Harvey Sutton, at 5 years old, has become the youngest person to hike the 2,100 miles (3,379 kilometers) Appalachian Trail in 209 days with his parents.
Known as "Little Man” on the trail, Sutton won’t have long to bask in the glory of hiking in its full length. After all, he starts kindergarten Friday.
It was hard work, but it was fun checking out frogs, lizards and other wildlife. So was sprinkling Skittles onto peanut butter tortillas as fuel for the walk, he said.
"The rock scrambles were really fun and hard. We were not bored,” he said cheerfully in a phone interview from Virginia, where he lives with his parents, Josh and Cassie Sutton.
His parents were so busy keeping him engaged and entertained that it distracted them from the physical pain of trudging over so many miles. "It gave us a bond and a strength that we hadn’t realized before,” Cassie Sutton said.
Other youngsters have hiked the 2,193-mile (3,530 kilometers) trail that starts at Springer Mountain, Georgia, and ends atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin. Some babies have even been carried in backpacks by their determined parents.
Harvey was 4 years old when he and his parents began their walk in January and he turned 5 before the family completed the journey last week in Maine.
He's several months younger than "Buddy Backpacker,” a boy who held the record for youngest to complete the trail in 2013, Harvey’s parents say.
But the youngest of all may be Juniper Netteburg, who finished the trail at age 4, wearing a Wonder Woman costume, with her parents and three siblings on Oct. 13, 2020, said her parents, who are missionary doctors.
Her family hiked sections over a period of months, but that still counts as long as they didn't skip any part of the trail, said Ken Bunning, president of Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association.
It may seem extreme for a kid, but a pediatrician sees no harm. Kids are resilient enough to handle the experience as long as parents keep their social and emotional development in mind and scale the hike to kids' abilities, said Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a pediatrician and medical adviser to the American Camp Association.
For Harvey's hike, his parents decided to take a "mini retirement” from their real estate jobs in Lynchburg, Virginia. They’d been hiking with Harvey since he was 2, so the Appalachian Trail made sense to them.
It was mostly smooth sailing after a snowstorm in the Smoky Mountains forced them to backtrack more than 30 miles (48 kilometers) to safety over 2 1/2 days.
The family became accustomed to sleeping in a tent, waking at 5:30 a.m. and hiking all day. There was a simplicity to the routine and a camaraderie with other "thru hikers" that kept it from getting boring, Josh Sutton said.
Karl Donus Sakas, a hiker known as "Sugar Man” who accompanied the Suttons from Pennsylvania to the end in Maine, said Harvey had boundless energy. "He’s pretty strong and tough. So often we’d get to camp and I'd be beaten and tired. And Little Man would say, ‘Let’s play freeze tag!’” he said.
The parents said the biggest challenge was keeping their son’s imagination engaged. Harvey made plans to build homes, construct space ships and host a lava party in discussions over miles and hours of hiking, Sakas said.
Sakas helped out by setting up a treasure hunt with faux maps, hidden toys and glow sticks on the trail over several days in New Jersey.
Some other thru-hikers gave Little Man toys, including a pet rock, Hot Wheels and a pocket watch. At a Dollar General store, the boy bought a calculator to keep track of the miles.
The hike showed the strength of teamwork and further solidified the Suttons’ relationship, Cassie Sutton said. "We’re closer than ever before,” she said. They completed the hike Aug. 9 atop Mount Katahdin.
Now it's off to kindergarten for Little Man and back to work for his parents. Harvey’s journey earned accolades from another hiking legend, Dale "Greybeard” Sanders, the oldest person to hike the trail, at age 82 in 2017.
"It’s going to change his life forever, and his parents’ life, too. The kid went through some hardships, but don’t we all? Hardships make us stronger,” said Sanders, now 86, of Bartlett, Tennessee.
"That kid is going to smile through life.”
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