Iraq War veteran Will Robinson thru-hikes for his mental health

Iraq Battle veteran Will Robinson thru-hikes for his psychological well being


Will Robinson was about 100 miles into his hike on the Pacific Crest Path when the darkish clouds began to elevate. Not those excessive within the California sky, however the ones clustered in his head.

“I discovered that I used to be able to dwelling, I used to be able to main. I used to be able to inspiring and motivating folks. That was one thing I had fully misplaced for a decade-plus,” stated the 41-year-old Military veteran who struggled with despair, nervousness and post-traumatic stress dysfunction after his medical discharge in 2003. “I began peeling again the layers, mile after mile after mile.”

Savoring solitude on the Pacific Crest Path

Since that first long-distance hike in 2016, his mileage has multiplied to greater than 11,000 miles and counting. In 2019, he grew to become the primary Black American man to earn the Triple Crown of thru-hiking by finishing the trifecta of legacy trails: the two,650-mile PCT from California to Washington state, the two,194-mile Appalachian Path from Georgia to Maine and the three,100-mile Continental Divide Path from New Mexico to Montana. Two years later, ESPN declared Robinson “the trailblazing famous person of thru-hiking.” He additionally acquired the 2022 George Mallory Award, which honors distinctive outside explorers.

The superlatives nonetheless apply. Throughout the peak of the pandemic, he bagged a number of extra epic hikes, together with the Tahoe Rim Path (165 miles) in California and Nevada, the Arizona Path (greater than 800 miles) and the Ozark Highlands Path (270 miles) in Arkansas. He was about 100 miles into the Buckeye Path when a sprain pressured him to desert the 1,400-mile route in Ohio. This 12 months, he’s coaching for the AT once more — not as a result of he loved it a lot the primary time, however as a result of he didn’t.

“I used to be anticipating the AT to be just like the PCT, however you’ll be able to’t examine the 2. That’s a part of the explanation I’m going again to hike it,” he stated from his residence in San Marcos, Tex. “Did I actually give it an opportunity?”

Earlier than the PCT, Robinson had by no means critically hiked, although the army had ready him for equally robust challenges. “The closest factor I did to mountaineering was drill marching,” stated Robinson, who grew up on bases along with his Military father. “It’s loads totally different with a 100-pound pack and an M16, however it gave me a foundation for mountaineering.” Within the armed forces, he powered by his ache, a follow he needed to unlearn as a trekker. “Within the Military, you suck it up and drive on,” he stated. “For those who damage your foot, you retain transferring. In a thru-hike you discover ways to take heed to your physique.”

After six months in Iraq and a cease in Germany for medical remedy, he returned to Louisiana, the place he typically felt too damaged to go away the home, a lot much less pursue outside actions. He underwent a number of surgical procedures and tried varied remedy therapies and medicines to no avail. “After Iraq, I used to be disabled at 23,” he stated. An opportunity “encounter” with celeb long-haul hiker and “Wild” writer Cheryl Strayed offered the jolt he wanted to recharge his life.

On that fateful day in March 2016, Robinson was in his room “like all the time” when he glanced on the TV and noticed “Wild” on the small display screen. Within the movie model of Strayed’s best-selling memoir, he watched Reese Witherspoon lug her pack by a PCT path marker, a scene that stirred up a reminiscence from Iraq. Throughout his downtime, Robinson would typically pore over a PCT guidebook, which somebody had despatched to the troopers in a care package deal. “Someday I’d love to do that,” he stated, reminiscing about that interval in his life when he envisioned a future stuffed with journey.

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With out ready for the closing credit, he jumped onto his pc and bought a free long-distance allow, certainly one of 5,657 issued that 12 months. On April 2, he arrived in Southern California and launched into a journey of non-public discovery and restoration that resembled Strayed’s transformative quest twenty years earlier.

“After I picked up ‘Pacific Crest Path: Quantity 1’ on the REI retailer outdoors of Minneapolis, I had a really related second to what I think about Will had. He noticed Reese as me on the path within the film and I learn a paragraph on the again of the e-book describing this long-distance path,” Strayed stated by cellphone final week. “I felt one thing within me that stated, ‘You are able to do this and it’s best to do that,’ as a result of I intrinsically knew this might be therapeutic.”

Past the bodily advantages

Along with the bodily advantages of mountaineering in nature, medical specialists extol its psychological virtues. Stanford College-led analysis from 2015 decided that strolling at the least 90 minutes in a non-urbanized setting might help alleviate despair, decrease stress and nervousness, and scale back rumination, the infinite loop of damaging ideas. A 2019 research known as “Nature and psychological well being: An ecosystem service perspective” additionally explored the wide-ranging rewards, similar to a happier frame of mind, extra constructive social interactions, a clearer sense of goal and a sturdier grip on life’s calls for.

“Earlier than I left, I imagined that I might get to a spot of psychological well-being by reflecting on my life and being contemplative. However the shock of my journey was how therapeutic the bodily act of strolling was,” Strayed stated. “There’s something very comforting and consoling about taking that one step after which one other step after which one other step after that.”

