Finally spring is here, the trees and flowers are in bloom and the air is filled with pollen. With 80 degree days it almost feels as if we passed spring and slid right into summer. And yet, it also seems like the dead of winter because we are “sheltering” and not hitting the trails.
Like all of us, I have spent the last few weeks watching all the news about the COVID-19 virus and seeing the horror that has unfolded. I virtually erased my calendar for the next month or two, including the annual ATC Spring Volunteer Meeting, and of course, hikes and trail work.
A few weeks ago I spent a Trail Ambassador patrol at the Springer Shelter at the very beginning of “social distancing”. While the number of thru-hikers was down to perhaps 20, they seemed unaware or concerned about the virus. I warned about staying in the shelter (4 did each night). About 35 hikers were encountered at the overlook. There was a group of five women hiking north for several days. Two of them were “not feeling” well and obtained a shuttle to pick them up at the parking lot. At the time, I thought they were way underprepared. Now I wonder?
At first, I thought it would be acceptable to do some trail maintenance and Trail Ambassador patrols. The trail always needs something done, like bucking blowdowns. This would also be a very important time for Trail Ambassadors to encourage hikers to leave the trail. I was just about to send out a communique when At Large Director Babette Broussard and Conservation Director Dr. Scott Deitchman reinforced the importance of staying home. How would it look for us to be on the trail telling others to get off?
During one of several tele-conferences with ATC, someone pointed out that we have invested significantly in the trail over the years. To be absent for a few months should not have a big effect. Even a few blowdowns should not pose a great threat. The trail will survive, especially with diminished crowds,.
As many of you have seen, ATC has been on the forefront of getting an advisory to hikers. They do not have the authority to close the trail, and yet their voice is strong. Recently the Chattahoochee National Forest issued an order closing access points and trail heads to the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), Benton Mackay Trail (BMT), Blue Blaze and many other side trails. The National Forests of North Carolina, Cherokee and George Washington Jefferson National Forests have all issued similar orders. The Appalachian National Scenic Trail (APPA) office has submitted a request to the Secretary of the Interior to close the A.T.
The unemployment numbers are staggering. So many businesses and stores are closed. We have a “new normal”. While bars and restaurants are closed, there still is carryout and delivery. Now congress has passed a massive stimulus measure, which will help for a short time. Then there are shortages of some essential things like toilet paper and hand wipes. I sure hope these products will soon be back on the shelves.
“How long will this last”? is the big question. There seems to be a lot of experts being interviewed on TV. “It hasn’t peaked” is the consistent message, along with maintaining social distancing and washing your hands. Recently, it was announced that we need to maintain distancing until the end of April.
The lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for medical personnel and first responders is a big problem. The shortage of hospital beds and ventilators adds to the treatment burden. Those individuals on the front line deserve our respect, support and admiration along with truck drivers, store workers, etc.
Some parts of the country are harder hit, especially New York. In his Town Hall meeting, Governor Kemp indicated that decisions should be made locally. It seems to me that if we are following prescribed guidelines, then communities with fewer cases may not need similar rigid restrictions. Although, we should also err on the side of caution.
The initial objective is to “flatten the curve”. With fewer people getting sick, their treatment would not put such a strain on the system. There is also the issue of the future of the virus. Presumably, new cases will diminish during a hot humid summer, but it could rebound next fall and winter?
I don’t understand why it takes so long to develop a vaccine to fight this thing. Twelve to 18 months seems like a very long time, but it probably is necessary to make sure the cure isn’t worse than the virus. One important thing to bear in mind is that this will not go away on its own. I wouldn’t be surprised to see long lines to get the vaccine when it is available. I won’t mind standing in that line.
All this means we have a new “normal” on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. From what I see on Facebook, most of the thru and section hikers understand their trips have to be postponed. GATC is a leader, we have to “walk the talk” and stand down.
I have a strong faith in the ability of people to weather any storm. Scott Gottlieb, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner in the Trump administration said “The goal is to outline a plan that will allow a gradual return to a more normal way of life without increasing the risk”. Milestones along the way help to let us know where we stand and have hope.
In the meantime, hunker down, wash your hands and stay safe. No matter how long we are gone, the trail will survive.