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OK, New Plan: Leaving the AT Amidst COVID-19 and the ‘What Now?’

It Was All Good Just A Week Ago

Admittedly, I wasn’t in great spirits when I first received the email calling AT thru-hikers off the trail. It was my last day in Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the weather, which had cooperated for the last three days, decided to pay us all back for its temperance. The trails could more accurately be described as streams; I had given up hope of keeping my feet and shoes dry by the end of hour one because the uphill climbs had turned into white-water rafting sessions.

Still, there was much cause for celebration. Exiting the Smokies marks the end of the first leg of the Appalachian Trail. The hostel at the base of the park, Standing Bear, was the final landmark in the first section of Guthook’s Appalachian Trail map series. This would make for just shy of 250 miles in three weeks with no major challenges or complications, which I reasoned boded very well for my chances of completing a thru-hike. I couldn’t quite keep the headspace to appreciate that fact, but I knew that after getting off of the soggy, muddy trail and regrouping at the hostel I would be able to collect myself and smile about the days ahead.

My group consisted of Nahamsha Taylor, Roadrunner, and Skeeter. We had agreed to push big miles to get out of the Smokies that day and were making excellent time. We hiked at our own paces but stayed in proximity enough to bound past and each other at certain points. My hiking partner, Valhalla, was still about a day behind having stayed in town the previous week for medical issues. I had faith that he would catch up to us that night at the Standing Bear Hostel and we would press on to Hot Springs, NC the next day.

All things considered, the last day in the Smokies was tough, but I had resolved to push through and embrace the suck. About 16 miles into the 20 mile day, Roadrunner and I stopped at a spring on the climb down from the last mountain in the Smokies to rest and get water. My phone finally got reception and updated with some texts and emails. I read through them.

I read the email. I re-read it. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had been disconnected from the world in the Smokies; save for some shelter-site rumor milling, the trail community had been silent on the subject of COVID-19.

It’s hard for me to describe the beautiful, desolate loneliness that comes with being 6000ft above and 1700 miles away from your family and knowing that the world might be descending into chaos below you. The Smokies, the tranquil, pristine wilderness that stretched for miles around me in every direction, with wind gusts on its mountain tops and views out into the azure rolling ridgelines, reminded me of what the world must have been like before humans. With this email from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the dream of walking through the ancient earth’s forests was shattered and I was awakened like a gunshot had gone off next to my ear.

What I remember from the remainder of the day consists of scattered vignettes from the exit of the park and the brief hike to the hostel. I speak with Roadrunner about the email and we’re both in disbelief. We analyze the information that we had and discussed its validity. I turn despondent. I call Emily, who says that society in Massachusetts has ground to a halt. We make it to the hostel. I sit in the rain at the only spot on the camp ground that gets Wi-Fi and continue to talk to Emily. She tells me that there are currently 5000 known cases in the US as of today, where a week ago there were 125. She tells me that the WHO has deemed this a pandemic.

Not epidemic. Pandemic.

One final text from Emily reads “Matt, please come home. I’m scared.”

I went through every stage of grieving in a cycle for the remainder of the night. The hikers at the hostel bring their arguments for staying and leaving to bear. I hear the ones that I now identify as fallacious exercises in human bias.

“The flu kills people every year and no one bats an eye!”

“The media is blowing this out of proportion!”

“We’re much safer thru-hiking than heading back to our homes!”

But apart from all of the arguments to stay, one fact still resonated with me. Emily had asked me to come home. She had been present for every effort that I had made in the last three years to make my dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail a reality. She knew the weight of asking me to come home. This alone proved to me that the world was facing something unprecedented. I also reason that the hiking community doesn’t have the proper context to make these calls; we’ve been geographically distal from the chaos for long enough to assume that everything is still just as it was when we went up into the mountains.

And most urgently of all, I reasoned that if this pandemic spreads to rural Appalachia, the medical infrastructure present in the small trail towns would almost certainly be devastated. Staying on the trail made you a direct vector of infection for these towns. I couldn’t reason that it would be ethically sound to continue to hike after that realization.

A fellow hiker, Airtight, makes the argument that will eventually cause me to decide to leave. “There are four scenarios: Stay and things get better is great, but unlikely. Leave and things get better is a slight inconvenience. Leave and things get worse is likely and the best option. Stay and things get worse is catastrophic for you and for the trail towns. In six months, there’s going to be a clear wrong answer, even if there isn’t one right now.”

My decision comes in the form of a reply text to Emily: “I understand you’re scared and wouldn’t ask me to come home without considering how much of an ask that is…. I don’t see the positive outcome if I stay on the trail. It’s gonna get worse and resupplies will be harder and travel restrictions would make it impossible. I have to come home.”

In a whirlwind 24 hours, I make it to Fayetville, NC, get a rental car, drive past every major metropolis on my way up the eastern seaboard, and make it home to Massachusetts just before midnight. When I step into my apartment bearded, smelly, and clad in hiking clothes, I felt like an alien. Emily holds my head in her lap as I sob on the couch. The intense wave of sadness passes over me after some time. I know I made the right choice. I haul my hiking gear into the closet, take a shower, and go to sleep.

I wake up next to Emily in my bed, in my apartment, between my sheets. It’s a new world; both for me, cast out of my dream, and out in civilization, as the world reasons with a global crisis. I make a shot of espresso and take a deep breath.

“Ok, new plan.”

So what now, Husky?

It’s taken me a few days to get back into my previous life. I feel like I left for just long enough to be out of practice, but not long enough to have lost my skillset. After a few days of navigating the new terms of living in a pandemic stricken society, I reasoned that having a set of goals would help stave off the post-trail blues and keep morale high.  

First move- reassemble my desktop build. I had made a promise to myself that I would tear down my desktop setup after submitting my exam report for my final attempt at OSCP so I could be more present during my final weeks of being at home before leaving for the AT. Had I known I’d be home so quickly, I would have probably left it up.

What can I say? Pandemic never made it to my contingency planning list.

After that- sign up for eLearnSecurity Penetration Testing Professional. I had planned to start on PTP following my return from the trail to make sure that I could get time on keyboard following my sabbatical. Now seems like the best possible time for me to knock it out, get back into the craft and continue to hone my skills.

My Kali background- it’s like I never even left the trail.

Next- reexamine my graduate level work. I have some options here and need to do more research, but this is another area that would have been on hold until my return from the trail. Given the time that I have, it’s now a good possibility that I can matriculate into a program to start in the fall.

Finally- stay vigilant. Everything is up in the air right now. As I write this, uncertainty is the unifying through line of humanity. I have reasoned that returning to continue the trail this year is virtually impossible and that it is much more realistic to look at a two year timeline to return and continue the hike. Still, I’m monitoring the situation for signs of improvement daily.

Here they are- scratch handwriting, spelling mistakes, and all.

There are multiple times a day when I have to think to myself “is this really happening?” My ability to focus is all but gone and it feels like I have a dozen bees buzzing around my head at all points of the day. I don’t think I’m doing this particularly well, but I am moving forward. I’m trying to stay attentive, healthy, and happy. I’m hiking laps around my neighborhood and washing my hands, and Emily and I watch out for ourselves and each other.  

My life is not on hold or in stasis. This is my life; it’s not the Trail, and it’s not even what it was four weeks ago, but it’s still mine and I intend to make the absolute best of it.

3 replies on “OK, New Plan: Leaving the AT Amidst COVID-19 and the ‘What Now?’”

Thanks for sharing! This is affecting people in so many different ways. I hadn’t even considered this one. So sorry for what it’s done to your plans, but I think you made the right call…however difficult. The AT ain’t going nowhere!

Liked by 1 person

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