While the rest of the world was learning how to make sourdough starters and navigating the realms of virtual work and school while quarantining at home, 28-year-old Tyler Toler of Beckley was having an experience unlike any other.
Instead of being quarantined at home, Toler was hiking the Appalachian Trail, a 2,193-mile trail that spans 14 states, beginning in Georgia and moving north all the way to Maine.
Toler said it was a journey unlike anything he had ever experienced, especially with the introduction of Covid-19 along the way.
When Toler set out on his nearly seven-month trek on Feb. 27, the United States was just beginning to experience the grip of Covid-19. As much of the world faced uncertainty and confusion, out on the trail, Toler said he experienced the best months of his life.
Having planned and saved for more than two years for this hike, Toler said he felt like he knew what he was getting himself into. He knew there would likely be unexpected twists here and there but nothing that he felt like he wouldn’t be able to handle.
“I always tell people it’s 98 percent mental and 2 percent physical,” he said. “If you can talk yourself into doing the walking, then you’re good to go.”
Though he was a bit surprised to see snow on the ground during the first few days of hiking though the trails in Georgia and even less thrilled with the rain that went on for 26 days straight in March as he hiked through North Caroline and Tennessee, he said he was not deterred from his goal of reaching his final destination in Maine.
During this time, he also ran into a few fellow thru-hikers, a name given to those who set out to complete the entire 2,193-mile trail, which made the experience that much more tolerable and enjoyable.
“When I started, I was by myself,” Toler said. “I did about the first 300 miles by myself and then I slowly started meeting other people and we just got along and by the time that I made it to Virginia, I had probably six or seven people around me at all times that we all camped together. It was pretty much like a little family more or less.”
It was during this time, as Toler’s solo journey started growing into a small family, that news of the coronavirus started to make its way through the trail.
Although Toler said he knew of Covid-19 before he began his journey, he said he presumed it would have no impact on his daily life.
On March 12, less than a month into his seven-month hike, however, he said he got his first inkling that the coronavirus was turning into something more serious.
“I started before there were really ever any U.S. cases or there may have been like a handful,” he said. “I was out there for a while and I think I started really hearing about it when I made it to Franklin, North Carolina. That’s when stuff started really coming up on social media and the news, but everyone kind of figured it would pass, it’s no big deal, and then the further we went, the worse that it got.”
Finally, on March 30, Toler and every other hiker on the Appalachian Trail received an email from the Appalachian Trail Conservatory, which manages the trail, announcing the closure of the trail and with it a number of shelters and facilities along the way.
Toler said they were also informed that should they choose to proceed, the Appalachian Trail Conservatory would not recognize the thru-hike, which meant they would not receive their 2,000 miler certificate nor their Appalachian Trail patch or have their name recorded and published with all the Appalachian Trail thru-hikers of years past.
“But we didn’t do (the trail) for that,” Toler said “We pretty much did it as an escape and we just wanted to hike basically. ... I’ve never really been good at listening and I felt that I was safer and I would cause less of an impact out there as opposed to going home and having to deal with everything here.
“I felt that if I could stay out there, I could basically wait it out, which wasn’t the case, but I still feel like I made less of an impact being out there then I ever would’ve if I had come home.”
From then on, Toler said he and his fellow hikers who decided to remain on the trail took every precaution if and when they had to venture off the trail and into town.
“When we were in town, most of us were wearing gloves and masks. ... We would basically go straight into town and get right what we needed and back out. We wouldn’t stay in hotels or anything like that,” he said.
He added that for the most part there weren’t many other hikers on the trail to worry about since the majority of the thru-hikers had headed home and the number of day hikers was also reduced.
“The only people that were left out there were the people that were out there to begin with, and we knew they hadn’t really had a chance to be exposed to it because we’d all been living in the forest,” Toler said.
“Basically, what I told people is that we were effectively quarantining, just in the forest.”
Even with the unexpected addition of the coronavirus to contend with, Toler said the group ended up falling into somewhat of a normal rhythm.
“We would all get together (in the morning) and figure out where we’re going to camp that night just so we could all get together that night and meet up there,” he said. “We all hike at different paces and some people want to stop and take in this scene or they’ll want to go eat lunch here. We never really made like far out plans; it was basically like when you wake up that morning, you plan what you’re doing that day and then you go from there.”
This was on aspect of hiking that Toler said he enjoyed the most, the freedom of it all.
