How the Eight-Member Crawford Family Completed the Appalachian Trail
At 10 a.m. on Aug. 9, the Crawford family finished what they started: hiking from Springer Mountain, GA, to Mount Katahdin, ME. Check out the early part of their hike here.
Lessons Learned from a 2,188-Mile Hike
I recently sat down on a sunny, mild fall day with Ben and Kami at their charming 19th-century brick home, nestled in a homey, working-class neighborhood near downtown Cincinnati. It was pleasant sitting beneath the autumn sky, surrounded by vegetables and flowerbeds underneath an arbor with hanging loofah gourds, all of which Ben’s Korean-born mother tended with care. It was in this serene setting that Ben and Kami opened up about the many things they learned about themselves, their family, and the Appalachian Trail.
From moment they set foot on Springer Mountain on a dreary March 1, every step of the journey was a learning experience. The following account was extracted from our conversation, and from hundreds of videos on their YouTube channel, Fight for Together, which details many of the valuable lessons they learned over their 161-day adventure.
Lessons in Misery
Right from the start, the weather was the number one issue. For the Crawfords, March felt especially cold and snowy. It seemed like if it wasn’t snowing, it was raining. Being an extremely physically fit family—regularly running marathons and working out together back home—they were ready for the rigors of the trail and had few problems with the physical demands of hiking for eight-plus hours a day. What they were not ready for was the relentless cold and rain; soggy and cold when they went to bed, soggy and cold when they got up. The chilly dampness made everything more difficult: setting up and breaking down camp, cooking, even going to the bathroom. And if it wasn’t weather, it was bugs: ticks, gnats, mosquitoes, biting flies, and even microscopic bugs in the form of nauseating bacteria that afflicted the entire family.
Yet onward they slogged, trying their best to keep their spirits up, but many times there wasn’t anything to do but to trudge on, until at long last they could hike to a point where they could get off the trail and stop at a hostel or hotel to get relief from the elements.
As days turned into weeks, the elements began to wear on the kids, taking a toll on everyone’s morale. Seeing this, Ben and Kami realized they needed to do something to improve their family’s mind-set.
Lessons in Leadership and Motivation
Ben and Kami had tough decisions to make from start to finish. At various times when the family was struggling with low morale, they made strategic stops in hotels or cabins to rest and recuperate. However, these little respites weren’t enough to permanently lift their spirits out of the doldrums.
As some of the kids were already thinking about quitting the trail, an option Ben and Kami had previously given to the older siblings, Ben said that what they needed to do was to find some way to get the kids on board with doing the hike.
Before their hike, they all were aware that there was going to be a large family gathering at a camp in their home state of Washington, where most of the kids had lived up until seven years ago. Unfortunately, they knew that because the reunion was going to be held on the second week of August, there was no way they could finish the AT in time to make the reunion.
Ben said that he didn’t want to be a dictator, forcing them to hike when their hearts weren’t in it. In order to motivate the children to keep on hiking, he told them that if they did their best to finish, they would fly to Washington around the second week of August and join their family for the reunion, whether they completed the trail or not. Knowing that there was probably no way they could actually hike the entire trail in that amount of time, they told the children that even if they didn’t finish the trail, they would be happy with however much they hiked.
It was amazing to see the children’s improved mood after that announcement. This was the morale booster that seemed to be the turning point of their hike.
Lessons in Human Potential
As the family moved on from state to state, the children seemed to come alive with a renewed sense of purpose. Perhaps the thought entered their minds that, if they all pulled together as a team, they could accomplish both goals: making it to the family reunion and finishing the Appalachian Trail by the second week of August. As they progressed, the older children took greater initiative and began taking the lead in getting the whole family moving along as quickly and efficiently as possible.
One by one, they took more responsibilities off their parents’ shoulders and distributed them among each other, according to their age and abilities. Soon, everyone began looking out for each other, with the oldest three even taking turns carrying two-year-old Rainier—45 pounds including the carrier—on their shoulders, rotating with Ben and Kami so nobody had to endure the burden of extra weight for too long. This allowed the whole family to move faster.
