The Elephant in the Room

OK. Anyone else feeling emotional about having to chuck your dreams, planning, finances, etc., into the wind this year? Yeah, me either. (LIES LIES LIES)

I am sure I am not the only on here who has worked extra hours for two years, planned, replanned, and replanned again your trek, arranged travel, drop-offs, mailed resupplies, and other things that go into a thru hike. So… you are ready to go. All your plans have been solidified. Then, you start getting notices. The ATC recommends you postpone, cancel, redefine your whole life due to COVID-19 outbreaks. OK. Let’s look at the facts (at least what they are leading us to believe).

So yeah, there is a virus and the methods of spread are published. So we just take the necessary precautions and hike on!! Hey, not all of us were planning on shelters, hostels, and hanging out in large groups. I was still in. My flight was canceled, but I rented a car!! It was in my driveway and my bag was filled with 12 days at least worth of food, so I would not have to re supply until Fontana, North Carolina. I even packed a mask and gloves for going into town.

But no. It was not to be. Areas of the actual trail THE TRAIL were closed. There were angry protesters in the towns yelling at thru-hikers, not even knowing their intentions. It didn’t matter anymore whether or not I could keep my distance from people. I would have been hated, persecuted, and hounded if I got on the trail. I read and watched blogs and videos of thru-hikers trying to go on. It was horrible, but not because of COVID-19; it was horrible because of Hiker Hatred 2020. I decided to cancel my hike because it was no longer going to be the beneficial, enjoyable journey I had planned. It had turned into a political, medical, social argument that couldn’t be won. I will admit, there is so much that we don’t know because the truth has been filtered. We can no longer believe what we are being told by the government and the media. But, we do have access to logic, compassion, and empathy.

Where are the people I thought would be supportive? Not in the hiking community. For the most part, I have come across hateful, opinionated, angry posts. Those of us who wanted to continue our journeys were thinking we could do it safely based on the information we were given. I felt I could remain six feet from anyone at any time. I had a mask and gloves packed for when I needed to go resupply in towns. I planned on mailing myself resupplies and had packed more than 12 days worth of food in my bear canister.

But the hate. The hatred and bashing was intolerable. I had prepared my mantra—“Please keep six feet away from me for my safety and yours.” That was all I was going to say. I was still going to do this. Yes. I was being selfish because it was MY plan. It was MY money. It was MY training. I was ready because of everything I had done to get ready. So, yes, I was feeling very selfish. Do I feel wrong? No. No, I do not. I feel like I could have done this in the way I would have loved to have done this—the old school way with little support from others or towns. People did this before cell phones, mail drops, and support systems. People did this in nature.

I was looking forward to decreased traffic on the trail, and being more self-reliant. That also failed. I got the notice that multiple areas of the AT were actually being closed, states were prohibiting overnight camping, and enough closures had happened that it would make my journey miserable if not impossible. At the last moment, with my rental car in my driveway, my pack ready to go, my first mail drop sent, and my husband ready to live without me for the next six months, I gave in and canceled my hike.

I spent the next two days in tears. I still have my boxes for resupply packed. I still have my backpack ready to leave and good for at least 12 days. I am not in denial, but am still shocked by the turn of events. Although my company is an essential employer, I was per diem and have no work. I had been working four different jobs to fund my hike, but had notified all of them of my last day, and now have no income. I am turning 50 this year. I am not in my 20s.

“The trail will always be there” is great for the younger folks, but for those of us battling health and financial issues, it is not so comforting. This was my year. I planned, saved, trained, and mentally was ready this year. I can’t just postpone to next year. My point is that although I appreciate all the positive thinking, and words of encouragement, I think we need to acknowledge that there is a population out there that needs to be consoled.

