Since April of 2018, I’d been planning this. A five-month, 2,200 mile walk along the ridgeline of the Appalachian Mountains, from northern Georgia to northern Maine.
EDITOR’S NOTE: SEE KEVIN’S ENTIRE APPALACHIAN TRAIL SERIES HERE
I’d done my research, read 21 books on the subject, listened to hundreds of hiking podcasts, viewed literally thousands of YouTube videos by hikers, acquired my gear, tested it all in four shakedown hikes covering over 150 miles, half of which was on the AT itself. I was ready.
February 10th… My April 3rd flight to Atlanta was booked, arrangements were made with family to have a “last supper” before being shuttled to the southern trailhead the next morning. The hike would begin April 4th.
March 2nd-8th… My backpack was packed, repacked, and repacked again.
March 9th… My menu was decided, food purchased, supplies prepared in advance to be shipped to me at designated post offices along the way, clothing laid out… no stone unturned.
CORONAVIRUS… Certainly a news item at the time, but not quite the dire emergency it would soon become.
March 10th… A job I was booked to photograph in New York City in late March called and canceled. Okay, fine. That opened up a few days in the calendar, so what am I waiting for?
March 11th… Rescheduled my flight to March 31st and made plans to begin hiking April 1st.
March 12th-15th… Another client called and canceled. Then another, and another, and another, and next thing I knew, half of the month had evaporated and there was nothing on the books after March 18th.
Okay, fine, why sit around the house not making money for two weeks when I could not be making money while hiking? “Cancel the flight altogether, rent me a car! I’m leaving Friday the 20th and will begin hiking this Saturday!”
March 17th… The President of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (caretakers of the trail) sent a letter out to all registered thru-hikers (people who’ve registered with the intent of hiking the entire trail this year). <paraphrasing> “Don’t come. Cancel your hike. If you’re already on the trail, get off.”
I’d been watching the chatter on Facebook groups for hikers, and concern had been growing. Resupply points along the trail were stressed. “Trail towns,” as they’re called, exist about every 4-7 days apart (depending on the speed one hikes). In some places, the AT goes right through the middle of town, but in most other places it’s 2-10 miles from the trail. Getting to and from the towns is often done via hitchhiking.
The town folk appreciate the moderate revenue stream brought by hikers and are quite friendly, regularly going out of their way to pick up and shuttle hikers to and from town.
Once in town, hikers eat a hot meal, resupply their food and toiletries, do their laundry, rent a bunk in a hostel or split a hotel room to get some relief from the elements for the night, and take the only hot shower they’ve had in a week. Many pay a visit to the local post office to pick up a pre-packaged supply box shipped from home, saving them the problem of resupplying items that can’t always be found in town. Without these trail towns and the locals that support the hiking community, the AT experience would be a far bigger hardship and less enjoyable for most everyone involved.
Chatter amongst those already on the trail was mixed. Some hikers saying resupply was fine, others saying they couldn’t get dry foods or toilet paper (WTH is with the TOILET PAPER, PEOPLE?). Hitchhiking was becoming far less reliable than expected —the town folk were getting leery about picking up hikers, after all, “social distancing” dictates a six-foot berth between you and the next person-unattainable in a vehicle.
Socially, hikers typically have a considerable amount of distance between themselves when actually hiking.
Even when hiking in small groups of 3-5 people, a 10-20 foot distance between each is very common, and that might even stretch to a half-mile or more over the course of half a day. Hikers save their conversation for camp at night, so they’ll congregate at or near a designated shelter/campsite, or in town. This makes the “six-foot” rule easy to apply during the day but much more challenging in the evening. Not impossible, but definitely tougher if you’re a social butterfly.
Long story short, resupply, transportation, and social distancing were all becoming more difficult and all of those put together along with the warnings from the CDC, the WHO, and now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, all reporting that Coronavirus could be transmitted by carriers who were asymptomatic (showing no signs or symptoms of the virus), added up to one final conclusion… this is not the time to “take a hike!”
One hiker who’d already completed over 700 miles of her hike and had left the trail, ended her reasons why with this parting thought…
My final decision was made by the fact that, as hikers, we have a responsibility towards the communities we pass through. Most thru-hikers are young, strong, and fit: perfect for carrying the virus but not displaying symptoms, or for recovering from it if you do come down with the disease. In town, you’ll encounter people who are elderly, immunocompromised, uninsured, and/or far from hospitals. You’ll also strain potentially limited resources of food and supplies. Trail towns have shown immense generosity towards thru-hikers over the years; now is the time to return that kindness by protecting them as best as we can. The mountains will always be there, etc. etc. etc.
Stay safe y’all.
–Six Rudolph (Trail Name)
I don’t know Six Rudolph, but I have nothing but mad respect for her. She’d already invested a few months of hiking and camping in horrible weather, put 700+ miles of difficult terrain behind her, had completed a full third of this trail, and left because it was the right thing to do. I want to be her friend. I want to buy her a beer. I want to thank her for helping to make the decision to postpone my own hike that much easier.
This won’t be my year to attempt an AT “thru-hike,” and there’s no crystal ball to tell me if it’ll ever happen at all, but some things are just more important and there’s certainly no shortage of bigger problems to solve at the moment than what the world is facing right now.
Stay tuned, as once this tragedy is behind us (as it’s sure to be), I fully expect to rekindle my enthusiasm for adventure and the AT awaits!