Fewer than 1,000 thru-hikers each year successfully complete the 2,190 miles stretching from Georgia to Maine that make up the Appalachian Trail (AT). In early March of 2020, scores of hikers descended on Georgia’s Amicalola Falls State Park—the southern terminus of the AT—eager to join those ranks and attempt the popular Northbound journey that they had spent months or even years planning.
But as news of the COVID-19 outbreak spread in the spring, The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), the public-private partnership that maintains the AT, indefinitely, that it would not recognize hikes completed in 2020. Hikers faced tough decisions about whether to stay on, wait it out, or cancel outright. And for the many people and businesses whose lives are enriched by thru-hikers each year, 2020 has proven especially trying. These are a few of their stories.
Contract specialist at the U.S. Army Europe
Calls home: Germany
“When I arrived at the trail on March 16, the ATC volunteer started his introduction speech with: ‘Welcome home.’After moving around every year as a kid, I was searching for home, and thought ‘Wow, this is my place for the next six months.’
The first two days, no one was talking about COVID-19. On the third day, I was passing an intersection where hikers were all sitting at picnic tables. Everyone had their phone in their hands. They showed me the email from the ATC that we have to get off. I was devastated, then scared—I’m in a foreign country in the middle of nowhere. Another hiker was going back to Maine and his mom was coming to pick him up. Here’s this stinky hiker, they don’t know me, and when I asked for a ride, they said no problem. As I was road tripping with them, there were fewer and fewer flights, so I knew the best thing was to go home to Germany. The trail provided this awesome family, my trail angels, who brought me all the way to Newark Liberty International Airport, and I booked a ticket back to Frankfurt. Six months later, I tell myself everything happens for a reason. I don’t know if I’ll try it again, but it was definitely a life experience.”
Bridget Carlson, trail name Nutty Hiker
Writer, photographer, military wife, and admin of the “AT 2020(ish)” Facebook group
Calls home: Central Texas
“I started my thru-hike on February 19 but had to leave briefly for a personal emergency. While I was home, in March, people started hoarding toilet paper. Two days later, I got on a plane. It was totally empty. I got a hotel room in Helen, Ga., and when I walked in there was this mad dash of cleaning. I’m thinking, ‘What in the world?’I had been on a plane for six hours and that’s when the news blew up. Stores were closing early and the shelves were empty. I was having a hard time booking a shuttle to the trailhead and I thought ‘This isn’t going to work.’The next morning I was flying back to Fort Hood.
I have wanted to do the AT since I was a kid. It was three years of planning, gear research, saving money, and getting my family prepared. Then, in an instant, it goes away. The way I get through it is to think of the positives. It doesn’t mean I’m never going to do it. I love it when those who stayed on post pictures, knowing that’s where I would be. I just ask that we don’t judge those hikers who stayed on or got off. Both sides are getting beat up, and it’s not fair.”
CEO, Appalachian Trail Conservancy
Calls home: Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
“In March we convened with other major national scenic trail leaders and organizations. It became clear that thru-hiking was not tenable. When you’re sleeping nose to nose with strangers and sharing privies, the hygiene requirements are not possible. And most of our trail goes through smaller rural communities with limited healthcare services or majority elder populations. By the end of March, we asked thru-hikers to leave if they were on trail, and if they had left, to postpone this year. We’ve stayed firm with that messaging; it was and still is the right message.
There are 3 to 4 million people who access the AT on an annual basis. Of that, there are about 700 to 1,000 who successfully complete a thru-hike. That pilgrimage is part of the special story of the AT. Thru-hikers were very upset with the position we took. But we’re managing this resource for the millions who come through. When we come out with guidance, it’s not to take away from anyone’s immediate enjoyment. We’re asking you to help us protect the AT.”
Owner, The Notch Hostel
Calls home: North Woodstock, N.H.
“I’ve worked nonstop from the minute we closed to reformat our entire booking system. We’re now having to promote the hostel and explain all the things we’re doing differently. Between that, applying for loans, and navigating the unemployment system, it was a lot, but I know my business better now. We were going to have three full-time employees and now we have the equivalent of one. We couldn’t afford to put our shuttle on the road. We’ll be lucky if we break even. Others saw the writing on the wall and closed permanently. It’s so sad.
It’s almost exclusively male hikers this year. It’s interesting to see the clash between the attitudes. [Thru-hikers] are already rebels going against the request of the ATC; there’s kind of an invincibility mindset. People from cities have more concerns about COVID-19 and ask about our sanitation policies and private rooms.
If you choose to hike the trail, add it to your trail etiquette to respect the policies of the businesses where you stay. Mask-wearing is a pain, but those policies are in place so that our staff and guests can stay safe. We cannot survive another shutdown. If anyone got the virus, we would have to shut down, we could go bankrupt, and there would be no place for next year’s hikers to stay.”
Calls home: Duncannon, Pa.
“My son always wanted to do something with the Appalachian Trail to help out the community, and he came up with this idea to open a gear store. We added the hostel this year. Then COVID-19 hit. We lost three months of retail sales.
I feel sad for the hikers because there aren’t as many places to stay or they can’t get things. There used to be at every road crossing. A friend is a senior citizen and has been a trail angel for 35 years. She’s driving because she needs the shuttle money. There was a mother and daughter who didn’t have water, and she drove 25 miles just to take it to them. Another friend has an autoimmune disease. He was scared and said he can’t shuttle hikers.
I just wish people wouldn’t say they heard from the ATC that trail towns did not want hikers. We live by our hiker season. The store and hostel owners talked among ourselves about cleaning, masks, and how to regulate all that.”
Danny Eyerman and Molly McDonald, trail names Sharkboy and Lavagirl
Recent college graduates, choir teachers
Calls home: New Jersey
Danny: “It was like a party at Amicalola. There were 30 people at the first shelter. After day three, it completely emptied out. We stayed on trail for another 10 days but after reaching Franklin, N.C., they had notices posted saying ‘If you go further, there will be repercussions, the trail will be closed, there will be no lodging in town.’That was where we said we have to get off.”
Molly: “I cried almost the whole ride home. Getting to experience 12 days on trail—I did not want to leave.”
Danny: “We were hopeful we could wait it out. When we heard the Smokies reopened in May, we were at Winding Stair Gap within 48 hours. The first day was filled with snow, rain, and hail, but our spirits were so high that it didn’t matter.
The traditional experience is to meet up at shelters, but instead “tramilies”(i.e. trail families) are meeting at hostels. In a normal year, you’d be calling days in advance trying to rent a room, and we don’t have to stress about that. Down South [mask wearing] wasn’t super required—it’s more so up North. The next part of the trail gets tougher, but it’s only going to get more beautiful as we go.”
Molly: “For a month and a half, it was isolated. Once we got to Massachusetts, the trail was much more crowded and we hit [New England] spots in peak tourism season. Everything along the trail reopened, though logistically it was hard on the Presidential Traverse with no options to stay at huts.