Earlier this month, legions of long-distance hikers gathered near the Mexican border and set off on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Then the widening coronavirus crisis dashed their dreams and sent them home — except for some hikers who have defied advice and remain on the trail.
“If you have a sheriff at the checkpoint, we’re going to go home," hiker Micah Romano said Tuesday. "We’re not going to resist. But at this point, it’s all suggestions.”
Romano, 28, and his wife, Joanna Vossahlik, 29, of Vancouver, Wash., are hiking with their 8-month-old daughter Solel. They started March 2 at the Mexican border, aiming to reach the Canadian border in about five months.
They’re near the California mountain town of Idyllwild, having covered more than 150 miles of the route made famous by the Cheryl Strayed memoir and 2014 movie “Wild.” They know they're bucking advice from several leading hiker organizations, which have called for people to stay away from long-distance trails, but they don't think they're doing any harm, and they say they have encountered few other hikers.
There are no solid numbers, but several experts estimated that 100 to 200 “thru-hikers,” as they’re known on the Pacific Crest Trail, remain. The hikers are making their way north through California, Washington and Oregon, sleeping in tents or finding beds in towns along the way as they pass through 26 national forests, seven national parks, five state parks and four national monuments.
Other thru-hikers started as recently as Sunday, as legions of others were returning to civilization. One hiker, who blogs under the name Ron, paused Tuesday in the San Diego County mountain town of Julian, told of a pleasant innkeeper who gave him half a roll of toilet paper. Ron laid out his plans to head out after retrieving new shoes from a box waiting for him at the post office.
Extra on the line
Hikers figure safety into the equation of a long trek, especially if they have a child with them. "Because we do, there’s a little extra on the line," Romano said. "We had to check with ourselves and check with people we respect, like our parents and community members we know. And we have gotten a lot of good feedback.”
On social media, “there’s a been a lot of hate and negativity" over the idea of pressing forward as the country lurches into peril and uncertainty. "We’re both just shocked at how intense it is at this point, just the fear in some people.”
Given what is known about COVID-19, the association said, “It is clear that anyone traveling the PCT and resupplying in communities along the trail represents a serious risk to others on the trail and people in those communities — particularly high-risk individuals for whom the virus could be deadly.”
On Monday, as local, state and national parks throughout the West announced emergency measures, PCTA executive director Liz Bergeron warned hikers near the southern terminus that they could "no longer complete a planned long-distance trip due to public land and facility closures.”
Among the impediments: the closure of Yosemite National Park; a ban on new developed camping permits in Cleveland National Forest; the closure of California state campgrounds; and local conditions that change daily. Tuesday afternoon brought the closure of another popular stop on the PCT route: Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.
U.S. Forest Service Pacific Crest Trail Administrator Beth Boyst has also asked hikers to think twice, citing the Centers for Disease Control's call for people to avoid nonessential travel.
Leaders of groups devoted to the East Coast’s Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail (which follows the Rocky Mountains across New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana) have given hikers the same message in recent days: Stop now. But not everyone has.
Zach Davis, Colorado-based owner and editor in chief of of TheTrek.co, makes much of his living directly and indirectly from hikers on those routes who share blog posts and information. But in recent days, he decided not to post their accounts because “I could potentially put people’s lives at risk.”
It was a tough call, said Davis, who hiked the PCT in 2017. “The logistical hurdles that you have to clear to make a thru-hike happen — it’s honestly tough to fathom unless you’ve gone through it. … A lot of people sell their cars, sell their homes, sell their possessions to fund this.
"You have to flip your life entirely upside down to make something like this work. I’ve talked to a lot of people who don’t have homes to go back to because they were planning on living out of a tent for the next five months.”
Given all that, Davis said, he admires the hikers who have stopped. Although he has some empathy for those still going, Davis thinks they're being selfish.
Like Davis, Scott Wilkinson, director of communications for the Pacific Crest Trail Assn., guesses that there could be 100 to 200 people on the trail.
“Many people think, ‘What better place to be than in the wilderness on a remote mountain trail somewhere?'” Wilkinson said. “But it’s actually a very social undertaking. In a normal year you’re hiking in waves of hundreds of other hikers. … They often camp together. And most hikers don’t carry more than a week’s worth of food, so they’re always going to have to come off the trail to resupply.”
Barney “Scout” Mann and Sandy “Frodo” Mann, a pair of longtime “trail angels” in San Diego who have hosted hundreds of thru-hikers at their home in the last 15 years, aren’t doing it this year — a choice they called “gut-wrenching.”
The couple hosted more than 1,200 hikers last year. This year, they hosted just one family: Micah Romano and his wife and daughter, who arrived ahead of most hikers and before many public land restrictions were announced.
The Manns were surprised to meet hikers with such a young child, especially this year. "These two people had made a considered evaluation of what they were doing," Barney Mann said. "And we were impressed with their equipment.”
Still, on March 15, the Manns put out word that, for public safety reasons, they wouldn’t host any more hikers this year.
Now “we have hundreds of packages people have mailed to our house,” Barney Mann. "These would have been vital trail supplies. Now, when the frustrated hikers drop by to pick up their no-longer-necessary supply, Mann sits 8 feet away on their driveway and listens.
After such an investment of energy, emotion and money, Barney Mann said, “What do you do? What do you do?”
18 months in the planning
Hiker Lauren Roerick, 30, who spent a year and a half on planning, then gave up her apartment and job in Raleigh, N.C., to do the trail, is asking herself that same question.
“I started on March 7, and I was able to do the first 115 miles,” Roerick said Wednesday. “The weather was insane. We were getting snow and rain and wind all over the place.”
Then, as she reached Warner Springs in northern San Diego County, came the PCTA’s postpone-or-cancel email.
She talked with other hikers, including some from Michigan and Norway who kept going, but she decided to bail out. Unlike many others, she had family close. Now she’s at her mother’s place in San Clemente, trying to decide where to go next, holding out hope that in the next month, circumstances might ease.
Every day, Roerick said, “I open my phone, and more people have left the trail.”
Taylor Frint, 22, who just graduated from Western Kentucky University, started March 18. Her second night out, as she settled in with about two dozen other camping thru-hikers at Lake Morena in southern San Diego County, the PCTA’s email went out.
“Probably within 10 minutes, you could see every hiker’s tent light up,” she recalled.
She had been planning the trip for four years, but she left the trail the next day. Now she’s back in Bowling Green, Ky., tracking the hiker debate about the PCT.
“There’s a lot of arguing," Frint said. "It’s not very civil.”
Meanwhile, back the trail near Idyllwild, the hiking is good. "We’re happy,” Romano said. Because they’re carrying a toddler, their backpacks are much heavier than most, and their pace is slow. Stormy weather has forced them to take a “zero” day or two.
“We had some friends who were going to visit, but they got nervous, so we had to make some new arrangements for getting food and supplies,” Romano said. But the recent rains have meant they’ve been able to carry less water, he said.
As for their interaction with others, Romano said, they’re calling ahead ahead and being as safe and respectful as possible. On the trail they are largely alone, he said. And anyone walking in public in a big city is “much more likely to come in contact [with other people] than when you’re walking through a small town like Idyllwild. ... Normally this time of year, there’s got to be 20 hikers in a day. We see one or two at most.”