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Field Notes: From Mexico To Canada, In Time For 6th Grade

(Editor’s note: EarthFix Field Notes are reporters’ personal impressions and experiences from their coverage of the Pacific Northwest. In this entry, reporter Amelia Templeton relates what it’s like to keep up with 11-year-old thru-hiker Reed “Sunshine” Gjonnes on the Pacific Crest Trail.)

Dozens of orange butterfly wings were beating, all in unison. I spotted the butterflies out of the corner of my eye. They were small, not flashy, and not a species that I know. But they had all chosen to sit together in a patch of sun, and it was lovely to watch.

I pointed them out to Reed, who was a few feet farther down the trail. “Cool” she said, and snapped a couple of pictures. Then we hit the trail again. That’s one of the only moments from my Pacific Crest Trail hike that I clearly remember because we didn’t stop often.

Last week I spent a morning hiking with Reed, who is 11, and her dad, Eric. I started at 7:30, not far from Ashland where the Pacific Crest Trail intersects with Interstate 5. Reed and Eric started their trip on April 29 in the desert at the California-Mexico border. They’re hoping to hike across Oregon in less than three weeks so they can make it across Washington and over the North Cascades by mid-September, in time to get Reed back home to start sixth grade. I wonder how in the world she’s going to be able to sit still in a classroom after so much walking.

In order to stick to their schedule, Reed and her dad — who go by the names Balls and Sunshine on the trail, where everybody uses nicknames — have to hike between 25 and 30 miles, more or less a marathon each day. When I met up with them, the plan was to hike 17 miles and then to stop for lunch where the trail intersects a small highway. That way I could bail, and they could keep going.

There are a lot of reasons I ended up hiking with Balls and Sunshine. I’d agreed to film them for an “Oregon Field Guide” story, so that was a big part of it. But I’m also deeply curious about what it would be like to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail. About two years ago, I started to plan my own thru-hike. I got as far as buying a PCT guidebook, starting to train, and quitting my job … and then I chickened out.

And I was curious about Reed. I don’t have kids yet, but I’ve taken a lot of them on hikes.

How in the world was an 11-year-old child pulling off a stormy, mountainous, 2,650-mile trek? What was this child made of, and what kind of candy was her father bribing her with to keep her going?

The answer to the candy question was Runts — the little, sour mini-fruit candies. They taste great after 5 miles of hiking, which I know because Reed shared hers with me. But unlike many other young hikers I know, the candy’s not the point for Reed.

In California, she hiked across 500 miles of snow. Reed tells me she crossed half a dozen icy creeks, a few that were over her head, by hanging onto a rope and hanging on to her dad. Eric lost the feeling in several of his toes crossing those streams and it hasn’t come back yet.

(Video shot by thru-hiker Erin “Wired” S. while crossing a Sierra Nevada creek with Reed Gjonnes and Eric Gjonnes in July. Watch more video of Eric, Reed, and others on the trail on Wired’s trail journal.)

He says a lot of people just gave up and hitchhiked their way around the Sierra Nevada or gave up on the Pacific Crest Trail altogether. Eric was in the Army a long time ago, and I think he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t like to give up.

I ask Reed how she’s changed while on the trail. “I’ve grown an inch and gained four pounds” she said excitedly. She celebrated her 11th birthday with a breakfast burrito and burned through three pairs of tennis shoes. “But only one of them wore out” she told me. “I grew out of the others.”

On the trail, Reed’s pace never slackens. She tells me how much fun it is to be part of a community of hikers. She might be the best-natured person I’ve ever met. Following her footsteps down the trail I am reminded that kids share many of the qualities that adults like to think of as uniquely our own - determination, strength, and patience. Reed’s even brought her math homework with her on the PCT. I’m suddenly convinced this kid is going to make it all the way to Canada, and I’m definitely rooting for her.

By 1 p.m., we’ve still got three miles to go, and my energy is completely gone. I’m regretting my choice to wear boots instead of tennis shoes, and my feet have developed nasty blisters. Eric and Reed have given me a trail name, Flash, and I know they’re trying to keep my spirits up. But I also know for sure I’m not cut out to be a thru-hiker. I like being able to stop and watch the butterflies. All I want, after 16 miles, is for the trail to be over. When we see the highway up ahead, where I will get a ride home, I am completely relieved. And I probably just hiked the 17 easiest miles of the PCT.

I catch up with Reed and Eric later that night, to film them setting up camp. They’ve run across a group of horse people, who feed us tacos and let us share their campsite. I pitch my tent behind a corral and fall asleep to the comforting sound of horses breathing and shifting back and forth nearby.

I wake up the next morning a new person. It’s been about a year since I backpacked and I’d forgotten that’s how it works. I bandage my feet and on a whim hike another morning with Eric and Reed. Maybe some day I will tackle the whole trail. Maybe I’ll wait till I have a daughter to motivate me to keep going. It’s just a question of putting one foot after the other, 5 million times.

(OPB’s Oregon Field Guide and Arts and Life teams interviewed Eric and Reed as they prepared for their trip in April. Read about their ultralight strategy.)

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