The trail provides: Learning across 9,000 miles

The Bennett family poses for a photo

The Bennett family

The average American takes 3,000 to 4,000 steps per day. For 13-year-old Ruby Bennett, an eighth grader at River HomeLink, that number is higher. A lot higher. Her daily step count: about 80,000.

Over the past four years, Ruby; her three older siblings; their parents, Mindi and Adam; and their dog, Muir, have completed a rare feat known as the Triple Crown of Hiking. The Triple Crown includes the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide and Appalachian trails. The combined length of all three trails is about 7,910 miles. As of 2022, 575 people have received the Triple Crown award from the American Long Distance Hiking Association – West.

If that weren’t enough, the family also hiked the Pacific Northwest Trail. Their grand total: 9,069.3 miles.

At age 13, Ruby (Ladybug on the trail) is among the youngest of long distance hikers. Ruby did her first 20-mile hike the day before she turned 10. In just a few years, she has become a veteran.

Her favorite trail was the Continental Divide, which traversed areas such as Wyoming’s Wind River Range, with jagged granite rock, alpine meadows, forests and mirrored glaciers. Photo-worthy views around every corner made the 3,100 miles worthwhile.

Her least favorite? The hot and humid Appalachian Trail, known as the Green Tunnel due to its more view-obstructing deciduous canopy.

The first step
Adam Bennett grew up hiking the Cascades, logging 16-mile days when he was younger than his youngest daughter. “I look at it as being like a spiritual experience, because you’re just involved in nature. You see all the great things that are around,” he said.

The family’s first hike of the Triple Crown was the Pacific Crest Trail. Carrying 25-pound packs each, they started out walking 8 to 10 miles per day. After two weeks, they averaged 12 to 15 miles daily. After two months on the trail, the Bennetts were logging 20 miles on average each day.

The preparation was more mental than physical, said Ruby. “You just kind of have to psych yourself up for it. You get used to it eventually once you’re on the trail.”

Ruby Bennett, left, with teacher Terree Marvin

Ruby Bennett, left, with teacher Terree Marvin

River HomeLink’s flexible learning model helped make the family’s trek possible. Staff reviewed the rules governing alternative schools and realized that it was still possible to meet all the requirements. “The staff has said, ‘Yes, let’s do this! Let’s get you out on the trail and keep your education going.’ It’s an honor to make it happen,” said Principal Matt Kesler. “As an alternative school, if we don’t exist to make this kind of learning happen, then why do we exist?”

The staff worked with the family to send curriculum and lessons, and maintained flexibility when cell coverage limited the Bennetts’ ability to turn in assignments. Teacher Terree Marvin even flew to Tennessee to visit her family and tracked down the Bennetts. After treating the family to pizza, she hiked a half-mile of the Appalachian Trail with them. After missing friends, “it was nice seeing someone I knew,” said Ruby.

Learning thru hiking
Learning on the trail also took other forms. On the Pacific Crest Trail they encountered 200% snowpack in the Sierra Mountains and more than 40 feet of snow over the trail. They learned to take advantage of the snow crust by hiking early in the morning to avoid sinking in.

Ruby collected treasures: a smooth jade rock, seashells and snail shells that are now displayed in her room. She listened to audiobooks–70 of them on the Appalachian Trail alone. They included history books with her father and her favorite Skyward series by Brandon Sanderson.

The trail also provided real-world lessons about budgeting as the family worked through paying for new supplies and made decisions about periodically sleeping in a hotel or going out to eat.

There were philosophical lessons as well. “The trail provides” is a common mantra. When former River HomeLink student Tristan Bennett lost his hat in the punishing California desert, he found one washed up on a log at a river crossing. Tristan wore that hat for the duration of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The family also met people from all over the world, including author Heather Anderson and people who had completed the Triple Crown multiple times. Those experiences were a surprise for Adam. “It’s very much a social experience. You see great people,” he said.

The next adventure
Forest fires prevented the family from completing every single section of the Continental Divide and Pacific Crest trails. Next summer, the family may complete the remaining 200 miles.

At Ruby’s request, the family also is considering canoeing the Missouri River.

For now, Ruby is happy to be back with her friends and attending school at River HomeLink.

Although the family has been featured in Outside magazine and the Osprey blog, in addition to regional media, they remain humble about what they’ve accomplished.

But for any family looking to accomplish their own Triple Crown, in whatever form that may take, Adam has a direct piece of advice:

“Make it happen!”

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