Why I’m Getting Off the AT Amid COVID-19 Concerns

This morning after a long, difficult few days of consideration, I have made the decision to put my dreams of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail on hold. I was ~200 miles into my NOBO thru-hike, in the the Smokies at Newfound Gap. I started the trail at Amicalola on March 1, just 18 days ago.

In an email from the ATC yesterday that assured thru-hikers “We do not make this request lightly,” the AT class of 2020 was asked to end our trips.  Months of planning, of hard training, of saving money, and leaving our loved ones behind are now to be put aside for the greater good.  Thru-hikers, even the healthiest among us, run the risk of coming into contact with COVID-19, and with that risk comes an even greater risk of spreading it to those who are the most sensitive to it.  Many of the small communities that exist off trail, including the trail angels who support us and the various shuttles, hostels, and support organization, would be damaged severely should an outbreak occur.  The ATC states that this is “not an easy or small decision to make, but the impacts of potentially spreading COVID-19 during your journey are big.”  Should such communities find themselves in an outbreak, they would be in far more grave danger than most due to the lack of medical infrastructure it would take to treat everyone affected.

 

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Hello all. As painful as this is to write, many of my fellow thru-hikers and I have made the decision to get off trail amid the COVID-19 outbreak. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy issued a warning that read “we urge you to return home until these risks have passed,” and as they are one of the primary bodies that provide this amazing opportunity to hikers, I’ve decided to respect their request for the time being. The danger does not primarily lie with thru-hikers getting sick, but instead with the risk of us accidentally carrying the virus into more sensitive communities that don’t have the medical means to combat an outbreak, and it would’ve been our fault they were affected at all. I don’t want to contribute to that scenario, and neither do my peers. I promise this isn’t the end – not by a long shot. I will complete the AT, even if I need to completely restart next year from the very beginning. I will raise that funding that @thorn deserves, and I will walk every step of this 2,200 mile journey. For now I will be reaching out to local food organizations and seeing by what means I can contribute my time towards ensuring no one has to go hungry during this odd time, and I ask all young, healthy individuals also give their time in whatever manner they see fit. Much love to you all, and thank you for riding beside me these past 200 or so miles.

A post shared by Jacob “Valhalla” Myers (@yonderingthrulife) on

These statements flooded my mind as I began cycling through social media and group texts.  I wanted to know where everyone in the hiking community stood on the matter.  Should we stay on trail where we are safe?  What could it mean if we felt OK, but found ourselves resupplying in a town where COVID-19 had been present?  I soon realized that many of my fellow thru-hikers felt the same way I did.  Whether or not we would be OK is of little matter.  It is far more important that the communities that support not only us but thousands of other thru-hikers over the years be given the respect and consideration they deserve.  The ATC and its supporters are what allow the AT to exist, and their wishes should be respected and carried out in a mature and efficient manner.  We owe it to them and to ourselves as a community to do what is best for all and to act as advocates for best-use practices along the AT.

I take great pride in my trail community, and during this odd transitional period I will be assisting other hikers who are heading home by providing shuttles to the airports or car rental services in the southern parts of the AT.  In my hometown, I am blessed to have worked for a community-centered family restaurant for quite some time, and I have been discussing options with them for helping get food out to community members in need.  For those who are healthy and capable, I urge you to find ways to help your local communities as well, in the safest manner possible that is.

This too will pass, and the trail will still be waiting for me when the time is right.  For now, I will focus on what I can do at home and one day get back on my long walk to Katahdin.

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Comments 18

  • Avatar
    Trail Angel Dan : Mar 18th

    All these kids quitting and saying it’s because of Corona Virus. Face it, you couldn’t handle the other 2000 miles of trail. Everyone knows it, even if they don’ tell you.

    Reply
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      Seeker : Mar 19th

      You don’t sound like much of an angel, Dan.

      Reply
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        Robin Pierce : Mar 20th

        That’s for SURE, sheesh

        Reply
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      Rachel Lee : Mar 19th

      Wow – aren’t you such an angel. The literal ATC asked thru-hikers to re-consider their trail plans for this year, and to pause their thru-hikes if already on trail. What the actual hell are you talking about? This is why our society will not recover in a timely manner.

