The Trail Is Gone and So Am I

March 28 – Some Updates

I wrote most of the post below in Hiawassee during and after my decision to postpone my thru-hike. I have edited and elaborated for clarity since then.

Today, most of my tramily is off the trail. At the moment, I am self-quarantining at home and enjoying books I picked up in Hiawassee. Getting outside is my priority, but it’s difficult to practice social distancing when others are seeking solitude in similar places. As far as thru-hiking, the plan is to figure out how to feasibly find work and save money to hike next year.

March 20

This morning I stepped on my soapbox for a few fellow thru-hikers in a little coffee shop called McLain’s on Main in Hiawassee, Georgia. We are a day’s walk from the North Carolina border, where most of my tramily will be this evening. I am one of the only ones in my tramily who has chosen to postpone because of COVID-19, but I’m far from the only one who has made this decision and is leaving from Hiawassee. Why am I getting off? The reasoning that I gave to the folks in the coffee shop went a little bit like this:

Part of the tram outside McLain’s on Main.

It’s been a week since I’ve started my hike. Access to news, contact with loved ones, and connection to the world in general has been difficult to impossible. As I’ve been in town, the reality of the global pandemic has set in. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy and many other trail associations have asked hikers to postpone their hikes this season. The simple reason is this: thru-hiking is nonessential travel.

Every year, a number of folks decide to leave the trail and start over or continue at a later date. I met many who had already hiked hundreds of miles in previous thru-hike attempts and were starting over. It’s almost a cliche that “the trail isn’t going anywhere.”

White blaze near Tray Gap.

Well, the trail has gone somewhere this year, and I won’t hike until it returns.

The Appalachian Trail may remind you of rugged, untouched wilderness, in the way that vast mountains and forests can make you feel insignificant in the most liberating way. Imagine the complete solitude that nature can offer, the smells of pine and fresh mountain air. The feeling of tired, muddy, sunburned legs, rippling with muscle, your transportation from Georgia to Maine. But this isn’t all the trail is.

Early morning view from Tray Mountain.

Imagining that the thru-hiking experience as a solitary journey is a delusion, a painting without color. The trail is unique because of the community that hikes it, and vibrant thanks to the community that supports it.

I could list all of the barriers to continuation for thru-hikers right now, an appeal to logic. There have been closures and event cancellations, not to mention global chaos and travel restrictions. It’s nearly impossible to not hear about these developments right now as I sit in town. What matters more is this: the trail will always be here for hikers to come back to, but right now, the trail is gone. The trail is gone because so many of the people who make it amazing are gone, and choosing to continue puts so many individuals at risk, a selfish and unfair decision. This is my appeal to ethos and pathos, which I think make a far stronger case.

Words That Broke My Heart

After making this incredibly difficult decision and consulting friends and family multiple times along the way, I finally made the call to my dad to break the news that I was getting off trail. He said, “We all knew you were going to do it, too.”

So many hikers have spent years visualizing, preparing, training, researching, and saving, and so many people believed in me and all of the others who chose to postpone. They still do. This moved me to tears, and had the same effect on the folks who listened to my story in the coffee shop. The man listening, who is about my age, said he hadn’t cried in years and that suddenly it all hit him when I told him about the phone call.

Dinner time at Low Gap.

When the hikers I got to speak to heard all of these reasons why I am postponing my thru-hike, they were forced to consider a side that they had not heard before, and a decision had been made. They asked me to appeal to the rest of their tramily on our way back to the Hiawassee Inn.

Knocking on the Chamber

I was met with dismissive anger when I attempted to explain. Right now, I think folks don’t want to hear the other side. They fear that they’ll be convinced to end their thru-hikes too, or worse, feel guilt about continuing. That’s fair. The thing is, right now the thru-hikers who are choosing to stay on trail are in an echo chamber. The justifications that hikers are using to continue are endless. “I’m safer in the woods.” “I don’t have anything to go home to anyway.” “I’ve given up too much to be out here.” “When I go into towns I’m not going to transmit anything by hanging out in a hotel room and resupplying.” I realized after explaining my choice that one of the biggest reasons for folks staying out is that there exists a willful ignorance that is especially easy to maintain while being “away from the real world.”

How I Arrived at the Decision

After trying to decipher the ATC’s email “recommending” hikers to postpone, I was confused, angry, and exhausted. I pushed on, knowing I needed to reevaluate during my next resupply. After getting to Hiawassee with my tramily and talking logistics for the evening, I had decided to take a nero day and go four miles to the next shelter and reach North Carolina the following day. I made some unsure phone calls, but made it clear I would push on just a bit farther. Besides, I needed to give my friend at home time to prepare in case I needed to be picked up. I woke up to an email from Zach Davis at The Trek asking writers to discontinue writing about their thru-hikes. This was the final nail in my AT 2020 coffin. Once I got this news, it was finally crystal clear where my community stands.

