Among the many things we’ve learned during these surreal times is how to appreciate exploring our own backyards, local parks, and neighborhoods. It’s amazing how much adventure is literally right out your front door. From learning new skills to finding creative ways to challenge yourself, there is no shortage of ways to expand your surroundings.
Become a Paleontologist
“I found a fossil,” my husband nonchalantly declared after watering the plants a couple years ago. He held up a fist-size chunk of sandy brown rock embedded with a dark, ridged oblong shape, unmistakably a plant or shell fragment. A find like this is hardly rare in New Mexico—the state is littered with fossils, and our Santa Fe neighborhood is built on ground studded with rock from the Paleozoic era, when life on earth exploded. After some research, I learned from the state’s Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources that exposed sedimentary rock is the best place to look. We set out one late afternoon for an hour of hunting. The sandstone bluff above the driveway yielded nothing, nor did the drainage wash behind the house, but then, by the trash can, my husband got lucky again: a chunk of rock almost as big as his head contained a fingernail-size shell. You never know what’s in your backyard until you go looking for it. —Aleta Burchyski
Create a Fitness Test Route
Just as states were shutting down, I was taking my first tentative steps after a knee and ankle injury kept me from running for the better part of a year. Nervous about reinjury and conscious of social distancing, I found myself jogging the same trail loop over and over again. Rather than boring me, the sameness freed me from the constant worry over what was going to happen next. I could suddenly shut off my brain and pay closer attention to my body—how the same hill felt one day compared to the next, or how a ten-degree temperature spike made my energy level nosedive. I’ve never been good at training, mostly because I’ve never had the patience for it. I’d finish a workout and then immediately start overanalyzing whether I’d done the intervals at exactly the right speed. Now I realize I was just missing one fundamental thing: simplicity. —Ariella Gintzler
Head Out on the Perfect Microadventure Bike
Some magic happens when you swap out your skinny road tires with 40-millimeter treaded rubber on a gravel bike. You’ll take that scrubby trail you’ve always wondered about, the one that disappears into a new neighborhood, or you’ll ride up that forested dirt road just to see where it goes. That’s because 35 to 40 millimeters is, scientifically, the perfect tire width: fat enough that, on pavement, you let go of any ambitions of going fast and hammering yet narrow enough to transform tame singletrack that would be too boring to ride on your mountain bike into giggle-inducing fun.
The versatility of a gravel bike invents adventures. I’ve done a midweek overnight bikepacking trip straight from the office. I’ve tried to ride 120 miles to the Jersey Shore from a small town in Pennsylvania, gotten lost, and had to bed down in a random hostel on the state line. I’ve done night rides on neighborhood trails in fresh snow and 13-degree temps, warmed only by a flask of whiskey from a friend’s back pocket.
There are Luddites who will sneer that they’ve been riding road bikes on dirt for years and used to just call it “cycling,” that they didn’t need a specially engineered bike to do it. Don’t worry about them. On your gravel bike, you’ll be having too much fun to care. —Gloria Liu
Test Your Navigational Skills
To survive the repetitive doldrums of the same walk every day, my two kids and I invented a little game we like to call: GET LOST! (Ages: all. Players: unlimited. Things you need: shoes, but not required.)
Phase 1: Introduce this activity with your best movie trailer voice, and appoint one of the youngest players to be the expedition leader. Have them lead the team to a less familiar part of the neighborhood, and encourage blowing off well-marked trails in favor of bushwhacking. (Don’t actually whack any bushes; instead, dodge low eye-gouging branches, run from red anthills, and scream at every stink bug sighting).
Phase 2: The fear of God pivot. (Adult, you pull the trigger on this one.) Stop suddenly and say something like, “Ummm hold up a sec guys. That’s not the way we came, is it?” Wait for the fear to surface in your kids’ eyes as you look around in panic. Suggest that you may be lost, then beg them to help find the way home.
Phase 3: Get them started in the right direction by asking them to spot certain landmarks. Then enjoy as your kids enter hero mode: “I remember that tree! It’s this way!” They will likely surprise you with an incredible sense of direction. If not, just keep one hand in your pocket with Google Maps activated. —Hannah McCaughey
Ditch the Car
I’d been practicing for the pandemic and didn’t even know it. Last fall, my wife and I welcomed our first child. Before our daughter arrived, my outdoor time consisted of half-day surf sessions, 30-mile mountain bike rides, and all-day rock climbing outings. Now that my time is more limited and we’re staying close to home, I’ve adjusted, and in one critical way: I started adventuring from my doorstep. The clock is ticking once my hand leaves our front gate handle, so I figure the best use of my time is to make it all part of the outing.
I ride my gravel bike on connector roads to the open lands around my town. I run through the dog park behind our house to another open space and then to the trails beyond it. I sometimes use an e-bike to get to the base of the mountains and then run up one of them. The whole time I’m out is an adventure, because I’m not getting in the car. Part of it is living in a place like New Mexico, where this is relatively easy, but I’m convinced that adventure can be had for anyone with a little creativity and a few steps out the door—and it doesn’t have to mean sacrificing time with your family. —Will Taylor
Learn to Be a Naturalist
“What are those yellow flowers?” I asked my roommate on a recent walk. “Those,” she said, “are dandelions.” I never realized that the plants turn golden-petaled after shedding their furry form. It was the latest example of my complete ineptitude at terrestrial ecology.
