Alas, Poor Thru-Hike, I Knew Him Well

My backyard seems less exotic today. It feels like the grass is too finely manicured, that the trees have been handpicked and groomed to fit specifically in this place. The squirrels and birds even seem like they’ve been trained to sing their constant repetitive songs, almost in mockery of the great outdoors, like a cheap imitation of what outside is supposed to be. I feel like the forest knows the root of my selfish discontent.

I’m sure I could find a great philosopher or naturalist and force one of their less obscure quotes into this piece of writing to emphasize the futility of our own pursuits, or the fleeting world outside our doors and our obligation to protect and enjoy it, but I don’t think I will. Instead, I’ll reminisce on the prolific words of the life-changing Nationwide insurance commercial from 2004:

“Life comes at you fast.”

Boy does it. A month ago, I was setting out on this flight of fancy, the adventure of a lifetime. I had checked off all the boxes on my “prospective thru-hiker” Bingo card: I had overpacked food, questioned my physical and mental fortitude, and panicked over last-minute additions and subtractions from my gear. Before I knew it, I was halfway up the staircase at Amicalola Falls, hating myself for wearing leggings and becoming gradually more concerned about how much water I had packed.

But all of my worry and all of my trepidation was pointless. The path only continues onward regardless of your fears and failures. My short-lived adventure was filled with ups and downs, the cosmic balance of happy and sad tears that all good moments should be shrouded in. Night one a mouse chewed a hole in my puffy and ate half of the sour patch kids that I had accidentally left beside my pack. Night one I also met the group of people I would spend almost every day with for the next month.

I got cold then I walked quicker and warmed up. I experienced foot pain, then I went to an outfitter and learned about proper shoe fitting and the muscles and fascia that hold us together. My gear got soaked in a rainstorm, then I got to sit and watch the country’s oldest mountain range for an hour from a high hilltop while I dried out. I popped my sleeping pad, then I fixed it. I drank unfiltered water, then I DIDN’T catch  Giardia.

My life became this wonderful, terrifying, painful, incredible watercolor painting. The painting itself wasn’t impressive at all; in fact, it was mundane, boring. Every day was the same if I chose to look at it in the same way: Wake up, pack up, walk, lunch, walk, stop, set up camp, eat dinner, go to sleep, repeat. But this painting derived its value not from the canvas, but from the amazing, visceral, human moments that I was framed by. Every day was different because I walked new steps and heard new jokes. I laughed harder than I could remember and I listened to the trees and heard the sound of sunlight for the first time in 24 years.

My life had become the perfect karma machine: put something good in and get something good out. I stared at the ceiling of a shelter whose name I don’t remember and thought about my intentions. I thought about how clever I was to time this whole thing so perfectly. I smiled and considered this perfect little life that I had so carefully carved out for myself. “Nothing short of the apocalypse is going to derail my plans.”

That aged like milk, didn’t it?

When we left Hiawassee, Georgia, COVID-19 was barely a blip on the RADAR, a quick mention at the end of the news cycle. Obviously, things escalated quickly. It didn’t even seem like a real threat when we entered Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We saw droves of day hikers and section hikers on the trail while we were in the park and when I arrived at Newfound Gap, we found out how serious things had started to become. By the time we got to Standing Bear Farm it felt like the trail was a line of dominoes collapsing behind us as quickly as we could run. The NOC closed the day after we left, the GSMNP closed two days after we left the park boundaries, and the ATC had become vocal with their opinion regarding hiking of any kind.

I fought it hard. I couldn’t imagine living in a world in which I got off trail for any reason other than a severe injury or a family emergency. I had, after all, put YEARS of planning and hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars into this venture. Didn’t I have a right to live my dream. Besides, they were asking us to self-isolate. I was in the woods, wasn’t I? I was as isolated as I could be.

But I knew, deeply, that none of that was really true. My guilt weighed on me and the amount of hypocrisy and self-delusion that I was carrying had not been accounted for when I added up my base weight. On the 24th I left camp early and walked alone, intentionally, all day. I wanted to think about my actions and their repercussions deeply before I made a move.

Ultimately, I decided that even if I wasn’t personally concerned with contracting the virus, I still posed a threat to small trail communities and the potentially immunocompromised individuals that lived there. I decided that those people’s right to live without the increased risk of infection outweighed my right to live out a dream.

It hit home when I called my dad to get his opinion on leaving. I knew he had been my strongest supporter and would be more distraught than anyone to see me leave. When I asked him what he thought he simply said, “If you were a park ranger, or worked in some facet of the operation, and you were faced with this scenario, what would you think of someone that stayed on the trail?” I believe that we have an obligation and a duty to be good stewards of our public land, scenic trails, and wide-open spaces. I felt that remaining on the Appalachian Trail in 2020 jeopardized the opportunities of other, future hikers to enjoy the natural spaces that the world has given us.

I’m not writing any of this to vilify anyone who remains on trail; everyone has their own choices to make. I had to examine my thoughts, goals, and intentions and make a judgment call based on what I thought was ethically and socially responsible. I had the time of my life while I was out there and it breaks my heart to be back home, but I am at peace with the painting that I’ve made, and the beautiful frame that surrounds it.

I’ve been home a week now and I think the reality has finally set in. The AT just wasn’t in the cards this summer, regardless of how much I wanted it. The future is now a blank slate of adventure for me, depending on the timeline of the pandemic. If this thing clears up quickly, maybe I’ll get back on trail. But if it doesn’t, who says I can’t hike the Colorado Trail, the Tahoe Rim Trail, the Bigfoot Trail, or the Trans Catalina Trail, all of which are now on my RADAR for this summer.

Maybe I’m done with the Appalachian Trail for now, but I’m not done hiking. I’m not done sleeping outdoors and embracing the wild freedom that accompanies a life among the trees. The trees and the grass look a little greener now, and the birds don’t seem as malevolent. I think this summer is salvageable, but on the off chance that it isn’t, I have a month of adventure to reflect on and a lifetime of adventure waiting on me.

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Comments 4

  • Bill Sims : Apr 3rd

    Excellent post John. I dream to hike the AT one day in the not to near future, and my heart breaks for all the thru-hikers that have made this heart-wrenching decision. I think of the thru-hikers (Roger, “Chef Ramsey”, etc.) that I met just a few weeks ago on the AT during a day hike close to Unicoi Gap. It’s all so sad, but great thing about all this is, the AT is not going anywhere. Blessings to you and all the thru-hikers who now have a dream deferred. This too will pass.

  • Rich Eiler : Apr 3rd

    Is it better to dream of a thru hike or to be stopped at mile 241 because of some damn pandemic… of all reasons.. It’s heartbreaking to have to come off trail.. like this…
    I am not the only one that’s so broken hearted this year yet so proud of being hiker tag 238/ 2020… My blue tag will always be special.. but 239’s tag will mean so much more.. because that girl is a bad ass We will get back on trail as soon as we can. Flip flop.. ying yang paddy whack what ever… We are thru hikers 239 and I.. this damn Pandemic won’t stop us.. See ya/all back on trail

  • Joe : Apr 10th

    John your blog entries are great. I heard your interview on The Trek podcast, you have a very healthy attitude. There are just certain things out of our control and we just ride it out. I heard you mention you make seek other trails, I have competed the Tahoe Rim Trail and have completed 85% of the Colorado Trail. The Colorado Trail is AMAZING!!. You make opportunities to escape. My wife and I are waiting to see if there will be some relief on trails, we are planned to ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route this August.

    Stay safe in your travels.

  • Slack Packhiker : May 8th

    This article will be interesting to anyone connected to the AT

    Loved your write up, you communicate precisely and poetically.


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