A year ago today, my mind was a whirlwind of second-guesses and self-doubts. In just more than a week, I would begin a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, walking 2,192 miles from the hills of northern Georgia through the rocky mid-Atlantic highlands to the hulk of Maine’s Mount Katahdin. Should I bring this heavy book? What about this big orange whistle? If I carried the food while my wife, Tina, carried the stove, would we ever end up being too far apart to eat? How much hand sanitizer should I have? And, most of all, could I do this?
But today, sitting at home amid North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, I can only pity the second-guesses and self-doubts of the thru-hikers who had intended to start their trips any day now. Last year the Appalachian Trail occasionally felt like a matter of life or death, and it briefly became one when a man with a machete killed a hiker ten miles from where I slept. But this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic that has dislodged the United States’ social order and crippled its economy, the question of whether or not to attempt a thru-hike has become an actual life-or-death conundrum—and a question of what it means to put strangers before yourself.
A week ago, concerns about the coronavirus and thru-hiking centered mostly on supplies. With Americans making runs on cleaning wares and foods with long shelf lives, vendors like Mountain House and Good To-Go were running out of meals. In north Georgia, Mountain Crossings, a hostel famous for helping hikers pick through their gear and drop unnecessary pack weight, stowed bottles of hand sanitizer in back rooms to reserve them for future thru-hikers. Those needs now seem quaint.
More recently, the administrative organizations of the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail have issued increasingly urgent guidelines and edicts for the pandemic. Just days after reminding people to wash their hands, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) urged hikers on Tuesday to “postpone your section or thru-hike” altogether. On Monday, the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) implored its permitted hikers to “exercise personal responsibility in your decisions,” and the organization is considering issuing a more definitive statement later this week. The Continental Divide Trail Coalition has ended its shuttle service at the route’s southern end at least through April 17, in response to New Mexico Department of Health and CDC recommendations.
But what none of these organizations can do, of course, is legally or logistically close trails that run the length of the United States. That limitation and its implications have ripped the thru-hiking community into subdivisions, whose differing views are reflected on message boards and along the trails themselves. As sports leagues have canceled entire seasons and restaurants have laid off staff, the urgent question for thru-hiking in 2020 has become an ethical litmus test: Just because you can get on trail, should you?
“People are going to do it, and that’s their choice,” says Scott Wilkinson, director of communications and marketing at the PCTA. “But hikers must take into consideration that our goal is to limit the spread of COVID-19, and the only certain way to do that is to physically limit the possibilities by social distancing. I can’t imagine a much better vehicle for a virus than a large group of hikers hitching to and out of hotels in small towns.”
During the last two weeks, two schools of thought have emerged about the wisdom of a thru-hike right now. The first suggests that there’s no better place to be than on one of these national scenic trails, where social distancing exists by virtue of walking through some of the most isolated places in the United States. After all, administrators already take steps to decrease hiker density and trail impacts by issuing limited permits and coordinating start dates.
“Hiking anyplace is one of the best activities right now for people. It’s very low-risk activity,” says Eric Weiss, founder of the Wilderness Medicine Fellowship, which takes medical professionals on expeditions. As a professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, he pioneered strategies for drive-through medical clinics during flu pandemics. “The outdoors are a very safe environment, even if you’re coming into contact with people. The people who aren’t feeling well aren’t going to be out hiking.”
Even Sandi Marra, president and CEO of the ATC, agrees that open trails are a necessary respite for a fraught time: “Do I think the Appalachian Trail should be closed to an individual family that can let their kids run for a few hours? Absolutely not. It’s an important way of escape.”
But the growing second school of thought concedes that clusters of hikers do exist on these trails, groups of new friends whose social standards quickly evolve as they share close quarters and barter with food pulled from their backpacks. When a contagious disease enters such a bubble, it can spread quickly inside a group and leapfrog to others. During a thru-hike, there is perhaps no hotter gossip than who is sick and where they got sick. Last year, for instance, rumors of a norovirus led my own trail family to skip shelters and steer clear of queasy friends. The ATC’s Marra knows this cycle well, and although she thinks trails should remain open for local residents in an emotionally trying time, thru-hiking raises more concerns.
“You can say what you want about, ‘Oh, it’s safe out here.’ It’s not—there’s a lot of stuff that can happen,” Marra says. “In a regular year, it’s enough of a stress on local law enforcement and the single ranger the Appalachian Trail has. But we’re in a whole new ballgame.”
That risk was enough to make John Brew, a retired 62-year-old electrical engineer from Seattle, scrap his April 1 AT start date. His wife, Mary Ellen, had planned to support his hike during stretches, tracing his route along country byways. But she’s 70, and they both have existing health conditions. It was all too much at a time when the focus is on quickly flattening the curve for a disease that has no ready cure.