“You don’t really have to make a plan; you just kind of roll with it ... that’s the beauty of it,” he said.
Along the way, Toler said the group celebrated many milestones, such as completing 100 miles.
Around the time they knew they were coming up on another 100 miles, Toler said they’d looked for markings made of stone or branches where previous hikers had spelled out 500, 600, 1,000 and so on.
“There’s an app we all use on our phones called Guthook," he said. "It's like a GPS and it has real-time data and it will tell you where you are, all your camping and water sources. So when you’d see you were coming up on another 100 miles (on the app), you’d know to start looking for where someone put some rocks or sticks out."
There were also other notable landmarks that Toler said he was particularly excited to encounter.
“When we finally hit West Virginia, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m hiking through my home state,’” he said.
But Toler wasn’t in the Mountain State for long as West Virginia has the shortest section along the Appalachian Trail.
“You pretty much walk through Harpers Ferry and then you’re in Maryland,” he said.
Having begun his journey in the snow, Toler said it was fascinating not only watching but experiencing the season changes up close.
“I basically walked through all four seasons,” he said. “You basically got to wake up every day and slowly see everything changing, from things getting green to the leaves changing for fall.
“By the time I made it to Maine, everything was so colorful. All the maple trees were vibrant.”
Toler said he can’t exactly put into words what it was like to reach the end of his journey at the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine.
In the weeks leading up to this summit, Toler covered some of the most challening parts of the trail, including the Presidential Range in New Hampshire, which includes a 12-mile trek above the tree lines on the tips of rocky mountains. To make matters worse, Toler said they also encountered 60 mph wind as well as sleet as they crossed the range.
Once in Maine, they traveled through the Mahoosuc Notch, also known as the hardest mile on the Appalachian Trail. Toler said it takes hours just to make it through that one-mile stretch, where at one point they were forced to crawl through openings in boulders.
When he finally reached that 2,193-mile mark on Sept. 23, just four days shy of seven months from when he began his journey, it was an emotional experience.
“I can’t even describe it,” Toler said. “It was surreal. You basically – you’ve got that (Mount Katahdin) sign burned into your brain the whole time you’re on the trail. I’m not going to lie, I cried my eyes out when I finally touched that sign.
“You see it coming up and the tears start and then you finally touch it and it’s like an explosion of emotions," he continued. "It’s undescribable honestly.”
Toler said he could not have completed the trip without the friends he met along the way as well as the friends and family he had back home supporting him from afar.
“You’re around people that you all have that same common goal so you’re all vibing on the same frequency and those people, they got your back,” he said. “You never have to worry about anything, they all just work together, and we motivate each other and we make sure everybody is doing good and having a good time.
“We do have our low points and everything — you’re struggling with it out there the whole time mentally because you do have the option to go home at any time — but it’s a lot easier with people around because you motivate each other and you all feed off of each other’s energy.”
Toler said he also encountered many Trail Angels, who would be set up along the trail or even in town for the sole purpose of helping hikers along the trail.
This could come in the form of passing out granola bars and drinks as the hikers passed by to cooking meals and offering their homes for travelers to shower.
“There was one Trail Angel we ran into in Duncannon, Pennsylvania. I was walking into a gas station to get some Gatorade and I walked out and this old man pulled up and was like, ‘Hey, do you want to come use my pool,’ and I was like, ‘Hell yeah, we want to come use your pool.’
“It was probably 95 degrees that day and he also ended up letting us use his car to go to the grocery store and buy food and stuff and come back and use his grill.”
Toler said it hasn’t been easy to adjust to a "new normal," now that he's back in Beckley, especially with Covid-19 still in the mix.
“It’s a completely different world than what I left and it’s already hard to adjust back to normal life even in a normal year,” he said. “But this year it’s been especially difficult. I mean it is kind of difficult to find a job right now. All the stuff that’s going on that you have to worry about.
“There’s post-trail depression, which I found out is extremely real. You’re working toward that goal every day and then you finally complete that goal and you're like, ‘Whoa, what do I do now?’”
To keep his spirits up, Toler said he fills his days with small day hikes and other activities that get him outdoors and back to what he loves.
He said he also looks back through all the thousands of pictures that he took along the way to remind him of what he accomplished and the fun times that he had.
“I really didn’t bring anything back from the trip except memories,” he said. “The motto on the trail is ‘Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.'”
To view Toler’s journey from start to finish, visit his Instagram page at fjc_n_wv .