Appalachian Trail thru-hikers step into conflict on their journey from Georgia to Maine

Though the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has asked all through-hikers to leave the trail, a small group has continued their journey, on foot, from Georgia to Maine. Here Henry Wilber, 22, of Atlanta, steps back from the edge of McAfee Knob in Virginia. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRY WILBER
Though the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has asked all through-hikers to leave the trail, a small group has continued their journey, on foot, from Georgia to Maine. Here Henry Wilber, 22, of Atlanta, steps back from the edge of McAfee Knob in Virginia. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRY WILBER

Thru-hikers can’t avoid COVID-19 concerns.

Like many young people planning a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, from its southern terminus in Georgia to its northern end in Maine, Henry Wilber expected an idyllic experience.

Instead, he found trouble. After two weeks on the trail he discovered that the coronavirus crisis, which had transformed life in urban and rural America, had also reached out into the wilderness.

By mid-March, as concerns about the virus began to peak, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the non-profit that manages the 2,190-mile trail, began cautioning hikers to stay home.

Wilber, 22, of Brookhaven, called “Fonzie” on the trail, was well into his journey by then, but still attached to social media by way of his cell phone. What he read on Facebook pages devoted to the AT was disheartening. “It had become toxic,” he said recently, from a rest stop in Harpers Ferry, 800 miles up the trail.

The hikers who had gone home criticized the hikers who stayed on the trail as selfish oafs. “They started calling us narcissistic biological terrorists,” he said. “I deleted Facebook immediately.”

In regular times the thru-hiker community is a fractious but close-knit society, marked by independence and solidarity. They plan their journeys for months, quit their jobs, give up their apartments, and set out together in what they call the “bubble,” a crowd of perhaps 3,000 who make their way from Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin (or vice versa), sharing stories and campfires at the end of each day. They christen each other with “trail names” and make new lifelong friends. Maybe a third of that group completes the trip.

Cassidy “Nova” Bridges (left), 22, of Gainesville, began hiking north on the Appalachian Trail alone but soon encountered a group of like-minded hikers who have stayed together for hundreds of miles, including Brandon “Blue Jeans” Bingaman (center), 30, of West Virginia, and Gary “Mango” Morrison, 50, of Pennsylvania. CONTRIBUTED: CASSIDY BRIDGES
Cassidy “Nova” Bridges (left), 22, of Gainesville, began hiking north on the Appalachian Trail alone but soon encountered a group of like-minded hikers who have stayed together for hundreds of miles, including Brandon “Blue Jeans” Bingaman (center), 30, of West Virginia, and Gary “Mango” Morrison, 50, of Pennsylvania. CONTRIBUTED: CASSIDY BRIDGES

This season the crowd dispersed. Perhaps 150 souls are still on the trail, and their experience is drastically different. Most hostels are closed. Trail Days, a festival that usually attracts thousands of AT hikers each May to Damascus, Virginia, “the friendliest town on the trail,” was canceled.

Many access points to the trail were closed, as were privies and other facilities. Volunteer “ridge runners,” who usually help maintain the trail and help hikers in need, were called home.

The measures were necessary to protect the health of hikers, said Sandra Marra, president and CEO of the conservancy. “Just because you’re outside doesn’t mean you are safe. Most of the people who pass through these campsites will sit at the picnic tables, use the privies, sleep in the shelters.”

Cassidy "Nova" Bridges pasues on her hike from Georgia to Maine at the former border between the North and the South. CONTRIBUTED: CASSIDY BRIDGES
Cassidy "Nova" Bridges pasues on her hike from Georgia to Maine at the former border between the North and the South. CONTRIBUTED: CASSIDY BRIDGES

She is also concerned that AT enthusiasts might bring contagion to the small towns that line the trail, where hikers stop to resupply with Spam, instant noodles and gummy bears. “I think that ‘shelter in place’ continues to be the best scientific-based guidance,” she said.

Cassidy “Nova” Bridges, 22, who started from Springer Mountain Feb. 1, said she’s not quitting. “I’m very stubborn,” said the Gainesville native, speaking by phone from a rest stop in Pennsylvania. “We are wearing masks. We’re getting off trails to maintain distance. We’re taking the same precautions as everyone else. I feel like I’m not doing any harm.”

Though Bridges started out alone, she soon became part of a temporary family of four, a group that has been more or less together for 600 miles. They include Brandon “Blue Jeans” Bingaman, 30, of Delray, West Virginia, a Marine who was deployed twice and who doesn’t like being told what to do.

“If you’re not sick, there shouldn’t be any problem,” he said. That attitude has history. Bingaman pointed out that major trail figures, like Grandma Gatewood and Earl Shaffer, “were rugged people; they were rebellious.”

Yet, Wilber doesn’t see the truculent attitude that is being ascribed to his group, nor has he encountered anything but kindness along the way. “We were told people were yelling and being hostile, like we were going to be greeted by Army tanks, but when we got to Damascus, we were greeted by a little girl bringing us muffins.”

Some hikers have limited choices. Michael “Bender” Harkness, 23, was in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park when he learned that most flights back to his native England were grounded.

Going home would mean living in a tent in the garden outside his parents’ house since he wouldn’t be able to go inside. (His mother has an underlying health condition.) Also, strangely enough, Cumbria, his neighborhood in northwest England, is a hot spot, where some towns have almost four times the infection rate of the country as a whole. “Their advice was to stay here,” he said. “I don’t feel morally disgusting.”

The resulting experience for the remnant who remain on the trail is slightly surreal.

Henry “Fonzie” Wilber helps Michael “Bender” Harkness celebrate his birthday with a special treat at a shelter on the Appalachian Trail. Wilber, Harkness and three other companions all met on the trail and coalesced into an impromptu family. They are currently in Pennsylvania, still hiking north. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRY WILBER
Henry “Fonzie” Wilber helps Michael “Bender” Harkness celebrate his birthday with a special treat at a shelter on the Appalachian Trail. Wilber, Harkness and three other companions all met on the trail and coalesced into an impromptu family. They are currently in Pennsylvania, still hiking north. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRY WILBER

Instead of the congenial party of fellow hikers, they will go days without seeing another soul. No one wants to pick them up hitch-hiking into town when they hike off the trail to resupply, but then again, they don’t want to ride in strange cars anyway. (Often they will ride happily in the bed of a pickup truck.)

Trail magic, the usually commonplace AT miracle that produced a sub sandwich and two light beers on Wilber’s birthday, is rare; trail “angels” don’t want to interact with the hikers.

On the other hand, there is no competition for shelters or campsites. “It’s wonderful, I’m not going to lie,” said Bridges.

Their progress will be problematic. Though most of the trail itself is open, sections are closed. The shelters in the Smokies are closed, and the Park Service isn’t issuing any tenting permits. Similarly, up in Maine at the northern terminus, officials at Baxter State Park are forbidding hiking above treeline and all camping, according to Marra, which makes it effectively impossible to reach that sign at the top of Katahdin.

But the strictures meant to ward off the COVID-19 pandemic are loosening, which is bringing more day-hikers and even thru-hikers back to the trail. Things may change by the time August rolls around, which is when this group hopes to be in Maine.

Said Harkness, “I guess, you accept that times are strange, and we’re doing something especially strange in strange times.”

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