Long-distance hikers often dream about a cheeseburger and fries, only to awake in their tents to the same old granola bars day after day. To many Appalachian Trail hikers, the Doyle Hotel in Duncannon, Perry County, was the place where that dream came true, a greasy beacon by the Susquehanna River.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, however, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and nearly all of the 31 maintenance clubs that help keep the 2,193-mile trail functioning asked the U.S. Department of the Interior to officially shut it down on April 1. The conservancy has already told through-hikers to cancel their trips and day hikers to stay home, and has shut down the shelters and privies it manages on the trail. An ATC spokesman said that the Department of the Interior has not yet responded to its letter and that the ATC would reconvene on April 30 to see where things stood.
While an Appalachian Trail shutdown wouldn’t be permanent — and would be difficult to enforce — the owners of the Doyle fear that many through-hikers who start at Springer Mountain in Georgia in the spring and finish atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin in late summer, along with section hikers who do the trail piecemeal, would likely go home and aim for next year. At the Doyle, which was set to celebrate its 115th birthday later this month, hikers make up nearly 50 percent of the business.
“They are strongly recommending that hikers get off the trail,” said Vickey Kelly, owner of the Doyle. “It’s pretty much just killed our northbound season. We’re looking at a loss of our whole season.”
Kelly said she’s given up on takeout, for now, because of her husband, Pat Kelly, who is 77 and therefore vulnerable to the virus’ severe complications.
“It got to the point where I had to worry if I’m killing my husband by staying open,” Kelly said.
Approximately three million people visit the Appalachian Trail each year, according to the conservancy. A few thousand try to do the whole thing in one trip, but not all of them make it. The majority are simply hiking a small section of the trail, perhaps as short as a few miles. At 1,100 miles, Pine Grove Furnace, in Cumberland County, is the trail’s halfway point for northbound through-hikers, or NOBOs.
Duncannon is just 35 miles to the north of Pine Grove, one of the few “trail towns” in Pennsylvania where hikers can resupply. It’s small, with a population of about 1,500, and sits at the confluence of the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers. It’s visible to motorists heading to Harrisburg or State College, but often sleepy until summer, when the hikers arrive.
“Winters here are very rough as far as business goes,” Kelly said.
Jeffrey Kirkhoff, president of Duncannon’s borough council, said it’s too soon to say whether the pandemic will cause the cancellation of the hiker festival in June, but it’s on the mind of every business owner in town. One irony of the pandemic, a situation seen across the country, is that more people are going outside, into nature. The borough closed a parking lot to the trailhead to Hawk Rock, a local landmark that shares trail with the AT.
“Since Pennsylvania issued its stay-at-home orders, this small parking lot had seen a large uptick in usage for this time of year,” Kirkhoff said. “A borough employee counted over 60 cars at one point.”
Kelly said the Doyle depends on day hikers, too, the outdoors crowd from Harrisburg who come in on the weekends for Hawk Rock and other scenic views. The through-hikers usually stand out, she said. They’re often grimy. The men always have gnarly beards. Their families often meet them there for a halfway celebration.
A hotel was first built in the 1770s where the Doyle now stands, but was later destroyed by fire. Charles Dickens is believed to have slept there. The current brick building was bought by the Anheuser-Busch family in the 1800s, and it opened as the Doyle in 1905. Kelly, 65, said she and her husband bought the hotel in 2001 because opportunity knocked “and we were too stupid to not answer." The Kellys live in the Doyle and still offer up to a dozen rooms for hikers passing through.
The burgers are why they come.
“We’re known for having the best burger on the trail,” she said.
Many businesses in town depend on hikers, including convenience stores and a local breakfast joint. Kelly said the Doyle has a partnership with Mutzabaugh’s Market, a Duncannon grocery store that offers a free shuttle back and forth from the hotel, so long-distance hikers can resupply.
“Some days it can be one or two hikers, other days it can be 12 to 15,” said Andy Arnold, director of operations at Mutzabaugh’s. "We’ve only had a few come through this year, but it usually didn’t get heavy until June and July. "
Mutzabaugh’s, like most groceries, is seeing unprecedented business. Arnold said he worked 21 days straight. The hikers make up a small piece of the puzzle, he said, but a piece they don’t want to lose.
"They buy a lot of beef jerky, trail mix, and granola,” he said. “The community does a lot for hikers. We love having them.”
As the trail runs through 14 states and countless state and federal parks, enforcing who comes and goes could be difficult, if not impossible. Knowing that many through-hikers want their names added to the list when they reach the end, the ATC said it would not recognize any through-hiker who continued on and into areas that have closed access to the trail. Hikers who voluntarily left the trail before March 31 will be given an additional 12 months to pick up where they left off, when they choose, once social distancing is over.
A smaller number of southbound hikers, known as SOBOs, begin their journey at Katahdin and hike south to Georgia. Kelly said they generally get started in the summer and finish in the fall, and she hopes more hikers take that route to salvage their dream of hiking the AT.
“We do have hope for southbound season but that doesn’t even start until June,” she said. “It’s usually one-third of the hikers, but that might grow.”