Kinder­garten Can Wait

Backpacker - - CONTENTS - BY BILL DON­AHUE

Thru-hik­ing a 2,000-mile trail might be one of the tough­est feats of en­durance in the out­doors. Just don’t tell this five year old.

When five-year-old Chris­tian Thomas set out with his fam­ily to thru-hike the Ap­palachian Trail,

some skep­tics said he couldn’t—and shouldn’t. But like a lot of kids, he wasn’t lis­ten­ing.

WE SWOOP AROUND AN­OTHER TURN IN THE MOUN­TAINS. THE ROAD GETS A BIT STEEPER, AND IN THE JAN­UARY RAIN, A GRAY TEN­DRIL OF MIST DRIFTS OVER THE GREEN WOODS. THE EN­GINE CHURNS AS OUR CAR LABORS UP­HILL. BE­SIDE ME, THE LIT­TLE BOY IN A CAR SEAT STARES OUT THE WIN­DOW. CHRIS­TIAN THOMAS IS FIVE YEARS OLD AND REED-THIN WITH ROSY, CHERU­BIC CHEEKS, AND BY NOW HE HAS EATEN ABOUT HALF OF THE CHOCO­LATE DONUT HOLES CON­TAINED IN THE 14-OUNCE WAL­MART BOX IN HIS LAP. WHAT’S ON HIS MIND? IS HE DREAD­ING THE HIKE PLANNED FOR TO­DAY? PLENTY OF ADULTS WOULD BE ANX­IOUS ABOUT A 15-MILE TREK IN A CHILLY DOWN­POUR, HOOF­ING IT UP AND DOWN ON THE AP­PALACHIAN TRAIL AS IT ROLLS THROUGH SHENAN­DOAH NA­TIONAL PARK. OR IS HE JUST MES­MER­IZED BY THE FAT RAIN­DROPS LASH­ING AT THE WIN­DOWS? Quiet, quiet, quiet. There are crin­kled pa­per bags wadded on the floor of the car, a thrashed 1996 Jeep Chero­kee, and dirty laun­dry is strewn ev­ery­where. Yet some­how amid the chaos, this kid is tran­quil, com­posed—put to­gether. His brown hair is neatly parted. His man­ner is ge­nial, and when he speaks he ex­udes the in­con­gru­ous panache of a TV re­porter de­liv­er­ing the news from out­side a low-rent apart­ment com­plex. “I like fog,” he says in a high, fluty voice. “It’s cool! When you see a per­son, it’s like, wow, he mag­icked here.”

Chris­tian gig­gles, charmed by his own wit. Then he keeps eat­ing donut holes and his mother turns around to peer back at him. An­drea Rego is 26, with long brunette pig­tails. In her most re­cent job, she did of­fice work at a con­struc­tion com­pany on Long Is­land. She can be feisty. Like a mo­ment ago, frus­trated, she said, “I’m gonna burn this car when this trip is done!” Now, in a sweet baby voice, she tells her son, “You can have as many of those as you want, bud. Eat up.” She turns to me and adds, “I’d be happy if he ate the whole box. He needs the calo­ries.”

Maybe he does: It’s early 2014 and Chris­tian is hik­ing the en­tire Ap­palachian Trail, all 2,180 miles, with his mom and step­dad (well, tech­ni­cally his mom’s boyfriend), Dion Pag­o­nis, 29. Chris­tian—now best known by his trail name, Buddy Back­packer—started eight months ago, in Harper’s Ferry, West Vir­ginia, and he’s trudged through snow in North Carolina and black flies in Maine. He’s slept with his Pooh Bear ev­ery night and he’s out­hiked his mom. She stopped af­ter just 400 miles, elect­ing to chauf­feur, which im­proved their re­sup­ply lo­gis­tics and en­abled Buddy and Dion to walk with­out heavy packs. In a week, af­ter hik­ing nu­mer­ous trail sec­tions out of se­quence, the trio will re­turn to Harper’s Ferry. Chris­tian will be­come the youngest per­son in his­tory to com­plete the AT. Af­ter that, the fam­ily plans to hike the Pa­cific Crest Trail (2,650 miles) and the Con­ti­nen­tal Divide Trail (3,100 miles).

At the mo­ment, Chris­tian weighs just 46 pounds. So he keeps eat­ing donut holes, and then, af­ter a while, he groans. “I don’t feel too good, Mommy,” he says. “My stom­ach hurts.”

