It would be difficult to know for sure, but there’s a good chance your average kindergartener doesn’t spend much time thinking about the Pacific Crest Trail.
At a time when learning to read, write and count are the day’s major challenges — and naptime is just around the corner — the idea of hiking from Mexico to Canada is something normally left to adults.
Unless you happen to be Reed Gjonnes.
Born and raised in Salem, Reed took her first backpacking trip at 4 years old and already was bugging her father, expert long-distance hiker Eric Gjonnes, about a trip on the 2,652-mile PCT before setting foot in kindergarten.
“Hiking has been part of my life for as long as I can remember,” said Reed, who is now in eighth grade. “When I was a little kid, it was because I wanted to spend time with my dad and go camping. Now I love everything about it — the beautiful scenery, the wild animals and meeting other people on the trail. It’s all pretty great.”
She’s known on the trail as Sunshine, a nickname inspired by her bright red hair and bubbly personality. But behind that smile is the quiet determination of a girl who during the past three years has accomplished something few people in the world, and nobody near her age, has managed to pull off.
Over the past three years, at ages 11, 12 and 13, Reed and her father have conquered the three longest trails in the United States — the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail (2,181 miles) and the Continental Divide Trail (3,092 miles) — to claim what’s known as the Triple Crown of hiking.
Reed is the youngest known person — at 13 years, 4 months and 3 days — to have finished a task that requires more than 7,900 miles of hiking. Only about 200 people have completed the Triple Crown, according to the American Long Distance Hiking Association - West, a nonprofit that presents awards to each person who completes all three trails.
The record is unofficial because ALDHA-West doesn’t keep track of speed or age. However, everyone interviewed for this story and involved in the tightly knit long-distance hiking community agreed Reed is the youngest by a substantial margin. The youngest known person to complete the Triple Crown previously was 24.
“Although we don’t recognize age and speed records, we’re all in awe of somebody this young accomplishing such a monumental task,” said Whitney LaRuffa, president of ALDHA-West, an organization that’s been promoting long-distance hiking for 20 years. “We’re very proud of her — it really is amazing.”
In many ways, Reed is your average teenager. She loathes snakes and waking up in the morning, is a self-described klutz and gets heartsick missing her mother, little sister and friends during hikes that required months away from home and missing chunks of school.
In other ways she’s an elite athlete, capable of covering 40 miles in one day, who’s overcome a fractured arm on the Appalachian Trail and a foot infection on the PCT, has crossed raging rives in California and snowshoed the length of Colorado.
According to both daughter and father, the accomplishment has been a mutual undertaking, a shared dream that spurred both of them forward.
“It has really been her desire that motivated me,” said Eric Gjonnes, a weekly columnist for the Statesman Journal. “I’ve never had to force her to do anything … she has always really wanted to go.”
“At no point was she the little girl just coming along. She carried her own gear and portion of food. She knows how to cook and set up camp and took part in the decision-making. In every sense she’s my hiking partner — and a very skilled one.”
The making of a thru-hiker
The evolution from precocious kindergartner to skilled hiker began with a four-mile backpacking trip to Pamelia Lake in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness at 4 years old.
“I remember having a butterfly sleeping bag and a Barbie fishing pole,” Reed said, “and just going hiking.”
With each family day-hike and backpacking trip, she became increasingly ambitious.
“Every time we did a trip, she wanted to beat her previous record for miles,” Eric Gjonnes said. “By the time she was 6 or 7, she was doing 10- to 12-mile days. I could see her developing the mental stamina and strength that’s required to be a thru-hiker.”
Much of the inspiration to become a nonstop hiker came from her father. Eric Gjonnes moved to Salem 20 years ago after leaving the Army and began hiking local trails to ease painful back spasms. He was an experienced hiker by the time Reed was born, and during her early childhood, she would sit in the car seat while her mother, Teresa Gjonnes, dropped Eric at trailheads for 100-mile segments of the PCT.
It wasn’t long before his daughter wanted in. Soon she was joining her dad on trips of 60 miles, then 100 miles, then 140 miles.
But it ended up being potential tragedy that kick-started the Triple Crown quest.
In December 2010, Eric Gjonnes was laid off from his job as an electrician after 17 years. He’d already promised his daughter a PCT thru-hike by the time she graduated high school, but opportunity came early.
“I was totally devastated, but instead of coming home crying, I walked in the door and said, ‘This is it, we’re thru-hiking the PCT,’ ” he said. “She’d already proven she could do the miles. Once my scheduled opened up, we decided to seize the opportunity.”
