PCT Dream Deferred

My PCT start date is next Tuesday, March 24. I canceled my permit this morning. If you’re on the precipice of the same decision or currently on trail, I hope you will read this. 

I’ve dreamed of hiking the PCT for a long time. I started saving for a thru-hike in 2017. I’ve been dialing in my gear for the past two years. I thru-hiked the Tahoe Rim Trail in 2018 and hiked long portions of the John Muir Trail and the Oregon Coast Trail in 2019. I quit my job of seven years and said goodbye to all my colleagues. 

Despite all that, here are the three main reasons why I will not be hiking the PCT as planned this year. 

Unexpected contact with people is unavoidable during a thru-hike.

Social distancing: easy on a day hike, not so much on a thru-hike.

At first glance, the trail seems like an excellent place to self-isolate. It’s true that everyone can hike alone, but no one can thru-hike alone. We thru-hikers often rely on the idiom that “the trail provides.” Don’t forget that the trail, in that sense, is its people. Despite being healthy and conditioned for a long-distance hike in 2017, I injured my leg on the TRT and required urgent care. I didn’t plan to interact with a bus full of people, the staff at the urgent care facility, the physician assistant, an Uber driver, and hotel staff that day, but they were there when I needed them. Relying on the same type of help to sustain a thru-hike during this pandemic feels selfish and unethical at a time when health care and other service providers will be taxed beyond their limits. 

No matter how much you’ve planned, how many resupply packages you’ve sent, or how many zeroes you eliminate, you are probably underestimating the number of people you will have contact with during a long-distance hike. You are probably also overestimating your ability to reason when you are hurting, wet, cold, and/or exhausted, all of which are typical conditions on any given day during a long-distance hike. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, every thru-hike needlessly puts vulnerable people at risk. People like my mom and dad.

Me and my dad on my wedding day in 2014.

My mom and dad live in a small town along the AT. Based on the guidance from the World Health Organization about older people and people with pre-existing medical conditions, they are both at high risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. The same is true for many of their neighbors. Avoiding nonessential travel to help keep everyone healthy and cared for is way more important than the heartbreak of postponing a trip. A thru-hike is, indisputably, nonessential travel.

The economy in trail towns will suffer without the usual influx of thru-hikers, yes. Absolutely. It will suffer everywhere. We know that now. But we can work on that problem in a different way while avoiding the immediate problem of continuing to put vulnerable people at risk of serious illness (or worse). Like triage in an emergency room, we have to address the public health emergency first and then deal with other urgent issues. This is not a zero-sum game. Prioritizing people’s health now does not mean that we can’t help mitigate the critical economic fallout that will follow. I’ve seen the long-distance hiking community rally around people in need before, and I believe that we will do it again. 

Is your thru-hike important enough for you to risk the health of others? Is it important enough for you to risk their lives? Are you using economic impact as an excuse to get to your desired outcome? I can’t answer those questions for you. But I beg you to consider all the people like my mom and dad who live along whatever trail you’re planning to hike or have begun to hike this year. You have the power to postpone your trip to help keep them safe. 

In extraordinary times, we must act before we know all the answers.

Gratuitous photo of the best snowshoeing guide on Mount Hood.

COVID-19 is still very much an abstraction for the vast majority of us. We can’t see it like we can see other barriers to completing the trail, like wildfires or last year’s massive Sierra snowpack. No one knows what the next few months will bring. But we do know the virus is here, now, and we all have a responsibility to mitigate its effects, even when it comes at great personal disappointment. 

Up to now, many of us told ourselves over and over that the time will likely never feel “right,” and the conditions will never be perfect, but we are still committed to the trail no matter what. It’s hard to let that go. Very hard. The sunk-cost fallacy is real, and it isn’t easy to overcome. For those of you already on trail, I understand the additional concerns of traveling back home on top of the heartbreak that comes with postponing the remainder of your hike. But in unprecedented times, we must adapt our thinking for the benefit of the greater good.

We’re in this together.

My husband and me at the summit of Wheeler Peak in Nevada.

I anticipate comments on this post that are similar to dozens (hundreds?) of others I’ve read in the past week. People will tell me to stop shaming others for being on trail during the pandemic. People will say I’m overreacting. The word “fearmongering” will be used. Go ahead. Call me out. However, I believe we owe it to each other to be agents of positive change at a time when the whole world is facing so much unknown. Class of 2020, we need to hold each other accountable right now, and we can do it from a place of love—both our love for one another and our shared love of these incredible trails and life-changing experiences.  

Give yourself and others grace as we all grapple with this decision. If your start date is ahead, there’s nothing wrong with waiting until the last minute to make a decision. Stay hopeful. Go for a day hike and contemplate. Ask yourself the hard questions. And when the moment for decision arrives, please do what is right. 

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Comments 7

  • Avatar
    Jaclyn Easton : Mar 19th

    Stephanie, my husband and I have also been planning our hike since 2017. This year was supposed to be our first thru hike. We’ve been categorizing all decisions as “pre” and “post” PCT. I feel like the decision to cancel our thru hike has been a slow burn since Monday this week. It is crazy how much things have changed in just a few days. I appreciate your perspective. You have summed up all the things I have been feeling. I agree with you that at this point, we have to make decisions that have more to do with the greater good and less to do with our own ambitions. It sucks, but hurting other people sucks a lot more.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Bryce Maki : Mar 19th

    You have a brilliant perspective. Wishing you all the best and I hope to see y’all on trail in the future!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Sarah Otey : Mar 19th

    Proud to know you, my friend.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Brad R : Mar 19th

    You’re perspective is exquisite. Keep your head up. And above all else….don’t worry. I’m wearing.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Brad R : Mar 19th

      Your. And you know how much it’s killing me that I can’t delete that comment and everyone can see it 🙂

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Lance A Goehring : Mar 19th

    Lovely writing, Stephanie. I’ve been sickened by what I’ve been reading on the PCT 2020 Facebook page by those either on the trail or intending to charge ahead. Honestly, they need shamed and you are right to deliver it. They are not what the hiker aesthetic is truly about and they embarrass themselves. Even worse, they endanger others.

    I haven’t “officially” cancelled my hike yet, just because my date is April 29. While I wish for a world where everything will be good and settled by then, I know in my heart that there is little chance of that. I will come to the same painful decision as you. But, life will go on, the world will recover, and the trail will be there next year. And, hopefully, it will be occupied by kinder, more appreciative souls.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Buzzhoops : Mar 20th

    We’re now being told by the authorities to avoid pct.
    Does that mean day hikes too?
    So much space, sunshine. Keeping distance should not be a problem on day hikes.

    Reply

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