I’m Not Ready Yet: Continuing to Postpone My AT Thru Hike
In March 2020, I set out to complete a NOBO thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. After hiking for just over a week and coming within 5 miles of finishing my first state, I chose to leave the trail. I feel like I don’t have to say it at this point, but yes, it was because of the pandemic. Naturally, I’ve been thinking about the possibility of a 2021 thru-hike ever since.
Timing is everything.
Leaving the trail was not an easy decision. I had been dreaming about this hike since I met my first thru-hiker as a kid in one of New Hampshire’s AMC High Huts, 15 years ago. Planning since I was a senior in high school, when I opened my first savings account to deposit all of my graduation money to save for the trail. Prepping, since I started adding to my course load in order to graduate college a semester early.
Even though my timing was perfect, the world’s was not. Life is messy, and my idea of the “perfect” time to go has taken on a whole new meaning. I have more strings attached now than I did a year ago to my normal life. I have bills to pay now, I’m thinking about starting a career, but that doesn’t mean I won’t find a way to hike when the world is ready. That time isn’t now.
I’ve been following along closely with trail updates, not just on the AT but on other trails as well. On December 1, the ATC reopened new hiker registration for those considering a 2021 thru-hike. One of the people I met on the trail in 2020 sent me a photo of his 2021 registration, and for a second, I thought I might throw up. Was this my sign? Was it time? Should I buy my plane ticket? I found myself scrambling. But was I excited? Truthfully, the answer was no. After witnessing so much global suffering, and admitting that it is still far from over, I couldn’t be excited. I just felt sad. Hope remained fleeting.
A mental cost-benefit analysis.
Zach Davis, author of Appalachian Trials (and the creator of this site) reminds us that we should probably have a good grasp on why on earth we’re attempting a thru-hike. Check out the three lists he recommends pouring your heart into here— they helped me a lot. I didn’t even realize how many reasons I had, and I sure hadn’t thought about what would happen when it ended.
Thru-hiking any trail takes a huge toll on a person mentally. Knowing myself, the mental toll it would take to thru-hike in 2021 , while not being quite sure if it’s the right thing to do would be unbearable. All thru-hikers will experience doubt at one point or another. Mental anguish is a rite of passage, making success that much sweeter. I know that personally, I need to believe in my goal 100%. With added doubts about the ethics of a thru-hike during a pandemic, I would be crushed every day with the emotional weight of feeling responsible for the world’s continued suffering. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch. But seriously, how could I be prancing through the woods unfazed while healthcare workers are continuing to experience burnout? What if I was an asymptomatic carrier of the virus and was responsible for a trail angel’s suffering, or worse? Would my thru-hike be worth it?
Haunted by the what-ifs of a 2021 thru-hike.
The same scene played out in my mind over and over as I tried to sleep on December 1. Behind a mask, likely a doubled-up buff, I smile across the campfire at other hikers preparing food. We discuss plans for the upcoming road crossing, sharing our ideas about lodging and which stores will likely have the best resupply. A few hikers mention splitting a room and ask if I would like to join in. What do I say?
I look across at the shelter, where unmasked hikers are chatting and laughing. Everybody insists that they tested before arriving on the trail. With the current state of limited testing and the insane logistics of getting a test (especially without having symptoms), do we really know if we are safe?
I set up my tent, alone, and continue to keep distance from others. The divide is real: hikers in Facebook groups and online forums are outspoken on both sides. Would my decision to take COVID precautions cause hostility? Would it make me an outsider?
When I’ll be ready.
When I picture hiking the AT, I see myself among dirty, smelly hikers eating at restaurants in town. I see 20 hikers crammed into a shelter like sardines. Meeting up with my friends and family all throughout New England. Taking a few zeros for trail days. Creating lifelong friendships through shared suffering. Stripping life down to the essential and being surrounded by people who take me as I am. I want to experience that. I want to share hotel rooms, finish a section hiker’s lavish mountain house meal even after I’ve eaten dinner. I’ll be ready when the only doubts I have about sharing food and sanitation are because of norovirus. When the only worries I have about hitchhiking are, well, the normal ones. When the ATC reinstates the 2000-miler recognition program.
I thought I would be okay with jumping on the trail the first chance I got, but the truth is, I can wait. Unfortunately, a 2021 thru-hike is off the table for me, and that’s okay. I’ve already been longing for 15 years. What’s a few more?
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