Editor’s note: The Virus Diaries is a series in which Mainers talk about how they are affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

Joseph Demakis began his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail on March 17 in Georgia. Just a day later, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy urged hikers to get off the trail for fear of the spread of coronavirus. Once Demakis got word from another hiker, he quickly ended his plans for a six-month hike and came home to North Waterboro, where he is self-isolating.

Demakis, 34, served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Middle East and Africa during an 11-year military career. He retired in 2015 after suffering multiple head traumas and symptoms from post-traumatic stress disorder. When Demakis took up hiking last year and planned to thru-hike the AT, it was for therapy.

He was with expeditionary forces on a small aircraft carrier, he explained, “and I had two hard landings. It’s been a long road to recover. I am now a student at the University of Southern Maine and another veteran at USM told me hiking the AT would help. At first I thought, ‘Who wants to go hike that far in the woods?’ But my counselor at the VA suggested it. Last summer I started hiking and found it very helpful.

Joseph Demakis of North Waterboro, who served in the U.S. Marines for 11 years, planned to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail to help with PTSD. Photo courtesy of Joseph Demakis

“When you come back (from military deployment), you stay home a lot. It’s just something veterans do. But it’s good to be social. I enjoy the social interaction of hiking. Everyone is so friendly. Nobody is mean. I thought, ‘I can deal with this.’ And it’s proven physical activity helps veterans with PTSD.

“So I took this semester off to do the AT. I got on it just as everything really started to hit the fan. When I started up Springer Mountain (in Georgia) it was raining, so I went to the shelter, but some lady said a guy had just left it throwing up. Then another hiker said he got a message that the ATC was asking everyone to get off the trail. I thought, the trail is the best place for self-isolation. But then I found out my grandfather was in intensive care.

“The next day I hiked 10 miles to a B&B and they gave me a ride to a train station to take it north. And things were different. REI was closing its stores. There was nobody anywhere. In Atlanta, I got a direct flight to Boston and took the bus, got home and self-isolated. It was surreal.

“My grandfather is a retired York County sheriff and he told me not to go – he said the coronavirus was going to go crazy. He is fine now, but the worst part was not knowing if I would see him again. There are people out there dying. My brother is a paramedic and I realize their sacrifice is a lot more than mine.”

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