Friday, March 27, 2020

Getting Out During Stay-At-Home: Everything You Need to Know

The first thing I did when the official “stay-at-home” order for Mecklenburg County was issued was to scroll through the mandate to see what it said about outdoor recreation. Relieved that "be in nature" was included in the "can" column, I started digging more into what options we have for enjoying fresh air while we remain in compliance with the order.

Here are some practical tips, guidelines and suggestions.

What's open and what's closed
The Mecklenburg County stay-at-home order gives explicit permission for taking walks, riding bikes, and generally being in nature for exercise as long as you keep six feet distance between yourself and others.

There's nothing saying you can't commute to a destination (say, a trailhead or greenway), but you might opt for something within walking distance, especially if the alternative is taking public transportation. Also, keep in mind that Mecklenburg County Park parking lots are now closed.

Mecklenburg County playgrounds are closed, as are restrooms (so plan outings accordingly). Also closed are all indoor facilities such as recreation, nature, and aquatic centers, as well as Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools playgrounds and parking lots.

But county parks, greenways, and nature preserves are open for public use, so long as you adhere to social distancing and refrain from congregating in groups larger than 10 (or three if you're in South Carolina).

Visit the Mecklenburg County Park and Rec site for the official policy and any updates.

Many North Carolina State Parks are closed (see a list of closed parks and any updates), which means those parks' trails are off limits, too. At the State Parks that remain open, all restroom facilities are closed (again, plan accordingly) and visitors must adhere to social distancing guidelines. This includes your dog, which must be kept on a leash.

Things to do
Given all the closures and considerations above, here's where to look for local outdoor fun options:

The Carolina Thread Trail system, a comprehensive regional network of trails in North Carolina and South Carolina, remains open (see the CTT response and updates here), as do trails maintained by Tarheel Trailblazers.

If you want to find a nearby greenway, check out this helpful Charlotte Agenda article.

For bike rides, consider a greenway, the Charlotte Rail Trail or a city bike route. Bike riding conditions are really quite favorable with so many fewer cars on the roads these days.

Or just take a walk around your block or to pick up your groceries. Of course, I encourage you to check the rest of this site for other fun outings, too.

Don't let the walls close in, especially with springtime beckoning you to enjoy its beauty. Be safe, be careful, be responsible. But within the guidelines of the stay-at-home order, be in nature, and be glad that you can!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Learning to be Contentedly Disoriented

During college, I worked as a counselor at a water-sports camp on the coast of North Carolina. It was a magical job. Days began with the bugle call of revelry and a sweet morning nautical breeze, and ended with the setting sun as Taps wafted over our sleepy heads. The daily routine — activity sessions punctuated by meals in the mess hall — provided a happy rhythm to those yawning summer camp days.

Until one memorable rainy stretch, when the faucet in the sky opened and refused to stop for what felt like weeks. Day after day we were forced to bunker down in our cabins, wringing what fun and entertainment we could from whatever was contained in those four wooden walls.

During that time, all of the familiar structure that usually gave our days direction and a sense of purpose was almost literally drowned by circumstances beyond our control. And it was exhausting.

I don’t remember when it finally stopped raining, but I do recall with clarity when the skies parted on my own cloudy disposition. I was hopelessly, fruitlessly, hanging wet clothes on lines already laden with damp ones, feeling saturated with a sense of defeat, when suddenly, almost impossibly, I thought of a fire glowing in our fireplace at home. That image gave way to another of our porch strung with merry, twinkling lights. Then another of family gathered around a festive dinner table.

And with that montage of happy imaginations, a flicker of relief gave way to a flood of hope. Oh, right! Outside of the immediate bubble of this time and place, there was, in fact, warmth and dryness and a sense of normalcy. Of course the sun would return and it would bring with it the familiar, happy cadence of our days.

I thought of that camp experience the other day. Like the relentless rain, the coronavirus has dealt us an uncomfortable disruption to our comfortable routine. Work from home. School at home. Stay home. Suddenly, everything feels disoriented, maybe even a little desperately so.