“You’ll feel bet­ter when you start hik­ing, Bud,” An­drea says, again in the baby voice. “You al­ways do.” Dion says noth­ing. Al­most al­ways, Dion is si­lent. We park at the trail­head, and when we climb out of the car the wind is rip­ping. When An­drea pulls a trans­par­ent rain pon­cho over Chris­tian’s jacket, it rat­tles in the gale. No other hik­ers are out. There are hardly any cars in the whole park, and it’s still pour­ing. Be­ing a par­ent my­self, I think, “Now’s when it hap­pens. Now is when the kid throws a tantrum in protest.”

But Chris­tian is placid. His belly­ache is gone or forgotten, and he’s skip­ping around in the park­ing lot and en­list­ing me as a straight man for his pranks. (I’m still a nov­elty, hav­ing just ar­rived to hike with him for three days.) “Knock knock,” he says. “Who’s there?” “Car go.” “Car go who?” “Car go beep beep.” He throws his head back and laughs, so the park­ing lot fills for a mo­ment with bright peals of joy. “How many miles can you hike in a day?” he asks me as we start hik­ing. “I don’t know. About 20.” “That’s noth­ing! I did 22 miles one day and I wasn’t even tired.”

HOW FAR IS TOO FAR? How much toil and suf­fer­ing should a kid take—and what for? A gen­er­a­tion ago, back when chil­dren roamed the streets freely, ped­al­ing their ba­nana seat bikes in a time be­fore hel­mets, no one fret­ted over such ques­tions. When a six-year-old boy named Michael Cogswell thru-hiked the en­tire Ap­palachian Trail with his par­ents in 1980, there was noth­ing but feel-good rhetoric sur­round­ing his hike. News­pa­pers made light of how the lit­tle boy crashed con­stantly, weighted by his pack, and this mag­a­zine ran a cel­e­bra­tory story in which the au­thor, Michael’s step­dad Jef­frey Cogswell, waxed po­etic about the trail­side flora—“red tril­lium, vi­o­lets, pur­ple ironweed”—and li­on­ized the lit­tle boy’s per­se­ver­ance as a photo showed a won­der­struck Michael drink­ing from an ice-skimmed moun­tain creek.

Now, though, chil­drea­r­ing is a science, and snip­ing at other peo­ple’s par­ent­ing tech­niques may be our fa­vorite con­tact sport. When jour­nal­ist Lenore Ske­nazy de­cided in 2008 to let her nine-year-old son ride the New York sub­way alone, she re­ceived thou­sands of hate let­ters and was called “Amer­ica’s Worst Mom.” (Her re­sponse: freerangekids.com.) Sim­i­lar skep­ti­cism has sur­rounded two Texas sis­ters who run half-marathons. When The

New York Times pro­filed Kayt­lynn Welsch, 12, and Heather Welsch, 10, in 2012, the head­line asked, “Too Fast Too Soon?” One reader re­sponded, “This is child abuse.”

Any par­ent who loves the out­doors can find him- or her­self push­ing the en­ve­lope, some­times un­wit­tingly. I will con­fess that when my own daugh­ter, now 20, was in preschool, I took her on a kayak trip dur­ing which our in­flat­able boat sprung a leak. Our tent and sleep­ing bags slipped out into the rapids and I spent a frigid, sleep­less night

chastis­ing my­self for be­ing self­ish and neg­li­gent. But that was just a week­end. To thru-hike the AT, Chris­tian has had to climb over rocks and roots al­most ev­ery day for nine months, over­com­ing chal­lenges that de­feat plenty of adults, even as his young sinew and bones are still grow­ing. Nat­u­rally, his par­ents have crit­ics. In one re­cent post on a Face­book page, a hiker named Yvonne called An­drea out. “If BB’s mother is still on here and view­ing th­ese posts, I want to chal­lenge you!” she wrote. “I chal­lenge you to take a mo­ment, step back and ask your­self who this Ap­palachian Trail hike adventure and ex­pe­ri­ence is all about... if it truly is about Buddy... al­low him to ex­plore, al­low him stop and love the moun­tain views.”

