The AT Thru-Hiker’s Decision: Get Back on Trail or Call it Quits

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, hundreds of long-distance hikers paused their trips on the Appalachian Trail and headed home. Now, as states begin the process of reopening, the wisdom of getting back on the path is up for debate.
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Gretchen Pardon

Gretchen Pardon on the Appalachian Trail, before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted her hike.

Gretchen Pardon was one month and more than 270 miles into her Appalachian Trail thru-hike when she realized she had to leave the trail.

It was March 23, less than two weeks after the World Health Organization had officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, when she walked into the city of Hot Springs, NC expecting to take a break in town, see her husband and then get back on trail. But something was off.

“It was a ghost town. I mean no one was there,” Pardon said. “A few hikers were coming into town to resupply, but everything was closed. That made me go: ‘Oh, I don’t know about this.’”

While she was in Hot Springs, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy sent out their third announcement related to COVID-19 asking everyone—thru-hikers, section hikers and day hikers alike—to get off the trail. In that moment the 46-year-old Tennessean realized just how serious the situation was.

Calling time on her hike wasn’t a decision Pardon took lightly: it went against the mindset she had cultivated on her hike, the one that pushed her through tough mornings putting on frozen jackets and trudging through snowy weather.

“I think that anyone who wants to complete a thru-hike needs to have that determination, that drive that says ‘I’m not giving up,’” Pardon said. “That says ‘I’m not going to let something break me.’”

A pandemic is an obstacle that no thru-hiker could have ever prepared for, however. According to the ATC, more than 3,000 people begin thru-hike attempts in an average year, many of them starting from Georgia between March and April. By fluke of timing, the beginning of the 2020 season corresponded with the explosion of coronavirus through the United States. When the ATC asked thru-hikers to put a pause on their treks, reactions were varied. While some ignored warnings and stayed on trail, most either left or postponed their planned start dates. Now, as parks begin to reopen and states eliminate stay-at-home orders, hikers are considering their options for a thru-hike in 2020. Some, like Pardon, are already back on trail.

When Pardon left Amicalola Lodge on Feb 20 to start her thru-hike, there was just one confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in the United States. Nine days later, the first confirmed US death from COVID-19 would occur.

She remembers thinking about the virus as an international issue, something that existed far away in Italy and China. As she crawled northward on the trail, however, it was becoming America’s problem, too. The pandemic declaration came on March 11. Two days later, the White House declared a national emergency. It was later that week, on March 17, that the ATC put out their first announcement asking thru-hikers to leave the trail.

Sandra Marra, president of the ATC, said that after the national emergency declaration she had to think about how the pandemic would affect the thru-hikers. While many hikers believed they would be safer on the trail than in civilization, Marra had a different perspective.

“People are like sardines in the shelters at night,” Marra said. While she recognizes that the trail serves as an escape for many, she said it’s also a place that physically connects people. In addition, people come off trail to stop in small towns throughout the Appalachians, where an outbreak could quickly overcome strained rural health systems.

“They could act as vectors, moving the virus through the East Coast, if they were carrying it,” Marra said.

The final call to ask thru-hikers to step off the trail came after ATC officials met with their counterparts at the Pacific Crest Trail Association and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, as well as stakeholders from the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service, community leaders from trail towns, and former CDC employees. After discussing their options, the way forward was clear.

The towns along the Appalachian Trail have keenly felt the impacts of the interrupted hiking season. After the ATC’s announcement in late March, Georganna Seamon, co-owner of Mountain Crossings, got a flurry of phone calls from thru-hikers asking if they were open, if the trail was open, if they should continue their thru-hike. Seamon, whose North Georgia shop depends heavily on revenue from thru-hikers, saw a decline in customers after the first week of March.

“March and April are our bread and butter, our busy season, it’s what keeps us going,” Seamon said. “So I’m sitting heavy on a bunch of cold winter sleeping bags and cold weather gear that I’m not going to sell again until next year, and by next year it could be outdated.”

Like many businesses along the trail corridor, Mountain Crossing’s financial future depends heavily on a successful reopening of the Appalachian Trail. In recent weeks, that reopening has slowly begun, piece by piece, as federal, state, and local agencies begin to investigate their options for getting back to a “new normal.”

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, closed since March 24, began a tiered process of opening main roads and hikes on May 9. Hot Springs, where Pardon exited her hike, began the ‘Safer At Home’ Phase 2 on Friday, May 22, reopening stores and restaurants on a limited basis and allowing visitors to the town’s Welcome Center on weekends. These are the kind of signs Pardon said that she was looking for while considering when to get back on trail.

Life off the trail was tough for Pardon: After saving money, selling an estimated 80 percent of her belongings and quitting her job, losing an entire thru-hiking season to COVID would have been a financial and logistical challenge. She couldn’t return to her old job for six months, and it would have been difficult to land a new job when she would only be there for a half a year. While at home, she was using the resources that she would have been using on her hike.

“All I want to do is go hike,” Pardon said. “I mean, that’s all I think about. For a whole year, I purposefully planned to do this.”

Over the past few months, she talked with roughly 20 to 30 people who are headed back to the trail, most of them with a plan to flip-flop hike the AT. On May 24, she got back on trail where she left off at Hot Springs, and plans to finish her hike this year.

Not everyone is ready to get on the AT just yet. Laura Hunt, a 51-year-old hiker from Pennsylvania, will start her thru-hike next month.

Hunt initially postponed her thru-hike to March 2021. She and her family remained healthy, but like many, they felt the ripple effects of the pandemic. Hunt's daughter had to postpone her wedding and faced the possibility of losing her job. But when Hunt heard from friends who had been thru-hiking since before the pandemic that things seemed fine on trail, she decided to keep to her 2020 plan. In three weeks, she’ll join her friends at Delaware Gap, finish at the summit of Mount Katahdin and then return to the southern section, which she hopes to finish by 2021.

Ernest Anerson, on the other hand, doesn’t believe he’ll be able to finish his AT thru-hike. He retired from GE Aviation in February and started his Appalachian Trail hike on March 1. On March 17, he was at Fontana Dam, 166 miles into his trip, when North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper ordered restaurants and bars to close.

“I was the last person at the resort to sit and dine in the restaurant,” Anderson said. “After I left they closed.”

That was the moment when he realized just how severe things had become. He called his wife from Fontana and told her that it looked like Hot Springs would be his last stop. On the final section of his hike to Hot Springs, Anderson felt like he finally got his trail legs, just in time to leave.

“I think the idea of a thru-hike is over for me,” Anderson said. “There’s so much logistical help involved. It’s not just me, it’s my wife, my children, my grandchildren who are supporting me.”

Anderson spent the last year physically and mentally preparing for the hike. He may pursue future section-hikes of the AT, but his thru-hiking plans are over.

One remaining question mark for Pardon is whether the ATC will officially recognize her thru-hike. Marra says that after weighing the question, the ATC ultimately decided that they won’t recognize thru-hikes unless they start after the ATC gives the go-ahead.

“At this point there’s over 100 shelters closed, three states have a recommended 14-day quarantine, stay-at-home orders are still active and some trail facilities and trailheads may not be open to public use,” Marra said. “Until all of that changes we don’t see how folks can undertake a significant long-distance hike on the AT.”

Regardless, some will try. Pardon says that there is a split in the thru-hiking community about the wisdom of getting back on trail right now.

“I can see both sides of it, which makes it tough for me,” Pardon said. “But I spent the last six years dreaming about this and spent over a year planning and saving. Not going just seems worse than taking that chance and going out there.”

This time, though, she’s packing the new outdoors necessities: antibacterial soap and a mask.