But with each step on the Appalachian Trail as it unfolds south from Winding Stair Gap in Macon County, the topsy-turvy world down below fades just a bit. About a mile from the trailhead, the path reaches the ridge, which in this leafless season offers a sweeping view of the valley roads leading to Franklin and the line of mountains rising up from its opposite side. Despite all that’s changed since then, the view looks just as it did last time I saw it, in early November — just with a lot less red and orange.
The COVID-19 pandemic exploded simultaneously with the beginning of thru-hiker season on the A.T., a yearly migration from Springer Mountain, Georgia, north to Mount Katahdin, Maine, in which people the world over seek solace and solitude from a six-month backpacking adventure through the Appalachian Mountains. The solitude part of that equation has been harder to come by in recent years, with thousands of people embarking from Springer Mountain each year and shelter areas — especially in the southern regions of the trail — often drawing dozens of people each night at peak season.
As of March 16, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy had registered 1,229 thru-hikers in Georgia, about 78 more than the same time last year. But hikers say the trail’s been emptying out following the ATC’s March 17 request that all hikers planning a section or thru-hike this year postpone their excursion until the COVID-19 crisis passes. On March 20, the ATC suspended all new registrations. On March 23 — after this story was reported March 19 — it asked day hikers and backpackers alike to stay off the trail until further notice.
‘We still feel the safest out here’
Some hikers have cleared out as a result of the edict. While there is often a significant amount of attrition in the first hundred miles or so, hikers and community members alike say that the drop-off has seemed especially sharp over the past week, likely due to the virus.
But other hikers remain undeterred as they cling to their A.T. dreams.
“We still feel the safest out here,” said Greg Boului, a 32-year-old from Bridgeton, Maine, who goes by the trail name Stone Man. He’s hiking with his girlfriend Cricket Cote, also 32, and their dog Roux, whose trail names are Aura and Kisses, respectively.
“If we start freaking out, we’re going to lose our heads,” Cote. “You have to be really clear-headed out here to know how to survive and what your next step is. We’re just trying not to get swept up in it.”
She paused for a moment.
“Plus, I worked three jobs last year to pay for this, so I’m not just going to give up 100 miles in,” she said. “We worked so hard and saved for so long for this.”
Besides, the two said, they’d already planned a type of hike that seems to make even more sense now that there’s COVID-19 to worry about — as many trail days and as few zero days as possible.
“We’re really serious about being out here,” said Cote. “This is what we came out here to do.”
Eric Daudet was already in the process of transitioning to an off-grid life when the COVID-19 crisis hit. Holly Kays photo
For Eric Daudet, 47, the coronavirus crisis is just confirmation that the Appalachian Trail is exactly the right place to be. The A.T. is just one stop in what he plans to be a new normal of off-the-grid life, something he’d planned long before “social distancing” and “viral load” became common household terms. He moved out of his rented house in Covington, Georgia, got his affairs in order, and hit the trail. He’s planning to walk as far as Tennessee or Virginia and then go on to some other adventure, perhaps the Continental Divide Trail. Really, the main way COVID-19 has affected his plans is by prompting him to carry a heavier pack than he otherwise would — with so many businesses shuttered and grocery store shelves cleared out, resupply opportunities are an open question.
“I didn’t expect to have to pack so heavy,” said Daudet. “It’s killing me.”
Time for trail magic
In addition to resupplies at grocery stores and outposts, thru-hikers rely on kindness and encouragement from “trail angels” to spur them along when the going gets hard. Trail angels have long been a fixture of the A.T., volunteers who station themselves along the trail’s length to offer snacks, drinks, rides to town and even home-cooked meals. Some groups are opting to skip the goodies this year as the pandemic ramps up. The Nantahala Hiking Club, for example, canceled its annual Thru-Hiker Chow-Down and Easter on the Trail events in response to guidance from the ATC.
But others remain unfazed.
“I don’t feel like God would have called me out here to do this if he was going to call me to die,” said Lisa Rogers, 54, who is known as Buttercup on the trail.
