Thru-Hiking the Recession

The upside to being downsized? Having time to hit the nation's long trails.

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We’ll let economists and career counselors dither about whether going for a six-month hike is the most appropriate response to losing your job. Either way, it’s sure to be the most gratifying response.

While no one tracks the reasons thru-hikers hit the trail, anecdotal evidence suggests that the 2009 class of end-to-enders was larger than average, and that the increase came chiefly from unemployed hikers making the most of their forced time off. Exhibit A: The number of northbound hikers on the Appalachian Trail spiked to 1,425, up almost 200 from the previous year. Dave Tarasevich, a ridge runner for Baxter State Park, said that most thru-hikers he’s encountered over the years have been fresh out of college or retired. But in 2009, Tarasevich noticed a jump in the number of middle-aged hikers, and says, “many of them were downsized or outsourced.”

The Pacific Crest Trail also experienced a bump. Brenda Murray, office manager for the PCT Association, says that she had people calling at the last minute, looking for “thru-hiking permits” (there are none) because they had been laid off. “I had never seen that before,” Murray says. Ditto on the Continental Divide Trail. It typically gets only about 20 thru-hikers annually, but Teresa Martinez of the CDT Alliance estimates that the 2009 number increased to at least 50. “In hard economic times, people turn to our natural spaces,” Martinez says. “It’s an inexpensive way to have an adventure.”

Meet some of the lucky/unlucky hikers:

» Kevin Downs, AT: On December 16, 2008, this 36-year-old civil engineer was en route to a job interview (he’d been laid off). At the end of his six-hour drive to the appointment, his prospective employer called to cancel. On the way home, the frustrated Downs made a decision: stop looking for a job and start hiking the Appalachian Trail. “I used to be a big-house, big-car person,” he says, posthike. “After the trail, I’m going to live my life more simply.”

» Maya Kapoor, AT: As a field biologist, Kappor, 30, says job prospects are few because research budgets have dried up. “I wanted to [hike the AT] since I was a kid growing up in Jersey,” she says. “The spirit of generosity that you see on the trail is astounding.”

» Pat Raphael, AT: When his appraisal business shrank from 14 employees to two, 30-year-old Raphael decided to leave his remaining employees in charge and hit the trail. “The backpack, the sleeping bag, and the clothes are the ultimate icebreaker,” he says.

» Jack Haskell, PCT: After losing his job at a food co-op, Haskell, 26, hiked the PCT, and now he plans to knock off the CDT in 2010. “There are so many people searching for jobs,” he says. “Why should I join them if I already have the key to happiness?”

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