Coronavirus pandemic disrupts Appalachian Trail dreams

COSBY, Tenn. (AP) — When Alexandra Eagle first mentioned plans to hike the entire Appalachian Trail alongside her new husband, her sister told her they’d either be divorced in five months or married forever.

In this March 30, 2020, photo, Alexandra Eagle, left, and Jonathan Hall soak up their last moments hiking the Appalachian Trail in Cosby, Tenn. The couple is postponing the 2,190-mile hike until the coronavirus pandemic ends. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan)
In this March 31, 2020, photo, Damascus, Va., is quieter now that many hikers have postponed their treks up and down the Appalachian Trail due to the coronavirus outbreak. The town relies heavily business from thru-hikers re-supplying and taking a break from the trail. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan)

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

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

The couple spent a year researching, training and saving before setting off on the 2,190-mile (3,525-kilometer) journey seven days after their wedding. They knew about the new coronavirus spreading across the globe but considered themselves lucky to be trading Brooklyn for a tent on the trail, especially as New York fell under restrictions to prevent to the virus’s spread.

In this March 30, 2020, photo, a notice is nailed to a tree along a portion of the Appalachian Trail in Cosby, Tenn. Hikers have been asked to leave the trail immediately as trailheads continue to close due to the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan)

“We always figured that being out on the trial and seeing a dozen people a day was a fine position to be in,” Hall said.

As the pandemic grows, hikers face the difficult decision to postpone their dreams or ignore warnings and forge ahead. Like virtually every other entity in the U.S., the Appalachian Trail Conservancy began issuing COVID-19 safety guidance in March. But social distancing and hand-washing suggestions soon shifted to urging all hikers to leave the trail immediately. Shelters and privies were shut down, and volunteer programs were halted. On Wednesday, the conservancy and 29 other trail-maintaining clubs asked federal officials to close the trail until the end of the month.

In this March 31, 2020, photo,  Kimberly Selvage stops to take a photo along a portion of the Appalachian Trail near Damascus, Va.  The solo hiker hoped to continue her journey but drove home to Las Vegas where she's renting out a room in a friend's home. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan).

Though more than 3,000 “thru-hikers” set out to traverse the length of the trail each year, only about 25% successfully make the hike from Georgia to Maine, which typically takes about six months.

In this March 30, 2020, photo, Alexandra Eagle, right, and Jonathan Hall stand in front of a waterfall on the Appalachian Trail in Cosby, Tenn. The couple planned the to hike from Georgia to Maryland until coronavirus concerns forced them off the trail. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan)

Eagle and Hall never considered any scenario but finishing.

They picked up speed as they moved into the Great Smoky Mountains along the Tennessee-North Carolina border. They woke to sunrise on Clingmans Dome — the trail’s highest point — a view that seemed to sum up exactly what they’d hoped for from their newlywed adventure.

At the same time, families across the U.S. braced for lockdowns as COVID-19 spread through cities and towns claiming more lives. Days would pass before Eagle and Hall had enough cellphone service to see just how dire the crisis had become.

Fellow thru-hiker Kimberly Selvage was 30 minutes from Hot Springs, North Carolina, when she called a local hostel to confirm her reservation.

“He was like, ‘Ma’am, I think you’ve been in the woods too long; the whole world is shutting down,’” she said.

That wasn’t exactly the type of solitude Selvage had in mind when she quit her job, rented out her house in Las Vegas and started her hike on Feb. 26.

Selvage, 51, said she thrives by herself and set out to hike the trail alone, so when whispers of closures and restrictions started to spread, she wasn’t too concerned and pressed on.

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