There is a percentage of us that will never get the opportunity to do this again. Cancer, family illnesses, pet illnesses, and financial hardships may make it impossible for us to try again another year. For everyone for whom this strikes a chord, I am sorry. I am so so sorry. I get it. There is no consolation for having to cancel a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

I am not handling this well, myself. I just want all of you to know that it’s OK to feel sorry for yourself, and that you have a friend in this.

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Comments 22

  • Avatar
    Mindi Bennett : Apr 8th

    I’m so sorry the rug was ripped out from under you like this! Thank you for sharing your story and feelings with us. I hope everything falls into place for you to live out this dream hike one day!

    Reply
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      Stephen : Apr 9th

      Gwen, thank you for your post. I just read it to my wife because I too have a lot of those same feelings and emotions. Today is my 60th birthday and for 6 years I have planned on hitting the trail today at Springer for a thru hike. Instead I am sitting at home in Pflugerville TX sad and frustrated. My plan now is to hit the trail when we get the all clear and maybe do half this year and the rest next year. But you know how plans go. We’ll see.

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        Gwen : Apr 9th

        Stephen, Happy Birthday….or Sad Birthday…or I don’t know what to say. It just sucks. I hope to see you out there when we get the all clear!

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          Stephen : Apr 9th

          Thank you Gwen. When I had planned on embracing the suck, this is not what I had in mind.
          Stephen

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      Gwen : Apr 9th

      Thanks Mindi.

      Reply
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    Eric : Apr 9th

    Great post Gwen and thank you for offering up a point of view that uses a thoughtful and critical look at this year’s dilemma. There are still many on the trail that are following CDC guidelines and they deserve and need support and understanding, not vitriol and abuse.

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    Darren : Apr 9th

    I am in the same position and similar age, with my thruhike on hold. This sucks for everyone who had plans dashed, not just hikers. The college graduates, the newlyweds, the new parents, the big move, the new job, the once-in-a-lifetime trip abroad. Not to mention lost jobs and income. And now that we can see it has been an insane overreaction it makes everyone’s sacrifices more difficult to swallow. Some of the hate and holier-than-thou attitude from locals and fellow hikers comes not from fear or concern but from frustration. It’s easier if everyone suffers along with them. It’s not you, it’s them. You’ve done nothing wrong, you took plenty of precautions.

    Be optimistic. Things are changing. Soon it will be socially acceptable in addition to safe to hike. I have just one word for you:

    Flip-flop

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    Carl : Apr 10th

    Kudos to you for a wonderful story on a too few covered topic. All the anger, the comments “I hope you die” for hiking… from people who know nothing is disgusting. In Connecticut the trails have NEVER been fuller. Even on pouring rain days.

    In truth my teenager started his through hike in February. He continues today, and I couldn’t be prouder. He was the subject of vivid hate protests in Hot Springs. 2 trail families have left him. He continues alone. There are VERY few hikers on trail. While it is not the trip he intended and he may / may not continue .. we HAVE found a friend in the USPS and have a room full of Amazon provided supplies. And call ahead to hostels / hotels – many of which are open or will lend a hand – receive a package, etc. And he stealth (sorry – disbursed) camps with shelters closed. The TN A/T is “closed to hikers” but open to turkey hunting and fishing. So you could ask yourself whats the real deal?

    And to the certain AT trail guiding organizations that “closed the trail” for the benefit of the small towns – people have cars they drive from everywhere to everywhere – they all go to the supermarket, Walmart – Home Depot – Lowes. – all that they have really done is vilify and endanger the hikers they could have helped. This hatred of hikers by hikers … well you may have your tube following and gear reviews and beards and look all granola, but your true selves are fear, spite and hate.

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      Gwen : Apr 10th

      Thanks Carl. Keep me posted on how your son is doing. I feel I certainly could have completed the hike, but I have difficulty letting peoples’ angry words go, and I was afraid it would be more trouble than enjoyment. I still have everything packed and ready to go. I will be anxious to hear more about your son’s travels. Please keep in touch if you don’t mind.

