In March, Susan Goodspeed set out to hike the Appalachian Trail for the first time in her life.
“I researched the heck out of it,” Goodspeed says. “I don’t have wi-fi and TV at the house, but I do have my phone, so I started watching videos on YouTube. There are so many different people on there who have hiked the trail.”
The 67-year-old hiker is a resident of Brewster but a member of the Eastham Hiking Club. The club suspended its group hikes in early March due to the coronavirus, according to hike leader Don Light.
The club typically hosts hikes on the Outer Cape from the Wednesday after Labor Day to the Wednesday before Memorial Day.
“In any one year there can be 39 hikes, and we never duplicate a hike,” Light says. The club, originated in 1977 by John Sullivan, has been going strong ever since. Light shares the leadership role with Bob Rabenold, Mark McGrath, and Chuck Thompson.
Goodspeed enjoys hiking with the club on the Outer Cape, but when she was ready to take on a much bigger challenge, she looked to the Appalachian Trail. She sent a letter to friends at Christmas to let them know of her plans, studied up, packed her backpack, and set forth on the trail on March 5, beginning in Georgia and aiming to reach Maine.
Along the way, she heard people talking about this virus. But it wasn’t a major concern at first.
“It had just hardly begun,” she says. “It wasn’t anything that was keeping anybody inside.”
Goodspeed thought she was in the best place possible — outdoors on a trail that stretches across the whole East Coast and where it is generally easy to keep your distance from other people. She expected it would take her six months to complete the 2,190-mile trek. But as the days went on, news of the virus got more serious and that reverberated along the trail, with services beginning to close.
Goodspeed decided not to stop at the first major trail outpost in Hiawassee, Ga., and continued until she got to the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina.
Before she got there, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) had put out a non-mandatory but strongly worded request urging hikers to get off the trail because of Covid-19.
When she reached the outdoor center in North Carolina, normally a busy gathering spot for hikers taking a break, it looked desolate.
“There’s a big outfitter there, general store, motel and café,” she says. “But it was like a ghost town. There was one other hiker and a couple of kids on a pickup. Everything was closed.”
There she noted the wording of the trail conservancy’s advisory was even stronger. The organization would not be allowing any new hikers on the trail and the Springer Mountain, Ga., starting point had been closed.
“I thought I could get to Smoky Mountain National Park, but they had pulled a lot of staff,” she says. “Even in March, you can get snowstorms up there. It wouldn’t be safe for someone my age to be up in the Smoky Mountains by myself in March.”
That’s when Goodspeed knew she had to get off the trail. Luckily, she met a friend on the trail who had rented a car and was going home to Florida. She hitched a ride, got dropped off with friends in Asheville, N.C., then rented a car and drove home to the Cape.
“It was bittersweet, kind of sad,” she says. “So much planning goes into it. I do want to go back. I check the ATC website almost every day. I don’t know if it’s going to happen this year.”
The trail itself is not officially closed, but access to it is tricky. The New York Times reported on May 21 that Shenandoah National Park is closed and the U.S. Forest Service has shut down some shelters, access points, and trailheads in line with local guidance.
On May 20, as some states’ stay-at-home orders began to expire, the conservancy released updated guidelines for hikers still on parts of the trail or considering setting out. These guidelines include wearing masks and bringing hand sanitizer; they tell hikers to be sure they won’t need to stop for meals, as many places along the trail remain closed.
Goodspeed says she met other hikers along the way that became her “tramily” and hopes to get that experience back.
“They’re a bunch of characters, I’m telling you,” she says. “There are all kinds of people up there.”
Meanwhile, Goodspeed is back to hiking trails on the Outer Cape.
Some Favorite Outer Cape Trails
Recommended by the Eastham Hiking Club
Great Island in Wellfleet
Bearberry Hill in Truro
Fort Hill in Eastham
Northeast rim of East Harbor in Provincetown
East Harbor in North Truro
For more information on the club, see the Cape Cod Trails website at cctrails.org.