Twenty years ago, you could not have paid me to sit on grass, touch anything outside that a bug or animal had itself rested its bottom on or consume something that had grown out of the Earth without it first being rinsed in a sink inside the walls of a well-sanitized building.
Now, you can’t keep away from the outdoors. I yearn for it, in fact. I started hiking in the Republic of Georgia 17 years ago, in the Caucasus Mountains, when I was accepted into the Peace Corps. I continued my hiking habit in Ukraine, where I completed my Fulbright grant.
I’m in the Carpathian Mountains, in western Ukraine, working my way through this pandemic the best way I know how. Waking up to a mountain view makes writing about the travails of American politics in a post-Donald Trump country much easier.
As it is for everyone, living through a pandemic that the former orange occupant of the White House mismanaged has traumatized us all. I have friends and family who have died from the coronavirus or have been left with permanent lung damage after their recoveries. I live in a small studio in Brooklyn, directly in front of a bus stop that hosts its own fair share of loud-talking New Yorkers who inevitably disrupt any sense of serenity I try to muster. Couple that with the very restrictive quarantine, social events paused and not being able to interact with humans, I find nature to be the only friend I get to see every day.
But not just any nature. Ukrainian nature.
I don’t recommend people travel recklessly, but it is hard not to escape America every once in a while. I try to be responsible by traveling alone and getting accommodations for myself only, so I won’t risk my health or anyone else’s. I rent a cabin in the Carpathian Mountains in the western part of the country that I can actually afford while keeping my flat in Brooklyn. I am alone, away from people, but so very close to the roosters in the nearby farms crowing ahead of sunrise, the rainfalls dropping atop the roof and falling down onto the balcony where I can rise and peer into the windows at the fog-covered mountains. I can walk into the forest and not have to worry about wearing a mask because literally no one is around but me. (But please, please wear your masks if you are around people!) The only things that would be breathing are the birds and animals that have yet to hibernate.
I love my hikes. Besides exercising my legs and building my stamina, breathing the forest air and listening to the streams of water clears my mind.
There are no busy streets, no traffic jams, no crowds of people trying to keep their six-foot-distance. No English. No one but me and the few people who live nearby. I go hiking with the owners of the cabin 6 to 10 miles each week, just to get in touch with the sound of silence and build small fires and cook fish and farmed-raised meat. The simple life. I do this every few months because, especially in these COVID-19 times, if I did not connect with the outdoors free of masks and people who could get me sick I think I would go out of my mind. Humans aren’t designed to be alone and pinned inside.
So to keep my happiness and mind intact, I seek nature. Abroad, yet away from as many people as possible so that I can maintain the mental peace and solitude that will be so much more challenging to maintain when I return to my small studio in Brooklyn.
And then when I’ve had enough of the studio life, I will come back to Ukraine and do it over again.