Thru-Hiking in the Time of Coronavirus

In an alternate timeline, I’d find myself bathing deep in the restorative forests of Japan’s Kii Peninsula at this very moment. Later on, I’d slip into a steamy beer onsen (yes, you read that correctly) at the Misugi Resort, then spend an afternoon cycling through a series of remote villages, stopping only to slurp the requisite amount of soba noodles. Afterwards, I’d venture south via train through a bucket list landscape draped in cherry blossoms to backpack one of the most classic routes along the Kumano Kodō, a patchwork of lush mountain pilgrimages. In a few days’ time, I’d decamp to the remote Yoshino Cedar House, a stunning testament to both design and community, before setting off to race a half-marathon in Kyoto, with some joyous trail running to follow in Tokyo’s serene outskirts.

Instead, here in horrible now of this novel coronavirus, I’m social distancing in my small studio apartment in Los Angeles, sippin’ on whisky, listening to the rain, and nurturing a fair amount of loneliness. Trip cancelled. Dreams dashed. And psych a bit deflated, if I’m being honest.

So I understand why thru-hikers are heartbroken that they’re being asked by organizations like the Pacific Crest Trail Association and Appalachian Trail Conservancy to postpone or cancel their upcoming hikes, and leave the trail if they’ve already begun. I’d been planning my trip to Japan for several months; for many long trail hikers, the wheels have been in motion for a year or longer. Securing permits. Saving money. Buying gear. Quitting jobs. Selling belongings. Ending leases. Uprooting lives. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime proposition for many, and an incredibly hard blow to watch your efforts and aspirations so suddenly spin into dust.

But here’s the deal—instead of the oft-repeated thru-hiker refrain of “hike your own hike,” a call for individualism and self-reliance if there ever was, the truth is that now, we’re all in it together. It’s time to push pause for the greater good.

As evidenced by posts on trail-related Facebook pages and other forms of social media, plenty of folks are heeding the call to make camp at home. But it’s disturbing to see the surprising number of hikers—both literal and armchair—determined to stay the course, medical science, government orders, and public health be damned.

A common argument I’ve read is that the trail offers solitude, and is a great place to practice what has been dubbed “social distancing,” the idea that we need to stay at least 6’ away from others to avoid spreading the virus. While this may be true on remote segments of long trails, it’s certainly not the case as you near trailheads, where unprecedented congestion has caused parks and trail systems around the country to shut down. And it’s definitely not possible in shelters, campsites, and hostels, where hikers—not the most hygienic folks to begin with—bed down in close quarters.

Even if you’re able to avoid traffic on trail, there’s still the matter of resupply. Normally, hikers might stock up in small towns near the trail, or have someone back home ship pre-packed boxes full of goodies via post offices, hostels, or trail angels along their route. But small towns are asking visitors to stay away. Grocery options in these areas are already limited, even more so now. Hospital beds are similarly rare; much-needed ventilators, doubly so. In places like California, where all non-essential businesses have shuttered and the public has been ordered to stay at home, lodging is closed and the likelihood of catching a hitch from the trailhead is greatly diminished. And many of the trail angels who traditionally host hikers are older folks, placing them at high risk should they contract the virus. Think you couldn’t possibly place them in danger because you don’t think you’re sick? Well, you don’t actually know if you’re sick unless you’ve been tested; asymptomatic carriers are common.

We’re in uncharted territory. For many of us, the trail offers a sense of solace, a place for connection, a balm for the soul, an opportunity to escape—and I’m sure a lot of us could use a hefty dose of each of those right now. It is okay to mourn that loss. But staying home is the right thing to do. It’s an act of love—for the trail, for your fellow hikers, for the communities you would pass through, and for yourself. And that love is exactly the kind of thing we should be spreading around right now.

Top photo: Tony Webster

To read the author’s excellent guide to the Southern California section of the PCT, grab her book, here.



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