Not only did most of the children routinely hike ahead of Ben and Kami, they would often leave little pieces of candy on stones and logs along the way as surprise treats for their parents. When berries came in season, they would leave little piles of berries as well.
It was heartwarming to see how everyone seemed to care for one another in so many special ways. These little thoughtful acts of kindness made all the difference in their morale, helping get past the more miserable aspects of the trail.
Lessons in Endurance
When they got to the infamous Roller Coaster section of the trail in Virginia, the family produced a hilarious YouTube video, Enter the Roller Coaster, of them, one by one, holding up their hands and screaming, like they were riding a real roller coaster, with footage of an actual roller coaster in the background, poking fun at how overblown others have made the Roller Coaster out to be. Of course, with their accomplished level of physical fitness, they breezed right through the roller coaster. Months later, as they approached the daunting White Mountains of New Hampshire, Ben said in one of his videos that the Whites, like the Roller Coaster, probably wouldn’t be too difficult. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be the case, for some of the most strenuous hiking they encountered was in the Whites. Ben later said that because the rocky, steep terrain slowed their daily mileage down so dramatically—12 miles per day from 17—they had to hike several weeks without a day off, often having to hike through rain and thunderstorms while other hikers took zeros in towns, just so they could meet their deadline.
Ben said that he hit breaking points along the trail. “It was like a six-month boot camp,” where the pain of hiking the trail—the cold, heat, hunger, thirst, rain—along with the heavy mantle of leadership took its toll. “It pushed me further than I ever thought as a father and I’m a better father for it. If you never face your demons, you’ll never grow as a person.” He also said that “you have to lead from your weaknesses,” meaning you can’t wait for a time when you are feeling strong.
Lessons in Humility and Gratitude
As news spread of The Family, as they’d come to be called, they encountered more and more trail magic. As early as Hot Springs, they’d be in a restaurant and go to pay for their bill, only to find that it had already been anonymously paid. In other places, they encountered people who would open up their homes to them and house and feed them, free of charge. “We come from affluence,” Ben explained, “so to have a family open up their home and provide food for us made us feel like we were in their debt; that it was unnecessary—because we could afford hotels. It was a life-changing experience and very humbling. It took down barriers, teaching us to trust, to swallow our pride and gratefully accept what they gave us.”
Lessons in Togetherness
Because they were together 24/7, for nearly six months, they learned a lot about each other. Ben remarked on how carrying Rainier on his back, day after day, brought the two of them closer than ever before. The same goes for the rest of the family. During their long days of hiking, they spent hours telling each other of their hopes and dreams and their plans for the future, as well as all kinds of other things. They got to know more about each other in those short few months than they have over the course of years; not something too many families can boast of.
Lessons in Friendship
They met all kinds of people on their 161-day journey, some of whom made them somewhat uncomfortable. Word of this family of eight had traveled up and down the trail, which inadvertently elevated them to a sort of celebrity status. They felt that many people they met treated them like more like a novelty or oddity, rather than an ordinary family.
There were, however, a select few hikers that that they chose to hike with because, as Ben said, “Mostly because they didn’t treat us special—they treated us like fellow hikers enjoying the trail together and looking out for one another.”
They formed a close bond with some of these hikers, hiking together for many days. The closest among these were Hops, a good-natured older man who eventually finished his thru-hike; Silver, a young lawyer who ended up quitting the trail to take a job offer; a group of partying hikers who called themselves the Degenerates; and the well-known trail angel Fresh Ground.
It was surprising that the family took to the Degenerates so well, as they drank and partied often. Ben and Kami have taught their children about that lifestyle, and weren’t afraid they would be shocked. The Degenerates were extremely kind and caring, and regardless of their reputation, were never a nuisance in towns and kept heavy drinking away from the children.
