The Process of Postponing a Dream

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or have the hiking style of Grandma Gatewood, you’ve no doubt noticed that many hikers are lamenting having to postpone their thru-hikes as the spread of COVID-19 continues to rapidly grip the world.  As someone with dreams even loftier than the traditional trek, I’ve decided to outline my process as it pertains to my current situation.  I am currently postponing my attempt at a Calendar Year Triple Crown until further notice.  I hope that the words that follow do not spark debate, but rather offer insight and guidance to those who may be in the midst of making this difficult decision themselves.

Where to Begin?

On February 17, I set out from the Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail in hopes of completing it relatively quickly.  My primary fear of disease at the time was norovirus, an illness all too common to the AT.  In the back of my mind I knew I would be far too early to actually have a large chance of contracting this nasty little bug.

Obligatory Southern Terminus photo prior to beginning!

My plan was to move fast throughout the entirety of phase one of this trek, and norovirus typically required there to be a lot of people on trail in order to be spread easily.  Ergo, I would have minimal risk when it boiled down to the probabilities.  COVID-19 was not even on my radar.  At the time, I had heard news stories of the virus spreading in China as well as a few US citizens who had contracted it while aboard cruise ships.

Escalation

As the weeks went by, I happily suffered through a wide variety of experiences.  Right off the get-go my right knee decided it had different plans than hiking 7,700 miles in one year.  I endured limping for over 100 miles, blizzards, thunderstorms, and blisters, among other various challenges consistent with any early starter.  Once my knee had completely healed up, I suddenly realized that if could limp over 100 miles through knee-high snow that I certainly could accomplish my goals.  There was nothing that would be able to take me off the trail unless it was to be as severe as a broken femur.

I quite literally thought about this sign almost every other day.

All the while I was battling my own physical struggles, the world was rapidly changing around me without my noticing.  At first, there was the classic reference made by loved ones that I was in the best position possible.  I was away from large metropolitan areas, in the woods finding mostly solitude throughout the day.  Whatever happened, I was assured that I would be golden.

The Decision

It wasn’t until I had hit the 700-mile mark that things began to take a different tone.  In the beginning of this pandemic, the focus had been about how I could easily avoid contracting the virus by simply continuing on.  As time progressed, a few things changed that clearly highlighted that to take a pause was the correct choice.

  1. In the unlikely event that I would contract COVID-19, I would unknowingly be spreading it to trail communities that have less access to immediate health care than the majority of Americans.  Meaning that should I pick up my resupply or choose to stay at a hostel I would run the risk of infecting someone else.  That someone else could be the generous elder who had opened their home to me in the first place.  Now, with a virus that wreaks havoc on older folks as opposed to myself, I could not bear to brunt that risk.  I would effectively be stripping away what little choice they had in the matter and exposing them to unnecessary risk for the sake an indoor bunkbed and a shower.  Ludicrous.
  2. Things had changed so much in the past two weeks that there was a high likelihood that many things would continue to shut down.  Which they certainly have been.  All of the large trail systems I was attempting to hike had issued statements asking many to postpone their plans.  Many of the states I would be passing through have had governing authorities issue a nonessential travel ban.  Which, to my knowledge and discretion, thru-hiking falls under that category.  Leaving the trail might not have been possible in the upcoming weeks, and it was better to err on the side of caution.
  3. Now, the only thing I was tethered to was the US Postal Service as it was where I received my resupplies from.  Meaning, thru-hiking was still easily possible for me.  For a long time I clung to the mentality that I could still hike.  Suddenly it hit me that I had a much bigger role in this situation than I wanted to admit.  As aforementioned, I had started relatively early on the AT.  With many, many others soon to embark on their trek, I began to wonder what type of role model I could be in this situation.  Were renegade miles worth the risk of inspiring someone else to begin their hike and bring COVID-19 to the trail?  Could someone look at my actions and model their own after them?  Certainly.  This exponentially increased my responsibility in the situation.
  4. I am more than a walk in the woods.  Should I have decided to continue among this chaos while so many others were making such large sacrifices it would have eroded whatever morality I could demonstrate.  I would have accomplished an incredible feat of a Calendar Year Triple Crown all to have it overshadowed by the decision to remain on trail.  In essence, it would quite literally have transformed such an impressive accomplishment into an ugly, vulgar, selfish action.  I refuse to be this type of person.  Rather, I wanted to demonstrate a socially responsible course if I could do so.

Final Words

I’m keeping the smile and the beard for the time being.

In the wake of this decision, I can’t help but be hopeful that eventually I’ll be able to return to trail soon.  In some ways, refraining from shaving my nasty beard is a physical representation of that.  The likelihood is slim, but in times such as these sometimes hope is the best course of action.  That being said, while my short stint on the Appalachian Trail may have taken an unplanned pause, I can’t help but express gratitude for the miles I was able to log in the past month.  The trail is not one of “my rights,” and to be able to look back at the incredible, numerous experiences I’ve had is no doubt a blessing.  For that reason, I’m clinging to the happiness I demonstrated each day while on trail.

I’m not going to tell you to get off trail or to postpone your hike.  The ATC, PCTA, and CDTC have already done that and if you’re not going to listen to them you certainly won’t listen to me.  Rather, for those adamant about continuing on I simply urge you to exercise extreme caution when traveling.  The thru-hiking community is predominantly known as a horde of loving, smelly people.  Please do not tarnish this reputation by having a hand in being responsible for the death of a grandparent.

Feel free to reach out to me in discussing your decisions.

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Comments 11

  • Scott Porbansky : Mar 22nd

    Thank you, Zach!

