TREMONTON — When COVID-19 restrictions forced Jared White to temporarily close his family dental practice for six weeks last spring, concerns about the unknown future clouded his thoughts.

The 42-year-old husband and father worried about several things, including his young family, his employees and how his office might operate when they returned to work.

A previously planned trip to climb Mount Whitney — California’s highest peak — with his wife Kim and some friends for their 20th anniversary, gave him something to look forward to. He took up the hobby of trail running in nearby Logan Canyon to prepare for the big climb.

Jared and Kim White with three of their children on Mount Timpanogos. | Jared White

Spending more time in the tranquility of the great outdoors not only led to a memorable experience on Mount Whitney, but it’s added a refreshing perspective and spiritual peace to White’s life during the disruptive pandemic.

“For me, it’s been a game changer as far as how I’ve felt. I’m in a better mood. I’m happy and feel totally refreshed. There’s been so much peace and clarity,” White said. “For me, it’s a form of connecting my spirit to God.”

With fewer people traveling due to COVID-19 restrictions, many individuals and families like the Whites have sought physical, mental and spiritual renewal in nature. Research studies have shown that spending time outdoors can improve health, lower stress and increase gratitude for the earth’s beauty. Retreating outdoors can also foster healing.

‘Connected to the universe’

George B. Handley, an author and professor of interdisciplinary humanities at Brigham Young University, spoke about the spiritual connection between God and nature in a 2018 Maxwell Institute Conversation with scholar Terryl Givens.

“There is something in the way which nature heals us, and I think it’s directly connected to the Atonement of (Jesus) Christ. I think it’s directly connected to what we read in Doctrine and Covenants 88, about Christ is in the light of the sun, he’s in the light of the moon, he’s the light that quickens our understanding. There’s something about the physical exchange of the senses,” Handley said in the interview.

“If you just treat nature as scenery and you treat it as background story to what your particular human interest and human drama is, and what the social setting is, you are missing the cosmological context in which our human existence gains meaning. ... Loving nature on a profound level helps you to feel connected to the universe.”

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The environmental writings of John Muir, a naturalist, author and often called the father of America’s national parks, reflect his faith and evidence of the divine in nature.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike,” Muir wrote in 1912.

A 2016 Time magazine article reported that studies linked spending time outside to better overall health, including symptom relief for heart disease, depression, cancer, anxiety and attention disorders.

The Time article also reported that seeing a stunning waterfall or breathtaking landscape can stimulate feelings of unselfishness and generosity, according to a 2015 study at the University of California-Irvine.

“Experiences of awe attune people to things larger than themselves,” researcher Paul Piff said in the article. “They cause individuals to feel less entitled, less selfish, and to behave in more generous and helping ways.”

Father Joseph Delka, pastor of the St. Andrew Catholic Parish in Riverton, said God created this world, so being out in nature gives people a sense of his grandeur and goodness.

“Being out in nature gives space for silence, and it is often in the silence of the heart that God speaks. In silence we have the opportunity to ask the bigger and more important questions of our lives without anything to distract us,” Father Delka said. “Spending time soaking in the silence and beauty of his created world helps us to know and love him, and to be open to his gifts.” 

‘Natural healing’

After testing positive for a mild case of COVID-19 in early July, Layton resident Jason Steed purposely spent time outside.

“I do feel like there’s a great deal of natural healing that takes place outdoors,” said Steed, who owns and operates a marketing firm in downtown Salt Lake City. “I made our yard look better in the two weeks I was quarantined.”

Before and since his recovery, Steed has found refuge and rejuvenation running on the Bonneville Shoreline trails and mountain biking on Antelope Island, among other locations along the Wasatch Front. When he occasionally speaks virtually to youth groups, Steed promotes the power of turning off screens, eliminating “noise and fuzz” to boost your spiritual signals.

Not only does getting outdoors pick him up spiritually, but he’s often inspired with creative ideas for his business.

“The fresh air is so powerful and beneficial, so I don’t have to go far,” he said. “Any place you can just sort of have a peaceful inner dialogue brings immense spirituality.”