The Crawfords had been hearing about trail angel Fresh Ground (Tim Davis of North Carolina) since their third day on the trail, and months later, they finally met him in the New England woods. They formed a bond with him that was would last nearly to the end of their hike. Fresh Ground eventually ended up slackpacking the Crawfords, and cooking every meal for them and the Degenerates at logging roads throughout the 100-Mile Wilderness. Ben was careful to point out that they didn’t like Fresh Ground because of his trail magic; they liked him simply for the friend he was.
Lessons in Finance
In one of their videos, Ben and Kami discuss the financial aspect of the AT and how much it ultimately cost. They budgeted for a total cost of $50,000, and although they had more in reserve, they calculated that this would likely cover their costs. After their hike was over, when they sat down and figured their actual costs of hiking the trail, they found that they spent around $25,000 in expenses, including equipment, food, lodging, gas, shuttles, etc. Next they calculated how much they were getting from the rental of their house while they were gone, plus other income from Patreon and PayPal donations that they had set up to allow people to help with the costs of producing their daily YouTube videos. They subtracted that from the $25,000, and ended up with the thru-hike actually costing around $13,000. This breaks down to around $80 per day, or $10 per person per day. Kami brought up the fact that not only were they able to take what amounted to a nearly six-month vacation for $13,000–when some family vacations cost around $10,000 and that’s usually only for two weeks—she’s pretty sure that if they had stayed home, they would probably have spent more than $13,000. So, in effect, it was actually cheaper for them to hike the trail.
To be fair, Ben also tried to calculate how much they saved just from all the benevolence and trail magic they received along the way, and he came up with an estimated figure of over $6,000, when he calculated the free shoes Altra provided, and all the meals they received. And that’s not counting all the free rides, slackpacking, and free stays in people’s homes, which probably boosted this total trail benevolence up to more around $8,000.
Lessons in Bureaucracy: The Baxter State Park Dilemma
As the Crawfords arrived in Maine, they were aware that Baxter State Park had strict rules concerning children hiking beyond treeline. They made a phone call to park officials to see if they could somehow make an exception for them (as they had previously done for another underage hiker), since they had already successfully hiked 2,000 miles with two-year-old Rainier, getting him safely through even the treacherous Mahoosuc Notch, and were confident they could easily make it safely up and down Katahdin. Unfortunately for the Crawfords, the officials at Baxter State Park were as inflexible and unyielding in the enforcement of their rules as the boulders that make up Moutn Katahdin.
That left the Family with three choices:
- Do we say screw it, take Rainier up anyway, and pay the fine?
- Do we leave Rainier with a sitter and summit without him?
- Do we all hike together to treeline and finish our hike there?
Ben and Kami assembled the children, updated them with the situation, and let them be part of the decision. They held a family meeting to see what the kids wanted to do and, to their credit, all the children unanimously decided that if Rainier couldn’t go, they didn’t want to go without him. After all, he’d been with them from the very start, enduring all the good and the bad, the cold and the rain, the troubles and the triumphs together and they felt it would be unfair to leave him behind. They said that their purpose in hiking the trail was not so that they could brag that they hiked the entire AT, but for the struggle and the togetherness; doing tough things and overcoming them as a family, making them all stronger as a result. Therefore, failing to summit was not such big deal to them.
“We’re going to let the government do what the government’s going to do, and we’re going to do what we’re going to do,” Ben stated in his video, saying they could have hiked to the summit and paid the fine, but this was not what they wanted to teach the kids. “If we summited,” he continued, “we would have sent a message to the world, ‘Screw Maine and screw Baxter,’ but it wasn’t in line with the message we were trying to get out.” Ben also stated that the hike had never been for the sole purpose of attaining the status of “thru-hikers.”
