The Virus: Tales of a Heartbroken Thru-Hiker

It is with an extremely heavy heart and tear-filled eyes that I announce the postponement of my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike. The last week or so has been one of the hardest, most confusing, most exhausting weeks I have ever endured. I have come up with a plan that is breaking my heart but keeping me hopeful for the next coming weeks and months.

Let’s rewind.

Day 10: Sunday March 15

I was 10 days into hiking this trail that I have been dreaming about for years. My crew and I had pushed our biggest day yet: hiking 24 miles to Paradise Valley Cafe and we were all very excited to get a good meal after such a long day. We walk up to the cafe to see the open sign is not lit, the chairs are up on the tables, and there are no cars in the parking lot or backpacks outside. We felt defeated, angry, sad and exhausted. “What do we do now?” We decided to walk back to the trail and find the very first campsite and call it a night. A little bit of research later from Trip and we found out about the closures happening in California. This is when we first realized this is no longer going to be the trail that we had thought it was going to be, instead it is going to be harder to resupply, hitch into town, most trail angels are no longer going to be available, and this is when the first thoughts of fleeing the trail for some of my trail family set in. We were all in our tents the next morning, taking our time waking up, and conversations about plans for the coming days were echoing between us. The boys were starting to panic. I gave them all a pep talk and told them, “There is absolutely no way that I am going to let a virus smash my dreams of hiking this trail and they shouldn’t either.” It seemed to raise morale for the time being. After we broke camp, we walked back to Paradise Valley Cafe to have a well-deserved breakfast and after asking a few of the locals in the restaurant, we got our hitch into Idyllwild.

Day 11: Monday March 16

After we checked into our cabin at the Idyllwild Inn, we decided to walk around town to see what was going on in the “real world.” What we found was a fully stocked resupply in Nomadventures and the Village Market, the liquor store was still open, and so was the coffee shop. This made us hopeful for all the future trail towns. We got back to our cabin, threw a frozen pizza in the oven, and turned on the news. We all knew what was going on in the world, so the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic was all over every channel didn’t surprise us. We tuned in, listening carefully.

Unintentionally, we were quarantining ourselves. We were waiting out the major storm system that was hitting Idyllwild and San Jacinto on Wednesday and Thursday, with plans to get back on trail on Friday. This plan did not sway with me personally, but to my dismay, it sat differently with some of my crew. I was so eager to get back on a snowy trail and I was still pushing on no matter what.

Things got worse. Big Bear announced that they are no longer welcoming hikers in their town. I knew that this was going to happen. I understand it. I can still do this without spending time in town. I don’t need to rely on hitching into towns to pick up my resupply at the post office, I will just walk. If it takes me an extra day, then so be it but nothing is going to stop me. If I need to take a zero in my tent on the edge of a town, I will do it. Cooped up in our cabin for four days, we were flooded with more and more negativity from the news and social media. It was like a switch flipped in the Facebook groups. People were cruel and mean, things were said to me that I will not repeat even if you asked me to. This was not the group of people I imagined were going to be a part of this trail.

Day 14: Thursday March 19

The PCTA announces that they request all hikers postpone their thru-hikes and get off trail immediately if they have already started. I’m heartbroken, confused, and can’t keep the tears from rolling down my face. I don’t know what to do. I’ve been on the trail since before the outbreak really took off. I am safe out here in the mountains, I am happy, and I am healthy. It makes me scared that I am being forced back to a major metropolitan city where I am 100x more likely to contract this virus. The PCTA is telling us to go home, but my home is across the country and there is absolutely NO WAY I am going to board a plane and fly home to Massachusetts to bring back whatever I have contracted in my travels to my older parent’s (but still rockin’ it) home. I don’t know what to do. I’m confused. I’m sad. I’m angry. I’m pushing on.

Day 15: Friday March 20

Time to hit the trail. I’m making my way up Devils’s Slide Trail and I’m just about to make it to the Saddle Junction before I hear an Australian’s man’s voice behind me yelling, “Hey! Are you a thru-hiker?” I notice his arm is in his jacket and appears to have a sling on it. I ask, “Yes. Are you OK? Do you need help?” He responds, “I’m fine. You need to get off trail immediately.”  A little frightened I continue the conversation to hear what he has to say. He goes on to tell me that he is a member of the PCTA, the USFS and a volunteer of the SAR in the area and he tells me that I have no morals and no ethics if I continue on this hike. He tells me, “The PCTA is going to cancel all permits and that there are rangers in Big Bear with guns that will stop you.” Is this what the world is coming to? Alleged PCTA members following thru-hikers, trying to scare them off the trail? I try not to let it bother me as I continue blazing the trail through the waist-deep powder around San Jacinto but I can’t help breaking down. I’m exhausted, annoyed, and scared. This is when I come up with a plan that will ultimately determine my future for the trail and shatter my heart into a million pieces.

Taking in the beauty of this trail.

Day 16: Saturday March 21

I wake up, freezing, seven miles in from Idyllwild. I cut my previous day short due to physical and mental exhaustion and decided to camp in the snow. One of my trail family members, Burn, is starting up Devil’s Slide today and is hopefully going to catch me. I take my time waking up, eyes swollen from the elevation and the tears, eventually putting on frozen shoes and packing up a tent covered in ice. My goal was to make it below snow line. The day was long and hard following the postholes of people still hiking the trail. Seven and a half hours and 13 miles later, I make it to mile marker 195, where I set up camp. The sun is still shining and I am so grateful to be out there looking upon the mountain I just hiked around earlier that day. Burn eventually shows up around 9 p.m. and we talk about our plans for the trail. This will be my last night in my tent. My plan for the next day was to hike the 14 miles to the I-10 underpass and get picked up by a friend I have who lives in San Diego.

Epic camp spot for my final night on trail.

Unlike many of the hikers still on trail, I am so lucky to have a support system out here. I can’t imagine making such a decision without having the backing of friends from different parts of California. I am planning on staying in Southern California for two weeks to quarantine myself before making the decision to get back on trail or rent a car and drive back to the East Coast or to take a job assignment out here for 13 weeks and waiting to see what the world does. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared as hell to be back in the city but I’m staying positive in hopes that in the next couple of weeks things will get easier for us. My heart may be broken but I’m not giving up just yet.


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Comments 3

  • Bob Bolivar : Mar 24th

    Older parents?. . .

    I’m proud of you Stef! Proud of the planning and dedication you applied to this journey, and proud of the sound decisions you made on the trail.

    • Blaze : Mar 24th

      Ha! Still kickin’ it though! Thanks Dad, hopefully everything will work out.


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