Hardcore Hikers Are Fighting Each Other Over Quitting The Pacific Crest Trail

A backpack sits by a stop sign along a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail in San Diego County, CA. Many hikers are cancelling their trips due to coronavirus. (William Raschke)

For days, Jesse Kulken had no idea that the world as he knew it was shutting down.

He was hiking through the snow and the sugar pines, alone and without cellphone service, high in the San Bernardino Mountains on the Pacific Crest Trail, a footpath that runs 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada.

On Tuesday, March 17, it started to snow, so he walked off the trail and into the town of Big Bear Lake. He checked into a hostel to wait out the storm, turned on his phone, and saw the news: Coronavirus was now a global pandemic. Schools were closing. Movie theaters were shutting down. Restaurants were empty.

He checked the Facebook page for Pacific Crest Trail hikers. It was a war zone.

On one side: hikers who'd already decided to cancel their upcoming trips.

On the other side: hikers adamant about continuing.

Each side was loudly, angrily, shaming the other.

Kulken felt caught in the middle. As the snow fell softly outside, and the wind rattled the windows of the empty hostel, the 33-year-old Australian wondered: Should I quit, or should I press on?

A DREAM DEFERRED

His decision is a higher-stakes version of the choices we all face every day in this dystopian new world.

Should I go on a walk in the park, or stay at home?

Should I visit my parents, or use FaceTime?

Should I go to Starbucks, or make my own coffee?

In other words: Should I continue on with life, or radically alter my plans?

The difference, for many PCT hikers, is that to alter their plans is to give up on a dream they've obsessed about for years.

"It's analogous to the Olympics. It's as challenging and gruelling and high-level as you can possibly get in the outdoors," Scott Wilkinson, the director of communications at the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), which issues PCT hiker permits, told me. "These people have practiced and prepared and studied and trained in some cases for years to do this. And now they're seeing those hopes dashed."

"IT WOULD BLOW OVER"

Kulken began planning his through-hike of the PCT two years ago. He rented out his house. He sold his Hyundai. He quit his job as a carpenter. He flew to Sydney to get a visa from the U.S. Embassy. On February 25, he flew again to Los Angeles and made his way to Campo, the town on the California-Mexico border where the trail begins.

Back then, in the innocent days of late February, the coronavirus didn't concern him.

"It was still a small thing. It wasn't as crazy as it is now," Kulken told me. "I was assured it would blow over, and it would be gone in a couple weeks."

So he began hiking north into the desert on March 1, the first day that the PCTA issues long-distance through-hiking permits.

TERRIBLE TIMING

There is a very narrow window in which you can begin a northbound hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Start too early, and you'll arrive at the Sierra Nevada when the snow is still deep and the creeks are dangerously high. Start too late, and you risk getting heat exhaustion in the desert, and maybe even caught in an early-fall blizzard in the Cascades in Washington.

Most people begin from March through May. So by March 11, when President Trump issued his ban on travel from the European Union and society began to grind to a halt, there were as many as 550 people already on the PCT.

Two days later, the PCTA urged all hikers to practice social distancing. But they stopped short of cancelling permits.

And so, in the absence of any official recommendation, the Facebook war began.

HIKERS VERSUS QUITTERS

The hikers who wanted to continue their trip thought the quitters were overreacting. Wasn't a remote hiking trail the best place to practice social distancing? How would they catch the virus in the wilderness, anyway?

The quitters thought the hikers who wanted to continue were selfish and irresponsible. While the trail is largely in the wilderness, hikers must stop in small towns every few days to pick up supplies. Didn't they realize they could unknowingly carry coronavirus from town to town, infecting elderly residents and overwhelming small, rural hospitals?

The PCT Class of 2020 Facebook page became so toxic, someone started a new group called Still Hiking PCT Class of 2020.

But as the virus — and the fear of the virus — spread throughout California, it was becoming clear to the PCT-or-bust crowd that they'd have a very different experience than in years past.

NOT IN SOME BACKYARDS

Many hikers have come to depend on the kindness of trail angels, friendly locals who give hikers rides into town, show up on the trail with coolers of beer and sandwiches, and turn their backyards into makeshift campgrounds. By mid-March, many trail angels were telling hikers they could no longer assist them.

A few days later, the towns of Big Bear Lake and Mammoth Lakes, popular resupply points for PCT hikers, asked all non-residents to keep out, for fear of overwhelming the local healthcare system.

For weeks, the PCTA had been following the comments on the various PCT Facebook pages. Wilkinson, the communications director, was increasingly worried at how defiant some hikers were becoming about continuing their trip.

"Ultimately, social distancing doesn't mean traveling all over the place while making sure you're six feet away from people."

"Ultimately, social distancing doesn't mean traveling all over the place while making sure you're six feet away from people," Wilkinson told me. "I can't imagine any better vehicle for a virus seeking new hosts than a wave of hikers moving up a trail, dropping in and out of towns along the way. That just struck us as a nightmare scenario."

So late on Thursday, March 19, the PCTA put out a statement: it was over. Hikers should get off the trail.

But because the PCT crosses through state parks, national parks and national forests, it's technically still open until those agencies decide to shut it down.

Undeterred, some hikers declared they would keep walking north until the police dragged them off the trail.

(Note: On March 23, LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said, "It's safe to say that all trails are shut down." LAist is trying to confirm whether this applies to portion of the PCT that passes through the Angeles National Forest.)

TO HIKE ON, OR HEAD HOME?

When I talked to Jesse Kulken on Friday, March 20, he was standing on the shore of Big Bear Lake, looking up at the cold grey sky. It was no longer snowing, and he should have been back on the trail that morning. But instead, he was paralyzed by indecision.

I asked him to walk me through his list of reasons to quit, or to keep going.

He immediately rattled off half a dozen reasons to continue on:

Legally, the trail was still open. And he'd been planning this trip for two years. He really didn't want to go back home to the normal grind. He probably wouldn't get another chance to do this hike. There were also mixed messages: Although Bear Bear Lake officials had warned visitors away, locals were welcoming. That morning, he'd walked to get coffee at a restaurant, and the guy behind the counter told him he was happy to serve hikers.

But then, Kulken worried about the government continuing to crack down on people's movement. He didn't want to get stuck in California if airports closed and international flights were cancelled. And he worried, as the outbreak worsened, that locals could turn on him.

"I don't want to be chased out with a pitch-fork," he said.

All day he went back and forth. He decided to stay through Saturday, nervous about continuing on.

Finally, on Sunday morning, he checked the price of flights back to Australia. If he left that day, it would be $1800. If he waited a week, it was $16,000.

He booked a flight immediately. And immediately, he regretted it.

When I talked to Kulken again, on Sunday night, he was at LAX, waiting to board his flight. He'd been jealously looking at Instagram photos from hikers who, for now, were still on the trail. They were mostly Americans, he noticed, who could return home more easily if they suddenly had to bail.

When Kulken gets home, he'll spend two weeks in self-quarantine. He's thinking of doing it in a camper van in the bush somewhere, trying to, "keep the adventure alive for two more weeks, I guess."

UPDATES:

March 24, 2 p.m. Screenshots of Facebook posts were updated to block identifying information of the posters.

This article was originally published at March 23 at 4:22 p.m.


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