Coronavirus pandemic disrupts dreams of the Appalachian Trail

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COSBY, Tennessee (AP) – When Alexandra Eagle first mentioned her intention to hike the Appalachian Trail alongside her new husband, her sister told her that she would either be divorced in five months or married for always.

Eagle, 33, and Jonathan Hall, 36, had just left their Brooklyn apartment when they married on March 2, the third anniversary of the blind date that brought them together. They talked about the Appalachian Trail in their first conversation and, when planning a honeymoon, decided to hike.

“It was going to be an epic adventure,” Eagle told The Associated Press.

The couple spent a year researching, training and saving before leaving on the 3,190-kilometer (3,525-kilometer) trip seven days after their marriage. They knew the new coronavirus had spread around the world, but considered themselves lucky to trade Brooklyn for a tent on the runway, especially since New York was restricted to prevent the spread of the virus.

“We always thought that participating in the trial and seeing a dozen people a day was a good position,” said Hall.

As the pandemic unfolds, hikers are faced with the difficult decision to postpone their dreams or ignore the warnings and move on. Like virtually every other entity in the United States, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy began issuing COVID-19 safety tips in March. But the suggestions for social distancing and hand washing quickly changed to prompt all hikers to immediately leave the trail. Shelters and toilets were closed and volunteer programs were interrupted. On Wednesday, the Conservancy and 29 other trail maintenance clubs asked federal officials to close the trail until the end of the month.

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Although more than 3,000 “hikers” set out to hike the length of the trail each year, only about 25% successfully hike from Georgia to Maine, which usually takes about six months.

Eagle and Hall never considered any scenario other than finishing.

They picked up speed by settling in the Great Smoky Mountains along the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. They woke up at sunrise on Clingmans Dome – the highest point on the trail – a view that seemed to sum up exactly what they hoped for from their new adventure.

At the same time, families across the United States have prepared for lockouts as COVID-19 spreads to more people in cities and towns. It would take days before Aigle and Hall had enough mobile phone services to see how bad the crisis had become.

Hiker Kimberly Selvage was 30 minutes from Hot Springs, North Carolina when she called a local inn to confirm her reservation.

“It was like,” Madame, I think you’ve been in the woods for too long; the whole world is shutting down, “she said.

It wasn’t exactly the type of loneliness that Selvage had in mind when she quit her job, rented her house in Las Vegas, and started her hike on February 26.

Selvage, 51, said she was thriving on her own and decided to walk the trail alone, so when murmurs of closings and restrictions started to spread, she was not too worried and continued.

With her two kids at university and her parents gone, the Appalachian Trail was home for the moment, and that’s where she thought it was the safest. Leaving it would mean a cross-country ski route exposing her to many more people than she meets on a hike, she said.

But as more trails closed and communities issued shelter orders on the spot, Selvage decided to throw in the towel for the moment after covering 755 kilometers.

“The closings and the general fear of viruses changed the mood of my hike,” said Selvage, who started the hike, in part, to learn about the culture of trail towns. “I chose to take a break to take full advantage of the experience when it was less controversial.”

Selvage rented an SUV and drove home to Las Vegas. She slept in the back of the car. Now she is renting a room in a friend’s house until the green light is given for the hike. “I still think I was safer on the track,” said Selvage.

For Eagle and Hall, deciding to stay or leave was brutal. The couple struggled day after day as they walked over rocks and waterfalls. They had not yet accepted their choice when they loaded their backpacks into the trunk of a rental car in Tennessee.

“Even now, I don’t know if we’re doing the right thing,” said Eagle in tears.

Their decision came from the small chance that they could catch and spread the virus, something Eagle said she couldn’t live on. Most people with COVID-19 have mild to moderate symptoms, but for others it can cause more serious illness or death.

For now, they will be staying with his parents in Louisiana, which has more than 12,000 confirmed cases.

” Is it better? It’s hard to say, “she said.

They will try to stay in shape while waiting for the light. Hall joked about finding a treadmill sale that he saw online. But as the timeline grows darker with each passing day, he thinks they might say goodbye to TA for good.

His wife disagrees and sees them start again in a few months. Until then, she tries to keep her disappointment in perspective.

“I am just trying to focus on the fact that we are in such a better position than most countries in the world,” she said.

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Follow Sarah Blake Morgan on www.twitter.com/StorytellerSBM

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Follow AP Coronavirus pandemic news at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.



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