Life, still full of magic — even in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic

“You ready?” I gleefully ask my partner Eric, as I close the heavy truck bed of his Ford F-150. One-by-one, I clip each shoe into the pedals, cruise my Stumpjumper across the dirt lot and start an abrupt 300-foot climb toward the bizarre rock formations that tower above us. From our doorstep in Crested Butte, we can drive 30 minutes south through the wide U-shaped valley, surrounded by Gunnison National Forest, along Gunnison River’s cottonwood trees bedecked by remarkable American bald eagles. 

The trailhead parking lot is a hard place to withhold from high fives and hugs! We love running into our friends here, even when we need to stay a bike’s length (or more) apart.Eric Phillips

On the south side of Gunnison, our drive ends at Hartman Rocks Recreation Area: a high-desert, sage-speckled mecca for mountain biking. It feels unbelievably luxurious to shred sweeping singletrack here, minutes after a thunderstorm and when the earth is muddy most everywhere else. These trails, on the other hand, are perpetually dry.

I’m eager for my mind to be lost in this unearthly terrain — to indulge in play. And for my attention to be held in continuous single-pointed meditation, as I steer through technical elements. Eric and I have bickered on-and-off, all morning. We’re acting irritable—and the root cause isn’t actually us. It’s an undercurrent of loss and uncertainty that we are learning how to process, even amid the warm advent of summer. I set our miscommunications aside and adopt a light tone as we kick-off our ride.

In April, Governor Jared Polis lifted the statewide stay-at-home order that was in place to slow the spread of novel coronavirus: COVID-19, which causes a wide range of flu-like symptoms from fever to fatigue. The illness is exacerbated by respiratory inflammation, which is worsened at higher altitudes; for others, it leads to death. 

In addition to amazing mountain bike trails, Hartman Rocks Recreation Area holds 50 designated dispersed campsites, and a myriad of climbing routes speckle the fine granite: bouldering, sport, and traditional.Eric Phillips

In a patchwork approach, each county now has individualized restrictions, based off of local needs. Gunnison County’s first public health order, issued March 13, barred non-resident visitors — and they still aren’t allowed in the county. And if we venture beyond county boundaries for more than 24 hours, we need to self-quarantine for upon return. All travel should resume normalcy by August, if COVID-19 doesn’t resurge. 

I love the quiet and slow pace of off-season in mountain towns — but experiencing this stilled chapter during a period typically full of vitality and economic prosperity is eerie in essence. The big picture is hard to digest. Many have lost their jobs. This year, the tourism sector alone will forfeit more than $60 million, according to Gunnison County officials. 

I wonder how the deficit will affect our town later this year and in years ahead. Our community is resilient and has beautifully banded together during this unpredictable time, and we will continue to find creative solutions. Simultaneously, there are days when I feel defeated by the trials of this global pandemic. As the future remains nebulous, I am even more appreciative for the haven of our backyard and public lands.

From a bird’s eye, Hartman Rocks is characterized by a curling crescent of bulbous granite that stretches six miles. We start on the northeastern edge and ascend to the center of the mountainous bow. The interior of the ridgeline holds 45 miles of wide dirt roads and 45 miles of well-crafted trails in a 14,000-acre otherworldly landscape. 

Eric Phillips builds momentum in a banked turn at the top of Collarbone Alley, a fun, fast, and short route full of whoop-de-doos.Eric Phillips

I relax my grip, as my bike ascends the rolling switchbacks of Jack’s Trail, strewn with slickrock and fine pebbles. We’re 1,200 feet lower in elevation here than in Crested Butte, which sits at 8,909 feet. The season has turned from spring to summer, and like nature, all states of my human experience are impermanent, I remind myself. All of the highs, and all of the lows.

At the top, we pull up to the BLM ranger-managed map to note any closures. A posted sign reminds folks to follow social distancing guidelines. I’m thankful that the county leaders support community-wide outdoor recreation for our mental, physical and spiritual health. The trailheads have all remained open. We decide to trace a loop from Sea of Sage to the furthest end of Lower Luge and Luge. To reach the route’s start, we chug slightly uphill on a broad road, due southeast. 

Over my left shoulder, I stare at the iconic geological spine of Hartman Rocks. The obscure shapes fluctuate from colossal free-standing boulders to spires reminiscent of hoodoos. The outcropping resembles the arched, texturized back of a stegosaurus. My legs begin to pump, my breath evens and my brain reaches a presentness. I start to feel an immersed relief from the chaos.

The landscape is delicate at Harman Rocks: remember to follow Leave No Trace principles. Only venture, camp, motor and start fires on or in established paths, roads, camp sites and fire rings.

Less than a day after Gunnison County’s first public health order, ambulance sirens alarmed the quiet town street in front of our house, an emergency response to our neighbor, the first tragic COVID-19 fatality of our community. I realized the destructive potential power of this outbreak. I worried about my parents, single and living in isolated towns and my grandparents with fragile health. And, when will I be able to see them again? 

With a continuum of heavy news, my sadness grew for people suffering around the planet. I realized, I need to healthily channel that external stress and compartmentalize my awareness of these tragedies. Within a pandemic, the natural world remains abundantly beautiful − and life, still full of magic. As I accept the paradox of my existence, I find humility and peace in myself and where I live. I can refocus on nurturing my home, loved ones, self and place. The whole process is uncharted and messy, but it starts with a mountain bike ride in this sacred expanse. 

We turn off the road, away from the rugged ridge, and hop onto a fluid descent, for a couple of miles. After a sudden 90-degree turn, I take a deep breath and focus on my skyward momentum. Near the crest, my eyes light up when I see a vibrant mix of soil. The fine-grained orange, rose and green-hued pebbles mark one of my favorite spots at Hartman Rocks. Right after, the ground levels out and the white-capped West Elk Mountains brightly fill the horizon. The glorious sight is breathtaking and makes me appreciate the juxtaposition of mountains and desert. I shift my weight into my pedals, drop my seat and accelerate northbound down the narrow, smooth, rollercoaster track. I try to focus on the scattered rocks and not get distracted by the sharp peaks in the distance. Suddenly, I can’t stop smiling, so I giggle and joyfully holler. I feel completely free. 

MORGAN TILTON is an award-winning travel writer specializing in outdoor industry and adventure coverage worldwide. She lives in Crested Butte and grew up in the San Juan Mountains, where she first learned how to mountain bike in Telluride. Now, she doesn’t know how she ever rode without the luxury of full-suspension. On a summer day, you can catch her at lunch break riding or running laps up Tony’s Trail, right in her backyard.