This originally appeared in The Trek.
I have been trying to get back to the Appalachian Trail for years. The last time I camped overnight on the trail was in August 2000, when I did a five-day trail maintenance trip in Massachusetts, near Mt. Everett. Four years after that I moved to Texas and although I planned a thru-hike of the AT in 2018 it didn’t pan out. I hadn’t thought about much of anything except politics that year, so when 2019 came around I was not prepared for a long-distance hike. Then it was 2020. Enough said.
Last year I traveled a great deal, including two long road trips, one to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for a conference, and another to the ALDHA Gathering, held last year in Williamstown, Massachusetts. After the Gathering, I was supposed to spend a couple of days on the AT but I hurt my back and was forced to painfully drive home instead.
I made sure, however, that I at least planted my feet on the AT before I went home. On the trip to Pennsylvania, I discovered the Blue Ridge Parkway and its overlooks, where you can pull off the road, park, and gasp at the view. The mountains seemed to never end. I even saw clouds climbing mountains.
On my trip back from Massachusetts, I stopped at the Punchbowl Mountain overlook, not realizing until I saw a white blaze that this was one of several places where the Blue Ridge and the AT intersect.
My back was aching but I decided to hike as far as I could. I didn’t make it far, but I made it to this point and was reminded of how beautiful the world is from the Appalachian Trail.
I was enchanted. Bewitched. Entranced. I took photos of white lichen on the rocks and white blazes on the trees.
There is something unique about the Appalachian Trail, whether its length or its generous vistas or the culture that has been forged on its path. I confess that I think a lot about that day on the Blue Ridge Parkway and fantasize about being back there. I’m sure my desire to be there is heightened by the restrictions of the COVID-19 epidemic. I long for many things that are out of reach right now.
Although I had some hope that I could, I won’t be thru-hiking next year.
I hope to do a long section in August or September, depending on what route I decide on. And of course, it all depends on the virus. I attended a presentation via Zoom last week that was organized by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and covered alternative routes to hike the trail. I learned during that session that the ATC will continue to discourage distance hikes until there is a universally available vaccine. They have even suspended their 2000 miler program until they deem it safe to hike.
That’s fine with me. In my opinion, it’s my responsibility – as someone who has the luxury of working from home – to keep myself from getting infected and thus being infectious. Too many people believe in what’s essentially a magical idea – that we have passed a threshold in which the virus is no longer such a big deal and they can move ahead with life as it was.
That is false, and dangerously so. It is worse now, and made worse by people who traveled for Thanksgiving. Look at the stats. The numbers are absolutely staggering. I won’t be a part of increasing my own risk of catching it and transmitting it. That’s just good citizenship, and I care about that.
Hopefully, by fall of 2021, there will be a vaccine, the risk will be lower, and it will be easy to hike on the AT, or anywhere for that matter. Hopefully, by then I will have walked or hiked off my pandemic weight, and I will be able to spend a month or so in a section of trail near my family’s home.
Will my Punchbowl dream come true?
Arguably, that depends on people like you – if you wear a mask, avoid crowds, limit the number of people you meet with at one time, get tested, and quarantine after travel or exposure to infected or possibly infected people. Do all of those and we should see it end sooner than if we don’t follow this guidance. As of this writing, nearly 300,000 people have died of COVID in the U.S. How many more will die before we all get the chance to do the things we love without fear and with confidence?
Remember what that felt like?