Our Toxic Conversations, Not Coronavirus, Will Destroy the Hiking Community
My husband isn’t a hiker, so I am always telling him about the hiking community. I share with him how friendly hikers are and how much they care for other people on the trail. After the coronavirus epidemic hit, I watched in shock as this beautiful community imploded. Instead of helping and supporting each other when we needed it the most, the community tore itself apart.
When the coronavirus first hit the United States, the thru-hiking community was concerned. People, myself included, were wondering how this virus would affect their hike and questioning whether they should still go. The conversation was civil and supportive. Everything was so uncertain, but we were all in it together.
As the virus epidemic escalated in mid-March, the PCTA, CDTC, and ATC asked people to postpone their hikes. That’s when the community fractured. The vast majority of thru-hikers announced they were canceling their trek, but some vowed to continue no matter what. Things on Facebook, YouTube, and in the forums got ugly fast.
Those who postponed their hike shared their decisions publicly, citing concerns about spreading the virus, and obeying the requests of the associations that oversee the trails. Instead of support, those hikers doing the right thing were vilified by the “I’m hiking no matter what” group.
Those who still wanted to hike responded with a cavalier “I don’t care, I’m going to hike anyway” attitude. They were brazen about their intent to hike and boldly defended their reasons to hike even in the face of opposing statements from the Park Service, the ATC, and others.
Eventually, both the “staying at home” camp and the “I’m hiking” group got vicious with each other. Some of the “staying at home” camp resorted to finger-wagging, scorn, and name-calling when the “I’m hiking” group refused to give up their hiking ambitions. Conversations got heated. It wasn’t pretty.
Admins Respond by Closing Down Groups
Facebook group admins also were caught up in this discussion, and it was terrible for them. They tried to keep their groups civil, but it was impossible. Group moderators were overwhelmed with post removal requests, complaints, and even threats, especially from those who still wanted to hike. They were treated like traitors for siding with the “stay home” group.
Their only recourse was to close the group and send the message to everyone that they need to get off the trail and go home. And this experience isn’t limited to thru-hiking forums, even my smaller, local hiking groups are removing all COVID-19 conversations and threatening to limit posts by allowing only approved posts to be published.
How to Repair This Brokenness
Hikers need to come together during this time and support each other. Those who chose to postpone their hike or leave the trail in mid-hike should share their stories. Be an example for others to follow. When on-trail hikers see high-profile people like Darwin cut his hike short or members of their tramily decide to leave, it will make it easier for them to make the same decision.
We need to help people get off the trail and support them when they do. I love what the ATC’s Sandra Marra said to The Trek in a recent interview.
We need to “really start celebrating those folks that have, in fact, made those sacrifices to get on the trail and then have made the further sacrifice to come back home. I think that’s a really important message. I feel like right now, a lot of people are just kind of focused on what people are doing wrong, and I think we really need to start celebrating that so many people are doing the right thing.”
Many trail angels and hostels, some of whom have shut down regular service, are offering rides and camping space so people can get off the trail and travel home. Recognize these folks and remember their names so you can thank them personally when we do get to thru-hike again. When the last remaining hikers finally realize the severity of the situation and come off the trail, put aside your previous differences and offer them thanks instead of “I told you so.”
Lastly, we need to move on and put this toxicity behind us. Yes, some of the Class of 2020 groups have been shuttered, but the 2021 and 2022 groups are going strong. Join these groups, get back into the conversation, and be kind to one another. We’re all in this together.
Those who are on the fence about thru-hiking right now, please postpone your hike. Not only are you going against the recommendations of the significant hiking associations, but in some places, you will be violating local orders to shelter in place. It will be next to impossible to complete a thru-hike under the current circumstances and it doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.
If you refuse to stop thru-hiking, please don’t share your hike on Facebook groups and forum posts. You know it will cause a backlash and further split the hiking community. Just don’t do it.
Feature image via Maggie Slepian
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