Choosing to postpone here is difficult and complex to say the least. I still identify with and feel connected to my fellow hikers who are pushing on. So many are deciding to continue, and speaking out against that decision feels callous. I’ve loved the AT for over a decade; since I first learned about the trail, since I met my first thru-hiker, since I took my first steps on sections in New Hampshire. However, out of respect for the entire trail community, including other hikers, folks in trail towns, and the organizations that make thru-hiking possible, I know that the right decision is to get off trail. Not because I don’t want to thru-hike, but because I do more than anything, and I want the trail community to remain unharmed in the process.

Lunch at Gooch Mountain Shelter.

Homeward Bound

I was lucky enough to meet another thru-hiker, Rogue, who was headed back home to New England. Rogue is about my age, but had given up significantly more than I had to pursue this hike. She quit a good job, moved out of a home, said goodbye to her dog, and left people behind to get a chance to reevaluate her life. I, on the other hand, had left a seasonal job as a ski instructor at the end of the ski season and had a perfect window post-college to complete my hike, with little to no arrangements to make. What we have overwhelmingly in common is that both of us were going home to a very different world with far less time to figure out what we need next.

The drive was torture. We had just made a life-altering decision instead of pursuing the journey of a lifetime. Everything felt wrong. Going home to no job and no plan, after adjusting to walking every day and being blissfully disconnected, is one of the hardest things to wrap our heads around. To numb myself enough to survive the drive, I turned to my pair of white headphones and melancholy melodies. My knees ached from pulling my legs close to my chest, looking as small as I felt. I was a trapped animal, ripped from my home and thrown into a cage.

Rogue relocating a moth from the sidewalk.

So What’s Next?

I spoke to the woman who owns the coffee shop about what is to come for her business. She says that after attempts at offering takeout options, she will likely need to close for the time being. A new resupply and gear shop next door, Trailful, is in their first year of business and is likely going to take an even harder hit. If you’re interested in helping raise money for small businesses, check out how The Trek is trying to help here.

It breaks my heart to know that trail towns will suffer as a result of this pandemic. I hope more than anything that in the coming years they can recover, in terms of health, finance, and spirit. For now, all we can do is support our local communities from home.

Hanging out with Trailful’s vintage VW bus.

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Comments 18

  • Avatar
    DWm Vitt : Mar 31st

    As a weekend Backpacker old enough to be your grandfather it looks to me like you found the insight to life in a week that others take months of trekking to obtain; while many never do. It is always easier to be happy while on a vacation from real life which is what one is doing when Thru Hiking. All that COVID19 has done is show you that “reality still matters” and the earlier you learn that the easier your life will be!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      DWm Vitt : Mar 31st

      P.S. The key now is to return to Maine and not just fall into a SAD (Standard American Dream) Career. Now that you have experienced the joy of Thru Hiking your goal needs to be finding at least happiness in your daily real post-College career which you can supplement with joyful weekends Backpacking. Good luck & continued trekking!

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Anna Kulinski : Apr 1st

        Thank you so much, I love your insight!

        Reply
  • Avatar
    Adrienne : Mar 31st

    Thanks for sharing your experience. We met briefly on the trail, and I made the decision to end my hike on March 19. I’m staying with my parents now, and still processing what has happened. Like you, my plan is to find work and hopefully save enough to hike next year. Take care, and here’s hoping the trail is there for us in 2021. Maybe we will meet again!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anna Kulinski : Apr 1st

      Hey Adrienne, proud of you for making the right decision! Some days are definitely harder than others, but I wish you luck and health. Hopefully we can reconnect for next year!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Nikki : Mar 31st

    This is beautifully said. So many emotions go into making the decision to hike the whole thing and a lot more go into admitting it’s not the right time. I’m with you all the way and maybe I’ll see you on the trail when it’s safe again. ✊

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anna Kulinski : Apr 1st

      Thank you very much! I hope to see you on trail as well!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    thetentman : Mar 31st

    Great article and nicely put. You made the right decision. Good luck. Cheers!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    NightHiker : Apr 1st

    So tired of all the ones that are whining & crying about this virus. Why is it always the excuse for either not finishing something, or not doing something? I don’t care what anyone says, if I wanna go on AT, I will, if I wanna go on BMT,I’m going to. Nobody & I DO mean NOBODY, is gonna to tell me I can’t go hiking & enjoy myself. Better have national guard positioned every 5-10miles on trails to stop me( cause know not enough rangers to patrol all trails) & someone better be good tracker, cause I’m a stealth camper/hiker, & I can vanish in the wilderness. So, all Yu that are using the virus as yur excuse, SUCK IT UP BUTTERCUP, & GET A LIFE. Noone can force Yu to just stay home bound 24/7, so get out & do yur hikes

