed a fourth category of idiot. I’ve encountered hundreds over the last year, and I’ve no doubt that you have, too. This spring may be your last opportunity to see one “in the wild”…I hope.
It’s only natural and to be expected that 300 million Americans got sick and tired of their own four walls and went out for some safe, socially-distant exercise in the wilderness. It’s also only natural that after all the dire warnings about COVID-19, that many of those Americans were very frightened that this outdoor recreation might not be as safe as they hoped. This led to something rather unnatural and very strange: hikers in the wilderness wearing masks. Why?
At first, it seemed that the outdoor mask-wearing was simply an overabundance of caution–the reaction of a populace that didn’t have much solid information on the virus and how contagious it really is. There’s also the simple question of habit: If I’m conditioning myself to wear the mask every time I go out in public, then I may forget to remove my mask even when I don’t really need to wear it. (Like those people who like to drive around in their cars, by themselves, wearing their masks.)
However, there’s clearly a lot more to it than that. A few days ago, I went hiking on a very popular national trail near my home. It was a beautiful day, so naturally there were a lot of people out enjoying the weather. Many of them were obviously newly vaccinated “Category 1A” people–it’s been a long time since I’ve seen so many gray heads out on the trail, and it was so wonderful to see them. They all had masks hanging around their necks, but otherwise the most vulnerable part of our population–the people who really could die if they contracted the ‘Rona–seemed very happy indeed to show the world their faces again.
The youngsters, on the other hand? They weren’t wearing HAZMAT suits, but it was pretty clear that was only because they couldn’t find one. I saw VOG masks, rebreather masks, multiple masks worn on top of each other…and not one of the people wearing them was over the age of 25. There were college students walking around with Silkwood showers on their heads; kids barely out of puberty kitted up like medieval plague doctors. Why?
As an outdoor writer, I barely even qualify as a writer, let alone an investigative journalist. That said, I did ask a few of them why they were still wearing their masks when they were not just outside, but in the wilderness. The answer was, universally, a huffy “Because I CARE!”
Well, sure, of course they do. However, that response would seem to indicate that wearing the mask is every bit as much about signaling their virtue as it is about safeguarding their health. It would seem to indicate that the importance of the mask is symbolic, not pragmatic. Finally, it would seem to indicate that they believe that anyone who doesn’t mask up while outside doesn’t care.
Naturally, if you refuse to mask up while you’re in the backwoods (as I do), you know that the mask is meaningless in that situation. All you’re doing while masked up in the wilderness is giving yourself extra opportunities to sample the richness of your own morning breath. It has nothing to do with whether or not you care about the human tragedy of COVID-19.
Whether the outdoor mask-wearers are motivated by fear or virtue signaling, the ostensible reason for wearing the masks is about to expire. Over the next few weeks, we’ll find out whether the Fourth Idiot of the Backwoods is a permanent addition to the pantheon of idiots, or a temporary phenomenon. Whatever we learn, I hope to see your faces out in the wilderness this spring…all of them.