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Hikers Return To The Appalachian Trail

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Being outside is one of the safest activities during COVID, but last year, restrictions forced hikers off the Appalachian Trail. Now they appear to be back at pre-pandemic levels along the 2,200 miles that run from Georgia all the way to Maine. Reporter Jahd Khalil of member station WVTF in Roanoke went out on the trail himself.

JAHD KHALIL, BYLINE: About a half-mile off the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, a group of hikers is having dinner near a fire. Stephen Rust introduces himself.

STEPHEN RUST: I'm also known as Second Chance, and I'm trying to hunt down those second chances, you know, besmirching my good trail name.

KHALIL: Rust is trying to hike the whole length of the Appalachian Trail. Many shelters along the AT are still closed by the agencies that manage them. It takes about six months to hike. His trail name, Second Chance, is pretty relevant this year.

RUST: When I got off the trail last year, it felt like the right and wrong choice at the same time. And then this year, there was determination mixed with a lot of apprehension.

KHALIL: Rust is like a lot of hikers. He got off the trail last year, but this year, decided it was safe. Time at home to think is bringing first-timers out, like Shannon Foley.

SHANNON FOLEY: And I really didn't like working from home, so I decided I was going to quit my job and then hike the trail and then go back to college afterwards.

KHALIL: Foley has stopped for lunch at one of the park's trailside stores. Days-old sweat is in the air, but there's also the smell of hot sauce. A hiker is seasoning his sandwich wrap with it, next to Kyle Bullins.

KYLE BULLINS: Hiker hunger is a thing. I like - you have to eat so much food on this trail. It's insane.

KHALIL: Hiking expenses, like months of high-calorie meals, add up. COVID relief enabled some people to pay for their time on the trail.

BULLINS: Getting, like - what? - 3,000-some dollars from the government has, like, helped a bit, yeah (laughter).

KHALIL: Returnees like Rust, first-timers like Foley, and all the people who were already planning to thru-hike in 2021 means this year has big numbers. That matters to people like Alison Coltrane.

ALISON COLTRANE: Oh, the pandemic was - it put a real hurting. 2020 was half of 2019 as far as incomewise.

KHALIL: Coltrane runs the Open Arms at the Edge of Town Hostel in Luray. It's one of the many hiker towns along the AT.

COLTRANE: During bubble season, I have scheduled pickup times at the trailhead. And they'll come into town. They'll just rest. We also include taking them to restaurants and grocery stores for resupply.

KHALIL: Coltrane says the bubble is more like a river this year. It's hard to get an accurate number of how many more are on the trail. One hostel owner south of Coltrane said it was 30% more than a pre-pandemic year. Another said it was at least 50% more. Coltrane says it's not just the pandemic that's bringing hikers out.

COLTRANE: Probably 90% are in some sort of transition. So they're transitioning from one life event to another, and they want to figure things out.

KHALIL: Shane Wells tried to stay on the trail last year, but eventually he had to trade in the isolation of a solo hike for the isolation of COVID.

SHANE WELLS: We had plenty of time to think - right? - when we were locked up. But situations were different because you were locked up. You didn't have the time to reflect like I do now.

KHALIL: He's 52, recently retired and back, looking for his next stage in life.

WELLS: On the trail, you're always running from three things. You're either running from rain, or you're running from the sun, if it's too hot, or you're running from yourself. But one thing's for sure. They're all three going to catch up with you.

KHALIL: Only about a quarter of the hikers make it all the way from Georgia to Maine, but how many find what they are looking for along the way is harder to say.

For NPR News, I'm Jahd Khalil in Luray, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF LANTERNA'S "MONTICELLO FARM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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