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Chris : Mar 19th

      I hiked the entire trail last year, I would 100% be off right now

      Reply
  • Avatar
    John Folsom : Mar 19th

    That takes a lot of unselfish courage after all you have invested in this adventure. I hope you are able to complete in the future and have an even better time.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Jotipalo : Mar 19th

    Jacob, You are a Trail Angel’s ANGEL! May your opportunity to thru-hike be realized soon and in better days. Knowing there are people like you in the world, brings a bit of light into my world today. Thanks!

    Reply
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    Richard : Mar 19th

    This is the right decision. This is about more than any one individual. And with the way things are progressing there is no way to completely eliminate your impact unless you self quarantine. I was scheduled to start my flip flop on Apr 13 and have postponed as well – the trail will be there, hopefully all of us will be as well.

    Reply
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    Todd : Mar 19th

    Congrats, your very proud of yourself, better not get the flu next time either. Sounds like its a way out while symptoms are mild unless your old & would die from flu anyways.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    David : Mar 19th

    If you’re not safe on the trail, you’re not safe anywhere.

    Reply
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    Kevin Conley : Mar 19th

    So let me get this straight, the ATC is strongly recommending that thru hikers leave the trail, get in cars and planes to return to civilization, putting them in closer contact to people who may have the virus, returning to families that might be more vulnerable! Clear as mud! As some point we are going to look back on this and see how silly this is. If any thru hikers get sick returning home is the ATC liable because of this decision? Sure be prudent, but I think we’re throwing caution to the winds found on any AT peak. But those same winds might be dangerous.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Jacob Myers : Mar 19th

      The ATC’s response comes with everyone in mind, not just us hikers. I can’t communicate their logic on their behalf, but my understanding is that if we get off trail we can return to our homes where hopefully we have better medical infrastructure than many of the rural trail towns. I come from a small mountain town without a hospital, and there are two cases of COVID back home where people from New York had tested positive and still brought it there, and that’s kind of frightening, but what would be more frightening is a place like the NOC getting it, then hikers carry it into Fontana, then into trailside towns near the Smokies etc. etc. Put simply, we can prevent further spread for all by sitting still for longer, and we can protect the more fragile trail communities by keeping them isolated from outbreaks.

      Reply
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      Adam : Mar 20th

      The ATC guidance is also in preparation for what may happen in next few weeks. Travel home at this moment is possible, whereas it may be more difficult in future (especially if flying). When the corona virus continues to spread, the likelihood of contact increases when traveling from the trail. Thus, arguably better to leave now than in April /May.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Redwing : Mar 19th

    Kudos to you! You’re not only an angel but an unselfish hero as well for putting others’ needs before your own wants.

    Reply
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    John Kapustka : Mar 20th

    Kudos to you, Jacob, for a wise decision. One of the most profound books that I’ve read in my lifetime, one that I consider having an important role in my outlook and approach to life, was Albert Camus’ “The Plague.” In it, he describes the reaction of various people to the outbreak of a plague in a town. Based on what I have witnessed on media, from various internet threads, including this one, you see the full reaction of humanity to something that humans will never escape from: our vulnerability to microorganisms. What is important is how we react to that vulnerability and how we react to our fellows during this crisis. You are to be commended for your selflessness. Each of us has some sort of “journey” that we want to undertake. But, as you said, “this too shall pass.” And with good fortune and good health, you will probably have an opportunity to undertake that journey in the future. But, I think you will feel good about how you responded. And I hope that each of us will also feel good about how we responded, with compassion and selflessness, to this existential public health crisis. Stay healthy!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Jeremy Malatt : Mar 20th

    Is it safe to do an overnighter on the trail?

    Reply
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    Eric : Mar 24th

    An important aspect of this situation that is continually overlooked is what the real goal of social/physical distancing is. This pandemic is about numbers and time, not so much avoiding as much as slowing down. Estimates are that 80% of the population will get this virus. The issue is when, not if.
    Practicing social distancing and other cleanliness strategies are our best bet to mitigate the impact. Going to the grocery is more risky than thru hiking and we are still going to have to do that so if people believe they shouldn’t hike because it increases the level of risk in this scenario they are wrong. You’re going to get it, let’s just make sure that we spread it out and flatten the curve so our resources can effectively deal with those that are sick. Not hiking won’t help to achieve that goal I don’t believe.
    Getting off trail or not starting is of course an individual choice but these communities are likely going to experience this virus with or without thru hikers. Thru hikers who aren’t any more of a threat than the neighbor down the street if proper precautions and behaviors are followed and are also an important part of those town’s economic engine.

    Reply

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