He has completed The Appalachian trail – a daunting 2,185 mile walk in the woods; and the PCT, all 2,663 miles.
Now he is tackling the 3,100 mile long Continental Divide Trail.
Christian Thomas is five years old and reed-thin with rosy, cherubic cheeks.
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.
“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.
It’s early 2014 and Christian is hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, all 2,180 miles, with his mom, Andrea Rego, and stepdad, 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).
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.)
“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?
Any parent who loves the outdoors can find him- or herself pushing the envelope, sometimes unwittingly.
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?
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. 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.”
Out on the trail the dialogue is nearly all safety-oriented during the 40 miles I hike with them.
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. 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.’ ”
I glance back at our mission vehicle: The Jeep is a dull red, with “buddybackpacker.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.)
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 some much needed money by doing design projects. They were simply hiking their own hike.
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.
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-year-old 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.”
Is Christian growing up too fast? He sure doesn’t seem world-weary, for he keeps begging me to tell him make-believe stories.
Is he lonely? Probably a little, but when I ask if he misses going to school, he isn’t entirely clear what school entails. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. “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.
“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.”
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.
Thanks to Bill Donahue for the original story: http://www.backpacker.com/special-features/kindergarten-can-wait/
All images are from BuddyBackpacker.com