Bruce and Stephanie Lunning always encouraged their five children to be adventurous, though Mom admitted, “we didn’t always know what that was going to look like.”
Their youngest, James, may have pushed the boundaries of their imagination.
As 2017 begins, the 23-year-old has completed nearly two years of what he calls a “very long walk,” but which, at about 11,000 miles and counting, almost anyone else would call an epic trek.
Lunning set out in February 2015 to hike the Appalachian Trail. But when he finished that 2,200-mile adventure, Lunning decided to keep going, knocking off additional long-distance footpaths including the North Country (4,600 miles, some of which cut a swath across northern Minnesota) and the Pacific Northwest (1,200 miles) trails. Then he stepped foot on the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which he will complete after a holiday break of a few weeks at his parents’ Minneapolis home.
After finishing the PCT at its southern terminus in California, Lunning will take on the final leg of his journey: the 3,000-mile Continental Divide Trail between Mexico and Canada. Completing it later this year — the third leg of hiking’s Triple Crown (with the AT and PCT) — would put Lunning in rarefied air. Lunning expects he will have worn through seven or eight pairs of hiking boots over 16,000 miles to reach it.
About his change of plans, Lunning said, “When I was on the AT, I met other people who had hiked the North Country Trail, and they recommended I do that trail immediately after the AT because I would be in shape.”
“I figured I could do it if I could budget it right,” said Lunning, a graduate of Minneapolis’ Community & Technical College and South High School. “Then I thought if I was really careful with my spending, I could hike a lot further. I just decided to hike until I run out of money.”
That would explain Lunning’s trail moniker: “Attrition.”
Paying for his trip from money he saved while working as a machinist, Lunning started with a budget of $150 a week, but he has pared that to about $100. “I just decided to be a little more careful about not getting luxuries when I hit a town,” he said. “Like no hotel rooms and rarely eating in restaurants.”
Because Lunning often has to walk long distances on roads between trails, eschewing paid lodging can be difficult. Acceptable spots to pitch a tent can be hard to find. He has encountered numerous “trail angels” — people who offer a place to sleep, a meal, or both, “trail magic” in hiking parlance — who have helped immeasurably.
“What’s been surprising is how often that happens,” Lunning said. “I was a little uncomfortable with it at first, taking ‘charity,’ but learned to accept that kindness.”
“James is not the kind of person who likes to draw attention to himself,” Bruce Lunning said. “But it’s really cool that people are excited about what he’s doing and want to help him.”
The Lunnings have also made sure that the trail magic works both ways.
When Lunning was concluding the AT, he asked his parents to drive from Minnesota to meet him near the end of the trail in Maine. He suggested that while he finished his hike, they spend time handing out food and drink to hikers as they passed trailheads.
“I made seven dozen cookies, five loaves of banana bread and trays of brownies,” Stephanie Lunning said. “Each day we’d drop James off for his hike and then sit there and give out this food. It was an absolute blast, and in some ways changed our lives — it gave us a picture into what long-distance hiking is all about.”
When the three were celebrating young Lunning’s subsequent completion of the AT (he treated himself to a 14-scoop ice cream sundae, one scoop for each state he’d hiked in), Stephanie Lunning said a passing hiker recognized their van in front of the soda shop. “He stopped, came in and handed me a piece of birch bark he’d written on, thanking me for the trail magic he’d received from us a few miles back,” she said. “It really touched me. In fact, I’m still carrying it in my handbag.”
Since then, the Lunnings, who are retired, have made numerous trips to spend time with their son during breaks on his travels. In addition, they have a shelf in their basement stocked with supplies he bought. Their son will mark on an online spreadsheet what he’s going to need in coming weeks, and his parents will ship it out to him.
Having the right gear on hand can be especially important because Lunning has traveled in temperatures from 8 degrees below zero (in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) to 110 degree above (in North Dakota). As Lunning prepares to hike into snowy conditions, for example, his parents will send him snowshoes and sleeping bag liners. He’ll ship them back when he no longer needs them.
“This has been James’ hike. At the same time, we feel privileged to share it in kind of a peripheral way,” his mother said.
“His world has certainly gotten bigger. But he’s made our world a little bigger, too.”
Jeff Moravec is an outdoors writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.