Rogers is helping out some 30 hikers, who she met at Springer Mountain when hiking season began. She’d originally contemplated a thru-hike herself but decided against it. God called her to instead be a support for those who are hiking the trail, she said. She outfitted her van with solar power and set it up so that she could live in it full-time for the next six months, and now she spends her days driving along the trail to give her passel of hikers rides to town or meet them with resupply boxes at appointed locations. She’s not scared, she said, but she does clean her van a lot.
Hickory resident Eric Wilson, 66, isn’t letting COVID-19 deter him from his trail angel tradition either. Every year on March 19, he drives to Winding Stair Gap and hands out goodies to passing thru-hikers, commemorating the start date of his own thru-hike back in 1997, when he went by the trail name Lone Chair.
“I didn’t know how well I would be received,” he said. “I didn’t know how many people would show up, but I knew that I had 62 people in one day come here last year, all of them thru hikers. I thought, ‘I’m going to have to plan on that.’ So I planned on having that number of people come through. So far I’ve had only half of it.”
Still, it was only about 2 p.m., and Wilson would remain at his station until dark fell six hours later. He wasn’t ignoring the threat — a bottle of hand sanitizer sat on the hood of his car alongside the clementines and cookies, and he maintained the recommended 6-foot distance throughout the course of the conversation.
One step ahead
For newlyweds Jonathan Hall, 36, and Ali Eagle, 33, COVID-19 has been a shadow that’s stalked them for the past month but has so far failed to catch up. They moved out of their apartment in Brooklyn, New York, on Leap Day and got married March 2. After a two-day mini honeymoon in Vermont, they started packing for the A.T. and stepped off from Springer Mountain on March 9.
“We’ve been one step ahead of the virus,” said Hall.
In more ways than one. The coronavirus pandemic is an economic crisis as well as a public health one, but Hall and Eagle had already prepared to be unemployed for an extended period of time while they hiked the trail, and the worries many thru-hikers have about the availability of resupply points along the trail don’t apply to them. They’d pre-prepared boxes of food and supplies to send to themselves at various post offices along the way, so they’re not relying on grocery stores. Instead, they’re relying on Hall’s parents to be able to get to the post office.
“If the USPS shuts down, then we’re really in trouble,” said Hall.
Off-trail life moves at the speed of internet, and that’s never been so true as during the last couple of weeks, when the news metastasizes into something new and foreign seemingly every hour. Hall and Eagle have been spared that constant influx, but they had to catch up sometime. After about two headlineless weeks, they spent a night at Enota Mountain Retreat in Hiawassee one week into their hike. An employee turned the news on for them, which featured shots of Manhattan’s streets, empty. Those streets were familiar to Hall and Eagle, but the emptiness was shocking, as was the news overall.
“We’re not seeing it hour by hour,” said Hall. “So two weeks’ worth in 15 minutes really blew us away.”
“In 101 Dalmatians there’s that one dog who sits in front of the screen all the time,” said Eagle. “And I felt like that was us with the news.”
Still, once they returned to the trail they found that feeling easy to leave behind.
“It took us half a day walking away from that retreat we stayed at to have it out of our minds. We’re not really thinking about it at all,” said Hall. “Everything just seems normal when you’re not talking about it.”
Quiet in Franklin
But once you leave the trail, that illusion quickly fades. For Rob Gasbarro, co-owner of outfitter Outdoor 76, March and April should be the busiest time of the year. After 100 miles on the trail, thru-hikers flock to Gasbarro’s shop to switch out their boots or buy fuel or get their equipment repaired or just ask for advice about what lies ahead.
“If you were here March 19 last year, I wouldn’t have time to talk to you,” said Gasbarro.
But this year is different. The store was nearly empty of customers. Gasbarro and his dog Heidi had plenty of time to sit on the bench outside the store and talk to The Smoky Mountain News. At the moment, sales figures were pretty close to what they had been at the same point in 2019, but the last week in March together with the first two weeks in April typically comprise a disproportionate amount of Outdoor 76’s revenue for the year.
People are dropping out of the trail, or not starting it at all. In the coming weeks, Gasbarro expects to see sales drop precipitously from the norm for that time of year.
“It hasn’t come to a screeching halt, but if you told me last week that this is what we’d be talking about on Thursday of this week, I would have said you’re crazy,” he said. “That has me concerned about next week. How is next Thursday going to look in comparison to this? Is this the new status quo? Is it only going to get worse? I have no idea.”