Having spent two full years preparing for a hike of the Appalachian Trail, I’d unknowingly prepared for the fall of civilization, at least a temporary fall… a five-month-long stumble of it, if you will.
EDITOR’S NOTE: SEE MORE OF KEVIN’S APPALACHIAN TRAIL PLANNING STORIES HERE.
In April of 2018, I attended a book signing and presentation by Jeff Alt, who’d hiked the entire 2,180-mile length of the Appalachian Trail in 1998. His presentation and book sparked an interest in me that grew to infatuation, then admittedly an obsession. Over the next 18 months, I’d read 20 more books written by hikers who’d completed the Appalachian Trail and was consumed by the idea of doing it myself. Gear was thoroughly researched and slowly acquired, and plans were made to begin my trek on April 4th of 2020, a date I’d just pulled out of thin air. I estimated it would take me about five months, so I budgeted 150 days and set a goal of completing the trail and getting back home by the first week of September.
Now, mind you, I’m a professional photographer who has owned and operated a commercially located portrait studio for nearly 35 years. It is my sole source of income and I have no employees. To hike the AT meant shuttering the doors for five full months, which meant shutting off the only revenue stream my wife and I have, with no real guarantee that it could even be turned back on when I got back (that last part adds a whole other element of danger, doesn’t it?).
To accomplish this goal would require a drastic shift in our income/expenses which led to big decisions that neither of us had anticipated making.
To begin with, we decided to sell our 2,600 square foot home of 21 years and downsize to a 1,600 square foot condo. Because the mortgage was already paid off, the profit was adequate enough to pay cash for the condo and settle a second mortgage we’d leaned on for home improvements through the years as well as most (not quite all) of our credit card debt.
Additionally, a smaller home meant fewer bills, lower utilities, less maintenance, and an enormous reduction of expenses taking a strain off the income required to support our old home. All of this was accomplished by February of 2019, nearly a year and a half before my anticipated hike was to begin. And because my studio income hadn’t decreased during that time, we began banking money at a far higher rate than we had in recent years. Money was set aside to cover my expenses for five months on the trail, nearly all of my home bills had been paid six to ten months in advance, and money was set aside to support my wife’s expenses while I was to be gone.
Fast forward to March of 2020 and I’m only a few weeks away from beginning the adventure of a lifetime. My plane ticket to Atlanta has been purchased, arrangements had been made with family members to shuttle me to the southern terminus of the trail-Springer Mountain, my backpack was packed, my clothes were laid out, my menu was set and food had been purchased, my resupply items had been acquired for my wife to periodically send to post offices along my route… and I was counting the hours before I would leave.
The news was slowly unfolding about Covid-19, but until March, it wasn’t being taken seriously by most Americans. Just days before I was set to leave, the news reports about the virus turned dire. It went from “stable” to “critical” so fast, most everyone was in shock. You, the reader, know exactly what I’m talking about. You no doubt have your own story of those few weeks that developed into the “shelter in place” directives.
Two years of planning and rerouting my life, my business, my income, my expenses, had all been derailed by a global pandemic and economic meltdown.
I then received an email from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (caretakers of the trail), advising all hikers to stand down. “If you’re not on the trail but planning to begin, don’t. If you’re on the trail, get off.” Trailheads were being closed and resupply points were shutting down. A “thru-hike” of the Appalachian Trail would be near impossible without the support of communities along the trail and most of them were being shuttered as “non-essential” businesses (oh, how I’ve come to despise that term). That pretty much put the nail in the coffin. Any chance for a thru-hike in 2020 was now off the table. Two years of planning and rerouting my life, my business, my income, my expenses, had all been derailed by a global pandemic and economic meltdown.
Here I had planned to shut down my business from April till September, purposely turning off my revenue stream and living without an income for five full months in 2020, and BOOM!… a pandemic forces the government to mandate that the entire country do the same. At this point, everyone without a savings (which is likely most Americans), was suddenly thrust into unemployment, relying on stimulus checks and government loans (forgivable or not), and shutting down their businesses (many, permanently), some not knowing where their next meal might be coming from.
Meanwhile, I’m thinking… well, I’ve just spent two years PLANNING for this scenario… during this EXACT same time frame. I’m not rich, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I sure felt economically blessed by the sheer coincidence of circumstances that were unfolding. As disappointing as it was to cancel the adventure of a lifetime just hours before beginning, I was able to quickly put that disappointment behind me and focus on the chaos of Covid-19 in front of me. And while finances were the “problem of the day” for most everyone else, that was the one worry I could temporarily ignore.
Of course, this meant that if I’m to attempt this hike in 2021, then I’ve got some real work ahead of me. I’m not prepared for a TEN month shut off of revenue, so I have to find a way to make money in 2020 to rebuild the stash I’m now relying on. It won’t be easy, and yes, it’s a setback, but I’m confident that this “dress rehearsal of unemployment/poverty” will further prepare me for my eventual symbolic trek into homelessness.
Long story short, I’m not nearly as stressed by this meltdown as I should be, or would’ve been, had it not been for Jeff Alt and his Appalachian Trail book presentation. My wife used to cuss his name but now sings his praises.
Funny how things work out. In Seinfeld’s world, I’d be “Even Steven.”