My First Trip—and Flight—With Strangers Since 2020 Was a Mental Health Boost

Rediscovering my passion for air travel after a flight hiatus

Air travel
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The whoopin’ and hollerin’ reverberated up and down the river. One of the most vital—and obvious—things you’re not supposed to do while pursuing mountain trout with a fly rod is be loud. We were being obnoxiously loud. And we didn’t care.

My brother had just landed the largest trout of his life. Even our guide, Luke, was all about the celebration. Seven grown adults—some of whom hadn’t met before that morning—were prancing around the river, hugging, smiling, high-fiving, and blowing out the river where dozens of massive red-striped Rainbows held waiting for tiny flies to drift their way.

At that moment, I realized that human connection—even between strangers—was something we’d all been craving and missing over the past two years.

You’ve likely seen the heaps of research connecting social connection and health. Decades before the pandemic, researchers from the University of Michigan and Texas concluded that social isolation could lead to early mortality. At the same time, plenty of research shows the connection between outdoor activity and health—both mental and physical.

So it should’ve come as no surprise to me how rejuvenated I felt watching seven people embrace on the side of the Blue River in Summit County, Colorado. But when you haven’t done something in so long, it’s easy to forget what it feels like to do it again. 

For me, travel has always been about connection. I really can’t remember the last time I traveled for the sole purpose of vacation. It’s always been about traveling to see friends and family. So when travel shut down in 2020, it shut down my easier access to connections with friends and family, as it had many others. Being an endurance athlete and living in a multi-generational household has made me reluctant to travel via airline. Consequently, like many of us have experienced, my world has gotten smaller over the past two years.

So, a few months ago, when my friend, Hunter, asked me about helping organize a 30th birthday for him, I was excited but hesitant. The plan was simple: rent out a place in Summit County, Colorado, and bring about 10 guys together from around the country to eat, drink, run, hike, and fly fish.

But as the trip neared, the excitement morphed into some anxiety. Three days before my flight, a court order struck down the federal mask requirement for transportation. The thought of being crammed onto a plane with unmasked travelers and then going to a house with unmasked strangers was beginning to get to me. And that wasn’t even mentioning the social anxiety of meeting a group of new people for the first time in multiple years.

A flood of excitement surged through me as I boarded a Southwest flight from Burbank to Denver late Thursday afternoon. Was I a bit nervous as other passengers remained maskless? You bet. But a bit more than 12 hours later, as I was standing in the river watching my brother, my friend Hunter, and the other new friends pull out trout after trout, I remembered my original guiding purpose for most of my travel—to see the people I love and care for deeply and to create new friendships and memories. And the connections to those people and spending time with them in outdoor spaces was a welcomed—if not temporary—cure to pandemic-induced anxieties.