Snow, blisters and youth on the PCT
The moment was not an easy one for Teresa Gjonnes.
In April 2011, she watched her husband and 10-year-old daughter leave home, driving south toward Mexico to begin a trek that would take them from the Mojave Desert to the High Cascades, across California, Oregon and Washington.
“She was still my baby,” Teresa Gjonnes said. “It was very hard for me. But I knew how much she’d already gained and that it was a very positive thing. It was one of those moments in life where you put yourself aside, and how much you’re going to miss them, and be totally supportive.”
The father-daughter team officially began the PCT on April 29, heading north, and reached California’s Sierra Nevada during a spring of record snowpack.
The trail disappeared under a white blanket for 500 miles, and creeks swelled and raged, making crossings perilous. Eric would scout ahead for the best crossing and make sure his daughter was safe as they waded across the streams.
“I don’t really like getting wet unless I’m swimming,” Reed said. “But the crossings didn’t bother me. I never felt nervous about it.”
Although the snow presented challenges, Reed, who turned 11 on the trail, also missed her mother and little sister.
To help ease separation, Teresa and younger daughter Annika drove out and met the team at points along the PCT in Northern California and Oregon. Eric and Reed would spend the day hiking, while Teresa and Annika set up camps along the roads that crossed the trail, providing impromptu-family time.
The going still was difficult, especially when one of her blisters became infected. They exited the trail at Lolo Pass north of Mount Hood and returned to Salem Clinic for treatment with their family doctor. After five days, they got permission to return to the trail.
“She was crying, but not because she was in pain — she was worried about not being able to finish,” said Duane Tehee of Tacoma, Wash., a friend they met while hiking the PCT.
“Lots of people get depressed and end up quitting when you have to hike day in, day out, for months at a time, putting up with all that physical hardship. But not her. We call her Sunshine because she’s such a happy, positive girl, but she’s also very determined.”
By the time they reached northern Oregon, the duo figured this would be their last multi-thousand-mile hike.
“Coming into Washington from Oregon, it seemed like we had a week of uphill climbing,” Reed said. “It was pretty hard.”
They crossed into Washington and finished the PCT on Sept. 24 — four months and 26 days from when they started — at Manning Park on the Canadian border.
“We really thought that was our last big hike,” Eric Gjonnes said. “But when we got home, it was like, ‘OK, what do we do with ourselves now?’ We need another hike.”
Appalachian snakes and injured arm
In almost all things, Reed lives up to her trail name of Sunshine, that positive, happy ray of light making her way up the trail.
But not when it comes to snakes.
“I hate them, absolutely hate them,” she said. “They’re creepy creatures that sneak up on you and bite. Even the ones that aren’t poisonous are awful.
“I hate snakes. And there were hundreds of them on the AT.”
The duo began hiking the Appalachian Trail on April 2, 2012, in an environment that took some getting used to.
Not only were there more snakes and less mountain views, but the weather was humid and muggy in the south, and the trail that runs 2,181 miles from Georgia to Maine was forever crowded with people.
“You can see the city lights on both sides of the trail at night,” Eric Gjonnes said. “While the PCT is full of long stretches of wilderness, on the AT you’re in town every third day. It’s a much different experience, and we didn’t enjoy it nearly as much.”
Even if the trail was boring, perhaps the most dramatic moment of the Triple Crown took place while the duo was hiking through Pennsylvania.
“I just tripped,” Reed said. “I was talking to my dad and not paying attention. I’m a clumsy person — I trip all the time — but when I went down I had my hand in the strap of my trekking pole. My arm swelled up really bad.”
Eric splinted and stabilized the arm and called to arrange a ride to Hershey Hospital in Hershey, Penn. An X-ray showed a fractured arm, but the doctor, impressed by the 12-year-old’s determination, put on a Gore-Tex cast and gave his blessing for them to get back on the trail.
“The doctor said what we were doing was awesome and even wanted to get a picture with us,” Reed said. “He was really cool.”
For the next six weeks, the one-armed Sunshine and her father did shorter days. The frustrating part of hiking in the cast wasn’t really the traveling, but the small things.
“I got used to hiking with one arm pretty quick,” she said. “The worst part was that it was hard to eat and do things like email my mom.”
The family — Teresa and Annika — came out and hiked with the team through much of Vermont. But by that time, Eric and Reed were already looking ahead — planning their next adventure on the wildest, and most difficult, leg of the Triple Crown.
