Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start to summer in the United States, whatever the actual calendar. It’s the time when folks head to the hills, the beach, the great outdoors — a long weekend of sun, fun and togetherness.
This year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, heading outdoors needs to be done responsibly.
And we are not talking just about the important safety precautions to stop the spread of the coronavirus — washing hands, staying 6 feet apart and wearing face coverings. No, we are talking about Outdoors Etiquette 101. Don’t leave a mess. People who cannot be in the outdoors wisely should stay in their backyards or city parks.
In New Mexico, reports from such popular hiking and camping spots as the Jemez and Pecos show that humans — as is too often their habit — have been loving the outdoors nearly to death. We understand the need to get in the car and escape to the wild — when so many people are restricted to their homes because of COVID-19 and shopping, movies or concerts are canceled, getting outdoors is balm to the soul.
Sadly, people also are trashing the land. Too many cars, too many people, trash, dog poop, human waste and other problems are causing damage, not to mention spreading germs.
Look at this post from the owners of La Cueva Lodge in Jemez Springs, shared on Facebook, about the deluge of visitors with a recent photo of cars crammed along both sides of N.M. 4: “It is so sad that is what just a 1/4 mile of the mountains looked like this weekend. The Entire Mountain was overrun.
“Fires left. At a Stage 2 fire restrictions which means NO FIRES — NONE allowed.”
Besides the overcrowding, U.S. Forest Service bathrooms are closed. There is no trash pickup. And guess what? People are not packing out their waste or their trash. Dog poop is littering trails. The forest is a mess, and visitors to the Pecos area say it’s not much better there. (The state of New Mexico, perhaps using its congressional clout, needs to lean on federal officials to open bathrooms and resume trash pickup.)
People are leaving behind piles of trash on trails and by trash cans that are not being serviced. Worse, because of extremely dry conditions, smoldering campfires are common. If there is not a fire in the forests, it will be almost a miracle — people are being incredibly careless.
This weekend, if you do go outdoors, be responsible. Remember that most tribal lands are closed. Check for other closures. Be prepared with snacks, water and your own trash bags. Avoid crowded trailheads — close to home in Santa Fe, our popular hiking trails sometimes resemble busy sidewalks in a city. Wear face coverings when passing other people and keep at a distance. Respect each other and the outdoors.
Experiencing the outdoors is a great way to ease the anxiety of living amid a pandemic. Sunlight brings much-needed vitamin D for the body and joy to the soul. It is freeing to be outside rather than in the house.
But if people aren’t more careful, this escape will be closed. We can’t risk forest fires because campers or hikers start a campfire and don’t put it out. Villagers in Pecos and Jemez Springs should not have to be picking up the trash of visitors. Either recreate responsibly or do everyone a favor: Stay home. The backyard is waiting.