To the Person Who Mask-Shamed Me on the Trail


I was listening to the audiobook of Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women—I’d just gotten to the part where Aidan is giving Lina multiple orgasms—when I saw a woman hiking toward me on my neighborhood trail in Roosevelt National Forest, near my home in Nederland, Colorado.

When I hike, I play books out loud instead of listening through headphones. There are mountain lions out there, and I’ve convinced myself that they shy away from the sound of “voice artists” reading novels and nonfiction. Taddeo’s book offers another reason to listen outside. I wouldn’t want my husband or children walking in on me while I’m blushing from passages that might qualify as porn. I’m like that. I try to be thoughtful.

But on this particular day, I’d left my house without wearing a surgical mask or even sliding a Buff around my neck. Recently, my state’s governor, Jared Polis, had changed Colorado’s COVID-19-flattening rules from shelter in place to the less strict safer at home, and I was feeling carefree. I was also hiking a trail that starts less than 30 yards from my home. The route I planned was a 6.5-mile loop; I run, hike, or bike it five times a week and rarely see another human. And to be honest, I forgot.

I was moving along at a fast clip, blissfully unaware of anything but the trail, the lodgepole pines, and the raptor riding a thermal above me. Then I saw a woman coming my way with a fluffy black dog. I fumbled to pause my audiobook when I heard her say, “Winston! Winston! Stop!” Winston was unleashed, which is permitted in this forest, and when the woman commanded him to halt, she reached out as if to grab his collar. It might have been for show. But I trusted that she had him under voice control.

I love dogs, I love hiking with dogs, and I love the fact that where I live—halfway between Boulder and Nederland, amid Rocky Mountain foothills—people have the freedom to let pets run off leash. I try to hike with my Chesapeake Bay retriever, Boone, mostly on leash, so he doesn’t chase after a fox or a herd of elk or people. That is, even though I’ve lived in these parts for 16 years, I still think of others. Which is why what the woman did next was so provoking.

As I fumbled with my phone, she stopped a few yards away from me. I noticed that she was wearing a red bandana, and I still hadn’t remembered that I was maskless. We walked toward one another in what I thought was a spirit of harmony. She came so close that I could’ve reached out to pet Winston; we made eye contact as we passed. And then I gave it no more thought.

But once she was a few feet past me, she called out, “So you’re not wearing a mask?”

Thrown off guard, I turned and said, “What?”

“So you’re not wearing a mask. For others’ protection?”

Suddenly defensive, I said, “No, I’m not.” After a pause, I said, “I live here, I hike here all the time, and you’re the third person I’ve seen in weeks.

“And,” I added, “we’re outside.”

Masks draw all your attention to the wearer’s eyes, and when I looked at hers, they were glaring. Beneath her cloth, she said, “It doesn’t matter. We’re supposed to wear them even out here.”

We disengaged and went our separate ways, and before long, I could feel the elation of hiking squeeze out of me like air escaping from a punctured tire. I was upset, guilty, and sad. After a mile or so, I thought about why the interaction had made me so angry.

I understand that wearing a mask is about protecting and respecting others. And I know our experiences with the coronavirus might be very different. But I also think safety comes down to communication.

For starters, Winston’s mom had shamed me for not wearing a mask in the same way a parent shames a kid when they’re found with a vape sticking out of their pocket. She also assumed I was insensitive—that I purposely chose not to wear protection. The way she poured it on made it seem like I didn’t give a damn about anyone but me. But that’s not true. Exhibit A: I was paying enough attention to turn off my audiobook.

Exhibit B: I wear a mask anytime I go into places where I know I’ll find crowds, and I carry my own isopropyl alcohol wipes for use on everything from opening the door at my local grocery store to swiping my debit card.

Moreover, COVID-19 had been around for weeks, and the safety protocols were constantly evolving. At first it was: don’t wear a mask—it makes you touch your eyes! Next came: a Buff is enough! Then: if you can see light through your Buff, it’s not protecting you or others. Finally, most experts seemed to agree that masks make sense indoors, but if you’re out in the woods, suitably distanced, you’re not likely to get coronavirus from other people. 

Scientists say that shame doesn’t always produce the results we want. During an interview with a local TV station in Seattle last month, clinical psychologist Roseann Fish Getchell said that admonishment isn’t likely to work between strangers—there needs to be a relationship and a foundation of trust.

And in some instances, shoving your mask awareness in another person’s face can have damaging effects. Recently, a friend of mine was at a grocery store with her seven-year-old daughter when a man bent down and addressed the child at eye level. Removing his mask—to make sure he was heard—he said, “I’m going to need you to cover your whole face with your mask or you’ll get sick.”

The girl was simply letting her glasses defog, and she started crying when the man walked off. 

“It’s a weird time, and we are all doing our best to create some normalcy while also educating our kids,” her mom told me later. “Fear or shame doesn’t have to be a part of either of those things. The worst part is that, now, all three of my girls are wondering if they’re going to get sick.”

The sting of my mask-shaming incident dulled as I hiked down the trail, feeling the strength of my legs, the vastness of outdoor freedom, and the air that I knew was safe to breathe. Soon I had a thought I wish I had shared with the woman.

I understand that wearing a mask is about protecting and respecting others. And I know our experiences with the coronavirus might be very different. But I also think safety comes down to communication.

You didn’t know where I was coming from any more than I knew that about you. But I didn’t assume the worst of you, while you did assume the worst of me. We had an unobstructed view of each other on the trail, so why didn’t you just ask me if I had a mask? I would have remembered that I had a perfectly acceptable replacement in my pack, a long-sleeved midlayer that I could have tied securely around my head. I would have dug it out, put it on, and protected us both.

So here’s a recommendation as we continue to do the best thing we can to weather the ongoing craziness of COVID-19. If you encounter someone on the trail who isn’t wearing a mask, consider giving them the benefit of the doubt. Shaming others can be powerful, but there are more effective ways for us to keep each other safe.

Lead Photos: Brian McGowen/Unsplash (Mask) and Rural Explorer/Unsplash (Forest). Graphic: Petra Zeiler



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