Manu Johnston had sold his Spokane home, along with most of his possessions, and was on the verge of departing on an extended motorcycle trip across Asia when a virus in China started making headlines.
In short order, the marine veteran realized his road-trip plans were kaput, so he pivoted to plan B:
Hike the Pacific Crest Trail.
Now, he’s a week into the 2,600-mile excursion
His decision to keep trekking flies in the face of public health experts and the pleas of trail organizers and communities along the way.
Johnston is neither apologetic nor alone in his decision to hike. On March 15, he started a Facebook page “Still Hiking PCT.” As of Friday, it had 1,200 members.
“I’m finally unplugging from the mainstream,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday near Idyllwild, California. “I’m going to live my life for me. And then coronavirus popped out. Well, sorry, I am going to be a little bit selfish.”
Selfish is right, the Pacific Crest Trail Association said.
“Yeah, if you could just sort of magically transport yourself and materialize yourself in the middle of the wilderness and stay there alone … it would be the best place to be,” said Scott Wilkinson, the PCTA director of communications and marketing.
That’s not how it works. Instead, the PCT is an internationally known adventure that brings people from around the globe.
In 2019, 7,888 long-distance permits (hiking more than 500 miles) were issued. More than 900 people said they hiked the entire trail. It’s unusual for hikers to carry more than seven days’ worth of food, which means they’re resupplying in small towns along the way, Wilkinson said.
That’s not to mention the fact that most people hike together, often sharing food or other gear.
“I can’t imagine a better vehicle for a virus seeking a new host (than a) wave of hikers moving up trail,” he said.
Starting on March 19 the PCTA, which is a nonprofit advocacy group for the trail, told people to stay away and, if they were midtrek, to get off. That ignited a maelstrom online with some arguing that trekking is perfectly suited for social isolation and others lambasting those continuing to hike.
Adding to the confusion, the trail is not technically closed, Wilkinson said. Although the PCTA manages permits and organizes volunteers, various federal agencies manage the land itself.
Some sections have closed, leading to the U.S. Forest Service to state in a recent news release that “you can no longer complete a thru-hike due to public land and facility closures.” That’s not to mention stay-home orders in place in many of the states through which the trail passes. But plenty of the trail remains open to hikers, a fact that is pointed out often on the Facebook group Johnston formed.
“As of now, during the pandemic, it is physically impossible to do a thru-hike without breaking the law at some point along the line,” Wilkinson said.
PCTA volunteers also haven’t been able to go out and clear downed trees or otherwise maintain the trail.
“It could be a pretty wild and woolly experience to get through parts of the trails,” he said.
Much of the online bickering has slowed as the number of people on the trail has fallen. Wilkinson estimates there are at most 300 people on the trail with only one or two starting each day from the trail’s southern terminus on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It seems like there is a trickle of hikers moving up the trail,” Wilkinson said. “The vast majority of long-distance hikers who were planning on hiking the trail this year made the right choice early on. Of course, there was a vocal minority.”
Johnston has become something of a spokesperson for that vocal minority. On the Facebook page he co-founded, those who try to shame PCT hikers into abandoning their treks are banned. Instead, users share advice, trail reports and encouragement.
One commenter, responding to a post questioning whether new stay-home restrictions in California would impact the hikers, wrote, “Everything is walking distance when you’re a thru-hiker.”
Others noted how friendly locals were being.
The debate echoes ones closer to home. After Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all residents to stay home, a number of state agencies closed access to their lands. At the same time, federal land managers in Washington walked a tricky line, urging people to stay away, yet acknowledging that their lands are still open to public use.
Johnston is aware of the arguments against trekking but ultimately unconcerned and unconvinced.
“I have family members that are even trying to shame me for hiking,” he said.
Hiking alone, he believes the trail is the best place to stay away from others. He has hand sanitizer. When he does go into towns, he’s being careful to touch as few things as possible and stay 6 feet away from others.
If he comes to lands, or towns, closed to the public, he’ll detour. On Friday, he posted an update on his Facebook noting that he was “not going to get any hotels or anything” while passing through Big Bear, California, because the locals are “a little upset.”
Other than those modifications, he’s pushing onward.
“If a small town closes their road, I won’t hike into it,” he said. “But if they are going in and out of their own community to resupply, you better believe I’m going to hike right into it. It’s still America.”