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.
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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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