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Love of hiking bonds pair, spurs book

For an adult without children, figuring out how to engage and entertain a 9-year-old is a daunting task indeed. Just ask Manchester resident Dan Szczesny, who, along with his wife, Meena Gyawali, reached out to the now-10-year-old twins who live next door to them after their grandfather died in February 2011.

“Meena and I don’t have any kids of our own just yet, so we don’t really know what to do with kids,” Szczesny said. “So we just did what we like to do.”

The couple are avid hikers and decided to take the twins, Janelle and Aaron Mylott, up to Bald Peak in Franconia Notch with their niece Meg, 8, and nephew Ian, 11.

“It was a good place to take kids, especially for their first time,” Szczesny said.

Of the four kids, Janelle enjoyed the experience the most and asked Szczesny if the two of them could do more hiking together. He was happy to oblige.

“It was like, phew, at least I know what to do with one of them,” he said with a laugh.

Their resulting journeys are chronicled on Szczesny’s blog,, and in “The Adventures of Buffalo and Tough Cookie,” a combination narrative and trail guide penned by Szczesny with input from Janelle, slated for release in May.

Buffalo and Tough Cookie are the trail names of Szczesny and Janelle, respectively.

“You can’t make your own trail name up. Someone has to give it to you,” Szczesny said.

He earned his on a hike in Wind Cave National Park, S.D., with Gyawali, after fleeing from what he thought was a herd of buffalo.

“It was only two, but they were loud, trust me,” Szczesny said. “I ran away like a big tough hiker.”

“I got mine from my brother,” Janelle said. “We were arguing, and he said, ‘You think you’re such a tough cookie.’ ”

“Both of our trail names came about through irony,” Szczesny said.

The duo began their adventures intending to train Janelle to hike a 4,000-footer. Their goals shifted, however, once Janelle pointed out that several of the hikes they had done were on the 52 With a View list.

“Everybody climbs the 4,000-footers, but not everyone does the 52 With a View,” Szczesny said. “It was her suggestion that we just follow that list and see where it went.”

“It was originally for senior citizens,” Janelle said, adding that most of the climbs are easy and all of them have amazing views.

Those hikes on the list that are more demanding, however, are on par with the 4,000-footers, Szczesny said.

“Her longest day was a 14-mile day hike,” he said, noting that this is difficult even for an adult.

Some of the challenges the duo faced had nothing to do with hiking itself, but with the fact that they’re an adult male and a female child who are not related.

During one of their first hikes, someone called the police to report a grown man in the woods with a little girl. The police responded quickly.

“It was touch and go for a minute there, because I didn’t have any ID on me,” Szczesny said, adding that he now carries a permission slip from Janelle’s grandmother to avoid such misunderstandings. “In a sad way, that sort of speaks to the age that we live in. Lessons we had to learn along the way, if we were going to do this.”

Szczesny decided to include this incident in the book.

“Part of our story is that we’re not related,” he said. “That’s crucial to what we’re doing here.”

Szczesny and Janelle agree that, in spite of not being blood relatives, they’ve been able to bond through hiking.

And with Janelle at an age where most kids are complaining about having to walk around a mall or a museum, her dedication to hiking makes the story even more compelling.

The duo logged 225 miles in 371 days, from Nov. 5, 2011 to Nov. 11, 2013.

“There’s not a lot of 8- and 9- and 10-year-olds out there who can put that kind of mileage in,” Szczesny said.

Hiking the 52 With a View has been a growing experience for Janelle – in more ways than one.

“From when we started to when we ended, her foot size changed a whole size and a half,” Szczesny said, noting that Janelle has outgrown his wife’s hiking gear.

“On those first two hikes, she didn’t know how to read blazes, she didn’t know what a cairn was,” he said. “But by the end of our journey, she was leading me up those mountains.”

With all the time and energy they’ve been putting into the book and its promotion, the duo has yet to decide which list to hike next.

“You’re the leader,” Szczesny said to Janelle. “What’s our next adventure going to be?”

“The Terrifying 25,” she said, referring to a list of 25 of the hardest trails in the White Mountains, “or the 4,000-footers.”

Szczesny anticipates that Janelle will soon outpace him and joked that he’ll eventually become a taxi service, dropping her off at the trailheads.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Janelle said. “I’ll always be your hiking buddy.”

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published March 10, 2013 in The Telegraph, Nashua, NH.

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