With no resolution in sight, the walls are closing in and, at times, I feel like I’m back at the clothesline, draping yet another drenched towel on top of the ones still dripping from yesterday.

But today we took a walk to the park and I spotted the brightest, most brilliantly red lady bug I’ve ever seen, happily tending to a flowering plant. I noticed how the water in the creek bubbled gently, purposefully downstream. I heard the birds singing and drank in the rich perfume of the hyacinths. I held my kids’ hands and I felt the ground beneath my feet. It was all a powerful reminder that life goes on.

Maybe this inconvenient but necessary life-as-we-know-it pause is less an uncomfortable disruption to our comfortable routine and more an opportunity to be contentedly disoriented for a while. Maybe this is a chance to reorient ourselves to the beauty of now and the hope of a brighter tomorrow.

After all, beyond the bubble of the very real stresses of this immediate time and place, life is happening. A sense of normalcy will return. And the sun will shine again.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Rocky Branch Park

We recently discovered Rocky Branch Park in Belmont, about 25 minutes west of uptown, and I love it for both it’s simplicity and everything it has to offer.

Tucked in a neighborhood just off Main St., the entrance to the park is a small, unassuming gated gravel lot, outfitted with a porta-potty. But just beyond the gates are a host of recreation options. Depending on what you want from an outing, it’s as much or as little as you need it to be.

The main feature of Rocky Branch Park is the trail system, which is very well maintained and impressively marked by the Tarheel Trailblazers. The main trail is just under four miles, with the option to add another loop to make it five. There are additional smaller loops (like the “Fun Loop”) you can tack on to make it longer and shortcuts you can take to get you back to the parking lot sooner.

There’s a detailed map at the entrance and plenty of directional signs throughout the course.

The natural-surface, single-track terrain is rolling and offers just enough technical challenges to put it squarely into intermediate-to-advanced range for the mountain bikers it was built for (that said, the kids took bikes, walked the hard parts, and thoroughly enjoyed the ride). But it also makes for a lovely, invigorating hike. Note: Walkers should hike the opposite direction of riders and be prepared to give right-of-way to fast-moving cyclists.

The trail is packed into a relatively compact space, but with winding switchbacks, bridge crossings, blind bends, climbs and drops, it never feels like you’re chasing your own tail.

There’s no playground at Rocky Branch, but a surprising and delightful discovery for us was a dirt pump track at the entrance of the park. It’s simple, but fun, and will likely be one of the reasons we visit again very soon.

Go to ride. Go to hike. Go to wander creek-side in the woods. Rocky Branch is the perfect choose-your-own-adventure park.

How to get there: Rocky Branch Park is located at 103 Sacco St., Belmont, NC, 28012.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Comfortable walking shoes: Something supportive will do.
  • Bikes and helmets: Optional, but fun!
  • Water: Note, there are no facilities for refills.
  • Snacks or a picnic lunch: Find a shady spot by the creek for a break.
  • Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses: The park is mostly shaded, but there are some open spaces.
  • Bugspray: For the warmer months.  

Saturday, March 14, 2020

4 Social-Distancing-Friendly Outings: A blazeCLT "Thrival" Guide

Three cheers for every new measure being taken to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. May these steps protect the most vulnerable among us, limit the spread of the virus, and help bring an end to this unsettling time.

While social-distancing protocols are absolutely necessary, I doubt I’m alone in feeling both anxious and isolated because of them.

Indeed, there’s lots to be anxious about. I worry for the children who rely on school for nutrition and a safe place to spend their days, and about the families whose livelihood is being compromised by cancelled shifts or dwindling patronage.

And, with closings and cancellations, we retreat further into isolation. Already I miss in-person fellowship at church on Sunday mornings and Saturdays at the ball field with teammates and friends. Besides, what’s a safe-distance, awkward salute instead of a warm embrace?

Nonetheless, we find ourselves in this place and I have faith that, if we adhere to strict mitigation measures, in time we will find ourselves on the other side of it.

Meanwhile, there are ways to combat the sense anxiety and isolation we may continue to feel — maybe to an even greater degree — in the coming weeks.

