Some Appalachian Trail Hostels Are Inventing Their Own Lockdown Rules
Establishments in Tennessee and North Carolina appear intent on accepting thru-hiking renegades
On March 23, the President and CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Sandra Marra, wrote an open letter to thru-hikers and made an unprecedented request: stay off the Appalachian Trail. Marra wrote: “Many day hikers see the outdoors as an escape from the stresses of these difficult times. But with crowding from day hikers reaching unmanageable levels and the lack of any staff or volunteers to manage this traffic, it is necessary that all hikers avoid accessing the Trail.”
Many hikers, similar to climbers, initially saw the national quarantine as an opportunity to spend more hours deep in the American backcountry. How hard can it be to social distance in nature, right? But overcrowded parking lots, picnic tables, and public bathrooms immediately told a different story. The risk goes beyond threat of infection — without trail volunteers to maintain footpaths, certain stretches become overgrown and potentially injurious. Is it right to divert the attention of local first responders and medical professionals for ankle injuries or worse? How is that fair to the local community?
The issue is even more complicated, though, as a recent Outside report documented, because certain local establishments, particularly hostels, actually appear intent on welcoming thru-hiking renegades. These businesses stand to profit (though for a paltry percentage of their usual high-season revenue), and imagine themselves an inspired resistance to the ATC and state government shutdowns, even while much of the trail is now officially closed, the majority of mountain shelters have responded in kind, and the coronavirus continues to spread across every corner of America.
David Magee, for instance, owner of The Station at 19E along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, is part of the community of innkeepers still servicing the few hundred hikers walking the trail. When visitors come through, he boards them, shuttles them back and forth to the trailhead, and handles any errands they need in town. There is a respect for the community — he’s not going to let any outsiders sneeze their way through the local grocery store — but it’s tempered by a provincial refusal to acknowledge the severe situation the country is in. Magee is also using this time to have workers beef up construction on his hostel.
He’s not alone in this sort of behavior. Five other hostels around Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia are also riding out this storm their way. Marra’s reaction to these decisions speaks for most of us. She said to Outside: “This is America, of course, so everyone can make their own choices. But I worry long-term for their liability and their physical health. There are consequences for making those decisions. And in these small towns, people have long memories.”
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