2,000 miles, 650 trails, no one in sight: The solitude of hiking in a time of virus

It was well after dark on a recent evening when Philip Carcia, a record-breaking hiker, emerged from another 28-mile day in the woods, his legs streaked with mud and crisscrossed with bloody cuts, into a desolate parking lot near New Hampshire’s border with Maine.

Carcia, 36, has been living out of his red Toyota Yaris on the outer reaches of the White Mountain National Forest all summer, attempting to break the record on an obscure and extreme hiking challenge known as the Redline: a journey through all 650 trails in a guidebook of the White Mountains, for a total of 2,000 miles and half a million feet of vertical gain.

The trip almost didn’t happen. Like so much else cancelled amid the coronavirus pandemic, serious hiking has been in doubt. In the early months of the outbreak, venerable organisations like the Appalachian Mountain Club closed their mountaintop huts, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy emailed hikers attempting the trek from Georgia to Maine in March and asked them to stay home.

Carcia watched some of his hiking friends get off the trail. He thought about cancelling his trip, but then decided to press on. The intentional isolation of hiking might hold some answers for the forced isolation of the virus.

“As I watched people around me slip into this sense of hopelessness, I realised it was actually a good time to do it — to get away from all that and look inward, stay focused, stay driven, remind myself of all the things in this world that are still good,” he said.

By the end of this weekend, Carcia is expected to finish the Redline after fewer than 100 days — a speed that will likely set a record, once all the details and GPS proof is vetted by the experts who serve as arbiters in the world of intensive hiking. In any case, Carcia hikes briskly. The previous record for the Redline was 193 days.

Few groups may be as uniquely prepared for life in a pandemic as competitive hikers. Isolation (Carcia, who mainly slept in his car, went days without seeing anyone) and uncertainty about what’s ahead (some trails on his map seemed to disappear in real life) are nothing new.

“I’m interested in all of it,” Carcia said of the solitary nature of hiking — and of life in this uncertain moment. “The human experience and all it encompasses — the good, the bad, the light, the dark.”

Like others in Carcia’s circle of extreme hikers, he works all sorts of jobs to fund his hikes. He’s waited tables at a Ruby Tuesday in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he grew up, and has worked at a hostel in Woodstock, New Hampshire.

The hikes are what drives him. Last year, Carcia took on a different challenge, known as the Grid. Every month, he hiked all 48 of New Hampshire’s mountains taller than 4,000 feet for a total of 576 summits. It took 319 days, and set a record.

In the first months of the pandemic early this year, officials worried that serious distance hikers — particularly Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers who spend weeks and even months out at a stretch — might travel in and out of small towns to sleep or get supplies and inadvertently spread the virus. Other fears emerged, too: Hikers might cross state lines without following quarantine rules, or get injured and strain medical resources that the virus was already stretching in small, rural communities.

But state guidelines loosened over the summer, and some hiking organisations began encouraging people to proceed with hikes but to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines, including social distancing and masks. Some mountain huts were reopened for daytime use. Some trailheads and camping sites that had been shuttered were reopened, and trails grew crowded through the summer.

The Appalachian Mountain Club’s stance on hiking during the pandemic, according to Nina Paus-Weiler, digital media and communications manager at the club, is, “This is a positive thing — you should go do this.” But, she added, “we are urging people to be prepared and follow state and federal safety guidelines.” Carcia wrestled with what to do. “When COVID hit, I like everybody else was forced to stop in my tracks and reconsider,” he said. He knew that he would be in the more remote sections of forest, far from tended paths, far from everyone. In the end, that sealed his decision.

In a photo he took, the competitive hiker Philip Carcia's feet as he hiked in the White Mountains of New Hampshire during the pandemic summer of 2020. Philip Carcia via The New York Times

Years ago, when Carcia first began hiking, he said he wasn’t comfortable “with where my mind would go during long periods of solitude.”

Over years of hikes — he’s walked the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Cresst Trail, each 2,000-odd miles — he learned to live with the discomfort that comes from venturing into places where he didn’t know what to expect. That’s why now, he said, “It’s no problem for me to be knee-deep in a river ford at 9 o’clock at night, and not able to see where the trail picks up on the other side.”

He had some years of wandering and some setbacks. He bummed around the West, seriously injured himself in a fall on Mount Whitney. While doing a partial hike of the Continental Divide Trail in Wyoming, he was involved in a car crash and the next day was going home on a Greyhound, battered.

The following year, in 2014, his father died of lung cancer. For weeks, Carcia slept on the floor of his father’s hospital room. “He’d made the gambit we all make, that we’ll work and make money and be able to enjoy it someday, but he didn’t,” he said.

Loss sharpened his resolve. He moved to New Hampshire in 2015 and started training to break the record on the two biggest challenges in the White Mountains — the Grid and the Redline. “I wanted to do something really big,” he said.

On a recent day, he paused on a ridge to stare down the trail into a valley where he would backtrack 5.9 miles to his car, a distance he could cover in an hour if he ran. Nearing the end of the Redline, he said he’s still sometimes plagued by the “mental digressions everyone goes through,” questions like, will he make it? And will it matter in the end?

Hiking, Carcia said, “is hard, but not for the reasons people tell you it’s hard. It’s hard because these mountains are mirrors, just like COVID is a mirror, and they force you to look at yourself. But I love that. I love getting into that underbelly and still having the grit to keep moving forward.”

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