Last year in late January, I was hopeful and nervous. I had my permit to hike the Pacific Crest Tail printed together with my California Campfire Permit, my sabbatical had been approved, and I was busy accumulating spare hours at work. My appointment at the U.S. embassy was fixed for early March, and I booked flights and pondered what gear to bring along. I was counting down the days, filled with a level of excitement I had not experienced since I was a young child.
Covid-19 was still stuff that happened in China at that time. I had a bad gut feeling about the whole thing, but the news coverage was quite inconclusive. Was it a new kind of flu? Was it dangerous? Would it start spreading faster or slow down and vanish like MERS and SARS had? I was hopeful.
February started dampening my hopes and casting dark shadows over my plans. It couldn’t be, could it, that a small molekule 300 times smaller than the width of a human hair would render my years of planning for naught? I met with other hikers who were planning big thru hikes in 2020, and we assured each other that it wasn’t going to be so bad, that a new flu strain couldn’t turn the world on its head. But the tiny virus washed through Italy with the force and devastation of a tsunami, and by late February, it was only a question of when, not if, other countries would be deeply affected.
I visited the embassy in early March as planned, keeping my distance to other visitors as good as possible and following the dozens of signs to use copious amounts of hand sanitizer. My visa got approved after a short talk, which should have been the last major step to make my tour real, but I couldn’t really enjoy it. That same day, when I drove home, I listened to the news and heard that all U.S. embassies in Europe were closing their doors, starting the next day, for an undertermined length of time.
Two days later, I got my passport back with the visa glued inside. I browsed the web, desperate for any news that would disprove what I felt was the inevitable, but I came up empty. Corona, freshly labelled as a pandemic now, was going to sweep over the world, and knowing politics and history, I had no doubt that international travel would be among the first victims. I asked my employer if I could postpone my sabbatical and was happy that they immediately accepted. I cancelled my flights and rooms hours before the U.S. President declared a national emergency and closed the borders.
I felt like I hit a brick wall at full speed. My country went into lockdown. For long weeks, the only allowed reasons to leave my flat were heading to work, seeing a doctor, buying groceries or taking a walk of no more than an hour. Instead of the big freedom and adventure I had been looking forward to, I was locked up in my small flat, sewing community masks and cooking to fill my time.
It didn’t take me long to grasp the full extent of what was happening. While others were still hopeful that summer would make things better, I knew inside that it would take the world a lot longer to return to a semblance of normality. I knew I wouldn’t get to hike the trail this year, and I was sure that 2021 was jus as unlikely. Yet I didn’t want to bury my dream.
I can’t be sure that things will work out in 2022, but I can’t not plan. I can’t not hope.
Sewing community masks at least made me confident enough in my limited skills so I finally dared to glue and sew an ultra light tarp. With Corona restrictions somewhat loosened over the summer, I even managed to take my first self-made shelter on a tour and spend ten days on a trail through the Black Forest. It wasn’t the PCT, but it was hiking at its most basic, walking until my legs tired, encountering prety views and wild animals, and most of all, dining and sleeping under the shining roof of the million-star-hotel. It was getting dirty and wet and so surrounded in the odor of the outdoors that the shy animals in the woods were merely curious instead of frightened whenever we encountered one another. I finally experienced bursts of that simple happiness that hiking brings. A comfortable spot in the sun after a cold, wet morning. Hot, yummy pasta to fill my hungry stomach. Moments of awe when a predatory bird swept past me so close I could touch it, or a stag stepped onto the paths and looked fearlessly at me.
These moments when I’m not a visitor in a foreign place called nature, but where I’m part of it with every fiber of my being, fill me with a sense of completeness that no accomplishment at work ever could provide. When the sound of drizzling water is like the sweetest melody, and a fat dormouse cackles right above my head while I relive the impressions of a 25-mile day of hiking and munch on nuts and dried fruits to replenish my energy, then the world is alright.
That feeling of alrightness carried me through a winter with increasing restrictions and stay-at-home orders, and it reminded me that, despite all uncertainties about vaccinations and mutations, I’m not ready to abandon my dream.
I’m going to keep planning to hike my dream hike, not this year but next, and even if some other stumbling block gets thrown between my feet, then the year after that. I’ll not stop planning, and I won’t stop hoping.