An AT stal­wart call­ing him­self Grey­Wolf took a harder line, al­leg­ing that Dion and An­drea brought Buddy hik­ing in un­safe con­di­tions. “The tem­per­a­ture never got above the 20s and was in the teens at night. Should I call so­cial ser­vices?” he railed.

But the fam­ily’s Face­book pic­tures from Chris­tian’s jour­ney on the AT voice a strong re­join­der to skep­tics. Here’s the boy stand­ing atop Katahdin, his arms raised in tri­umph. Here he is catch­ing snowflakes on his tongue on Christ­mas Eve in the Smok­ies. As I scroll through the images, I can’t help but marvel at how Chris­tian has ex­pe­ri­enced so much de­light at such a young age. And part of me won­ders: Should we re­ally be ask­ing if An­drea Rego is a bad mom for set­ting her son on such an ar­du­ous task? Is the cor­rect ques­tion, in fact, Is she the best

mother ever? CER­TAINLY, SHE STARTED from a rough spot.

When An­drea got preg­nant with Chris­tian in 2008, she was in her sec­ond year of col­lege at Stony Brook Uni­ver­sity, in New York. She was 20 years old, over­weight, and en­sconced in a nine-month ro­mance with a man from whom she is now es­tranged.

“I hoped Chris­tian would bring some sta­bil­ity to my life,” she says. The plan failed. Af­ter the birth, An­drea con­tin­ued at­tend­ing col­lege for a year, but then quit

to work full time. Log­ging 50 to 60 hours a week at the con­struc­tion com­pany, An­drea, who is 5’4”, bal­looned to 200 pounds. “By the time I picked Chris­tian up at day­care,” she says, “I was so tired that we just went to McDon­ald’s or ate frozen food in front of the tele­vi­sion. Chris­tian wouldn’t eat any­thing if it wasn’t in a pack­age. He was ad­dicted to TV.”

Soon, though, An­drea grew closer to her friend Dion Pag­o­nis, who had his own un­ful­fill­ing ( but lu­cra­tive) job on Long Is­land, work­ing in a win­dow­less room at Sher­man Spe­cialty, the world’s largest sup­plier of restau­rant crayons. Dion, who is also 5’4”, once weighed well over 250 pounds. But he is not one to live in quiet des­per­a­tion for­ever. He’s am­bi­tious, in idio­syn­cratic ways. In high school, he earned his Ea­gle Scout badge su­per­vis­ing a team that re-cre­ated a Na­tive Amer­i­can vil­lage. In col­lege, at SUNY Fre­do­nia, he was the pres­i­dent of Greek life.

In 2007, Dion bought a Wii Fit and be­gan work­ing out three hours a day. He lost 70 pounds. Not long af­ter, An­drea joined a gym and be­gan work­ing out, too. By 2011, Dion was fit enough to try the AT, solo. (He made it 200 miles be­fore twist­ing his an­kle.) Later, he con­vinced An­drea to join him for a back­pack­ing trip in Colorado. She had never be­fore gone on an overnight hike, and she was still smok­ing a pack a day. Over a week­end, they cov­ered only 7 miles. “It was very hard,” she says, “but I loved it—just be­ing out­side, away from Long Is­land.”

In spring 2012, fi­nally, Dion en­gi­neered an es­cape plan. He and An­drea sold nearly all their pos­ses­sions and moved west to Colorado, first to Boul­der, then to Crested Butte, a ski town where Dion scored de­sign gigs at elance.com and they op­er­ated a hos­tel called Butte Bunk. While Dion snow­boarded, Chris­tian (then four) and An­drea took to the bunny hill on skis. “By the end of the sea­son,” An­drea writes at bud­dy­back­packer.com, Chris­tian “was blow­ing down moguls and dou­ble blacks on one of the hard­est moun­tains in the United States. He has the en­durance of an ad­vanced ath­lete with a deep love for na­ture. An­drea and Dion have no choice but to live epic lives with him.”

The ex­pe­ri­ence in Crested Butte changed the tra­jec­tory of their lives. Sud­denly, the pair hoped to bring Buddy to Cal­i­for­nia, so they could all learn to surf. They thought they’d like try a longdis­tance moun­tain bike odyssey some­where. They wanted to put them­selves on a path to­ward adventure, and test their own en­durance as well as Chris­tian’s. In Colorado, as the snow melted, An­drea en­vi­sioned an­other kind of adventure. “Why don’t we hike the Ap­palachian Trail?” she asked Dion in April of 2013. Crested Butte was about to but­ton up for the off-sea­son. So they bought the wellused Jeep for $1,500, loaded their gear, and headed east.

