Working from home with an eight-week-old baby has been quite a challenge, so when I heard that Texas State Parks were opening back up this week, I began dreaming about taking the family out to enjoy the sunshine and get out of the house.
But I also had concerns. Chief among them was just how packed with people the parks would be. Would I be endangering my infant, wife, and myself by hiking up trails past scores of other people?
After doing some research on the best park to use for a solo test run, I booked a day pass for myself at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, which is about 52 miles southwest of Fort Worth. There were only 29 passes left of the 70 available for Tuesday.
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I wanted to get to the park early to beat the crowds and get the lay of the land, but when I arrived around 8:30 a.m., I was nonetheless surprised that I appeared to be the first visitor there.
A park ranger I spoke to said that most people would arrive around 10 a.m. After not running into issues with crowding or social distancing when the park first reopened Monday, rangers allowed more than seventy cars in the following days. A normal day would see more than six hundred vehicles.
The reopening of the parks has not come without critics, from those who say the new rules are impossible to enforce to those who think they are too restrictive.
One of my goals was to meet others who wanted to visit the park after it reopened. Did they have the same motivations as me? Were they upset about the regulations, or just happy to be enjoying the outdoors?
I met other patrons who arrived shortly after me in the parking lot—Tripp Gorman and Zac Foster, zookeepers at the Fort Worth Zoo. They said they jumped at the opportunity to get out of town to enjoy a few hikes. As essential workers, they haven’t been as cooped up as some, but they still felt a strong desire to get out of the city for the day.
With a few hours until most of the other visitors arrived, I headed out on the trails to enjoy a different kind of isolation.
The hike to the scenic overlook at Dinosaur Valley is the definition of a beginner’s trek. There’s a little elevation, but it’s gradual. To get to the overlook and the famous fossilized dinosaur prints, you have to walk or jump across several large, flat stones as you cross the Paluxy River.
All told, this should have been a very simple task for someone like me. I’m six four and a fairly experienced hiker. So why was I hesitating to reach my long legs from one stone to the next? Why did I have visions of splashing down in these chilly waters and ruining my camera, phone, and my entire day? There was one variable that threw off my equilibrium, my breathing, and, in a small way, my vision.
My state-mandated mask.
When Governor Greg Abbott announced plans to reopen state parks, he did it with a few restrictions: all patrons must wear a face covering, keep six feet apart from anyone who isn’t in their party, and avoid groups of more than five people.
Many state parks followed the order and opened up, but some, like those within El Paso’s city limits initially remain closed.
So there I was, by myself, trying to avoid a fall while wearing a royal-blue cloth face mask lovingly made by my mother-in-law.
As I made the final, unsteady leap to the safety of the opposite shore, I was glad no one was around to see how much harder it was than it should have been.
After my harrowing river crossing, I started up the little bit of elevation involved in this hike. Any elevation will get the blood pumping and increase respiration, but with my physical fitness levels at historic lows because of the stay-at-home orders and the restricted breathing caused by this mask, I honestly felt like I was in the mountains of Colorado for a little bit.
A couple of hours later, I ran into an audience. A family decked out in masks and gloves was beginning their day at the park.
Hope Stokes came to the park for the day with her husband and two kids from Keller. They are park regulars, and today was all about escaping difficult home-school sessions for a real-world education.
“It kind of stinks, but we are at the point where we will take what we can get,” says Stokes about wearing the protective gear. “I think it’s also important to teach your kids that we need to follow rules and do what we need to do for our safety and everyone’s safety.”
As I returned to the parking lot around 11 a.m., just as the sun was coming out of the clouds and turning the brisk morning into a humid April day, Reanell Hamilton was waiting on her friends to join her for a hike. She and her friends, all in their sixties, are regulars at state parks within driving distance of her hometown of Weatherford.
Like many of the parkgoers, she was struggling with her mask, this one a homemade cheetah print number.
“I don’t like it because when it’s hot like this it makes your body temperature warmer. It’s very restrictive when you’re out in the sunshine and open air,” Hamilton says. “But in order to get to go and visit the state parks I will comply.”
During my trip, I only saw one group not complying with the order to wear masks at the park. They appeared to be teenagers and were down the river swimming, well away from other visitors.
“Whenever we introduce new rules or enforce rules in Texas State Parks, we focus first on education to encourage voluntary compliance,” says Stephanie Garcia, of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Press Office. “We find that most visitors want to do the right thing once they understand why a new rule is needed and what they should do.”
At the moment, that education is provided by signs throughout the common areas of the park encouraging distancing and mask wearing. The park is also implementing measures such as closing the park store and only opening the day-use bathroom later in the day to minimize staff resources and time dedicated to keeping it clean.
It remains to be seen whether the parks can operate safely while relying solely on education and voluntary compliance. My fellow park patrons and I were willing to make a sacrifice in comfort to enjoy the outdoors, but these measures will only work if every visitor is willing to make those same concessions for an indefinite period of time.