The arrival of ‘Akuna’

Robinson didn’t initially got down to full the whole PCT, which runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. His major objective, he stated, “was to attempt to see if I may discover me once more, no matter what number of miles it could take.” With only some weeks to arrange, he educated round Slidell, about 30 miles northeast of New Orleans, and ordered gear primarily based on solutions from mountaineering blogs.

“Individuals who backpack inform you these are the perfect issues for backpacking, however they may not essentially be the perfect for long-distance mountaineering,” he defined.

His tent, for example, weighed about 9 kilos, 3 times greater than the fashions usually carried by thru-hikers. He additionally wore conventional mountaineering boots as a substitute of lighter path runners.

In your subsequent hike, spare a thought for the path builders who made it attainable

Early within the hike, he discovered his path household and earned his path title, “Akuna,” a riff on a Swahili phrase (and “The Lion King” chorus) that interprets to “no worries.” The nicknames are bestowed by different long-distance hikers or are given to oneself. They’re typically fanciful, foolish or philosophical.

About 5 miles in, he was resting on a rock, feeling sluggish, when a girl named “Cookie” appeared at his facet. She decided that he wanted meals and proceeded to stuff her namesake snack into his mouth. The pair cast a bond together with “2Pie,” a instructor from Ohio, and “Nothing But,” a veteran who had tackled the AT the earlier 12 months to quell his PTSD. The group hiked collectively for lengthy stretches, a significant breakthrough for Robinson, who for years had prevented social conditions due to his fraught psychological state.

“Being round folks triggered panic and nervousness assaults, and I didn’t need any a part of it. I simply shut down,” he stated. “However on the path, I bumped into so many nice people who had been there for me. All they wished was to be a part of my journey and assist me accomplish my objective.”

Nature can have an effect on human well-being in lots of extra methods than you assume

At across the 700-mile mark, Robinson revised his targets: “It lastly hit me that possibly I may do that complete factor.” Sadly, he needed to bail at Mount Whitney, the very best peak within the Decrease 48, due to a dislocated knee. However the bodily setback didn’t diminish his psychological well being achievements.

“Nature might be therapeutic. It may be an alternate technique when the usual therapies aren’t working for somebody’s struggling,” he stated. “For me, each hike is sort of a remedy session in progress. I’m going by issues in my head, figuring out issues. After I discover a answer, I can zone out and be in peace.”

Robinson, it turned out, had loads in frequent with AT’s first documented thru-hiker. Based on the Appalachian Path Conservancy, Earl Shaffer, a World Battle II vet, hiked the whole route in 1948 to assist along with his war-related nervousness.

Love and friendship on the paths

In April 2017, Robinson returned to the PCT. For his second try, he packed lighter and smarter, however with out sacrificing his small comforts and luxuries. He carried an automated pump for his sleeping pad and a photograph of his mom holding him in her arms. “It was my motivation on these tough days,” he stated of the picture from his infancy. He additionally introduced a stash of Black and Gentle cigars and gummy bears. “They had been my reward for ending the day,” he stated.

After consecutive stints on the PCT, he discovered his subsequent long-distance path more durable to like. The AT’s terrain was extra technical and hilly — quite a lot of “PUDS,” or pointless ups and downs, he stated. A biblical quantity of rain fell. “In all honesty, by Day 2 or 3, I completely hated the Appalachian Path,” he stated. “What saved me on that path had been the folks. I loved their firm; the path itself, I didn’t.”

Two of the extra memorable hikers he met had been “Emergency Tuna” and “Undecided.” “Emergency Tuna” lacked confidence and was normally the final individual to reach at camp. His group inspired her, however she was impaired by self-doubt. He didn’t see her for a few thousand miles, however she resurfaced on Mount Katahdin in Maine. She was descending as he was ascending the final leg of the path. “She beat us to the tip,” he stated with awe and respect. “Seeing her progress was a complete spotlight of the A.T. She went from a timid hiker who didn’t have quite a lot of confidence to blasting by us.”

As for “Undecided,” Robinson buddied up with Daybreak Potts, her off-trail title, for the primary 100 miles of the trek. A number of hundred miles later, they had been courting. In 2019, they accomplished the Continental Divide Path as a pair. “We triple topped collectively,” Robinson stated of the consideration the American Lengthy-Distance Mountain climbing Affiliation-West has bestowed to solely 575 hikers since 1994.

“Akuna is an excellent and inspirational member of our mountaineering neighborhood,” stated Lisa “Hummingbird” Slutsken, an officer-at-large at ALDHA-West.

After incomes the coveted award, they celebrated by taking a Caribbean cruise. “Let’s go have a trip the place we don’t need to stroll a thousand miles to get to the place we wish to go,” he stated.


An earlier model of this story stated Robinson acquired the George Mallory Award in 2002; he acquired it in 2022. It has been corrected.

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