Appalachian Trail, April 12, 2020 — The Appalachian Trail is closed to thru hiking with no camping or facility use allowed now on any federally owned land and in multiple states.
People everywhere, who are in effect under house arrest, have been paroled by governmental authorities to do just two things – go to the grocery store and exercise. Tens of thousands naturally swarmed the hiking trails, especially the signature locations – the ones that make every top ten list.
This is McAfee Knob, near Salem, VA. It is probably the most iconic spot on the AT. Imagine this space mobbed with 150 people instead of the 13 in this photo. The flash mobs happened here and nearly every other popular hiking trail and overlook along the trail.
Annapolis Rock is another tiny beauty spot that is often overcrowded, especially in a time of safe social distance.
Ultimately hikers were unable to maintain safe social distance forcing the Appalachian Trail Conservancy which manages the trail for the National Park Service, and the National Park Service AT office, to ask for and receive permission to close federally owned land.
At nearly the same time, the national parks through which the AT passes closed themselves to the public for the same reason.
As all of this unfolded, most thru hikers took heed and suspended their hikes, their life-long dreams dashed like glass bottles thrown on the rocks.
Thru hiking is not a casual endeavor. Many take years to save enough money, buy their gear and find six months they can spend on the trail.
To have it unexpectedly end for reasons far beyond their control is a personal tragedy. Many will never get another chance. Others will resort to section hikes over many years. The lucky ones will rebound next year for a second crack.
A few hikers are pressing on in spite of warnings that they may help spread the virus, in spite of learning that some of the small rural towns aren’t welcoming them, knowing full well that medical care in rural Appalachia is barely available on a good day, and in spite of ATC policy not to record them as thru hikers.
These hikers been criticized as selfish and self-centered. Some may be. But thru hiking isn’t a mean feat. It’s more like an Olympic class athletic event. The hike itself has to be the most important goal in your life at that time with a focus that cuts steel like a laser. It is do or die. For someone in that state of mind, it has to be hard to throw in the towel.
There also are international hikers who, for a raft of reasons, can’t get home until their visas expire. Rural transportation networks are rickety with reduced service. Some want to shelter in town “until this blows over.” They plan to continue when the AT and national parks reopen to the public.
Normally by now, the caretaker’s tent is pitched on the platform and there’s a tarp over the picnic table. This year it’s possible that may never happen. Depending on circumstances, it might not happen next year either.
If you left the trail, there’s good news and bad news.
In the good news category, your gear will still be good next year and for years to come.
You now have an idea what a thru hike is all about, especially those who made it a few hundred miles.
You probably still have the bulk of the money you saved for your hike.
You can stay in physical condition and even get stronger. You’ve got a much better idea of what it takes.
The bad news is finding the time a second year in a row.
Worse, with the economy in suspended animation, far too many may have problems finding work. They may have to burn through their AT nest egg just to survive.
The trail infrastructure is likely to drastically change. Hostels are fragile businesses with thin margins. They needed the cash from this season to make it through next winter.
Me. I’d take it one step, one day, one week, one month at a time. We will eventually hike on.