In 2018, the Crawford Family, consisting of two parents and six children, hit my “Appalachian Trail / lives in Maine” radar, over a debate as to whether they should be allowed to summit Katahdin with their two-year-old son, Rainier.
There were many thoughts on this, separated into a variety of camps. The Baxter elite, often already resentful of the thru-hiker set, of course said no. Another group believed “the rules are the rules.” The libertarians among us said, “who is anyone to tell anyone else what they can’t do with their kids?”
If you don’t know that outcome, I’ll leave it to you to find out in this book.
As critical as I am of the book, I am not critical of the Crawfords as parents. I stand in stark admiration of them for undertaking this with their children. I don’t know if I’d call them role models, but as is often pointed out, and will continue to be pointed out, getting kids off of the couch and into the wild is widely celebrated.
If the Crawfords are guilty of anything, it’s that they chose to make their family hike a social media spectacle, with vlogs, drones in all the wrong places, concerning themselves with trolls, etc. You could follow their attempt on YouTube, under “Fighting for Together.”
As both a thru-hiker and a parent of (fewer) children within similar age ranges, I could admire the family undertaking. Perhaps I could even envy it. My wife, Leah, is not even remotely outdoorsy. She’s of the packaged vacation, Disney World, cruise, time-share variety. My oldest, who is now a college student, has likely never slept in a tent. My 16-year-old took one overnight trip with me in Camden River Hills State Park one cold December, and that was her last trip with me. My youngest, who is five and a half, is ready for these adventures, but I will be competing against focus-grouped and colorful animated brand marketing as she ages.
Any parent who wants to push back against “screen time” and childhood obesity should admire the Crawfords. At the same time, the social media focus in turning their “adventure” into a commoditized affair partly undermines the message of unity and turns it into “look at our family unity.”
This does not mean they deserve scorn, or having child protection bureaucrats descend on them in the Smokys.
If you read their new book, 2,000 Miles Together: The Story of the Largest Family to Hike the Appalachian Trail, you understand that just because an undertaking is novel and admirable, doesn’t mean that it’s particularly enriching.
No Insights or Deeper Meaning
The thru-hiking world is littered with poorly-constructed documentary videos. To his credit, Ben Crawford and his children put together competent videos, and similarly, this book is competently written.
The continued emphasis on “the largest family to hike the Appalachian Trail” almost highlights that this is the only real achievement of the hike. Perhaps the Crawford family internalized deeper meanings of the hike and family that they didn’t expose in video or in this book, but you won’t find them.
In many cases, it’s Jon and Kate Plus Eight meets the Appalachian Trail. Another generic white, Christian (non-denominational) family manages to successfully market being a generic white, Christian (non-denominational) family.
I don’t think it’s a harsh judgment of Ben or Kami Crawford to say this, either. We don’t go into the reality show approach to these events with high expectations. It’s the bland inspirational pabulum that gets stenciled on dining room walls (“Live, laugh, love!”) or superimposed on stirring photographs.
Self-Absorption and the Need for Validation Permeates
I don’t want to call this book self-aware, as it would imply a sense of objective introspection that’s just not there.
Crawford spend considerable parts of the narrative attending to what the outside eye, be it commenters on YouTube, Vegas-oddsmakers, and strangers along the way must think about the Crawfords.
No doubt, they were wondering the same thing about our family. We’d even heard there was a line drawn in Vegas and people had placed some very low odds to bet on our failure.
The repetitive citations of YouTube commenters in almost every chapter and their thoughts on the Crawford hikes can only be described as aggravating. It serves two purposes, to either validate their undertaking, or to augment the sense of “us against everyone” that seems vitally important to Ben Crawford for one reason or another.
It’s hard to accept that Ben Crawford doesn’t, in fact, thrive on Internet critiques when he devotes so much literary real estate to it.
Even the descriptions of the personalities they meet along the way circle back to commentary on The Family and their hike. Arnie-1-mile, “The Degenerates”, and others all receive dutiful biographical treatments, but they are only accorded narrative significance if they relate positively to the family undertaking.
“I am so blown away by what you guys are doing…”
“We’ve been watching your family for a while…not many adults could do what I’ve seen you guys do.”
“God bless you guys…you’re living life your own way. That’s so important.”
Scant Descriptions of the Landscape
In many ways, the only way you know, throughout the narrative, that the Crawfords are on the Appalachian Trail is that it’s ostensibly the subject of their hike.
There are few descriptions of the natural environment they are traversing. Names of landmarks and towns are listed, but if there’s a moment where the Crawfords are humbled by the mythical beauty of the trail, it’s in short supply.
We get mileages. We get the day-to-day. We get when Kami is on her period or how they have sex.
We get vast descriptions of the challenges of motivating children, which is understandable.
Everything is Overcoming Adversity if you Frame it as Such
Really, what this book boils down to is a recounting of how The Crawford Family overcame adversity. The 2200 mile hike is not enough. It’s Internet haters, it’s kids that grumble about getting up. It’s the logistics.
What it is…is banal.
I’m not sneering at this book, really, I’m not. I’m not sneering at the achievement of moving 6 kids and 2 adults from Georgia to Maine on foot. Having done this hike by myself, it’s challenging enough without having to fold parenting into the mix.
It exists on a continuum endemic of this day and age, where achievement is deeply connected to exhibition. With the attention paid to online voices, with the emphasis on how others they meet relate back to them, it becomes very clear that at least for Ben Crawford, this was the takeaway. I don’t know if it’s true of his whole family, but it comes through in the videos and this book that Ben Crawford absolutely thrives on an enhanced and artificial sense of obstacles.
There’s no attempt to really engage the reader and say, “this is something you can do with your family.” It is, from start to finish, an exercise in navel gazing.
And to that end, I say, “Hike Your Own Hike.” The beauty of the Trail is that it bears the weight of the superficial as much as it does those in search of a deeper, and less effusive connection with the Earth and other humans.
TLDR: If you are looking for deeper insights into parenting, the Appalachian Trail, or anything else, really, “2,000 Miles Together” is not your book. If you’re looking for a travelogue through Appalachia, this book will be deeply unsatisfying. If you’re looking for what an Internet-aware, meta-narrative about a family that sought an achievement, this book adequately captures what their video logs already exposed.