IT’S VERY SLOW HIK­ING with Dion and Chris­tian, and also a lit­tle bit solemn. Both of them walk with iPods and head­phones. Dion lis­tens to rock, Chris­tian to ed­u­ca­tional mu­sic and lessons—brainy stuff cho­sen by Dion. (The dig­i­tal lessons are the back­bone of Chris­tian’s home­school­ing pro­gram.) All I can hear, mov­ing along through the woods, is the dull thud of foot­falls and the rain pat­ter­ing on the dead, sod­den leaves. We roll along over gen­tle hills, pass­ing rocky out­crop­pings that open onto the gray hori­zon, and even­tu­ally (in­spired by his mu­sic, it seems) Chris­tian be­gins skip­ping and weav­ing on the trail.

“Pay at­ten­tion,” Dion tells him. “Look where you’re go­ing.”

“I love the Oc­to­pus’s Gar­den song,” Chris­tian says when it comes on his iPod.

“Please don’t sing it,” says Dion. Then he adds, “Take your hands out of your pock­ets. Chris­tian! Lis­ten to in­struc­tions!”

In down­time at oc­ca­sional ho­tels, Dion and Chris­tian cud­dle up to­gether and watch movies on An­drea’s iPad. Out on the trail, though, the dia­logue is nearly all safety-ori­ented dur­ing the 40 miles I hike with them. To me, Dion ex­plains, “If he trips and breaks an arm, our hike is over.” In New Hamp­shire, Dion made Chris­tian a prom­ise: “If you don’t have any boo-boos when we get to Katahdin, I’ll give you some money.” Chris­tian lost that chal­lenge, scrap­ing his knee in a crash.

Now, though, it’s Dion who’s hold­ing us back. Still a bit chunky at 180 pounds, he isn’t a par­tic­u­larly fast hiker, and he’s plagued with what he calls “Fred Flint­stone feet”—his arches are al­most con­vex. At times, Chris­tian and I drift ahead. Then, I ask Chris­tian about his au­dio lessons. He’s learn­ing vo­cab­u­lary words: ne­far­i­ous, sub­vert, fetid, and en­cum­bered. “What’s the teacher say­ing right now?” He squints a mo­ment, lis­ten­ing. Then he par­rots the sac­cha­rine voice from his iPod: “We’re so en­cum­bered with red tape we can’t get any real work done.”

When we meet An­drea at a road cross­ing, Chris­tian runs to­ward her, laugh­ing, to hug her. We all get a mo­ment of sweet re­prieve, but only a mo­ment. An­drea says, “I al­ways feel like we’re a pit crew in a car race. It’s like, ‘You tie his shoes. I’ll put food in his mouth.’ We’re al­ways rush­ing to get him back on the trail.” She turns to Chris­tian. “Are you ready for some Pringles, Bud?” Look­ing back at me, she says, “He loves Pringles—that’s his fa­vorite food.”

Chris­tian takes a small stack, and then as we step into the woods, I glance back at our mission ve­hi­cle: The Jeep is a dull red, with “bud­dy­back­acker.com” and a big pair of an­gel wings, in yel­low, that Dion drew on the hood. (The wings sig­nify trail an­gels, as An­drea of­ten gives other hik­ers rides.) The Jeep has 150,000 miles on it, but they’ve been hard miles; it looks like it might die on the next hill.

THE BUDDY BACK­PACKER ex­pe­di­tion is not a well-oiled ma­chine, and by the time I joined, there’d been a med­ley of calami­ties. On the first night of the trip, af­ter the fam­ily rolled out of Crested Butte, An­drea left her wal­let at a con­ve­nience store. As Dion dis­likes car­ry­ing money, the trio was broke. They made camp af­ter mid­night near Man­hat­tan, Kansas, in a cold wind, and strug­gled set­ting up their tent for the first time. “I was shiv­er­ing,” Dion re­mem­bers.

