Leaving the PCT Because of COVID-19: A Day-by-Day Breakdown
A few weeks ago I decided to quit the PCT because of COVID-19.
It sucks, but I’m one of the lucky ones. I still have a home, a job, and an intact life to return to. Best of all, I’m still young. There’s plenty of time for me to take another shot at thru-hiking the PCT some other year. Not every member of the shattered class of 2020 is so fortunate.
I still hate it, though. At least it’s comforting to know that I’m far from the only person who called off my hike this year. Hundreds of thousands of people, hikers and otherwise, have tabled their plans in the face of this crisis.
Maybe you’re reading this because you canceled your hike, too, and your misery is in need of a little company. Maybe you’re just quarantined and bored as hell, and you happened to click on this post in search of a little distraction.
Either way, I totally get it. This virus sucks for all of us. So wherever you’re coming from, feel free to bask in the warm, cathartic glow of my crushing disappointment for as long as you need to. This is the story of my painfully short PCT thru-hike attempt and the unfolding crisis that doomed it.
It was a picture-perfect start.
Ah, how I now long for the sweet innocence of my first five days on the Pacific Crest Trail. My partner, Lotus, and I had been blessed with early March start dates. We departed Campo back when the world still felt pretty normal and the novel coronavirus was just another distant headline in the news. At the time, it seemed like there wasn’t a force in the world that could stop us from reaching Canada.
My most pressing worry in those days was the shocking discovery that it rains in the desert. A lot. Day in and day out, precipitation was becoming a constant, annoying presence in our lives. Not that I’m complaining about an abundance of rain in the desert, of course. I mean, seriously—that’s just asking for bad trail karma.
Weather notwithstanding, the scenery was glorious. The rain brought out vibrant wildflowers, the heady smell of sagebrush, and, yes, abundant water in the few natural streams we encountered.
With each passing day, I could feel my body growing stronger. The miles were flying by beneath my feet. Everything was going perfectly.
We reached Lake Morena, then Mount Laguna. It was raining (of course) when we passed the town of Julian. We chose to push on to camp rather than prolong our cold, wet misery with an unnecessary town visit; as we left Scissors Crossing, I felt a pang of loss for the delicious slice of Mom’s Pie I knew I was missing.
Then came Warner Springs.
That’s where everything changed.
We’d just passed the 100-mile marker, and I was feeling great. Things were going so well that we might have just grabbed our Warner Springs resupply box and hiked on, were it not for the Big East basketball tournament. Lotus and I are Villanova basketball devotees, and we were going to spend the weekend in town so we could catch all the games.
Sigh. We were so young and innocent back then. We hadn’t checked our phones since Campo, you see. Imagine our surprise when, after five days on the trail, we resurfaced in Warner Springs to find that the world had changed dramatically.
By then, coronavirus was wreaking havoc on the United States and the world at large. The stock market was in free fall. A European travel ban had just gone into effect in the US. All major sporting leagues had canceled their seasons (sorry, Villanova). On social media, hikers were publicly canceling their thru-hikes and calling on others to do the same.
I was nonplussed. Things were far worse than I had realized. Until then, it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that the virus might affect my hike, or that we (hikers) could represent a significant transmission vector for COVID-19. Suddenly, the decision to keep hiking carried a moral weight it hadn’t before.
Doubt crept in.
I was no longer sure what to do. And with my dream on the line, I’ll admit that my judgment was more than a little clouded.
I’m not an epidemiologist or a medical expert, and there’s plenty I don’t understand about the coronavirus. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that it’s shockingly easy to backfill those gaps in my understanding with my own opinions and desires.
For instance: I’d have liked to believe that I wasn’t a carrier, that I couldn’t get sick, and that I couldn’t be responsible if anyone else got sick. That way I could keep on hiking with a clear conscience—right?
My big ethical hang-up was the fact that I had the potential—however large or small—to spread a deadly contagion to isolated communities lacking the resources to fight it. I could never be 100% certain I wasn’t a carrier. With human lives on the line, I wasn’t sure I could live with that uncertainty.
Back home, I learned that my dad, a scientist, was donating all the personal protective equipment in his lab to medical personnel. My brother—also a scientist—gave up his reagents to the effort, and even volunteered to help prepare buffers for COVID-19 testing in his city.
