Fire restrictions are in place on much of the southern leg of the Appalachian Trail, leaving many southbound thru-hikers stalled along their journeys.
Hikers are not allowed to light any kind of open flame. The only heat sources allowed are pressurized gas fuel camp stoves and backpacking stoves.
In addition, ongoing drought conditions are depleting water sources and wildfires have forced the closure of nearly 70 miles of trail.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is posting condition updates HERE.
These restrictions are impacting southbound thru-hikers, and the town of Hot Springs, N.C. is playing host to many of these stalled individuals.
Andrew Feeney is hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, southbound, from Maine to Georgia, but has found himself waiting in Hot Springs.
"I didn't know about the burn bans until I got into town, and then I found out a huge part of the trail is closed 120 miles away, and I was pretty bummed out,” Feeney said. “I'm kind of thinking, 'Well, what do I do? Do I wait it out?'"
He was 10 days away from finishing.
After more than 1,900 miles and four months on the trail, giving up so close to the finish is not an option, he said.
"I mean, it's a little frustrating because you see the end,” Feeney said. “I'm pretty tired. Like, I've walked 1,900 miles. I should be tired, but I also am embracing this as part of the journey."
It’s a journey that includes help from somebody Feeney calls a trail angel.
Her name is Sally Lassiter. She and her husband live in Hot Springs and offered Feeney a job doing yard work in exchange for some money, food and a place to camp while he waits out the current trail conditions.
"We've hired lots of hikers at $10 an hour. It helps them with their hike and we've gotten all kinds of things done in our yard,” Lassiter said.
"I'm actually getting paid to be in Hot Springs, which is like the lottery,” Feeney said with a grin. “Like, 'Thank you, God!'"
The 23-year-old recently graduated from Roanoke College in southwest Va., through which the Appalachian Trail passes. That, he said, is where he caught the hiking bug. He has done sections of the AT but always wanted to thru-hike, and said this will likely be his one and only time doing it, which is why he wants to finish this last leg.
He isn't under a deadline and said he's able to wait and finish his epic journey - with help from an angel, of course.
"I think in this day and time, that's more and more important - that we all need to look for ways to give each other a hand and help each other out,” Lassiter said.
Feeney isn’t alone in his predicament.
Gabriela Kozlowski works at the Hot Springs Welcome Center. She said she has lost count of the number of hikers whose journeys have been impacted by the wildfires.
"Of course, with the colder weather, that makes it a real issue for the hikers staying warm,” Kozlowski said of the burn ban. "What do you do on such cold nights? Because they're increasing in elevation by 1,000 feet or more on some of their journey."
She and Feeney mentioned the poor air quality, too, as a result of the wildfires.
“I mean, I'm no doctor, but that can't be good for your lungs,” Feeney said.
Originally from a Connecticut suburb of New York City, Feeney said his parents have been supportive of his post-college adventure.
“I started July 17 at Baxter State Park in Maine, which is the northern terminus (of the AT), and, as for experience, there's nothing that could really prepare you for a long distance hike,” he said. "I take each day as it is. I don't really think that far ahead."
That attitude has helped him take this delay in stride.
"Can't really worry about anything that you can't control,” he said.
Kozlowski said the town is hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for the thru-hikers who have found themselves stalled in Hot Springs, with the effects of regional wildfires the only thing standing in their way of completing the full 2,200 mile-journey.
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