      Reply
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    Blanche : Apr 10th

    My husband got through the last 5 years of work looking forward to, planning for, training for, his trip of a lifetime… only he can’t go because of the shelter in place orders which stretch across his entire planned route. As a senior with, unfortunately, a limited number of years ahead of him where he might pull off a trip of this magnitude, the disappointment has been great. And yet he has managed it with much more grace than I think I could. He’s stowed his gear, canceled his reservations, called off the planned meetups that spanned his entire trip, and is staying home, carving out other activities with a cheerfulness that I can’t help but admire. There are others in the outdoor community who’ve seen their trips called.. a woman I admire had a kayak expedition up the coast of Canada to Alaska.. sponsorships, packed, ready to go.. not going.

    As someone who lives in a destination resort area I’ve seen firsthand what you describe as “hate.” What you see from your side seems unreasonable, what we see, from the side of rural areas with limited resources is people using their privilege to ignore shelter in place orders, potentially putting all of us at risk. The reaction hasn’t been pretty, but what you see as “hate,” I see as “rage.” There is a tremendous amount of anger at people who are selfishly putting their own desire to recreate ahead of the needs of the community they are visiting. Yes, the welcome mat has been rolled up, and, as one second home owner described it, is being used to “beat us over the head so we know we’re unwelcome.”

    I see the same anger in stores open because they are “critical businesses” but find themselves selling patio furniture because heaven knows, having a comfortable patio is certainly more important than staying home and protecting the front line clerk.

    I understand this was your dream, and I understand, especially as I’ve watched my husband scrimp, plan, train, for the trip of a lifetime, what a huge disappointment it is to be denied the experience you were looking forward to. But at the end of the day what we are is disappointed. Which isn’t the same thing as living in a rural community with few resources and being expected to share those resources with people who aren’t supposed to be there in the first place.

    I’ve worked in the outdoor industry for four decades and I’ve never been as ashamed of my industry as I am today. We were appallingly slow to turn our resources from trying to sell product to trying to help. We were, and in many cases remain, completely tone deaf, insisting the “next trip” is just around the corner, when many people, people in our industry who have been loyal staff in this industry, are facing illness, the death of friends, and financial ruin. Our ski areas remained open, and spread the virus not only outward, as vacationers headed home, but through communities without the medical facilities to care for them.

    We truly have no business out on trails where we might, at any time, find ourselves needing a rescue unit, diverting resources from where they need to be right now. We have no business hiking into areas under shelter-in-place orders.

    The way we show we love the outdoors, love the areas we hike, love the towns and the trails… is to not be there. That’s how we show the people we depend on for support when we’re out on the trail that we appreciate all they do for us. For now, we stay away.

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      Gwen : Apr 10th

      Thanks for your reply. Your points, are indeed, why I did decide to cancel my trip. I have always been a rule follower, but I also like to research the purpose of the rules. In the absence of data, I err on the side of caution.

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      Eric : Apr 17th

      Blanche you have a unique point of view but I must say your statements lack the aspect of critical thought. This rage you speak of apparently on behalf of all small town residents is misplaced in my opinion. In order for this emotion to be justified one must assume that a visitor to these towns creates a significant additional risk for the people who live there. If these visitors follow CDC guidelines and best practices I believe there is an acceptable level of risk. That is the critical term in these discussions, “acceptable risk.” It’s term we should all become familiar with in order to further our discussions about this virus.

      When we first began dealing with this pandemic the focus was on flattening the curve and the experts advised that 80% of the population would eventually become infected. The message has seemingly morphed into quarantining everyone until the virus is eradicated. That is NOT what we are trying to do. If a vaccine cannot be created, herd immunity is our saving grace. We cannot achieve herd immunity without the herd getting the virus, we just have to make certain we have the resources like hospital beds and perhaps effective treatment to save those that get the most ill.

      I short, being enraged because a visitor is wantonly and recklessly coming into your town is reasonable, getting angry at responsible individuals bringing much needed dollars into that economy is not.