“I’m an optimist, and I think the rate of infection will diminish,” says Brew, an experienced backpacker who has dreamed of a thru-hike since he was an East Coast teenager. “But there’s no way I’m going to do this until the infection curve calms down.”
This is the gamble that Julie Velasquez, 29, was considering, too, at least until this week. Last year, Velasquez hiked the AT northbound in just under four months. She was set to begin her PCT hike in mid-May, but she’s postponing it until the PTCA or ATC say conditions have improved. In two days, Velasquez went from thinking about how the pandemic might impact her resupply options to urging the PCTA and ATC to restrict access to the trail and its campgrounds as much as possible.
“There are not enough supplies to protect health care workers. Many nurses and health personnel are becoming infected themselves,” Velasquez, a physical-therapy assistant, says now. “There is so much uncertainty about this virus itself that it is not safe for the towns or hikers.”
Even if Velasquez had hiked the PCT on schedule, she planned to revise many of her strategies in hopes of limiting her possibilities for contracting the virus or spreading it. Velasquez had intended to mail herself at least five boxes of supplies on the trail. Though coronavirus impacts at USPS, FedEx, and the like have been negligible so far, Velasquez aimed to hike to post offices rather than hitchhike to them—a choice that would add mileage and time but limit exposure with strangers in close quarters. The pandemic even changed her approach to sleep.
“Both the PCT and AT draw huge crowds,” Velasquez said just days before scrapping her plans. “Overcrowding can occur. Making some changes—camping at undesignated campsites, night-hiking to avoid crowds, not staying at hostels, not staying in town at all—can make your hike safer.”
That is the reality that Kaley Pleban is now facing. A 27-year-old Virginia native who began her northbound AT hike in early March, Pleban rarely checked the news during her first 100 miles. But when she arrived in Franklin, North Carolina, late last week, she noticed an eerie feeling among shoppers in the grocery store and started reading about the pandemic’s reach. “You won’t even believe what’s happening in the real world,” her mom told her by phone later that night.
The next day, she reconvened with her trail family of four for lunch. They collectively realized they’d all had mild panic attacks in bed as they tried to square their experience of a lifetime with what they were missing back home. One hiker she knows has already gone home due to concerns about the virus, but most hikers she encounters want to stay on trail. They’ve planned their lives around it.
“I am having this grand adventure, but now I am worried about people back home, who may or may not be getting sick,” Pleban says. “I am in the woods trying to survive, but should I even be out here at all?”
A few days after Franklin, Pleban left Fontana Village in North Carolina—the last stop before northbound thru-hikers begin their ascent into Great Smoky Mountains National Park—alone. Her trail family was going to stay an extra night, so she decided to use the time to separate herself from everyone else.
For days she had wrestled with the ethical quandary of hiking on or heading home, having long conversations with other hikers both on trail and online about the merits of the options. She decided to press on for at least 110 more miles through the Smoky Mountains and to Hot Springs, North Carolina, a trail town of about 600, where I live and where hostels have already begun to close because, as one innkeeper told me, “it’s impossible to social-distance in a place like this.”
Pleban climbed out of Fontana with ten days of food strapped to her back, a heavy burden so early in a hike. She planned to move quickly and camp alone and away from shelters, isolating herself from people as much as possible. In Hot Springs, she will meet with her family and make another decision—whether to walk closer to home in Virginia and again weigh her options for continuing, or get in the car and postpone the endeavor indefinitely.
I understand how Pleban feels: thru-hiking becomes so intoxicating that you put yourself at real risk every day, despite how little sense it may make. The notion that you might be putting someone else in danger during such a personal, visceral journey may seem unimaginable, especially if you’re not watching daily press briefings. Staring from my window at a distant bald mountain, I wonder if I would have had the courage to quit if this was my year on the trail. My selfish heart says no, that I would trudge ahead. My more logical head says yes, that I would save myself and possibly someone else by heading home. The head versus the heart—it’s the same story every year for any thru-hike, just now with unfathomably higher stakes.
At the ATC, Marra understands the individual rationale for continuing. But doing so inevitably involves interacting with people at grocery stores or pharmacies in small towns, where medical resources are in short supply and where economic hardships were a way of life even before this pandemic. For her, strings of thru-hikers spooling in and out of such places during these uncertain months pose a collective existential threat.
“I don’t think 90 percent of us alive have lived through a disruption like this, so it’s hard to get your head around it,” says Marra. “Whether it’s congregating in shelters or casinos, all across America, we’re being asked to not do what we normally do. I don’t think it’s outside of the realm of consideration for hikers to have the same responsibility. This is a defining moment for us.”