It's Sad To Cancel A Thru-Hike Due To COVID—But Chaos Is Part Of Thru-Hiking
My bedroom is covered in half-filled resupply boxes for my thru-hike as I scroll through an endless stream of news updates about social distancing and quarantine orders. Every time I walk past the boxes, I tell myself I'll pack it all away later, still too heartbroken to begin the process of undoing months of planning.
When I finished the Pacific Crest Trail last August, I had no home, no job, and no plan for the future. So when a friend from PCT asked me to join her on a southbound thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail next year, the choice was easy. I knew we were a great team and couldn't pass up the chance to spend a summer hiking with one of my favorite people, traversing mountain ranges and deserts.
I spent the winter diving headfirst into research and planning. I got a job waiting tables and took every shift I could, moving in with my mom to save on rent and bills. I made resupply spreadsheets, patched and cleaned my gear and scouted REI sales for trail runners and new socks. I trained every chance I got, spending my days off walking from one side of Seattle to the other, jogging up and down stairways. I missed trail life like an absent friend, but I was getting used to spending winters hibernating, waiting for the snow to melt. I spent time with my mom, my friends, and my cats, trying to soak up all the tiny pleasures you can only find in the front country. I knew I'd be back in the wilderness soon enough.
As the days grew longer and the flowers began to bloom, I started stocking up on resupply food, trying to spread the purchases out over the next few months. I assembled boxes and labeled them with town names and the number of days needed, lining them up and carefully portioning out Ziplock bags of ramen and mac and cheese. Over time, I began to hear more and more about COVID-19, first in China then throughout the world. I assumed it would fade from the news in a few weeks, and continued my planning full steam, still blissfully unaware.
Then, the first COVID-19 death in the US was reported in Kings County, Washington, on the last day of February. The streets of Seattle were emptied overnight, and a feeling of doom descended upon the city. On a group hike out to a frozen lake the next weekend, the virus was on all our minds, but we still passed around a flask of hot chocolate and Baileys without a second thought. By mid-March, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and Continental Divide Trail Coalition had all asked section and thru-hikers to postpone their hikes.
I grieved for all the northbound hikers canceling their plans and heading home, friends who had ended leases, quit jobs and sold off their furniture. But my mid-June start date was still three months away, and I couldn't imagine the regulations lasting more than a few weeks, maybe a couple of months at the most. We still had so much time. It would be fine.
My singular focus on preparing for the trail shifted to constantly checking my news app, reading everything I could about the virus and its effects throughout the world as governors and mayors issued stay at home orders. Terms like "social distancing," "self-isolation," and "PPE" became part of our daily vocabulary as I found myself on the phone with friends I hadn't talked to in months, reaching out for some kind of connection in the void of anxiety and fear. The realization that my southbound hike would not be possible until next year happened slowly—an undercurrent of fear that all at once overtook my meticulous preparations, wiping everything away.
This is not the first long-distance hike I've had to bail on, and I doubt it'll be the last. Over my years exploring the backcountry, I've turned back because of tendonitis, blisters, flooded rivers, snowstorms, and even an infected wisdom tooth. And now, a pandemic.
When you have to give up on your hike due to outside elements, that loss of control is absolutely humbling, and it never gets easier. But at the end of the day, it's also the essence of long-distance hiking. You can spend years pouring over maps and trip reports, researching gear and resupply towns, ensuring no stone is left unturned. But there is always an element of chaos that can wipe all that preparation away in the blink of an eye.
I still haven't packed up that resupply food. The boxes are still lined up by mile marker, patiently waiting to be filled. And they will be.
Just not this summer.