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        Gwen : Apr 18th

        Eric, well said. I also felt a little “attacked” by Blanche’s comment, but wasn’t in the mood to dispute at the time. Again, it is the angry comments such as stating one has “no business being on the trail.” That make my hair stand on end. I don’t think any of us have enough knowledge to be this one sided. I think there are ways to do it right and that is the discussion I would like to hear. Every person in every town goes to the store and has absolutely no idea where all the other people in the store are from. They could be from one’s own town and just as likely (if not more likely) to be carrying the virus. They could be from the next county over which has more cases and deaths than any other county. I think if there are going to be accusations thrown at thru hikers for being a danger to towns, then I would appreciate some statistics to back up the statement. With regard to “herd immunity” I could not agree more with you Eric. I shutter when I see people over sanitizing everything for their babies and young children. The immune system develops in response to bacteria, fungi and viruses. People who live in a bubble and are never exposed to these things are going to become very sick if they leave the bubble. I would love to think that a vaccine and good treatment will be developed, but the truth is we don’t know if and when that will be. Until then, I think we should focus on the things that we do know, and work on educating ourselves and others on how to safely enjoy our parks and trail systems instead of wasting energy getting angry.

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    KJ : Apr 10th

    Thank you, Blanche, for sharing your perspective from both sides of the situation.

    Reply
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    Warren Doyle : Apr 10th

    Just go down to Springer and start hiking north to Katahdin and shut social media off.
    I have seen nobo’s every day in Damascus.
    There is just a new challenge this year “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Hiker” original edition – circa the AT in the 70’s.

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    Mike : Apr 12th

    Warren thanks for your comments! I had the pleasure of distance hiking in the 80s times when solitude was widely accessible and now it has returned. A forgotten part of the experience can now be had w the facilitation of elimination of technology. Imagine an At when new shelters unpublished in guides you got to discover and stay or a time when shelters in heavily used areas like the Shenadoahs were empty even on a Friday or Saturday night. This part of the At that is solitude is lacking today and is very important for some of the personal transformation and transcendence that the fold of Appalachia offers. Take Care 2 Spirits

    Reply
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    Ron : Apr 12th

    Gwen,
    Great article. I can relate. I retired last fall and had planned a thru hike for several years. In mid/March I was 16 days and 250 miles into thru hiking the Arizona Trail. When Covid-19 began to escalate, the Arizona Trail Association recommended that hikers leave the trail. Soon thereafter Grand Canyon National Park followed suit and closed the park. I got off trail, rented a car and drive home to Idaho. I think about Arizona almost every day. To ease my withdrawals I have tested gear in my backyard, gone backpacking on local trails and organized my gear closet. Hopefully I can return to Arizona at some point in the future.

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      Gwen : Apr 15th

      Thanks Ron! I, too am having some fun testing gear and backpacking locally. It’s just not the same, though, is it? I hope we both can eventually fulfill our hiking goals!

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    William Lee Suttle : Apr 14th

    Thanks Gwen for sharing. I am in the beginning stages of planning a thru hike of CDT except my trip is at least 10 to 15 years away. I am 50 now and will retire at some point. I can only say that “when one door closes, another opens”. This might lead you to an even better hike in the future. All of your planning will lead to better planning on your next quest. I know that your goal is in reach. I wish you well in your trek and look forward to hearing of your completion of your goal.

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      Gwen : Apr 15th

      Thanks! I also try to focus on things happening for a reason. I am looking forward to whatever advantage this brings!

      Reply
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    Alex-Michel : Apr 14th

    Wonderful essay… I have been reading a lot of posts for the past month and felt so patronized by people chanting “the trail will always be there”. How can so many thru hiker ignore the reality of thru hiking and the constraints that comes with it? Thank you for this post.

    Reply
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      Gwen : Apr 15th

      You are welcome, and thank you for reading it!

      Reply

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