I’m not one of those anti-mask people, but I sure as hell hate wearing one. I hate the way it makes my glasses fog up, I hate the smell of my breath sometimes, I hate how hot it is on a hot day. But mostly I hate the way it makes us all act.
From nearly the moment we were first asked to start wearing masks, we (that is, society) started playing the mask game. Now, I’m not talking about the mask game where one person wears a mask to show the world that they believe in science and another person refuses a mask because they think this whole virus thing is a hoax . I hate that game, I hate it a lot, but that’s a little bit of a different game, in my mind: that’s the truth game, the one where one person has got a different set of facts that they’re going to insist on and up yours if you don’t agree. In that version of the mask game, wearing a mask is a political and ideological statement. That mask game is just a reflection of how polarized we are and it mostly just makes me sad, but we don’t play that version of the mask game too much out here in Western Washington.
In the mask game that we play out here, we all believe the science that says that wearing masks is a great way to limit the spread of the virus—we’re just not quite sure how strict we should be about it, and that ends up making us crazy.
On the one hand you’ve got the person who is never going to leave the house without their mask, so you see them walking out of their house (alone) with their mask on, hoping into their car and driving around (alone) with their mask on. What’s going through their mind, I wonder? Are they so deathly afraid of catching the virus that they use the mask to ward off any chance? (I feel a little sad they live in this kind of fear.) Are they, like a friend of mine, trying to make a statement, to “normalize” mask-wearing so that no one ever feels self-conscious about wearing a mask because they see it so often? (I marvel that he feels so responsible for the actions and feelings of others and so capable of influencing them.) Or have they grown so sick of taking a mask on and off, up and down, that they just say to hell with it and leave it on? (This one kind of makes sense to me!)
On the other hand, you’ve got those folks who kind of believe the scientific rationale behind wearing a mask, but mostly wear one out of the desire to confirm to social norms. Some of these folks are likely just one step from being anti-maskers: they’re the ones who pull the bandanna up over their mouth but don’t bother to cover their nose, or who have a ratty old blue mask hung from one ear, and they pull it over their mouth only when asked or when it becomes odious not to. They are only wearing a mask because they have to; you can see it in their eyes.
And then you have the great majority who carry a mask with them at all times and really do keep it in place whenever they are in close proximity to others. It’s not so bad, after all, and if it prevents the spread of illness, how can you really argue against that?
But even these folks (this group includes me) get confused once they step foot into the great outdoors and there’s nowhere that this confusion has been more obvious to me than on the hiking trails. Early on in the pandemic, say June or July, I’d go out hiking and I’d rarely see anyone with a mask. Maybe at the trailhead, but once out on the trail, the general attitude (which I absolutely held) was hey, we’re outside, we’re spread apart, there is ample air flow: no mask needed.
But as the summer wore on, that started to change: more and more, I’d see people carrying masks, and as you approached each other on the trailhead, they’d go through this dance of “masking up” and then speeding past, barely acknowledging me. The numbers of people prepared to do the mask dance grew and grew, and at some point I kept a mask ready to do the dance as well. Honestly, I still believe that fresh air and distance were ample protection, but I didn’t want to bum people out. If we were on a tight trail or couldn’t give enough space, I played the mask game.
The mask game hurt a little bit, I have to admit. One of the things I like most out on a hike is a hearty hello, a sharing of route conditions, maybe a story about what you’d seen, etc. (Now, to be fair, I only really enjoy this kind of exchange on little-used trails, which are most of the trails I go on. On the few times I was on really popular trails, I do my best to avoid people. Truth is, I hate people, or least the ones who like to be around a lot of other people.) Once people masked up, though, they became far less likely to say hello. They literally and figuratively kept their distance. One couple with children made a big production of standing off the trail and turning their backs to me as we passed. Well, good day to you too!
The highlight of my hiking summer was this arduous hike Sara and I took up Mt. Baldy in the Olympics. The first mile was an ass-kicker, as we ascended 2000 vertical feet in less than a mile, but then we got up into the open meadows and had a spectacular time on the summit all by ourselves. We never saw a soul the entire day—an absolute rarity in the Pacific Northwest. And that meant we never once had to play the mask game.
For too long I have rued the mask game, calling it “pandemic theater” and just generally lamenting the distance that it put between people, not to mention the inconvenience. But today, walking around our favorite spot up at Deception Pass, I landed on a idea that made it kind of fun. I called it the “I’m not sharing my breath” game. As we saw people coming I’d say to Sara, “I’m not sharing my breath with them” and I’d pull up my mask, but smile and give them a big hello.
Damn, I’m sure looking forward to getting back to normal.