Most of 2020 has been a strange year when it comes to getting outdoors and pursuing our favorite adventures. Many countries across the globe closed parks and trails in an effort to keep people at home, where they were safe. That included here in the U.S., where even the long-distance hikes like the Appalachian Trail were completely shutdown. But as we’re now learning, that didn’t stop some backpackers from walking the route anyway, calling to question the safety and sanity of trekking these remote trails while they are officially closed.
Outside magazine has shared a story about a hiker named Andrew Underwood (trail name Denver), who was amongst the first few verified finishers of the AT this year. It took Underwood four months to finish his journey, starting in February and finishing on Mt. Katahdin in Maine on June 17. In order to walk the entire 2200 miles (3540 km) of the trail end-to-end, he had to not only deal with weather, rough terrain, getting resupplied, and fatigue, but also dodging the authorities. For much of the time that Underwood was on the trail, it was officially closed due to the coronavirus. That made it illegal for him to be out there, which meant avoiding park rangers and local sheriffs while on the move.
As Outside tells the tale, the AT officially reopened on June 16, the day before Underwood finished. But, the final section of the climb to the top of Katahdin was actually still closed, which meant even the last stage was done illegally. Denver was joined a pair of other hikers, who had joined him a few weeks back, on their clandestine dash to the summit. They did run into a ranger on the way down, who gave them a verbal reprimand but allowed them to pass without further consequences.
Underwood’s story is one that is both inspirational and troublesome at the same time. On the one hand, we’ve been saying for months that it is a good thing to get outside during the pandemic. It helps your overall well being, providing a nice release from being stuck at home. Plus, exercise, fresh air, and sunlight are all good for us. But, we’ve also stressed how important it is to stay safe at the same time. That means socially distancing, wearing masks, and adhering to the rules set down by local governments. Unfortunately, that also means staying out of the backcountry.
To be fair, the remote trails the make up the AT are a great place to socially distance. When the route is empty and you have campsites to yourself, chances are you won’t contract COVID-19. But, should you find yourself injured and in need of rescue, you can potentially draw resources away from other current challenges. And if you need medical attention, it makes matters worse. With hospitals and clinics already pushed to their limits, taking unnecessary risks come across as selfish and wrong. In other words, go out and have an adventure, but be safe and go home at the end of the day.
You can read the full Outside article here and decide for yourself. Is what Underwood did something to be proud of and aspire to? Or was he giving thru-hikers a bad name by thumbing his nose at the law? While I do respect his independent spirit and desire for an adventure, in this case I think he probably should have gone home.
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