    I think you have the best attitude and mentality that I’ve seen regarding all that has been happening lately- thank you for sharing! Best wishes on the next few chapters!

    Reply
    • Bookworm : Mar 23rd

      Good call, Zack!
      Don’t forget AT SOBOs can’t start until June or July. So a 2020 end-to-end hike is not impossible yet. So self-isolate, stay healthy and who knows? Be flexible.

      Reply
    • Chaddy boy : Mar 23rd

      I too have canceled my PNT 2020 thru. We are making the best decision. Gotta take care of ourselves and the ones we love and in our communities so many more people can enjoy these trails themselves one day. Best of luck and heres to an epic 2021 hiking year! (hopefully)

      Reply
  • wayne tuuk : Mar 22nd

    I am of a different viewpoint but not in disagreement with you about what is the right thing to do. I am much older than you and my long distance trail hiking time is shrinking. I went out on the CDT last year from the southern terminus but after 100 miles needed to leave due to illness and wanted to return this year and continue where I left off.
    Delayed dreams can give you energy as long as you keep them in view and continue with what the dream requires. There is nothing like being on the trail.

    Reply
  • Bill Markunasu : Mar 23rd

    Ur smile & responsible attitude r our futures hope. I’m one of those trail angels & trail/Hut maintainers mm906.4 . Profession is caregiver for seniors. I don’t have to say more, see#1. Holler at me when u get to my home Shenandoah National Park..the trail is in this world & the next!

    Reply
  • John LaVigne : Mar 23rd

    I meet you on the trail at the NOC I definitely think you are making the right decision. I had gotten off the trail due to missing my wife and kids if I had stayed on the AT I would have left the trail due to this difficult time in are lives and I hope all others will do the same it’s the right thing to do. I myself wouldn’t like knowing I might have spread it to and older person who like you said have helped many of us hikers.

    Reply
  • TBarAT121420 : Mar 23rd

    I usually don’t make my mark on these types of internet discussions, nor am I one to make declarative statements regarding my judgment of other people’s decisions. But… I really liked your perspective and think, due to your numbered logical arguments, that you made the right decision. I particularly agree with your 4th statement about not turning thru-hiking into an “ugly, vulgar, selfish action.” A lot of people, though clearly not the thru-hiking community, already view thru-hiking as a very selfish, first-world lifestyle choice. In some very real ways these people have a point. Deciding to walk thousands of miles over the course of several months, while not earning a paycheck, seems like a particularly sinful way to spend our freedom to some. I would know since I have now attempted 3 thru-hikes and completed 2. This last attempt being thwarted by our current situation of the entire planet being affected by a global pandemic. Wow. I never imagined that last sentence becoming a reality. But here we are…

    But, thru-hiking, in normal circumstances, is poorly understood by most people. It is deeply spiritual. It is often life-affirming. Sometimes it is even a life-saving activity, when considering that for some people thru-hiking saves them from their own personal environment of destructive people, habits, behaviors, and, yes, even beliefs.

    Thru-hiking changes people. Most often for the better. People usually become physically healthier, but, almost miraculously, people become mentally and spiritually healthier during a thru-hike. Some people hike to defeat addiction. Some people hike to overcome morbid, even life-threatening, obesity. Some people hike to escape intractably abusive or tyrannical environments that they have always known as “home” (think “10 Cloverfield Lane”). Some people hike to fight the inner demons of PTSD. People like the original AT thru-hiker Earl Shaffer, who was literally walking off the invisible emotional wounds of war.

    Thru-hiking is a modern day version of the medieval pilgrimage. Today people hike to cleanse or purge themselves of pain gathered from living in what is very often an “ugly, vulgar, selfish” modern society that usually values “neighbors” not as equal to “self”, but rather as resources to exploit for selfish gain.

    Thank you, Zach, for providing yet more proof that thru-hiking is not an “ugly, vulgar, selfish action” and ethical pushback against such notions. Very often the thru-hiking community is a better model of a society that loves their neighbors as they love themselves than any other. I only hope that this Coronavirus Pandemic can help us all reevaluate our relationships with each other as more valuable than wealth, power or pride.

    LOVE>anything
    self=others

    Good luck. God bless. Happy trails.👍🤠

    Reply
  • Tammi aka Cray : Mar 23rd

    You are my hero! Thank you for your amazingly difficult and completely selfless choice. I was to be leaving on an AT thru April 1st, I can (to a much lesser degree!) relate and feel your pain. Thank you again for choosing to be a fantastic role model, and my very best to you on your Triple Crown quest. Stay healthy!

    Reply
  • Beverley Jones : Mar 23rd

    Thank you for your sacrifice, I am sure tbis was extremely disappointing for you, but I can tell you willingly sacrificed your needs for the good of your community, those that live along the trail, and our country as a whole. God bless you.

    Reply
  • Janice Sherman : Mar 24th

    Well said, Zach. I was on the AT from March 2-18. I got to Damascus. I really wanted to keep going, in large part because I worried about the economic future of the small towns and businesses. I met so many people who were worried about paying their mortgage. Ultimately, I decided it was selfish to continue and risk lives in these communities. I will return as soon as it is safe. And I promise to spend lots of money!

    Reply
  • Captain : Mar 25th

    Thank you so much for this article and for being so very clear in what you’re saying. I am one of the hikers who now has to most likely postpone the trip (we were planning to go SOBO starting in July) and it’s terrible to feel like singing you’ve worked for so hard and long (10 years in our case) won’t happen.
    But we’re all in this together.

    Reply

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