The Beast is a legend. Record-holder for youngest AT thru-hike at age four, CDT at age six, now PCT and Triple Crown-hopeful, age seven.
Juniper is the baby of the family. Seeing as how Dead Weight was born when Juniper was already five, there are definitely still family dynamics that identify Juniper as the baby and Dead Weight as some separate only child. It’s odd, but it is what it is.
Juniper Starts Hiking
Starting at age two, we crept out for backpacking trips, even trips a week long. But we never really pushed more than seven miles or so in any given day. When we started the Appalachian Trail, we told the kids we would walk on the trail for a month and see how it goes. If we love it, we’ll continue. We’ll stop if we don’t love it. If we really hate it, we can always peel off early. As things would turn out, we absolutely adored it.
Somehow, we brainwashed Juniper into believing hiking was fun. The first several days, it was the four-year-old who led us down the trail, little legs churning like tiny pistons firing away, happy as a clam. Rarely did she ever lose that joie de vie, or maybe joie de trail 😉
During our first week of backpacking on the AT, which happened to be heading north from Front Royal, VA, there came a day when Juniper sat down on a log at the bottom of a hill and starting bawling. ‘Oh, boy,’ I thought. ‘The hike is over. Well, it’s been a fun few days.’ We were in the middle of the notorious ‘Roller Coaster,’ a series of 18 hills over 14 miles.
I pulled up next to my sobbing four-year-old and asked what the matter was. After prolonged coaxing, Juniper finally spilled she was upset because Mommy had taken Juniper’s backpack and clipped it to the back of Mommy’s backpack, so Juniper could have a break from the extra weight. Juniper wanted to carry her own pack.
Mommy put up a stiff resistance. ‘No, Juniper. It’s too heavy and these hills are too much. It will just make you tired. Run on without it and have fun. I’m ok carrying it.’
Juniper simply wasn’t having it. So I unclipped the tiny carabiner and handed Juniper’s pack back to her. In half a second she was headed uphill, slinging her backpack over her shoulder without slowing down.
We took off after her up the hill. Charging on and playing catchup, we’d come around the corner and see Juniper off in the distance, sitting on a log, smirking like a teenager who just insulted his parents and knew he could get away with it. Seeing us, she’d bounce up, shoulder her pack and be off before we could catch her. This went on for a couple miles and several hills before she finally acquiesced to hiking with her slowpoke family. ‘Slowpokes,’ that’s what she’d call us. Two days later, we did our first 11.3-mile day, and we started daring to dream. ‘You know, maybe Katahdin is a real possibility.’ That night we practiced striking our ‘Katahdin pose.’ Hints of Juniper’s beastliness wafted in the air.
The Beast is Born
However, it was less than two weeks later, while we were SOBO-ing Pennsylvania, that Juniper solidified her status a a genuine thru-hiker. Coming south out of Duncannon and with bellies full of ice cream and pizza, we were aiming for our first 15-mile day. We had a ways to go yet to the next shelter, and we had a steep climb up to the ridge. As the family started lugging our packs up the rock steps, a jogger whizzed past. I assume some local kid training, he was in gym shorts, t-shirt, sneakers. In my head I thought, ‘Meh, sure he can run up the mountain, but he doesn’t have a pack,’ and returned to the family’s snail pace, contented to be ‘forced’ to trudge a comfortable speed.
Juniper, however, found herself ill-as-ease with the affront of a jogging showing her up. Indignant, she tore off after him, backpack bouncing from shoulder to shoulder with each stride. This poor high schooler, probably training hard to make the basketball team, had a three-foot-tall ankle-biter of a thru-hiker nipping at his heels at every step, unable to break away. Like the dog chases the bike and the rider continues looking back and wondering how long the canine can sustain its pursuit, this youth simply couldn’t shake the one-man-posse bearing down on him. Juniper’s family was left eating what little dust her toy-size shoes could kick up. I gave my best chase, but slowed down once the heart attack started.
Finding the unlikely duo of four-year-old girl and late-teens boy on a rock taking in the sunset, I knew her trail name. The Beast was born.
She Eats Miles for Breakfast
And there has been no letting up since. We went on soon to complete a 17+ mile day, with a rewarding pizza as the mouth-watering and feet-motivating goal. Then it was a ‘1% day,’ a day in which you complete 1% of the trail in a single day, or 22 miles. And then things got bonkers. We pulled a 29-mile day in the 100-mile wilderness. And probably about a 27-ish mile day when we summitted Katahdin, starting from Abol Bridge and returning to Abol Bridge in one day. And then finally the 31-mile day as we were SOBO-ing New Jersey. It looks like a very flat section on elevation profile, really only one big climb over the course of the day. We didn’t count on the rockiness of the trail, however. Regardless, The Beast cranked out 31 miles in a single day. Age four.
The Beast took her talents to the Continental Divide Trail last year, and she blew it away. Granted, it would have been impossible for her to redline the entire thing in one year, but it still made her parents proud that she became the youngest to connect Mexico and Canada on the CDT with an unbroken footpath. And in one year, no less, breaking the previous record by three years. (Although, in fairness, that dude did the entire redline with no alternates!)
More than JUST The Beast
Perhaps her most endearing of characteristics, however, is that The Beast simply don’t care. In fact, she gets angry when we brag that she’s the youngest this or that. ‘Stop saying that! If you say it again, I’m not hiking. I just wanna hike! I don’t want to be the youngest!’
I’m genuinely looking forward to hiking with The Beast this year on the PCT. Late start, record-setting snow, now seven-year-old legs… let’s go out there and have fun together and see how many miles we can put under our shoes. If it’s 2650, great. If it’s a little less, I’m not worried. Because I’ll be spending those miles with you. And it’s challenging to think of anything better. Daddy loves you, Beastie.
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