The water did not look appealing.
In southern New Mexico, on the opening stretch of the Continental Divide Trail, Reed and Eric Gjonnes trekked through a desert where the only sign of trail was a series of stacked rock cairns and sources of water were almost nonexistent.
“Following the trail was a little bit like an Easter egg hunt,” Eric Gjonnes said. “In some places the only water was at cow tanks. We’d scoop out this greenish-brown water and boil it, treat it and filter it, and even then we were still pretty skeptical.
“But we never got sick.”
Thus began the final leg of the Triple Crown, on a trail with a reputation for being tough, wild and difficult to follow.
Beginning in New Mexico and following the Rocky Mountains, the trail is only 70 percent completed and attempted by just a handful of people each year.
“The reputation is that it’s this impossible challenge,” Eric Gjonnes said. “There’s a lot of fear-mongering about it, a lot of people who say it’s almost impossible to do in one season.”
Eric and Reed began last April 15, and after trekking through New Mexico entered Colorado in early June. The snow was so deep they continued on snowshoes, trekking above 10,000 feet and reaching a high point of 14,278-feet at Grays Peak in Colorado.
Reed had no love for waking up early in the frozen darkness. Sometimes, their shoes froze at night and they had to stick them in the creek to loosen them up enough to use.
“I do not like mornings,” Reed said. “That’s the toughest part for me. No doubt.”
Although the price of admission was high, the spectacular views, solitude and wildlife stunned both of them. They saw more animals in one week than during the rest of their hikes combined. Reed recorded elk, deer, moose, buffalo, bears, mountain goats, antelope, big horn sheep, badgers, porcupines, one wolf and even wild horses.
“There was so much incredible wildlife,” she said. “It was so cool.”
But there was plenty of frustration, primarily centered on staying on the correct route. The trail is not well-marked, and they’d waste hours hiking down the wrong trails and having to backtrack.
Through all that frustration they continued on, making their way below the geysers of Yellowstone National Park, into Montana and finally into Glacier National Park and the finishing point on the Canadian border Sept. 5.
“It’s really hard to explain how I felt about it,” said Reed, who at 13 became the youngest known person to finish the CDT. “It was a big sense of accomplishment, but it was also kind of sad. Just knowing it was done and that there’s nothing like it left.”
Reed said she never intended to become the youngest person to finish the Triple Crown, at least starting out. She just wanted to go on another hike, to follow her father into some of the most beautiful county in the world.
“I’m not sure when it became a goal,” she said. “It gradually happened, but it was always the actual hiking that motivated me. The whole ‘youngest’ part of it was just a bonus.”
The process has made her something of a celebrity. The journeys of Sunshine have been featured on OPB, the Washington Post, American Girl magazine and numerous blogs. She’s kept a trail journal herself, followed by numerous young girls who occasionally show up to hike with her and send letters and emails by the boatload.
“Lots of people really look up to her,” Eric Gjonnes said. “We get hundreds of letters from girls who she’s inspired to hike more. A lot of fathers have said our trip inspired them to go hiking with their daughters.”
So what next?
After hiking 7,925 miles, crossing 22 states and wearing out six pairs of shoes, what could she possibly do for an encore?
“I really don’t know what I’ll do next summer,” she said. “I’ve tried to plan it out, tried to remember what I used to do during the summer, but I haven’t been able to.
“Right now I’m just concentrating on homework.”
Although the impact of the journeys might still be something she’s working out in her mind, her mother takes a longer view.
“She’s gained so much from it,” Teresa Gjonnes said. “She’s developing into such a confident young women who isn’t bothered by peer pressure or nervous about herself the way so many teenage girls are. I wish every kid in America could get have the chance to experience some of the things that have tested her.”
Reed “Sunshine” Gjonnes
At 13, Reed became the youngest known person to complete hiking’s Triple Crown, which includes the three longest trails in the United States.
Pacific Crest Trail: 2,652 miles, April 29 to Sept. 24, 2011
Appalachian Trail: 2,181 miles, April 2 to July 23, 2012
Continental Divide Trail: 3,092 miles, April 15 to Sept. 5, 2013
Total mileage: 7,925 miles
Note: There are many different reported mileages of the three trails, due to small changes, wash-outs and other small alterations in the length. The mileage above is based on best available information when Eric and Reed hiked the trail. They hiked the entire official routes of all three trails, taking no short cuts or alternates.