Can you be a pro at isolation? If anyone could be, it seems like it would be Garrett Fondoules. Normally, he travels across the Appalachian Trail, working to map its landmarks and boundaries. Sometimes, he scarcely sees another human face. Wouldn’t a little more isolation be nothing new?
Yet, like everyone, Fondoules’ life has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of this interview in late March, Fondoules hadn’t been on the trail for about a week — now, it has been months. Fondoules has since moved from the Pennsylvania farmhouse he was interviewed from to temporary housing in Maine, and he is more uncertain than ever as to when he will return to the trail. There has been one encouraging change — on May 20, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy issued guidelines for day and overnight hikers to hike safely during the pandemic. But they still recommend avoiding the trail altogether, and large swaths of the trail are closed.
Fondoules tells Rebecca Sohn of his life before the pandemic — one filled with scenic views, folk dancing with friends, and the hard work of mapping the longest hiking-only trail in the world.
Rebecca Sohn: Garrett Fondoules is used to being alone. VERY alone.
Garrett Fondoules: This mountain I was working on in Maine, there was some virgin forest on this mountain that is, except for moose tracks, absolutely trackless. There is zero evidence at all of any human having ever been there. I might as well have been the first person because the woods were just so complete and so intact.
Rebecca Sohn: Fondoules’ job is to help map the Appalachian Trail. He roams remote areas, noting the edges of the trail and collecting precise data on each location. If anyone should be used to isolation, it’s him. And yet…
Garrett Fondoules: I’m in a boat right alongside folks that are trying to figure out how to be how to be isolated because I’m trying to figure out how to be isolated while staying in one place.
Rebecca Sohn: On March 23, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy recommended that everyone stay off the over 2,000-mile long trail to avoid spreading the coronavirus. As a result, Fondoules is holed up in an old farmhouse in Pennsylvania that has been converted into a trail base. He’s used to traveling the east coast, sleeping in his truck, staying at various trail outposts, and camping out along the trail. While he’s on the trail, sometimes squirrels are his only company…
Garrett Fondoules: Sometimes I am so isolated that I just have to use my own voice to make sure it still works. The red squirrels up north are the sassiest most annoying little critters in the world. And if they’re just out there yelling at me, I’m going to give as good as I get.
Rebecca Sohn: It is in these happier times that Fondoules gets to roam the Appalachian Trail as part of his rather unique job.
Garrett Fondoules: I am possessor of the nebulous title of Corridor Stewardship GIS Data and Field Technician, of there is only one of in the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
Rebecca Sohn: GIS, which stands for Geospatial Information Systems, is at the root of how all modern maps are made. Collecting GIS data involves documenting the precise locations of various points, usually indicated with survey markers. Fondoules largely works to correct old or inaccurate surveys of the trail.
Garrett Fondoules: A lot of these old surveys will, some of them helpfully tie into survey markers that, you know, you’ll see sometimes on top of mountains or when there’s a fire tower or a bridge or something. But a lot of these surveys might just say the start point is the pile of rocks at this one person’s property corner. Like, that’s great. That doesn’t really help me 35 years later, those rocks might have been moved, or in the case of places like Pennsylvania, the whole mountain is a pile of rocks.
Rebecca Sohn: Fondoules uses a GPS, or global positioning system, device to collect his data, which pings his precise location up to a satellite and back to one of hundreds of collections stations, which stores the information in a database. Most of the data Fondoules collects marks the trail’s boundaries. But to get to these boundaries, he has to go in search of trail monuments like those piles of rocks, that may or may not still be there.
Garrett Fondoules: Sometimes it could be going through Briar thickets or Laurel thickets where it might take as long to make 500 feet as I usually make three miles walking on a trail. So for that I’m mostly just walking trails, woods roads, whatever I can to get as close as possible to the monuments before I actually have to bushwhack, then get out to the monuments, set up my survey GPS on top of them and wait while the GPS does its thing.
Rebecca Sohn: Fondoules relishes the chance to spend so much of his time outside. He even looks the part. Fondoules has the kind of full facial hair and wild, wavy ponytail that make him fit right in amidst the woods. But he never thought he would spend so much time in the wilderness. During high school, Fondoules became interested in engineering, and went to college for to study the subject. The summer after high school, he interned at a local engineering firm.
Garrett Fondoules: Even though I was going to school for engineering, they put me into geospatial information systems and kept me there for an awful long time. So I never had any formal GIS training but would up just learning it from exposure at work.
Rebecca Sohn: Although he thought of it at the time as just a summer internship, it ended up turning into a job. For over six years until he got a degree, he commuted to college while working at the firm.
Garrett Fondoules: And then from that point, once I burned out there I went out to spend six months through-hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Rebecca Sohn: Through-hiking, or hiking the entirety of, the Appalachian Trail was something Fondoules had always wanted to do. He finished his hike in 2013, and afterwards, started a seasonal position working on the trail. When his supervisors discovered he had experience with GIS data, they hired him to help collect it. He’s been working full-time on the trail since 2016 and has largely adjusted to the job’s required isolation.
Garrett Fondoules: With my job, it’s not that bad. Then I don’t think so much about what’s going on elsewhere, because I’m focused immediately on the task at hand. It’s when I’m kind of in between being deep in the woods and being fully in civilization then that’s when I’m really kind of bummed out and wishing I could be with my friends.
Rebecca Sohn: Fondoules feels like this now more than ever. He would normally attend area contra dances, a form of social folk dance, near whatever part of the trail he happens to be working on. But due to the coronavirus, contra dances all over the country have been cancelled indefinitely. As a contra dancer myself, I met Fondoules in a Facebook group called Social Disdance, a hub for temporarily stymied social dancers. But even though he can’t see friends at dances, he says being engaged with the community is helping him.
Garrett Fondoules: Last night I was on a voice call that some Western Massachusetts dancers have started doing at 7:30pm on Wednesdays when they all would otherwise have been at the Amherst contra dance. So that’s really cool to hear all their voices when before this, I’m sure I was hearing their voices a whole lot less than I am every week now when I might just be in Massachusetts for a couple weeks of the year.
Rebecca Sohn: Even though these online interactions can be comforting, Fondoules misses the real thing. He doesn’t know when he’ll be back on the trail, and suspects it might be even longer before dances, which can be dangerous for spreading disease, start up again. But he imagines that when he does dance again, reuniting with the community will be a powerful experience.
Garrett Fondoules: It’s gonna be intense, the first few dances after this. It’ll be powerful as fuck, but it’ll be a nice release to just be like, oh my goodness, I’m actually around these people again.
Rebecca Sohn: For Scienceline, I’m Rebecca Sohn.
[fiddle music plays, fade out]