Alabama’s outdoor spaces become an oasis during COVID-19
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Prior to the pandemic, Adam and Meredith Sleeper enjoyed spending time together outside, hiking and mountain biking trails around Alabama on weekends. But when COVID-19 hit, their outdoor adventures became one of the few things they could safely do outside of their home because Adam is considered to be in the highest risk category for COVID-19 as a lung transplant patient.
Adam was born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic lung disease. He said he stayed relatively healthy until age 16 when his health worsened to the point that the next option was a lung transplant.
“I was supposed to have a 12 to 18 month estimated wait time based on the criteria for the transplant, but I was transplanted under six months which was great because I wouldn’t have made it a day longer,” he said.
Adam received his new lungs on Christmas Day 2003, in a “dramatic and life-saving” four-hour long surgery at UAB. It took him almost a full year to recover from the surgery, but he was able to graduate from Vestavia Hills High School before going to college in Auburn.
Meredith attended Hoover High School and though they both went to Auburn at the same time and shared mutual friends, their paths didn’t cross until they started working as baristas at O’Henry’s Coffee shop at Brookwood Village. Their coffee shop romance brewed as they spent many hours working alongside each other.
“Immediately from the get go we worked a lot shifts together and we were super broke,” Meredith laughed. “We got to spend so much time together we got to know each other quickly.”
The couple married and moved to Virginia Beach, where they started getting more involved in outdoor activities together, hiking along the Appalachian Trail and mountain biking. Adam has been an avid mountain biker now for 12 years and Meredith for seven.
“We started picking up our activity level and got involved in the CF Foundation there and did the Extreme Hike, a one-day hike that is 26.2 miles,” Meredith said.
After living in Virginia Beach for five years, they moved back home to Birmingham in 2016 and started exploring parts of Alabama they’d never been to before, despite growing up in the state.
Even under normal circumstances, the Sleepers have to be diligent about avoiding people who are sick and practicing good hand hygiene because of how seriously a common cold could affect Adam after his lung transplant. So when COVID-19 arrived in the U.S., they knew they had to be extremely diligent with precautions for the sake of his health.
“When corona hit, I’ll never forget, it was Friday the 13th. I went to my boss, they know about my health and he said if that virus shows up in Birmingham, I’m off of work until I get a game plan from my doctor,” Adam said.
Adam works as a business developer for Wayne’s Pest Control and said his job has been “super accommodating” when it came to his health. He’s been able to work remotely since March 13.
Meredith is a fourth grade teacher at Vestavia Hills Elementary School, and she has also been able to teach remotely in order to limit her exposure to other people.
For months, the Sleepers worked exclusively from home, avoided seeing their families, attended church online and didn’t even do any backyard visits with friends until June when Adam’s doctor gave them the OK for social-distanced, outdoor hang outs.
Being outside became their solace in an otherwise monotonous and isolating time. Their remote work schedules allowed them to get outside during the week, when before they’d have to wait until the weekend. They’d often wrap up their workdays in the mid-afternoon, then still have enough daylight for a mountain bike ride.
Adam said the opportunity to enjoy Alabama’s state parks and nature preserves was a huge boost for their mental health and drew them even closer together as a couple.
“I’m not trying to get husband points, but having all that additional time with her because we love doing things together was the absolute best. We got to explore places neither of us had been, exercise, get outside and enjoy fresh air, outdoor endorphins,” he said. “It also gave us an opportunity to be grateful to the Lord that we’re not like Italy where we stand on our balconies and play music, but we can drive to go do stuff.”
“It kept us from going insane,” Meredith added.
Adam said over the spring and summer months, they started checking off places they’d never visited before. They stumbled upon their new favorite spot when hiking the Chinnabee Silent Trail in Talladega National Forest on a Monday when no one else was around.
“I found this trail that supposedly had all this water along with it. A mile or two in, there was just a beautiful swimming hole and a waterfall and it went down a ravine. It looked like something you might find out west, with turquoise-colored water,” Adam described.
Adam said the safe option of being outdoors in a pandemic like COVID-19 has prompted more people to get outside, which is great for both physical and mental health. He’s seen a lot more families doing outdoor things together, even on their walks in their Bluff Park neighborhood.
Their top five mountain biking locations in Alabama are: Oak Mountain State Park, Goldwater Mountain near Anniston, Cahaba River Park near Montevallo, Black Creek in Hoover and Tannehill State Park.
Their favorite places to hike for free include: Ruffner Mountain, Red Mountain Park, and The Preserve. They recommend alltrails.com to find hiking trails, and the MTB Project app by REI for mountain biking routes.
The Sleepers are not the only people who have been visiting outdoor parks more frequently during the pandemic.
All 21 of Alabama’s state parks have remained open during the pandemic, and there’s been a significant increase in park use and attendance, Jerry Weisenfeld, the advertising and marketing manager for Alabama State Parks, said.
“Year-to-date numbers through the end of June 2020 show an increase of 28.45% compared to this same time period last year,” Weisenfeld said.
In June 2019, all parks saw 625,345 visitors. But in June 2020, the number of visitors had more than doubled the previous year’s count with a total of 1,276,274. July also saw a year-to-year increase from 783,520 visitors in July 2019 to 894,283 in July 2020.
Oak Mountain State Park, which offers hiking and mountain biking trails, a lake, fishing spots and boat launches, saw an increase of 41.3 percent more guests during April through June 2020 compared to the same time in 2019.
“At Oak Mountain, we typically have 7,000-10,000 guests over a weekend in the summer (Friday through Sunday). We are seeing double that right now. It’s a good thing the park has almost 10,000 acres so everyone can social distance and still enjoy it,” Weisenfeld said.
Oak Mountain is offering some in-person, social distanced events, such as their Creepy Crawly Critters event on Friday, Oct. 30 from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. They also have night bike rides from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday from Sept. 1 through May 1.
You can find information on all of Alabama’s state parks at http://www.alapark.com.
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