“Af­ter just two rest­less hours, the fam­ily

pressed east, to­ward West Vir­ginia and the start of their hike—and the start of their con­tro­ver­sial trail strate­gies. Many hik­ers have at­tacked An­drea and Dion for be­ing loosey-goosey—and also lazy—on the AT. Some­times when faced with a big hill, they make things easy on them­selves. They drove to the top of Mt. Wash­ing­ton twice, for in­stance, so Chris­tian could hike down each side. (He never ac­tu­ally climbed Wash­ing­ton.) When it was snow­ing in the Smok­ies, they skipped ahead, down to Ge­or­gia, then came back weeks later. They took about 90 days off, in to­tal, en­abling Dion to earn much­needed money by do­ing de­sign projects. They were sim­ply hik­ing their own hike, to in­voke the credo that per­vades AT cul­ture, but that counted lit­tle with back­pack­ing’s grand poohbahs, who in many cases have built their lives around the AT and come to style them­selves the keep­ers of the trail’s sa­cred mores.

“They were sloppy,” says War­ren Doyle, a re­tired col­lege pro­fes­sor who’s hiked the AT a record 16 times. “They did a lot of lol­ly­gag­ging, and they got into trou­ble be­cause of that. They were out hik­ing far later into the win­ter than they needed to be.” (Doyle, iron­i­cally, has crit­ics him­self. On his Ap­palachian Trail Ex­pe­di­tions, a sup­port ve­hi­cle carts gear for hik­ers, en­abling them to sashay nearly all 2,000-plus miles bear­ing noth­ing but day­packs.)

Other crit­ics ques­tioned if they were ac­tu­ally on the trail at all, sug­gest­ing that Chris­tian’s par­ents cheated by skip­ping sev­eral stretches of the AT, even as they pre­tend-logged the miles on­line.

“There are some peo­ple who are ly­ing about thru-hik­ing the Ap­palachian Trail and, since it’s al­most Christ­mas, I’m not go­ing to name them yet,” wrote a man named Tom Bazemore on Face­book. “This will give them a chance to come clean and end their con game.” Bazemore, who runs a Ge­or­gia-based shut­tle com­pany, con­tin­ued by di­rectly ad­dress­ing his tar­gets: “You are cer­tainly not the first to lie about hik­ing the en­tire trail but the fact that you are us­ing a lit­tle child in this con is truly be­yond be­lief!”

Seventy- one com­ments fol­lowed, most of them nasty, and An­drea snarled back: “I hope you all are com­pletely ashamed of your­selves for spew­ing such non­sense. I can’t wait un­til we are fin­ished and can laugh look­ing back at all you haters.”

I called Bazemore to ask which sec­tions Buddy and his folks had skipped. His com­plaints ze­roed in on a 30.3-mile stretch of trail be­tween New­found Gap, North Carolina, and Daven­port Gap, Ten­nessee. “I shut­tled some hik­ers there ex­actly when [Chris­tian and Dion] were sup­posed to be there,” he said, “and I told th­ese peo­ple to look for a man with a five-year-old boy. They never saw them.”

Dion had an­tic­i­pated such cri­tiques, how­ever. In his own Face­book post, he wrote, “If I wasn’t hik­ing with Buddy, I would be skep­ti­cal of his ac­com­plish­ment, too.” So along the length of the AT, he took pho­to­graphs with a GPS cam­era and then posted them to a map at pa­naramio.com. His pic­tures are mostly of Chris­tian stand­ing at over­looks or streams, or by trees or on moun­tain­tops, and they do not skip the sec­tion Bazemore ques­tions. For those 30 miles, there are more than 20 pho­tos, each one time-stamped. I scru­ti­nized them one morn­ing, and a story emerged of a small boy mov­ing over rocky ter­rain, through ice and snow, at a lit­tle more than 1.5 miles an hour. There is lit­tle doubt that Buddy Back­packer pro­gressed steadily north­east, to­ward Daven­port Gap, in two long days, on De­cem­ber 1 and 2, 2013.

I called Bazemore back and asked him to point me to­ward other skipped sec­tions. “Look,” he said, “I’m not go­ing to go back and forth with you on this like we’re all in ju­nior high school. I know what I know and I stand by it.”

