When the largest wave of Appalachian Trail (A.T.) thru-hikers rolls into downtown Hanover, N.H, in early July, their agenda will look something like this: shower; wash clothes; eat something besides dried food and energy bars; and, if the budget allows, sleep in a warm, dry bed.
Most years, hikers are able to find what they need here, even with their enormous appetites and budgets that must stretch up to six months and 2,200 miles. At Lou’s Restaurant & Bakery, a thru-hiker might find herself gifted with a courtesy doughnut. Ramunto’s offers hikers a free slice of pizza. When hikers come to Dan & Whit’s General Store to resupply, they may also receive a complimentary day-old sandwich and a contact list of trail angels—locals who open their homes to hikers free-of-charge. Near the entrance of the Howe Library, a box collects items locals donate to thru-hikers, from dried food to camping gear.
The global pandemic shut down much of this hiker hospitality in Hanover and towns along the A.T., bolstered by state lockdowns and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s (ATC) closure of the trail to thru-hikers, which caused many to leave the trail early. But with widespread vaccine availability increasing the safety of long-distance hiking and the relaxing of most restrictions on businesses, trail towns like Hanover are gearing up for a more normal 2021—with a few notable differences for both hikers and communities.
Opening the floodgates
In early May, the ATC—which has overseen the management and conservation of the A.T. since 1925—announced that the restrictions on thru-hiking it set more than a year earlier would be lifted, opening the floodgates for hikers to start, or restart, their journey. As of mid-June, 3,863 thru-hikers had let the ATC know they were thru-hiking the A.T. in 2021, eclipsing both 2019 (3,273) and 2018 (3,574).
Matthew “Odie” Norman thinks numbers are even higher than that, though. Norman, who creates The Hiker Yearbook—an annual photographic record of all the hikers on the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails—drives up and down the country in a yellow school bus. He says many of his favorite businesses along the trail are closed, such as the Little Red Hen Diner & Bakery in Andover, Maine, and the Greasy Creek Friendly in Bakersville, N.C.
Despite this, Norman had met “a thousand hikers” by early June, about “90 percent” of whom say they’re vaccinated, thanks to chain pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens allowing people to receive their first and second doses at different locations. Some hikers began in February to avoid overcrowding, and some are completing the hike in sections. Many thru-hikers are simply starting from where they left the trail at the start of the pandemic in 2020.
“I think numbers are going to triple, honestly,” says Jayne Trailer, marketing manager at the Hanover Adventure Tours Hostel in Norwich, Vt. “So many people got off and didn’t finish last year. We may get more section hikers who are just needing to finish, but overall, I think people in our society are leaning more toward the outdoors right now. The A.T. might be the answer for some people.”
‘Excited to have them back’
Most A.T. communities are slowly starting to open again to welcome back the expected mass of hikers. Andrea Lassor, co-chair of the Dalton (Mass.) A.T. Committee, says all the restaurants in town are open and that the Dalton Community Recreation Association is again offering free showers to A.T. hikers after pausing the service in 2020.
Some things never changed. There are still grocery stores along the trail, as well as gear outfitters, like the one at AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, which offers replacement Darn Tough and Farm to Feet socks for hikers who’ve worn theirs out. Locals still place coolers full of snacks and beverages—known as “trail magic”—at trailheads, and businesses, like Lou’s and Ramunto’s, are still welcoming hikers in the ways they can, through complementary goods or services.
As Norman points out, the trail is hikeable without the trail magic and other freebies—though the amenities sweeten the journey and contribute to why so many are able to complete the trail. In the end, the communities get just as much from the hikers as the hikers get from them.
“People literally quit their jobs to go out and have a journey like this. They are trying to maybe work on something they have gone through in their lives, or they’re trying to pivot toward something else. The trail helps them do that,” Trailer says. “I think it’s amazing to meet someone who’s on that journey.”
Betsy Maislen, a Norwich, Vt., resident who’s been feeding and housing thru-hikers in her home since her son recovered from a heel injury with trail angels on a 2007 thru-hike, says she’s remained in touch with so many of the people who’ve stayed with her. One former thru-hiker invited her to attend the birth of her first baby. Another joined her for Thanksgiving dinner.
“We’ve met the most amazing people. We’ve had an astronaut sit at our table. We’ve had people from all over the world,” Maislen says.
Dan Fraser, owner of Norwich’s Dan & Whit’s, says the hikers remind locals there are people in the world outside the Upper Valley, people from different places and with different socioeconomic backgrounds. For him, it feels good to help them out.
“You hear about all the bad things in the world and how dangerous it is, and this is a chance to prove there are nice people in the world that do nice things. That’s reassuring for everybody, for us and for them,” Fraser says. “We’re excited to have them back.”
But despite the general optimism and high hiker numbers expected, not all perks will be back in 2021.
In Hanover, many businesses are closed forever, including thru-hiker favorites like the Skinny Pancake and Salt Hill Pub, and a few individuals and community institutions will wait a bit longer before flinging wide their doors to out-of-town hikers. The Richard W. Black Community Center, which historically allowed hikers to use its shower and laundry facilities, isn’t yet ready for thru-hikers, and neither are many of the trail angels who’ve opened their homes.
Beginning in May of this year, Maislen received phone calls from hikers requesting to stay with her while passing through Hanover, but she and her husband still weren’t comfortable with it. Hikers slept in her house and ate at her kitchen table; there wasn’t a way to physically distance inside her home. Many other trail angels in Hanover and Norwich—which host more than 800 hikers in a busy season—say they are refraining from houseguests this year, too.
“A lot of the trail angels are older. We are in the category of higher risk from COVID,” Maislen explains. “It tears my heart out to say no to them. But I recommended the [Hanover Adventure Tours Hostel] in Norwich. They’re set up for this, but I don’t have a way to do this safely right now. Maybe that will change as the summer progresses.”
Along the trail, hostels will look a little different, too, with more equipment rentals and new options to draw general vacationers in addition to thru-hikers. At The Notch Hostel in North Woodstock, N.H., there are more private rooms and outdoor tent sites. At the Hanover Adventure Tours Hostel, dining now happens outdoors under a tent.
“We want to make sure everyone feels safe,” Trailer says. “I think that’s the most important thing, because it’s been a scary year.”
At least one town has expanded its offerings to thru-hikers. In Cheshire, Mass., hikers will find the Father Tom Campsite, which opened in 2020, features space for 10 tents and two hammocks, and is located across the street from an ice cream and sandwich shop. The site, a collaboration between the Cheshire Appalachian Trail Committee and town officials, is outfitted with a water spicket, picnic table, portable toilet, trash barrel, electric outlets, and an on-site shed with bikes hikers can borrow to ride into town.
The site is named after Rev. Thomas Begley, a pastor who began hosting hikers in the St. Mary of the Assumption Church in the early 1980s. When the church no longer was able to host hikers, the community rallied together to create this new service.
“It’s unusual to have a campsite right in town,” says Eileen Quinn, the Cheshire A.T. Community Coordinator. “But the people who live here have seen hikers come through forever, as long as they’ve lived here. They are naturally hospitable to them.”
It appears residents will once again be able to extend that hospitality this summer and fall.