Log In

Reset Password

Hiking through the Pandemic

Editor’s note: Beth Ritter-Guth of Palmerton, known as “Squeak,” is a trail angel, who helps hikers when they come off the Appalachain Trail. Here is a look at the trail in the year of the pandemic.



Covering nearly 2,200 miles, the Appalachian Trail extends from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Baxter State Park’s Mount Katahdin in Maine. Each year, hundreds of hikers sell all their belongings, quit their jobs, leave their families and hike Northbound (NoBo), Southbound (SoBo), or design a “Flip Flop” hike to earn the title of “thru hiker.”

COVID-19 was a game changer, but it didn’t stop hikers from hiking.

The AT Class of 2020, as it is known in the hiking community, has been plagued with the most challenging of scenarios. Many hikers started in Georgia before COVID travel restrictions were in place. They were asked to leave the trail while local hikers were encouraged to get outside. Returning military veterans and others were technically homeless because they had nowhere to go during COVID shutdowns.

International hikers could not get extensions for visas so they had to decide quickly whether to risk hiking or go home before flights were canceled.

Some hikers, despite conflicting messaging from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, continued hiking through closures, receiving backlash from some members of the hiking community and, in some cases, receiving fines.

While the Appalachian Trail, a federal trail, was never officially shut down by the Trump administration, parks, states and local authorities could prevent access for hikers to get on and off the trail to resupply groceries, take showers and do laundry.

The ATC, the organization responsible for coordinating efforts among all 14 states hosting the footpath, came under great scrutiny for inconsistent messaging, claiming authority it did not have, and disregarding the sacrifices made by hikers who had given up all worldly possessions to chase this dream.

Thru hikers

Trail towns relying on the income of pass-through hikers suffered at the loss of revenue because large events like Trail Days, held yearly in rural Damascus, Virginia, were canceled.

Zachary Tucker, known by his trail name of “Free Fall,” 27, of Denver, Colorado, got off the trail in Hot Springs, North Carolina, and worked until the trail began opening up.

Amber “Fixin” Roberts, 22, and her boyfriend, a Navy veteran having served two tours in Afghanistan, James, “Silky” Heese, 29, both of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, got off trail during COVID and had to make the tough decision to leave the trail in Palmerton to flip up to New England so they could finish their hike and get back to Idaho for their fall wedding.

“Wild,” 53, from Waynesboro, had to leave the trail for seven weeks, while Todd, “Buckler” VanLandingham, 46, of Monroe County, Tennessee, and Cory, “Bob the Builder,” 22, of Fairfax, Virginia, had to skip the Smokies to make up the time they missed due to COVID closures.

While this “tramily” (trail family) spent their last days together in Palmerton, hard decisions had to be made about how best to finish the hike.

The biggest frustration, they said, was doing what was right in terms of the pandemic while also recognizing they might never have the chance again to take six months off from life to hike a long trail.

Thru hikers register their hikes with the ATC and are issued special tags to help identify them on the trail. Shortly after the March kickoff in Amicacola Springs, Georgia, the blue 2020 tags were no longer issued after COVID closed the ATC offices at Springer Mountain, Georgia, and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Further, in written communication sent to all ATC members, the leadership said they would not honor any thru hike completed in 2020, but would extend the completion guidelines from one year to two years so those who started could return and finish. So, while the trail was officially open, and local hikers were allowed to hike, thru hikers were told to go home.

When the ATC issued its first plea for long-distance hikers to abandon the trail, there were mixed feelings in the community. Many states had not yet closed access to the trail, and day and weekend hikers were encouraged to get outside in fresh air.

Free Fall said that “when the ATC asked, I didn’t get off right away, but then thought about who I was putting at risk” and ultimately made the decision to pause his hike.

Silky and Fixin, knowing they had limited time to complete this hike, wanted to be “responsible members of society.”

Towns like Hot Springs, North Carolina, issued curfews and barred access to town resources for hikers on the trail while hostels serving the hiking community struggled with the lack of seasonal income. One hiker was fined and had to go to court for hiking in the Shenandoah Mountains.

“Rudi,” an international hiker from the Netherlands in her early 30s, had to make the hard decision to ignore her visa’s expiration date. She said that she knows she “will not be able to return to the States for three years, but the truth is I may never get to ever come back at all, so I must do it now.”

She wished the “ATC would have advocated for international hikers like they have in the past. These visas are hard to get. I couldn’t waste mine.”

Hike yearbook

In every community, there are leaders who rise to the top and become the representatives of the movement. Matthew “Odie” Norman, 37, of Huntsville, Alabama, is the most recognizable figure on the AT.

He is the cultivator and publisher of the annual “Hiker Yearbook” which aims to connect hikers after the trail including thru hikers, section hikers and day hikers.

Odie, who completed his own thru hike after serving in the Navy, in 2015, has published Hiker Yearbooks for both the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.

Because of COVID, he couldn’t produce the CDT book in 2020, but, despite the COVID pandemic and a July Fourth barn fire that destroyed his entire office suite, he is committed to publishing a book for the class of 2020. He drives his iconic 1986 “Hiker Yearbook” converted school bus up and down the East Coast to meet hikers and provide trail magic. When COVID initially shut down the trail, Odie returned to Alabama and encouraged hikers to also get off trail. Once he realized how many hikers couldn’t leave the trail, he returned to assist his trail family.

He, like other trail angels along the corridor, would not give up on those who had sacrificed everything to make this dream happen. Because of this deep love and passion for the trail and all her hikers, Norman has become the spokesperson for the movement, but his message is consistently positive and responsible.

In his messages on Facebook and Instagram, Odie encourages hikers to be trail ambassadors and to follow all social distancing guidelines.

Norman encourages hikers to not give up on the ATC. The ATC, after all, coordinates the maintenance of the trail through local trail clubs like the Allentown Club in this region. He encourages hikers to leave no trace and to respect the wishes of all local authorities on and near the trail.

Norman also encourages local trail angels to continue helping hikers when they can especially in areas where towns have prevented access to resources.

Trail Angels

In the AT community, trail angels provide “trail magic” to hikers. More than any other long trail in the U.S., the AT is known for its generous trail angels providing free hiker feeds, shelter and transportation along the trail. These angels may be former thru hikers, section hikers or people living near the trail who want to help hikers make the 2,200-mile journey.

In Pennsylvania, one notorious trail angel known as “Trail Angel Mary” Parry, of Duncannon, provided aid to hikers when she, herself, was homeless nearly 30 years ago. Now in her 70s, Trail Angel Mary continues to help hikers in need as they pass through her area.

In East Stroudsburg, the Church on the Mountain, for the first time had to shut down its AT hostel for the season. Most of the generous members who provide the weekly “summer feed” on Thursday nights are at high-risk for COVID. As one of the only hostels in this region, they were greatly missed.

In Monroe County, David “Mun” Munson of Stroudsburg provides water caches along the northeast corridor between Delaware Water Gap and Route 309. Twice a week, he refills over 100 water jugs and leaves them for hikers at trailheads in the areas most known for the most difficult rocks and the lack of sustainable water sources on the trail.

Wesley “Respect” Calhoun, left, from Evansville, Indiana, and Andrew “Dancing Dead Bear” Waters from Asheville, North Carolina. Both are fourth-time AT thru hikers. Respect was quarantined in Palmerton for four months. BETH RITTER-GUTH/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Caption to go here...
The Appalachian Trail draws people from all over the country. Some were quarantined earlier this year. TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO