Stretching more than 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world. And, early every spring, thousands of hikers take their first steps onto the trailhead in Springer Mountain, Georgia, for what will become (on average) a six-month long test of endurance.
In 2018, during one of the most challenging AT thru-hiking seasons in recent history, 3,862 people set off on the northbound journey. Only 728 went on to complete the trail.
Among those thru-hikers were Ben and Kami Crawford of Bellevue, Kentucky, and their six children.
This November, Ben Crawford released a book about his family’s 2018 thru-hike. Titled 2,000 Miles Together: The Story of the Largest Family to Hike the Appalachian Trail, the memoir is a perfect read to curb both average seasonal wanderlust and the present moment’s pandemic angst.
In 2,000 Miles Together, Crawford recounts his family’s journey, from demoralizing start to proud finish. Along the way, he offers plenty of introspective musing and interesting anecdotes about trail culture and the people they met on their hike.
But, like most adventure memoirs, Crawford’s book isn’t really about hiking. It’s a book that asks big questions about parenting, risk, and pushing past expectations and limits. The book presents a challenge for other families to choose their own hike and pursue their own adventure.
Moving to Cincinnati; finding “together”
Ben and Kami Crawford are from the Seattle area where they met young, married young, and began eagerly growing their family while living meagerly on minimum wage and government assistance. It was a humble beginning.
They found their way to Cincinnati through Ben’s work.
In 2009, he and three partners — including a brother in-law — launched Epipheo, an animated video production company. In 2012, Epipheo consolidated operations to Cincinnati and the Crawfords moved from Seattle to be nearer to the business and their family.
Epipheo works with high-profile clients like Google, US Bank, and Microsoft and is now “the world’s largest digital video agency,” but Crawford functionally retired from Epipheo in 2014 and formally divested himself of the business just before leaving on their thru-hike.
Epipheo was not Ben Crawford’s first profitable business venture. Early in their marriage, he dabbled in blackjack card-counting for a few years and helped built a successful blackjack training program. So, while the Appalachian Trail may be the Crawfords’ latest claim to fame, large-scale unconventional endeavors are very in-character for their family.
Ben and Kami are 41 and 40, respectively. They live with their six children — ranging in age from 4 to 19 — in Bellevue, KY. Their Crawford home is a bustling urban homestead, pieced together bit by bit over the past eight years. The family owns a handful of investment properties nearby — which are currently their only consistent source of income — and Ben’s parents moved in to an adjacent property a few years ago.
Ben and Kami have shirked a conventional, middle-class family life. In their 20 years of marriage, they’ve leaned more into creativity, entrepreneurship, and audacious family goals than the safety and security of social norms and expectations.
This “can do” family culture has taken them and their children some interesting places — running marathons and climbing mountains, for example — but Ben Crawford admits their radical free-range parenting today is partially the recoil from the authoritarian parenting they adopted young in their marriage.
When they were newly married, the Crawfords dove deep into a zealous religious life, homeschooling in a close-knit spiritual community and setting high academic and moral expectations for their children. Over that first decade of parenting, he says the intense pressure consumed them.
Knowing their family was on the verge of a crisis, the Crawfords took a year off to reorient their family. They refocused on family disciplines of learning, rather than their former preoccupation with school.
They did a lot of reading. Kami took guitar lessons. The whole family tried their hand at long distance hiking. They started a family YouTube channel called Fight for Together. Ben took his kids to work with him and began running in the morning for fun. (He ran his first marathon with his 8-year-old son that year.)
“We had all these crazy things that erupted, none of which was reading, writing, or arithmetic,” Ben remembers.
That first year of “un-schooling” gave them confidence to trust their children to facilitate their own learning. Ben and Kami stepped into the role of coaches. And, rather than micro-manage their growing family, they worked to create the home environment and procure the resources their kids needed to prepare for the future.
These lifestyle changes — and their very public processing of them on their family vlog and podcast — caused tension between them and their extended family and church community, but it gave their home new life.
“As parents, we were learning to let go and learning that there is a much broader goal [in education], which is getting the kids passionate about learning and living.”
The ultimate experiment in education
It was Kami who pushed for the Appalachian Trail.
While they’d both considered hiking the AT eventually, she came across a documentary a few years ago that rekindled her interest.
Ben says that the average thru-hiker is one of two types of people — either a young 20-something hoping to find themselves on the trail or a retiree checking a big-ticket item off their bucket list. Ben and Kami were neither of these things. Complicating things further, their youngest child was still in diapers. Yet, like all big life decisions, there would never be “the perfect time.”
At this point in their family life, Ben says, it was a “no-brainer.” They decided they were going to hike now and they were going to hike together.
Preparing to hike 2,000 miles is no small task; preparing to hike 2,000 miles as a family of eight is a monumental feat. For the Crawfords, it meant preparing their house to rent while they were gone, plus months of budgeting, purchasing, and planning. It required quitting work and pulling the kids out of school.
Ben says he knew it would be “the ultimate learning experience” for the family. But, like every other thru-hiker, he and Kami had their own personal reasons for the hike. They just weren’t conscious of them yet. Looking back, he says they used the hike to process their estrangements and their traumatic experiences with their church community.
Ben explains, “The first guy who ever did the trail said he did it to walk off the war. I feel like, especially for Kami, it was like walking off her family. It was walking through the woods, grieving.”
While much of the book 2,000 Miles Together is about the logistics of the family’s thru-hike, Ben Crawford writes candidly about his own personal growth on the trail. He says he was letting go of his need for control over his family.
In the book, he speaks about the humbling experience of watching his children grow and thrive in the freedom the trail provided. He says the AT proved that his kids were capable of more than he ever expected. And he learned that, in some ways, he was the one holding them back.
“[We have created] a separate category for kids. We say they don’t want these experiences, they’re just consumers, they want to be entertained. But our experience has been that kids want a lot of the same things adults wants. We’re the ones preventing it, not them,” he explains.
He says all kids want to contribute to their family in a way that’s valuable and “the trail gave us a bigger imagination” for what that can look like.
Hike your own hike
Ben Crawford hired an editor and a publishing service to help him self-publish 2,000 Miles Together because it was his best chance of keeping the story as honest and uncensored as possible. And he wanted to include as much of his kids’ voices as possible, which meant having a lot of personal control over the message.
The process of writing, editing, reviewing, and publishing was supposed to take six months. Instead, it took two years.
Crawford could have never anticipated the cultural climate of 2020, the year he would finally release the book. But, it turns out, a book about revisioning family life comes at just the right time.
In the midst of a pandemic, many families have been forced to reconsider their own goals for home, work, and education. Academic success and social status are usually huge motivators for parents, Crawford says, and those things feel vulnerable right now. Maybe he can help families realign their priorities to what’s really important.
“I think what gave us the ability to go on the trail and what we learned on the trail is that there’s something greater than fitting in,” he explains.
Rather than living up to someone else’s expectations, the Crawfords want people to ask questions like “What is best for our family?” and “What is best for our kids?”
He says everyone’s answer will be different because everyone has to “hike their own hike.”
“I’m not trying to convert people to be like us or tackle six-month, notable goals. That’s not the thing I’m most proud of,” he explains.
What he’s most proud of is his and Kami’s decision to shape their family rhythm, day by day, around what’s most important to them, whether that’s their morning coffee on the back porch or spending six months together in the woods.
When asked, he admits there is a certain audacity in assuming it’s feasible for everyone to quit work and school for six months to take a hike. But he says that, at the end of the day, all families prioritize what’s most important to them and decisions about how to spend time and money don’t happen by chance.
Regarding the financial cost of their thru-hike, Crawford has done the math. All things considered, their six months on the trail only cost them $10 per person a day, which is much less than the average American family’s living expenses and far more affordable than a Disney vacation. (Although, to be fair, this thru-hike was certainly not a luxury vacation.)
But, he says, the Appalachian Trail is the not the point.
The Crawfords don’t see their family as a model. They only hope that, by sharing their story, they inspire others to stop building their family life based on other people’s expectations and in fear of others’ judgments of them, regardless of what that looks like.
The judgements are inevitable, he says.
In the process of re-imagining their family, he and Kami have lost friends and loved ones. While on their thru-hike, they experienced much public criticism, often disguised as concern for their children’s safety, including a visit from Child Protective Services and a local sheriff. They have had to fight the desire to defend themselves to both close friends and strangers.
He says the fear of failure is inevitable, too. They experienced it a lot early in their thru-hike and Ben writes about it in his book. Thankfully, they knew how to cope.
Back when he and his son ran their first marathon, they created a rule that they later employed on the Appalachian Trail.
“When we ran our first marathon,” he explains, “we didn’t know if we would finish. We thought it might be a failure. So, we made this rule: whenever we couldn’t take another step, we would stop.”
“But we never stopped,” he says. “We realized we really could do it together.”
Ben Crawford says his family’s accomplishment isn’t really that significant.
They just walked one step at a time, day after day, until they finished the trail more than 2,000 miles later.