Lessons in Victory
In a video dated Sept. 7, 2016, nearly 18 months before their hike, Ben Crawford shared an almost prophetic article from the Patagonia catalog written by mountaineer Anne Gilbert Chase. In the piece, Chase details a Himalayan mountain summit bid that went wrong. What struck Ben so poignantly was how, when she described the summit being within their grasp, a sudden storm moved in, surrounding her and her fellow climbers in a stinging static electrical storm, forcing them to make the immediate decision to descend. Ben reads her words aloud in the video: “I can’t deny my disappointment for not summiting. And maybe if I’d made the summit, the entire journey would now feel like a simpler event, more tied up and defined. I know now that working toward the chance to not summit was the real expedition, a journey defined not by single moments but by what I learned from all those moments combined. As a result, my respect for the mountains deepened, the bond with my climbing partners deepened, and my ability as a climber expanded. For all that, I am grateful. Because I’d retreated, the lesson of the trip became complex, nuanced, deeper, and more difficult. No simple thing. But a thing I’d never trade.”
Ben told of a similar experience on Mount Rainier, when he and fellow climbers had to make the tough decision to turn back when the conditions became bad; a move that probably saved their lives.
So, as the Family began to ascend the steep, rocky sides of Mount Katahdin on that rainy August day, the fact that they would not be able to go beyond treeline did not disappoint them. In many ways, it was better than the ordinary summit experience. Hudson, their friend and former thru-hiker (and owner of Bearded Woods Hostel), drove eight hours from Connecticut and surprised them at the base of one of the giant boulders at the edge of the treeline. They found him standing there beside a smaller replica of the plain wooden sign that stands at the summit of Katahdin—a sign Rainier-sized—that he’d built just for this occasion. To make their “summit” more special was the fact that the Degenerates, and the Trailer Park Boys postponed their own summit a few hours to surprise them and to cheer for them when they arrived.
This little tribute to the family was probably more special to them than actually achieving the real summit sign and left them with a lifetime of good memories. And, like in Anne Gilbert Chase’s article, not finishing the last part of the hike actually turned out better than if they had summited.
Home Again: Lessons in Retrospection
Now that the Family has been home for a while, they have begun to learn to live life apart from the trail. The following questions helped clarify what the trail meant to them.
Has the AT fundamentally changed you?
Since they were used to hiking long trails, the AT had not fundamentally changed them. However, Ben said that being on the trail changed his views on “stuff.” The first thing he had to deal with when he got off the trail was material possessions. When they were on the trail, Ben said that he had about 20 things that he had to keep up with, most of which were in specific places inside his backpack. Once he got back home, he was overwhelmed by the amount of things he’s now got to keep up with. That’s why he’s begun to systematically go through their belongings and get rid of extraneous items in an effort to simplify and declutter their lives.
Do you miss being on the trail?
On the first few days, they were glad to not have to get up and hike—being home was relieving. Then the pressures of life came back. “It’s sort of like the grass is always greener,” Kami said. When they were on the trail, they longed for home, and now that they’re home, they long for the simplicity of the trail. Ben and Kami both agreed that “The reason we did it and the reason we’d do it again is because we couldn’t think of a better way to draw our family together. We miss the simpler, more connected times.”
Has the AT taught you anything about yourselves you didn’t previously know?
One of the biggest things Ben learned was that his kids were stronger and more capable than he’d ever imagined. Watching them rise to meet all challenges gave Ben and Kami a new respect for their children.
Another surprising thing the trail taught Ben was that he craved things like towns, coffee, internet, and pillows more than he’d figured he would. Before the hike, he’d had no idea that they would have stayed in hotels as much as they did.
Did the AT increase your confidence?
Kami responded: “I think it has given me more self-confidence. Sometimes I am tempted to doubt myself; but then I think, I just hiked the AT.”
Life Goes On
For the Crawfords, hiking the AT has been an experience like none other; a half year of togetherness and growth through all kinds of trials and triumphs. During this time they have gained a new appreciation for each other, made new friends, learned lessons in human kindness, and inspired others to break out of their routines to take on more than they ever thought they could handle.
Now the family is embarking on the next chapter of their lives, closer than ever before, with an abundance of togetherness—something truly worth fighting for.
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