“It’s social distancing but it’s also spiritual distancing.” — Dean Lore

Dean Lore, of Kaysville, has appreciated nature his whole life. Along with working three summers at Boy Scout camps in Wyoming and Utah as a young man, his family has ranch property in the rural Box Elder County community of Grouse Creek.

Lore recalled one meaningful experience when he sat meditating on an elevated spot overlooking a valley near the family ranch. He had recently returned from a Latter-day Saint mission and his father had died. As he sat pondering in that special spot, he felt closer to his father and the Lord, he said.

“Going to the ranch is a getaway,” Lore said. “It’s social distancing but it’s also spiritual distancing.”

‘Effort brings rewards’

As part of Primary General President Joy D. Jones’ general conference remarks last October, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints referenced the biblical account of Moses climbing Mount Sinai when teaching a group of Primary children.

“When God wanted to give the Ten Commandments to Moses, where did he tell Moses to go? Up on top of a mountain, on the top of Mount Sinai. So Moses had to walk all the way up to the top of that mountain to get the Ten Commandments. Now, Heavenly Father could have said, ‘Moses, you start there, and I’ll start here, and I’ll meet you halfway,’” President Nelson said. “No, the Lord loves effort, because effort brings rewards that can’t come without it.”

Climbers like White and David Roskelley can both relate to the rewards of reaching a mountain top.

Roskelley, of Alpine, recently completed his goal of reaching the volcanic summits and highest peaks in each of the seven continents. Along with being outdoors, there’s something spiritual about backpacking and mountain climbing because you are moving and the Lord is enabling individual growth.

“I think it’s a metaphor for a spiritual journey that you’re making in life,” Roskelley said. “It helps you hone crucial spiritual skills, such as you have to pay attention or you’ll fall.”

These activities can help a person to learn creativity in problem solving and how to travel light, Roskelley said.

Of course the ultimate highlight is reaching the pinnacle. During his summit quest, Roskelley, a Latter-day Saint, started singing the hymn, “High on the Mountain Top,” and saying a personal prayer upon touching the mountaintop, although the air was thin on Mount Everest in 2013.

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“Anytime I go into the mountains, I feel closer to deity, no question about it, especially when I get to the summit somewhere,” Roskelley said. “I love climbing also because it humbles you. Anybody who thinks they’re bigger personally, their ego is bigger than a mountain, is a fool.”

Another blessing is the opportunity to behold a view of God’s creations that few get to see in person. While ascending Mount Whitney, the Whites found themselves walking into a meadow lush with green California pine trees and crystal clear streams, surrounded by granite rocks, at sunrise. It felt like a glimpse of heaven, White said, and he was overcome with gratitude for the beauty of the earth.

“I almost get emotional,” White said. “Those moments when it just hits you like that, keeps you going back. ... The beauty encompasses all your senses, the smells, the sounds and even the taste. ... It just hits and overwhelms you with a closeness to the divine. It makes you humble and you know what’s really important. It helps me put my life in perspective.”

Enhanced learning

In addition to Mount Whitney, White has climbed Washington’s Mount Rainier and hiked Mount Timpanogos and Glacier National Park with his young family. Roskelley recently took his sons to Glacier National Park as well. Both have found hiking to be a bonding experience that also instills confidence in children. They recommend other families give it a try.

“It’s a way that our family has been able to bond,” Kim White said. “Some of our best memories have been in the outdoors.”

Shad Stevens, of Heber City, says it’s his passion to help individuals and families create such meaningful experiences. Not long ago Stevens started a retreat business on the side called “Sun Rock Adventures,” where he takes small groups into the outdoors for a fun activity that is also designed to teach life lessons. The key elements include getting tired and coming away inspired.

“Fun is the motivating factor for a lot of people, but that’s just the hook,” Stevens said. “Learning is enhanced in an outdoor situation.”

Feelings of spirituality naturally come along the way. The foundation of Stevens’ Latter-day Saint faith was developed around Boy Scout campfires. He recently felt God’s love as he watched the sun crest over a ridge in the High Uintas, bathing the mountain in a soft amber glow. There was something “familiar” about the majestic scene, Steven said.

“There is this feeling of solidarity, a feeling of home, a feeling of closeness, a feeling of reconnecting to a higher power that you don’t get when you’re inside brick and mortar,” he said. “That was a really special feeling for me.”