RALEIGH, N.C. - Hiking the nearly 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail already is grueling, and the U.S. Postal Service may make it even tougher. A plan to close rural post offices could shutter several outposts long used by hikers to receive food and gear as they walk the trail from Georgia to Maine.
Closing the post offices in Fontana Dam, N.C.; Glencliff, N.H.; and Caratunk, Maine, would leave hikers without an easy way to get food and switch out equipment at critical points during their treks, which usually take four to six months. Those key locations and some others near the trail are being reviewed for closure, though no final decision has been made.
"I'm trying to do this without spending much money. Getting supplied at the post office is a big part of that. It's like a lifeline," said Mike Healy, a 26-year-old Chicago resident who is hiking the trail with friends.
In mid-March, he tore into a package mailed to the western North Carolina post office before he headed into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
"The night before we reached Fontana, four of us split a small box of dried cereal because that was all the food we had left," Healy said in a phone interview from Maine. "We were glad to know we'd be able to get our package the following day."
More than 3,600 local offices, branches and stations could be on the chopping block as the financially troubled U.S. Postal Service considers closing one in 10 of its retail outlets to save money. Each place will be studied, and people served by the location will be able to make a case for keeping it open.
About 3 million people spend time on the trail every year and about 2,000 set out to "thru-hike" - or complete the trek in one season, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Most travel north from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
The threat of closures along the Appalachian Trail is mirrored in the West for thousands who traverse sections of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada. At least three rural post offices along the route are being considered for closure in California and Washington, including the last stop before Canada: Stehekin, Wash. The wilderness community is reachable only by boat, floatplane or on foot.
Backpackers would have to carry many more pounds of food between stops, which would make the trip more difficult and less enjoyable, said Heather Tilert, a 28-year-old from New York who hiked the trail last year.
The Appalachian Trail hikers typically walk or hitchhike into nearby towns for supplies every week or so, and many are on tight budgets. In some spots, discount stores provide the ramen noodles and peanut butter used to replace the thousands of calories hikers burn each day. But in others, stores are harder to find and hikers ship supplies in advance to post offices that will hold the packages for them.
Also common is the use of "bounce boxes" filled with extra food, batteries or books, which hikers mail to themselves between the 121 post offices near the trail.
At the Fontana Dam office, the last resupply stop before the Smokies, employee Brenda Williams said it's not unusual for her to give out 30 to 40 packages daily during peak hiking season. It's the busiest time of year for the post office in the town of about 30 full-time residents.
"Our post office is a little bitty thing with two teller windows," she said.
In Caratunk, hikers can pick up parcels at the post office less than half a mile from the trail. If that site closes, the nearest post office will be 71/2 miles up the road in West Forks, but that one's also slated for possible closure. The next-nearest is about 15 miles away.
Hikers toting walking sticks and lugging packs stream in and out of the post office during hiking season, said Liz Caruso, a Caratunk selectwoman. Last year, 374 packages were mailed to the post office for hikers.
"They're always sitting outside the post office," Caruso said. "When you go into the post offices, the shelves are full of boxes for hikers."
The same holds at the post office in Glencliff, N.H., which is used by hundreds of hikers each year to receive food and heavier clothing as the seasons change from summer to autumn in the colder northern states, said William Reilly, the caretaker at the nearby Hikers Welcome Hostel.
"The most important thing for them is this is the last post office before the White Mountains, and they need their cold-weather gear," Reilly said.
On Thursday in Caratunk, Madelyn Hoagland-Hanson said hikers were signing a petition at a hostel in New Hampshire aimed at keeping the Glencliff post office open.
"It's a shame that the local post offices are closing," said the Philadelphia resident who has adopted the nickname "Trail Mix" on her trek from Connecticut to Mount Katahdin.
Hiker Greg Brown, of Pleasantville, N.Y., said the towns along the trail in Maine are spaced far apart.
"I don't think there's much in the way of a grocery store. Otherwise you're going to have to carry everything you need from Stratton to Monson, which is like 80 miles," he said.