    Reply
    • Avatar
      elephant man : Apr 1st

      Your an idiot…self centered and totally out of touch with reality, hiding in the woods away from civilization is a good place for you!,,

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Adrian : Apr 1st

      Anna is obviously heart broken about cutting her thru-hike short and you accuse her of “making excuses”? That is so rude! The reason COVID19 has caused many to cancel their thru hikes is in order to protect the great people who live along and support the AT. You see, the problem isn’t in the woods or how well you can avoid shelters and stealth camp, it’s all the time in between. Every few days an AT Thru-hiker will take public transit or hitchhike to a new town in order to resupply or spend the night but someone as young as Anna can be unknowingly carrying the virus with them leaving it at hostels, grocery stores, their hitch’s car, and post offices. Additionally, many of these towns don’t have easy access to a hospital, wouldn’t have outside visitors at all if it weren’t for the AT, and have large elderly population. To thru hike now is to risk the lives of others.

      And if the safety of others isn’t enough reason to postpone a thru hike then let me say this: experiencing the Appalachian Trail during a pandemic would be a fraction of what it truly is, stick to day hikes so you don’t miss out.

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Don : Apr 1st

      Stop being a privileged kunt.

      – Everybody

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Eddie Bear : Apr 1st

      Very sad to hear your perspective. And, yes, it’s much easier to think only of ourselves, and what we want to do, and and have the arrogance that we will please ourselves no matter what, or who it hurts.

      But, please don’t put down other hikers, who are looking at the bigger picture. Hikers that are much more concerned about the hiking community, the fellow hikers, and all the people who support the trail community.

      And, while you obviously can’t understand this team, community, spirit, you have no right to belittle and criticize those that want to support, and work together, for the good of all humankind, and not just for their own immediate gratification!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Narney : Apr 1st

    Yeah, really sucks.A lot of planning goes into a thru hike. My hike starts early March 2021. I would ask the thru hikers who lost out this 2019 season to keep in mind that others have been training for a 2021 trek. Just saying.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Barney : Apr 1st

    Yeah, really sucks.A lot of planning goes into a thru hike. My hike starts early March 2021. I would ask the thru hikers who lost out this 2019 season to keep in mind that others have been training for a 2021 trek. Just saying.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Michael Doyle : Apr 3rd

    I must have been right behind you. I got off trail and into Hiawassee on Monday 3/23. In just those 3 days, the tide had really begun to turn. Businesses really started shutting down. I think later that same day, the Gov of GA ordered all bars, nightclubs, etc. to close. My tram & I were told we were likely some of the last to enter the Kountry Kitchen (and dined alone far far away from the 7 other people in the place). What pushed me over the edge was learning about how healthcare resources in these small towns could rapidly be decimated by an unintentional, yet possible, transmission of the virus from someone like me. Haiwassee has 912 permanent residents & a regional hospital with 13 – 13! – beds. No way was I going to possibly kill someone…not for a trail…no way.

    My heart was crushed since I am one of the many who saved, quit a job, and set out on this adventure. However, I immediately secured a one-way rental ($58.31 to Hartford, thanks Hertz!), and told my tramily. There were six of us, and immediately we were divided on what to do. Not in a belligerent way, but still, I mourned the too-quick arrival of devisive feelings…a microcosm of the wave cresting over us. Two of us decided to leave…two decided to go for another week and wait and see…and two decided to try as much as they reasonably could. I was so overwhelmingly sad. Sad to get off the trail. Sad to say goodbye to my friends, and sad that they made the choice to keep going.

    Too much sad to go around. Now the hiking community is changed & I argue that the injuries may heal, but the scars will not fade so readily. I just gotta do my part. Be safe, be kind & hike on. ~5 O’clock.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anna Kulinski : Apr 4th

      Hey 5 O’Clock!

      It does hurt so much to split up a tram, especially when some kept going. I feel that pain and the sadness of watching others continue their thru hikes. I’m so glad to hear from people like you that are going through the same thing, it makes this feel a little less painful and lonely. I didn’t mention in the article but in the day that I was waiting to be picked up a few friends and I walked to the hospital and one of us asked about the facility and their COVID-19 testing capabilities and the reality was really hard to sit with. I hope that you are able to get back out on trail some day and that you’re staying safe and sane. 🙂

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Boomerang : May 11th

    Still on the AT. In VA. Started 3/22.
    I think you guys were looking for a reason to quit. Just my opinion.

    Reply

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