THE WEATHER CLEARS, and when we begin hik­ing on the sec­ond day, af­ter camp­ing, Chris­tian is in high spir­its. “Isn’t it beau­ti­ful out to­day?” he says. “The trail is nice and soft, and there are no roots, and it’s pretty flat right here. It’s even pretty warm.” He’s chatty now, and he speaks of see­ing or­ange lizards on his AT odyssey, and turkeys, and red fly­ing

squirrels, and a rat­tlesnake, some wild ponies, and a moose. He doesn’t know the names of the plants around us. He’s experiencing na­ture as a small an­i­mal does, sen­su­ally, as a breeze on his back and a cold bite on his brow. Lis­ten­ing to him, I think of Michael Cogswell, the six-yearold thru hiker, now in his early 40s, who re­cently told me, “I wouldn’t trade my AT ex­pe­ri­ence for the world. There’s a cer­tain pu­rity in do­ing some­thing like that as a child. You can never get that back. But there are pos­i­tives and neg­a­tives. By the time I was done with that hike, I wasn’t re­ally a kid any­more. I’d walked so many miles. I’d car­ried my own clothes and a tent and helped wash the laun­dry at night. I’d had all this re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Is Chris­tian grow­ing up too fast? He sure doesn’t seem world-weary, for he keeps beg­ging me to tell him make­be­lieve sto­ries. I tell him one, fi­nally. It’s about my plas­tic wa­ter bot­tle go­ing “home,” to China. The wa­ter bot­tle has a hard-to-pro­nounce fake Chi­nese name that Chris­tian loves re­peat­ing, his voice a high-pitched ar­ray of scratchy, whis­pery sounds. When the tale is done, he spends 30 min­utes de­tail­ing the plot of the film Cloudy With a Chance of Meat­balls. Then

he asks, “Should I tell you about Cloudy

with a Chance of Meat­balls 2?”

Is he lonely—starved for at­ten­tion from peo­ple be­sides his par­ents? Prob­a­bly a lit­tle, but when I ask if he misses go­ing to school, he isn’t en­tirely clear what school en­tails. An­drea says he en­joyed preschool on Long Is­land, but on the trail he only con­jures up one mem­ory. “They put me in with the ba­bies,” he says with dis­dain.

I ask him if hik­ing ever gets bor­ing. “That’s a silly ques­tion,” he says. “No!” “Do you ever hate the AT?” “Some­times I don’t like it when it’s re­ally hard. Then I just want to be done. I want Mommy to be right there in the mid­dle of the woods and I just want to go to sleep right there.”

Later, I de­scribed my hike with Chris­tian to Dr. W. Dou­glas B. Hiller, an or­tho­pe­dic sur­geon at North Hawaii Com­mu­nity Hos­pi­tal and a one-time chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer for the triathlon at the Olympics. He said, “I doubt they caused him any phys­i­cal harm. As long as it was a happy fam­ily hike and he wasn’t be­ing pushed, or made to keep go­ing when he was limp­ing, he should be fine. If he got some bruises and cuts, well, that’s what lit­tle kids do all day long—they run around and jump and fall and get up.”

I searched at length for a child psy­chol­o­gist who might ob­ject to Hiller’s san­guine take. I couldn’t find one, and I de­cided that the hub­bub over An­drea’s par­ent­ing was rooted partly in fear: An­drea is dif­fer­ent than most AT hik­ers. She’s from work­ing class Long Is­land. She’s com­bat­ive at times. Yes, she and Dion brought Chris­tian hik­ing on a very cold day. But what’s the harm in dress­ing warmly and hit­ting the trail? Yes, Dion some­times carps at the kid. As do many par­ents who steer their chil­dren to­ward more cul­tur­ally ac­cepted goals—pi­ano, soc­cer, spell­ing bees. Why should hik­ing be any dif­fer­ent? In fact, it’s easy to see the ex­pe­ri­ence in a very dif­fer­ent light. Chris­tian and his fam­ily are hik­ing Amer­ica’s most beloved and fought-over trail in pur­suit of hap­pi­ness, and they’re happy most of the time. To­gether, they’ve found a way to en­gage with the world—to com­mune with its beauty and have an adventure. This is what mat­ters.