For our family, that means cherishing the “bonus time” together, freshly unencumbered by scheduled extracurriculars. Though other concerns will fill some of that space, we’ll intentionally appreciate the necessarily slower, quieter pace of life.

And, while we take practical and responsible steps to keep ourselves and those and around us healthy, we’ll seek to live with joy and hopefulness, continuing to find respite in nature. Fresh air in unpopulated open spaces is a wonderful antidote to anxiety, isolation — and the spread of germs.

Below, I’ve listed some of our favorite local social-distancing-friendly outing options, where the only surface to touch is the ground beneath our feet.

Consider your own outing? Join us in finding refuge in the great outdoors. I’d love to see you. From afar, of course. And if our paths should cross, I will enthusiastically greet you, in solidarity and from a safe distance, with an awkward salute.

Local social-distancing-friendly outings
*Note: While some of these outings include playground spaces, use good judgement as to whether to make that shared space part of your adventure.

There’s something to be said for spending quiet time outside with no real destination. A backyard is good for that, but here are some other nice, quiet spaces to consider. Wander around the ponds and by the creek in the Chantilly Ecological Sanctuary. Enjoy meandering around the fields of Clark’s Creek Greenway or under the tree canopy of the Ribbonwalk Nature Preserve. Take a stroll around the Myers Park neighborhood on a treasure tree hunt.

Tired of laps around the block? Consider the long, wide, spacious stretch of Little Sugar Creek Greenway South. Or, exercise both your mind and body at the other end of Little Sugar Creek Greenway along the Trail of History.

Nothing like the wind in your hair on a good, cleansing bike ride. If you want to stick close to town, pick a safe designated city bike route. If you want to hit the woods, our favorite trail riding destination is Colonel Frances Beaty Park. For young riders, consider the closed, protected, paved 1-mile Eastover Greenway.

You know we love a good hike. And under any circumstances we tend to favor the less popular trails. Here are some of our favorites that are not usually overly crowded:

Hang in there, Charlotte. We’ll get through this together. And, hopefully, find joy in living while life-as-we-know-it is put on pause.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Grayson Skate Park

Forget to book your ticket to Norway for the X Games this weekend? Me, too. But while the extreme sports pros test their mettle across the pond, there is a place in Charlotte for attempting your own GoPro stunts.

Grayson Skatepark is located about five miles southeast of Uptown next to Naomi Drenan Recreation Center off of Wendover Rd. This 13,000 square-foot facility, owned and operated by Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, offers features for beginners to pros. There is a street course with ledges, banks and rails and a multi-level bowl (from 5.5 feet to 10.5 feet deep).

While skateboarding is most decidedly not my thing, I can hold my own (at least among the elementary-age set) on a Razor scooter. Which is an option here, along with BMX bikes and inline skates. (RipStiks and tricycles are not permitted.)

A few things to know before you go:
  • All participants must complete a waiver and sign in at the reception desk in the recreation center.
  • Helmets, knee pads and elbow pads are mandatory.
  • Day-use fee is $2/youth and $5/adult for county residents (Non-resident day-use fees are $5/youth and $8/adult. Three-month and annual passes are also available.)
  • Hours of operation are Monday-Friday, noon to sunset; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
  • In case of inclement weather, the Skatepark closes. To check conditions, call 704-432-5231 or 980-314-1100.

There is spectator seating around the Skatepark if you'd prefer just to watch. They also offer skateboard lessons and bike maintenance courses if you're interested in developing your skillset.

Other amenities at this facility include playgrounds and ball fields and a gym, arts and crafts room and teen room inside the rec center.

Even if you are not an extreme sports enthusiast, this is a great venue for switching things up with your riding toys and spending some quality active time outdoors.

How to get there:
Grayson Skatepark is located at 750 Beal Street, Charlotte, NC, 28211.

Don't forget to take:
  • Skateboard, BMX bike, inline skates or scooter
  • Helmet and knee and elbow pads
  • A signed waiver
  • Money for the day-use fee
  • Sunscreen
  • Water and snacks