A Simpler Trail: How COVID-19 Has returned the legendary Pacific Crest Trail to its roots

Simple times on the PCT.

words & photos :: Drew Wayland. 

Over the past few months, many of us have gotten accustomed to seeing images of jarring emptiness in usually crowded places. Pictures of a deserted Times Square or a vacant California beach are commonplace, but now as provinces and states begin to reopen, so are the photographs of packed city parks and bars. A little farther from the crowds and the city lights, there’s one place that’s found a more pleasant compromise. 

“For me, the option of going home wasn’t really ever there—I quit my job and sold all my stuff and fully committed to this trip.” 

In the midst of the coronavirus disruptions, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) has made a return to its roots. The massive wave of hikers that normally descend on the trail in summertime has slowed to a trickle, and the few remaining hikers must rely even more on one another to stay safe, healthy and cautious as they walk slowly from the US/Mexico border to British Columbia. The epic journey, however, like doing almost anything in a pandemic, is not without risk. Mountain Life caught up with a few thru-hikers in northern California and central Oregon to learn more about trail life in the time of COVID-19.

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According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), the trail has been “shut down” since March 18, and the organization strongly advises against multi-day hiking. Within a few days of the virus’ arrival in Washington state, the PCTA attempted to advise all hikers and permit holders to postpone their trips. The grand majority of hikers heeded the warning, and headed home to shelter in place. But for some, “to hike, or not to hike?” only ever had one answer.

Thru-hiker François Fournier-Bidoz from Chamonix, France on the PCT.

“For me, the option of going home wasn’t really ever there,” said Cody McMahon, whose trail name is ‘Socks.’ “I quit my job and sold all my stuff and fully committed to this trip.” 

McMahon is from Brisbane, Australia, and he said the thought of taking multiple international flights to get home seemed riskier than staying in the mountains, where he felt he could effectively self-isolate. In fact, the proportion of international hikers is noticeably larger this year, as it was much easier for the Americans to return to their homes than the foreigners on the trail. Another hiker, François Fournier-Bidoz of France, said that more than half of the hikers he had met were international, mostly from Europe, Australia and even South Africa.

The early days of the pandemic, the thru-hikers agree were a little chaotic. 

“The rumour mill on the trail was pretty vicious,” said McMahon, “with things ranging from police arresting thru-hikers to the towns welcoming you with open arms. It wasn’t until we got to Idlewild [California], two weeks into the trip, where we got the first chance to sit down and look through all the information that was out there and see what was real and what wasn’t real.”

The PCT goes through towns with some of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the world. Is it still safe to hike it? (Data sourced from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention and is accurate as of  7/14)

For many hikers, this was the heartbreaking end of their shortened PCT journey. McMahon says it was around Idlewild that people started to leave the trail in droves, and they would continue to slowly peel off for the next two months. At the base of Mt. Shasta, California, where we caught up with Cody, the only people left were those completely determined to finish. 

Although there was uncertainty everywhere at the start of the trail, Fournier-Bidoz said that the reality of the last two months has been quite easy and safe. 

“We wear masks when we go into town and try to respect local rules as much as possible,” he said, “and at the beginning I avoided towns as much as I could get away with it.”

McMahon reported that the many trail towns and small cities that lie along the PCT have been surprisingly welcoming. Some of the smaller communities rely on hikers passing through to support local business and stimulate the economy, he said, which means they are struggling right now.

“We went from 2,709 visitors in June of last year to 903 in June of this year,” said Kaila Burns, the executive director of the Mt. Shasta Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a really dramatic change and probably not a sustainable one.”

“Really it’s the online hate that has been the hardest to deal with,” he said. “I’ve stopped posting things as much on social media because the backlash is just horrible, especially from people who decided to go home.” McMahon said he knew hikers who had received death threats for “endangering the public,” by continuing their trek. 

Fournier-Bidoz agreed. “Don’t put anything on Facebook,” he said. “I’ve seen the craziest stuff on there about the PCT, people getting [verbally] attacked, it’s awful.”

Longstanding PCT traditions like “trail magic” (the act of leaving food or supplies on trail to surprise a weary hiker) have had to stop, but hikers say the peace and quiet, as well as the ease of finding campsites, has made this a special summer on the PCT.

“I feel very lucky to be here at all,” said Fournier-Bidoz. “Some people say this is the best year in decades to hike the PCT.” He added that, it being his first time on trail, he can’t vouch for that claim.

The towns and cities along the trail are experiencing the hiker drought in different ways. In the city of Bend, Oregon, where we met up with Fournier-Bidoz, life goes on almost like normal. Motels are filled to the brim on weekends and most restaurants are open for dine-in. Bend is an outdoor mecca in the Northwest US and the biggest city with a connection to the PCT. The Visit Bend tourism board told Mountain Life that there has even been an uptick in the use of outdoor spaces, but there’s no way to know if this is due to more locals getting outside or more hikers moving into the city.

Some rec sites are closed, but the trail is still opening—so while the trail can still be hiked, the experience has definitely changed.

Places like Mt. Shasta and Dunsmuir, two California communities of less than five thousand combined residents, are being hit harder. 

“We went from 2,709 visitors in June of last year to 903 in June of this year,” said Kaila Burns, the executive director of the Mt. Shasta Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a really dramatic change and probably not a sustainable one.”

“Our city council just adopted our city budget for 2020-21 and 2021-22,” said Dunsmuir council member Peter Arth Jr. “We expect a big drop in sales tax revenue, and a moderate drop in transient occupancy tax revenues, both of which are supported by hiker traffic.”

He added, however, that the implementation of a sales tax on local cannabis would help make up for these losses.

Of the northbound or ‘nobo’ hikers, most will make it to the Canadian border by mid-August. There is plenty of uncertainty about just how open the border will be, and if flights home from Vancouver will be available for non-Canadians, but McMahon and Fournier-Bidoz are focused on the present, rather than worrying about the future. 

One of the many trail magic hotspots along the way—Bend, Oregon.

McMahon says staying in the present has been imperative on his PCT journey after tragedy struck in the first few days in southern California. While hiking in the San Jacinto mountains, a close friend of McMahon’s was hiking with him when he slipped and fell off the trail. Tragically, he died after succumbing to his injuries.

This was a harrowing day for McMahon and everyone he was hiking with at the time, including Fournier-Bidoz.

“I was stunned,” he said. “It makes me think about how fast it can happen… how fragile life is.”

“It was on that day my motivation for doing this changed completely,” he said, “although I didn’t move on from there for some time. Pandemic or not, I wanted to finish this thing.”

The PCT has always been a facilitator of emotional and spiritual journeys, and grief is one of the most difficult journeys to embark on. Many people have mourned a loss while on trail, and McMahon says he feels blessed to have the time, space and support of his fellow thru-hikers to keep moving forward.

While the trail will eventually return to its overcrowded sense of normalcy, perhaps it needed this time to breathe. It can remind the world, through a few persistent hikers, of the magic inherent in the mountains themselves, a magic only strengthened by the people who have called the PCT their home. —ML

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