My Ultimate Year of Backpacking – A Transcontinental Shift

Back when life was normal, before COVID was a reality, I entered the PCTA lottery hoping to snag a PCT thru-hiking permit.  My number was something miserably high.  A few hours after date assignments started, I watched the little green person make their way across the webpage,  and I got the long-awaited message, “You have less than one minute.”  Well, what I had was a choice of the last few dates that permits are issued which all placed me in the Mojave Desert when it would be full blast summer.  Since I live in Phoenix and understand the reality of hiking at 110 degrees with a cloudless sky, I passed.  I figured I would go back east and do a LASH (long-ass section hike) on the AT as I have already done over 600 miles of it.  Not at all an inferior option in my mind.

COVID Ruins Almost Everything

With COVID, by the middle of March, I was staying home, as in staying home in the house and reading books and trying to find new indoor activities like almost all of us did.  At least I could ride my bike, but backpacking did not feel like an option and was legally not an option in many places.

As COVID became the new normal, many Americans, and that includes me, started to venture to the store for in-store shopping and then, as time dragged by, maybe even for a trip out of town.  By the summer, we went to Pacific Beach in San Diego for some beach social distancing and outdoor and in-room dining.  That is what everyone in Phoenix does every summer to escape the heat. We also made a few trips to Flagstaff with my pod (Eric plus Loren, Jason, and Greg) to ride bikes.  At 7000 feet, Flagstaff is another favorite escape for Phoenicians in the summer.  By October, I was willing to fly back east for a few-weeks-long section hike (is 150 miles a LASH?) on the AT along the North Carolina – Tennessee border (perfect weather and fall colors!). When I got home from that, I was pretty convinced that I could continue to social distance and wear masks when I could not social distance on the AT for a 2021 thru-hike.  It can be done.  Then a few weeks ago the PTCA in conjunction with the National Park Service and National Forest Service and some state and local agencies, announced that the full number of PCT permits would be issued for 2021.

1633 – My New Lucky Number

On January 19th, I anxiously logged onto the PCTA permit page and got into the lobby just in time for the 10:30 random number assignment.  My number, 1633, felt a lot better than whatever I had last year.  I had been told by a hiker trash friend that the average person logs onto the PCTA website for the lottery with 8 different devices.  I do not know if that is accurate or not, but I am taking it as the gospel truth.  Within minutes, I had less than 1000 people ahead of me, so I am guessing that a significant number of logins left their pages, having two or more numbers better than mine.  I was feeling good that I would get a decent date but not fully convinced.  As I sat waiting, I started calculating how many total people get permits at 50/day and attempting to determine how many of the available dates would likely be taken when my turn came.  I’m like that.  I like numbers and any attempt to make waiting and uncertainty more certain always makes me feel better.  If I can’t control it, I can at least pretend like I can, right?

About an hour after logging on, I again watched the green stick figure advance to the end, and I got the one-minute warning.  Much to my surprise, I did not see a single date that was entirely filled when I got my turn to pick a start date.  So, I got my ideal start date which pretty much lines up with the traditional NOBO start of the 3rd weekend in April.

Ticket and Non-Refundable Hotel Fully Paid for Tri-Cities Airport, Blountville, TN

I guess I could skip the AT all together, but I had already planned for an early March start from Roan Mountain, TN, staying at the fantastically hiker-friendly Station at 19E hostel, restaurant, and live music venue (they also have an excellent shuttle service – Roan Mountain Shuttle).  Plus, I have a cousin, Sharon, also an avid AT backpacker and great nature photographer, who lives near Mt. Rogers that I want to visit.  Also, and I have to say this, I love the Appalachian Trail.  I am from back east.  I love the eastern forest.  I love the culture of the AT.  I love moss and fog and rhododendron roots and AYCE dives and even the sometimes menacing AT bears (see my earlier post by clicking here).  I love grits.  I love biscuits.  Hell, I even love The Doyle.  So I decided that I would do 4 to 5 weeks on the AT and then go back to Phoenix and make my way to San Diego and then to Campo.  The AT as a giant shakedown and training for the PCT is about as good as it gets.

COVID Realities

I am an RN and nurse practitioner and have been compliant with COVID recommendations – compliant, not crazy in either direction.  I only decided to fly for my October section hike after reading a lot of research on the risks of flying.  I wear a mask and social distance.  Like most people, I have not seen most of my friends or family for close to a year.  I am fortunate that I did receive both doses of the Pfizer vaccine since I have been a volunteer retired RN who has been administering the COVID vaccine since it was released.  I do not say that to gloat, but it was clearly a major part of my decision-making process for doing a 2021 thru-hike, especially on the PCT.  This year requires special precautions.

So 2021 will clearly a great year for me.  We, Eric and I,  are even considering a backpacking trip after the PCT.  As he likes to say, “Now that we are in our 60s, we need to do this stuff while we can.”

I can, so I am.  Thanks to lucky 1633 for hopefully making 2021 my ultimate year of backpacking!

Photo: “Bingo Balls” by Leo Reynolds is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Comments 4

  • Morgan : Jan 20th

    Congrats David!

    • David Smith : Jan 21st


  • Russ1663 : Jan 21st

    Well done and congratulations. I am well familiar with Mt. Rogers and SW Va. I hope the Covid19 issue doesn’t ruin your trip. If all goes well I will be in a loop from Damascus this summer combining AT from Va/Tenn line to said mountain and Va Creeper Trail. Take care, safe travels

    • David Smith : Jan 21st

      It is a beautiful part of the AT. I have been to Mt. Rogers several times and love it there. Actually, the entire portion of the AT along the NC-TN border up through SW VA is beautiful.


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