Zeros are supposed to be restful and fun. Sleeping in and lazily shopping for resupply items are the only things on the agenda. Maybe a beer in the afternoon? Unfortunately, I spent yet another zero deep in the Coronavirus vs Appalachian Trail hole. It seems to get darker each time I get in and today was a doozy.
Before we get to the serious stuff let me tell you how charming Damascus is. The town is small and friendly with a beautiful river running through downtown and beautiful bright green fields in the valley. The Virginia Creeper trail runs right through town and it is a terrific place for cycling, hiking, running or just enjoying one of their quaint bed and breakfasts. I booked a sweet room at the Dragonfly Inn and my hosts Patti and Ralph have treated me like family. The side of the family that you like even.
I had Amazon ship me a new pair of shoes and I cleaned all my gear and repacked food for the next 4 days. I also made plans to meet my friends Michele and Craig on Sunday. They are up here traveling through Virginia and are going to hike a few hours with us on the AT.
As I was chilling out on the front porch today, I made the mistake of checking in on the latest with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). They sent a letter yesterday to the Secretary of the Department of the Interior asking the Department to close the trail until April 30. The ATC has issued several letters over the last few weeks as the crisis has unfolded asking hikers to postpone or get off trail. They even issued a notice earlier in the week that they would not recognize any 2020 thru-hikers that continue after the end of March. I expected some guidance from them but I was shocked that they were taking such a drastic move to try to close the trail. Even the shelter in place orders did not try to limit outdoor activities like hiking while social distancing.
I feel strongly that the trail should remain open to provide a safe place for people to retreat to during this pandemic. In my opinion, the trail can and should be used during this stressful time to give people a healthy outlet. Of course, we have to maintain a strict set of behaviors to limit contact with others but shutting down the trail sounds very counterproductive to me. I emailed a letter to the ATC Board and also shared it with the Secretary of the Department of Interior and my Senator. I fully support all of the social distancing recommendations of the ATC and local officials but removing this beautiful resource from the public didn’t make sense to me.
Within 30 minutes of sending the email, I got a text message from the director of advancement from the ATC asking to schedule a call later in the afternoon. I was really impressed and happy for the opportunity to speak with them and we set a time. We spoke for almost an hour and had a really good conversation. They wanted to speak to me in person because they had received a lot of negative comments but they thought my outreach was done in a way that left room for discussion. I learned a lot about the evolution of their thinking and I feel like they heard my concerns. They are trying to balance many different constituencies but my main point was that they also need to consider the benefits to the public of being on trail. We agreed on a lot (and some things not so much 😬) but the conversation was important to me and we left the line of communication open. In the end, I think that is really the most amazing thing about the call. We exchanged complex and emotional topics in a professional manner. Yeah for us!
One thing we did agree on is that for many the trail is not a vacation that can simply be put on hold. I am one of those many. For me, this is opportunity to change my life and rediscover some things about me that I had lost. That is a big deal to me but seems quite silly in the grand scheme of what is going on. But wait, do we really know what the hell is going on? I am lurching from hour to hour from one extreme to the other. One person tells me this is overblown media driven madness. The next tells me that it’s immoral to keep going. The advice is shifting by the minute and we are in deeply uncharted territory. I spent 6 hours today reading in-depth articles on a wide variety of news sources and came out feeling like I was in free fall. Ironically, writing this blog is the most grounding thing I did today. You know this isn’t for you, right?
Jitter also left trail today so that was tough. Her hips were in bad shape the last few days and I think the stress of everything else was weighing on her. I got to meet her husband Mike and dog Appolo today and that was fun. I hope she can get back on trail soon. She is a tough cookie and a great hiking buddy. Our crew will be smaller tomorrow but heading back out and will look to the trail, trees and critters to lift our spirits. Stay healthy and as sane as possible.
It will get better. It will get better. It will get better.