Enjoying a cheeseburger and onion rings at Hansen’s Grill in Blue Ridge, Georgia, I glanced at the news headlines on my phone and immediately wished that I had not. COVID-19 was beginning to rear its ugly head in the United States and the stock market had taken a tumble.
I quickly put away my phone and longed to be back on the trail, back off the grid or, more appropriately, “above the grid” at the Len Foote Hike Inn. My wife, Gena, and I had hiked out from the Inn that morning, after spending an amazing 24 hours at this wonderful backcountry lodge that I described in my article a few weeks ago.
However, what I didn’t mention was one of the aspects that I have always found special about hiking on the Appalachian Trail – the people. I know at some point during my hikes on the AT that I will encounter someone that does not fit the amazing category, however, for now, that has not happened.
During our first afternoon at the inn, Gena and I were relaxing in Adirondack chairs, enjoying the 40 mile views from the observation point at the back of the inn, when we were joined by another couple. We introduced ourselves and when I asked where they were from, I could only smile when they responded, “Brandon, MS.”
As I have mentioned before, on my first hiking trip on the AT I met a couple from Mississippi. Now making my third trek on the trail, I had met someone from my home state two of the three times. Obviously, Mississippians love hiking the AT!
Tommy and Dinah Moss were at Len Foote for the first time, too, however, as we would find out, these avid hikers were no strangers to backcountry lodges. Over dinner that night, Tommy and Dinah shared stories from their backcountry stays at such places as the LeConte Lodge which rests high atop Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
We enjoyed breaking bread with the Mosses and hearing their stories. The well-traveled couple loves hiking and camping and based on their recommendations, we added several destinations to our hiking bucket list.
During our family style dinner we also met another couple; unlike the Mosses and us, who were only section hiking during spring break, Suzanne Holland and Cindy Aurin from Blue Ridge, Georgia, were actually one day into their 2020 thru-hike of the AT.
When our group at the end of the table discovered that the two were thru-hiking, it seemed that we all had questions and those questions were varied. How long did it take you to make your plans? Who is taking care of your pets? What type of packs are you using? What about your tent? Are you wearing hiking boots or trail runners?
Suzanne and Cindy, who had dubbed themselves “The Wandering Dames,” graciously answered all of our questions and when dessert was finished we found ourselves longing to hear more. Fortunately for us, breakfast provided another great opportunity for our group to gather and discuss plans for the upcoming days for those of us who were section hiking and the upcoming months for the thru-hikers in the group.
I checked in with the “Dames” a week after we returned home via email to find out if their plans had changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, according to Suzanne, she and Cindy were continuing their journey. She told me that while many folks had gotten off the trail, they actually felt safer out there and, as long as resupply was possible, they planned to continue.
The challenge of thru-hiking the AT has been in the back of my mind since my feet first touched that magical trail. Each time I meet a thru-hiker while section hiking the trail, I think a part of me journeys on with them.
Planning and executing a thru-hike is a daunting challenge without adding additional complications like virus pandemics. I was worried what this would do to the Dames’ hike. Sadly, as resupply become an issue, shelters and trail sections began to close, and shuttle services stopped running, the duo was forced to put their thru hike on hold.
Based on what I saw during our short time with Cindy and Suzanne, however, I know that this will be a pause, not a stop. If you have never experienced the magic of the AT, make plans to do so. You can break it into manageable sections or, if you are the more adventurous sort, you may choose the thru hike option. Either way, I hope to see you one day on the AT and I look forward to seeing you out there in our great outdoors.
Email outdoors columnist Brad Dye at firstname.lastname@example.org.