On the last day I’m on the AT, An­drea picks us up at dusk, to drive us to the near­est shel­ter, where we’ll camp. It’s cold out­side, so we sa­vor the warm blast of the car’s heater. When we park, Dion limps down the short path to the shel­ter. Chris­tian leaps over the pud­dles. An­drea cooks us all din­ner. Then the next morn­ing, back­ing out, she runs over the gas stove. Un­der her breath, she says, “Shit!” Then she laughs and throws the stove into the Jeep and drives on. I SEE THEM ONLY ONE MORE TIME, eight months later, on a rainy af­ter­noon last Septem­ber in the small town of Trout Lake, Wash­ing­ton, as they take a break near the end of their Pa­cific Crest Trail thru-hike. Trout Lake is a forested Nowheresville, and af­ter 11 straight days on the trail they’re en­sconced in drab tasks—laun­dry, email, clean­ing out their packs. Still, as I pull up to the Trout Lake Gro­cery to find An­drea stand­ing there on the porch, with Chris­tian en­twined in her arms, she ex­udes a cer­tain glow. There’s an ease about her, a soft­ness to her skin. She’s happy—you can tell that with­out even ask­ing ques­tions. And she’s sun­baked and lean now, 35 pounds lighter than when I’d last seen her. She’s been hik­ing the whole way this time, with both her and Dion car­ry­ing packs. The Jeep is long gone.

“We did 23 miles yes­ter­day be­fore four o’clock,” she says, look­ing down. “Didn’t we, Buddy?”

“Yeah,” Chris­tian says, rocking a bit in his mother’s arms. He’s sleepy-eyed and determined, it seems, not to take the bait. “Ac­tu­ally,” he says, “it was 22.8.”

“What’s been your fa­vorite part of the PCT so far?” I ask.

“Whit­ney,” he says. “It was cool. We were way up there. It felt like the end of the trail.” There’s still a kid’s won­der in his voice, but it’s more con­tained now. He’s 2 or 3 inches taller, and there is, sud­denly, a grace about his small, lanky per­son. It seems al­most cer­tain that in a few years girls will go crazy for him and that he’ll de­flect their ar­dor with a lan­guid ease.

“And what else was fun?” I ask, dig­ging a lit­tle more.

“Goat Rocks,” he says, re­fer­ring to a nearby boul­der field that stretches on

for a cou­ple miles. “I like do­ing hard stuff. And this house,” he says, mean­ing the store, where they’re stay­ing in an up­stairs mo­tel room. “At night, they light up th­ese lights on the porch and it’s beau­ti­ful. It looks like Christ­mas.”

When Dion emerges, fresh from a shower, I see he’s lost weight as well. He’s more than 30 pounds lighter and also ebul­lient, al­most jolly. The tense­ness I’d seen be­fore on the AT, as he tried to cor­ral a rest­less kid and ne­go­ti­ate com­plex car lo­gis­tics, has van­ished. This time, the three of them have all hiked to­gether. There is, it seems, a new calm in Dion’s mus­cles. “This trail is eas­ier than the AT,” he says. “It’s well-main­tained, it’s graded. It’s not rocky and you can ac­tu­ally get a good stride go­ing.”

We walk across the street to get lunch, and An­drea and Dion up­date me some. Chris­tian, they say, now likes to wield his bamboo hik­ing poles like Ninja swords. They’ve landed a host of spon­sors—a tent spon­sor, a pack spon­sor, even a socks spon­sor— and at one point, rest­ing from the trail, they en­coun­tered a lovely 18-yearold girl who spent the af­ter­noon teach­ing Chris­tian how to twirl a hula hoop.

“You liked that didn’t you, Bud?” An­drea asks.

“Yeah,” he says, look­ing down at his fries. “That was good.”

What jumps out is how steady they all seem. They’re no longer the hap­less out­siders of the back­pack­ing world. No one is sav­aging them on Face­book any­more, and their goal of com­plet­ing the Triple Crown in 2015 no longer seems out­landish. Bar­ring catas­tro­phe, they will get the job done. Then they’ll move on to surf­ing or moun­tain bik­ing or what­ever. Ev­ery­thing will work out for Chris­tian, more or less; he’ll clearly be okay.

But to Chris­tian, the un­likely peace that his fam­ily en­joys wan­der­ing the world is old news. He doesn’t want to sit there and talk about it. There’s a tram­po­line be­hind the store, and he keeps look­ing out the win­dow to­ward it. Even­tu­ally, An­drea lets him go. He runs over to it, loose-limbed, his body lit with de­light. He climbs in­side the tram­po­line’s protective black mesh fence, and be­gins jump­ing, giddy and laugh­ing as he sails into the sky.

By Bill Don­ahue | Photography by Brown W. Can­non III

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