5-year-old Buddy Backpacker passes through Erwin on record-breaking hike

Tony Casey • Nov 22, 2013 at 9:34 PM

As his parents were calculating just how many more miles they had on their journey on the Appalachian Trail, 5-year-old Christian Thomas, or Buddy Backpacker as he’s known on the trail, blurted out that they had 500 miles to go.

501 miles was the correct answer. But who’s counting?

Buddy’s parents, mother Andrea Rego and father Dion Pagonis, said they’re often surprised at his quick wits. They were resting up in one of the cabins at Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel, located directly on the Appalachian Trail, on Friday night, getting ready for another push through the southern portion.

Instead of starting school this past September, the family was on a different kind of educational adventure. Blogging and learning every step of the way, they set out to complete the entire Appalachian Trail on April 27, in a pattern that’s called flip-flopping, where the start is in Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., and the trek heads up to Mount Katahdin, Maine, before coming down south to a finish in Springer, Ga. They hope the finish their trek around the New Year.

In doing so, Buddy will become the youngest person to ever “thru-hike” the trail, but that’s not why they originally set out.

Pagonis, who’s able to work along with his freelance graphic designing, says their initial intention was to just see how far they could go, then their plan morphed into going as long as Buddy could go, then when they breezed through the universally accepted hardest portion of the trail — Mount Katahdin — they decided they could go for the entire trail. Katahdin, they said, doesn’t usually allow 5-year-olds on it, but they received special permission to move forward.

Having loaded up their recent Craigslist purchase, a 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee (driven by Rego as Pagonis and Buddy hike) and converted it into somewhat of a camper, they had their mobile base camp. Along with the abundance of learning they do out on the trail to fulfill Buddy’s home-school requirements, they also enjoy an abundance of good eating.

While other thru-hikers eat backpacks of granola bars and packaged noodle soups, Buddy’s gang takes advantage of their vehicle to go to the store about every other day to fetch more wholesome dinner materials.

“We brought a Coleman grill, so we have meat, pork, sausage, steaks, chicken, turkey, and whatever else we might be able to grill,” Rego said. “And a vegetable side to go with it, too.”

They’re not selfish in their good eats, though. They said they bring extras so they can share with other thru-hikers who might not be eating as well as they are.

No colds, coughs, sprains or any other ailments have hit the family, they said, and they’ve been getting the very most out of their vehicle, so they can’t say the journey has been anything but splendid. Buddy’s a natural out there, his mom says, nearly as quick as any other hiker. Strong on the hills, his family, who recently moved to Crested Butte, Colo., which sits at 9,500 feet of elevation, had been training Buddy, unknown to him, as he cruised down the ski slopes. This preparation, Pagonis said, has been crucial in his ability to breeze through the trail.

Pagonis said the trek has been a lifestyle-changing experience, and that they could never work a 9-to-5 job again, putting Buddy in school. He and Rego said his spelling, counting, geography and grammar are well ahead of most children his age. One of their worries of other home-schooled children is a lack of social interaction with others, but say Buddy has that base covered. As they journey along with other hikers and families, Buddy has enjoyed the company of others.

Rego jokes that he has a crush on a 12-year-old girl that hiked with them. She shared stories for many miles with Buddy, and drew his fascination. Rego and Pagonis have had the same experience with other hikers, too. When they take a few days off for Thanksgiving, they will join up with one of the hikers they friended, 18-year-old Crunchmaster, for a holiday feast at his family’s house in Hot Springs, N.C.

Mountain ranges and wildlife have provided many learning opportunities for Buddy, including run-ins with bears in three different states. Buddy didn’t run away from one in New Jersey who unaggressively plopped itself down just a few feet from the family. His parents were banging ski poles against pots and pans. They said Buddy knew he couldn’t touch a bear, but was interested in seeing one up close.

If their arms were twisted, they’d say their least-favorite part of the trip would be a stint in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where some rowdy gentlemen wanted to party during bedtime and two children fell from the top of their bunks, screaming bloody murder next to where Buddy’s gang attempted to sleep.

But it’s all in the experience, they said. They intend to ride this high into more adventures, which can be followed, like this endeavor, at www.buddybackpacker.com, where up-to-date pictures, video, and blog posts can be found along the way.

Erwin’s John Shores, 68, who runs the hostel with his wife, Charlotte, are quite impressed with what Buddy has done, and calls the adventurer one of the top-three hikers he’s ever had grace his cabins. He says that everyone who passes through is amazing in their own way, and all have amazing tales to tell, but Buddy might have one of the best.

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