People everywhere were starting to hunker down in quarantine, sacrificing freedoms and comforts in hopes that this virus could be beaten. And hikers who had given up their jobs and homes for a once-in-a-lifetime shot at thru-hiking were backing out without even getting to set foot on the trail.
And what was I doing in the meantime? Dicking around on the PCT like the worst stereotype of a self-centered thru-hiker? That wasn’t who I wanted to be.
Should I quit the PCT because of COVID-19?
I wasn’t sure. Uncertainty swirled in my mind as my partner and I got ready to depart Warner Springs. I imagined a little cartoon angel and demon sitting on either shoulder, bickering constantly about the best course of action.
“Eh, I should probably just play it safe and get off the trail, right?”
“Maybe. But on the other hand, things are going so well! The virus might not even get as far as the PCT! And even if it does, some douchebag tourist from LA is way more likely to be the culprit than I am.”
“That’s a bullshit excuse and you know it, Me! Literally all the advice in the world is to shelter in place.”
“But I really really want to hike!”
“But I have asthma, you asshole! Staying on trail isn’t even in MY best interests.”
And so on, and so forth. I took the demon’s side and hiked on, promising the angel I’d revisit its arguments at a later time. But that nagging voice in my head still persisted… I can’t afford to wait until later to make this decision.
Foul weather would soon provide a distraction from my COVID anxiety.
Days passed, and miles with them. Lotus and I debated the virus on a daily basis. Forty miles out of Warner Springs, we stopped at Paradise Valley Café to gorge on burgers and milkshakes. It was heaven. At least burgers and shakes still made sense in this topsy-turvy world, right?
Days later, restaurants throughout California and the US started closing their dining rooms due to (you guessed it) the virus.
We hadn’t heard about that yet, though. We were now climbing steadily toward Mount San Jacinto. As we neared 8,000 feet elevation, the trail became more challenging. We drank in impressive vistas while pointedly ignoring the vertigo-inducing cliff we were hugging. Deadfall littered the trail from a recent wildfire, and dreaded poodle dog bush lurked around every corner.
Steep, icy patches began to appear as we gained elevation. We slipped and slid across them, lucky to avoid a serious fall. Suddenly, we found ourselves in snow. Lots of it. We tottered along, postholing up to our thighs, only half-aware of where the trail was supposed to be as we picked our way through the endless white.
Miles later, we reached a side trail leading down to Idyllwild. The temperature was dropping fast, and we’d heard that bad weather was on its way. We couldn’t hope to outrun the storm, so we decided to wait it out in the safety of an Airbnb. We turned off the PCT and headed for town.
Next up: three restless rest days in Idyllwild.
One of my favorite things about thru-hiking is how much gratitude it gives me for the simple comforts of civilized life. Once we reached Idyllwild, I reveled in the joys of hot running water, extra blankets, and—best of all—restaurant food (!!).
We ate breakfast at The Red Kettle, where my green chili omelet was to die for. The lady there told us about the switch to takeout-only service, which was going to happen the following day. Most restaurants across the state were making the change, she said. All the excitement with the snow had temporarily driven the virus from my mind, but with her words, my doubts came crowding back in.
We dug in our heels in Idyllwild for three full days while storms raged in the mountains. In the spirit of self-isolation, we mostly kept to ourselves. I found myself glued to the newscast on the little TV in our room. Every story was about the pandemic, and each seemed bleaker than the one before. My doubts were solidifying into something like resolve: it’s wrong to keep hiking… I think.
On our last night in town, I told Lotus I was thinking of quitting. We weren’t on the same page yet, but he wasn’t totally opposed to the idea. We had a long talk and agreed to revisit the subject in Big Bear, our next stop.
Then came our unwitting last hurrah.
Before the snow had even abated, we set out. We would only have a brief weather window before the next round of storms closed in. If we wanted to get past San Jacinto, it was now or never.
It was a long, snowy slog to regain the PCT. We’d chosen to skip the infamous Fuller Ridge in the interest of safety, so once we got back to the trail we began a long, gradual descent toward Cabazon. The snow fell thick and fast most of the morning, but as we lost elevation it turned into frigid rain.
Twenty-two miles later, we called it a night and set up camp. This proved to be a cold, wet, miserable affair. I fumbled with the tent while Lotus made dinner. Eventually, we managed to fumble our way into the tent, where dry clothes and a big, hot, cheesy meal promised to salvage our moods. Our ordeal with the snow was finally in the rearview mirror, and what an adventure it had been!