If we had been underwater, it would have been a different story. As a divemaster and self-proclaimed fish nerd, I can identify at least the genus of almost anything in a saltwater aquarium. So, to make my daily three-mile walk more interesting, I started to reimagine the world around me as a reef teeming with alien life. Luckily, on land, I have the advantage of these things called “apps” that allow me to identify nature in real time. In the morning, I use the free Audubon Bird Guide app to determine the individual voices in the chorus of birdsong. On lunchtime walks, I snap photos of flora with the also-free iNaturalist app and try to find a match in its database of more than 300,000 species. As I go along, I pick a few to identify each day; by the next walk, I can usually name them on sight.
Like all great naturalists before me, I’ve faced trials in my pursuit of knowledge. A neighbor chased me off while I was trying to photograph one of his trees. On my most recent foray, I was stung by a bee while attempting to upload a picture of a reddish tree that I think is a Mexican shrubby spurge. But all those trials were worth it to transform the static world around me into one of constant exploration. —Kaelyn Lynch
Create a Hometown Travel Guide
When I moved to Santa Fe from New York a year ago and those “we’ll definitely visit” send-offs turned into a few booked flights, I was excited to play host. When friends and family visited me in New York, they already had most of their agenda mapped out, but in Santa Fe, which for many still feels unfamiliar, I could have free rein on their experience. So when we went into lockdown and those trips were postponed, I decided to use the time to create my perfect visitor’s itinerary to have ready for the future. I asked colleagues, friends, and neighbors for their ideas; combed local blogs and forums for insider spots; and sought out less-crowded alternatives to popular locations. From there, I arranged each stop by a set of criteria based on the preferences of my potential visitors, such as price point, ideal time of day to visit, duration, and difficulty level. What I actually ended up with was a hometown bucket list for myself. —Erin Riley
There’s a reason plant and seed sales surged during lockdown. There’s hope in gardening, watching seedlings rise out of the ground to provide food and beauty, and knowing that they’ve been doing so for thousands of years. Gardening also brings year-round pleasure. Fall is the perfect time to plant perennials and hardy winter greens and to harvest the last of the vegetables. I used to think of gardening as a chore—the weeding, the grass-mowing, the pruning. I remember trying to hide when my father (who, at 83, still grows enough vegetables each year to feed an army) would yell on hot, sticky summer days: “It’s time to weed the garden!” But while at home during COVID-19, I developed a new relationship with my own garden and the benefits of working in it. After a couple hours of lugging around bags of soil and trimming hedges, I consider it my workout for the day. It uses every muscle in my body. The growth in the garden also keeps me present. This spring, I observed the vines and shrubs come back to life and lost hours watching bees pollinate and birds care for their young.
You don’t need a large amount of land, either. A few pots on a windowsill will bring the joy. Recently, a colleague and I have been experimenting with a hydroponic gardening farm stand that works both outside and indoors called Lettuce Grow, and it’s thriving with herbs, lettuces, and vegetables.
Now that it’s fall, apples and pears are dropping from the trees in my backyard, and I’m thinking about which bulbs to plant. I love digging into the earth and seeing all the action going on underground—I’m particularly thrilled when I find earthworms, a sign of healthy soil—and studies show that microbes in dirt help relieve depression. I’ve been seeking out videos on how to get raspberries to fruit and how to properly prune roses, which is far more entertaining than Netflix. There’s more to learn than I can in one lifetime. And therein lies a garden’s real beauty: it will carry on long after I’m gone. Time to get dirty. —Mary Turner
Seek Out Water
Since entering lockdown, I’ve found myself returning to the same creek near my home over and over again. I soon found a body of research called Blue Mind science, which delves into the potential health benefits of aquatic environments.
The idea resonated with me on an intuitive level. In New York City, where I grew up, long walks often ended along the Hudson or East River. Later on, when I lived in Vermont, we’d catch sunsets over Lake Champlain or hike to hidden swimming holes. In Seattle, I’d ride ferries to Puget Sound islands on weekends. In Kansas City, my refuge was a running path along the Missouri River. Wherever I’ve lived, even the most casual journey to the water helped me reset and recharge.
The creek near my home is modest compared to some of the waterways I’ve loved in the past. It’s barely eight feet across in lots of places. But for now, it’s become my happy place. —Xian Chiang-Waren
See Through New Eyes
In mid-March, my girlfriend and I got a dog from a local shelter. During one of our first walks, we came across an alley that we’d never noticed before. As we moseyed down what we thought was a dead end, a neighbor told us we could continue through the gate at the end of the street and follow a short path to enter a neighborhood on the other side. We soon found more gates connecting old burro paths dating back to the 18th century, lined with gorgeous old homes.
On every walk since, my attention has been completely absorbed by my surroundings, and having the dog with me has meant that I can linger. I soon started reading about the history of the area and can now cite facts dating back to the turn of the century. It’s given me the same sense of hyperawareness I’ve experienced during my travels. Getting a dog hasn’t only helped us with quarantine-fatigue—it’s also given us an excuse to find new meaning in our immediate surroundings. —Luke Whelan
Capture Golden Hour
If you have recently gone outside around 6 p.m., you’ll likely have noticed that the golden hour makes the world feel a bit different. As a photographer, I’ve found that in those late-afternoon hours, my neighborhood becomes a gold mine of shooting opportunities.
To take advantage of that low sun, start by studying the way certain scenes look in the low sun. For landscape shots, set your camera on screen mode so you aren’t blinded by the viewfinder, and shoot directly into the sun and around its circumference. This will create light streaks or solar flares that can add a fun touch. Try placing some plastic wrap or a prism over the lens to test out different effects in refracting the light. It’s also a great time to shoot portraits: just ask your subject to close their eyes while you set up the shot and have them look at the camera on the count of three so you don’t catch them squinting. If you’re photographing inanimate objects, late-summer foliage often looks translucent at the right angle and can be a great way to add dimension to an image. —Kyra Kennedy