2,000 Miles, 650 Trails, No One in Sight: The Solitude of Hiking in a Time of Virus

Philip Carcia, a record-breaking hiker, has been walking for 97 days. “Mountains are mirrors, just like Covid is a mirror,” he says.

By Leslie Macmillan

GORHAM, N.H. — 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.

Mr. 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 canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic, serious hiking has been in doubt. In the early months of the outbreak, venerable organizations 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.

Mr. Carcia watched some of his hiking friends get off the trail. He thought about canceling 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 realized 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 Saturday morning, Mr. Carcia is expected to finish the Redline after just 97 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, Mr. 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 (Mr. 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.

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