I didn’t know it then, but that was the very last night we would spend on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The next day we got some bad news.
The morning greeted us with lots of bright, cheerful sunshine. Little yellow flowers carpeted the desert floor, making the whole landscape appear to glow. San Jacinto looked huge, snowy and formidable to the south. I was grateful and proud to have gotten past it. With today’s promise of warm weather, things finally seemed to be looking up.
We packed up triumphantly and made our way down to the road crossing, still absolutely convinced we were pushing on to Big Bear.
As we neared the road, we encountered a pair of day hikers. They had some less-than-awesome news for us. The Pacific Crest Trail Association, which had already gently asked hikers to rethink their PCT plans in light of the pandemic, was now strongly urging us all to quit the PCT because of COVID-19. They had no legal authority to kick people off or cancel permits, but it seemed clear that they would if they could.
We had officially lost PCTA’s blessing.
We also learned that all nonessential businesses, including hotels, were closing throughout California. Our path to Canada grew more tenuous by the day.
In the wake of these revelations, Lotus and I found a sunny place to sit and think. We had another talk about the pandemic. Unlike our conversation in Idyllwild, this discussion was painfully brief. It was now clear to both of us: we needed to stop hiking. The decision came so abruptly that it hardly felt real. Just minutes before, I’d been mentally plotting out our next hundred miles. Were we really going to just quit? Right now?
Yes. Yes, we were.
We bailed out of the frying pan… and into the fire.
Within an hour, we’d caught an Uber to Palm Springs, rented a car, and started driving north. Where would we go? Neither of us knew. We had left our camper van in the care of a trail angel named Amy near Kennedy Meadows; we’d at least start by going back there. We’d expected to spend the next month covering the remaining 500 miles to our van on foot; in the car, it flew by in a matter of hours.
At Amy’s house, we picked up the van without even knocking on the door to say hello. Social norms were out the window now. Violating social distancing rules was the new taboo. Instead, we called her on the phone to say goodbye and express our gratitude one last time.
Once we had returned our rental car and collected “Passion Wagon” (Lotus named our van; don’t judge me), we went grocery shopping. We still didn’t know where we were going next, but we’d certainly need supplies to get there.
We at least knew where we weren’t going: back home. Home is New Jersey for us, and in case you haven’t noticed, it’s currently a red-hot coronavirus dumpster fire. We decided to stay out west for the time being, living off the grid in Passion Wagon until things calmed down.
Anyway, back to the exciting stuff: Walmart. Inside the store, I was suddenly wondering if the virus could be transmitted via food packaging. Until that morning, I’d only really thought about COVID-19 in abstract terms. I’d been obsessing over it, sure, but I hadn’t actually spent much time contemplating the possibility of being infected myself.
It suddenly seemed all too real. After all, I’d already seen more people in the past eight hours than I had in two weeks on the PCT. Were they sick? Were we sick? For lack of a better solution, I made liberal use of hand sanitizer, taking comfort in its reassuring astringency.
So it was that in the space of a single day, I went from slaying miles on the Pacific Crest Trail to Purell-ing grapefruits in a Walmart parking lot. What a difference a day can make.
Fast-forward to post-hike quarantine limbo.
What’s life like after you quit the PCT because of COVID-19? Pretty surreal, mostly. It has a sense of dreamlike unreality that most quarantined people can probably relate to.
Lotus and I are isolating on public lands in Arizona. I have a home and (hopefully) a job to go back to in New Jersey when this all blows over, but since my position is nonessential, there’s no point in rushing back just yet. Like many Americans, my days are filled with Netflix and journaling, Zoom meetings with family and friends, and excessive amounts of chocolate.
I guess I’m more or less at peace with the decision to stop hiking. I’ve stopped checking Facebook for the most part, and that’s helped a lot. It was too painful to see hikers continuing to post from the trail, and the general negativity on the PCT pages wasn’t doing anything for my mood either.
My mind frequently wanders to the Pacific Crest Trail. I often wonder what mile we’d be at now if we were still hiking, and I literally dream about the trail at least a few nights each week.
Sometimes I even pretend I’m still hiking. I close my eyes and imagine the PCT is just a few feet away, rather than a few hundred miles. That I’ll lace up my Altras in the morning and hit the trail like always. All I can hope is that someday I’ll be a thru-hiker again.
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