Will 'AKUNA" ROBINSON, aged 40, moves with authority and speed along the trail. He learned that you must do it right if you are going to do something. He still takes the time to greet everyone he meets after five years of avid thruhiking. Some of his friends are from past trails where they shared miles and hardships. Many people recognize him via Instagram. He is also the first Black man to complete America's almost 8,000-mile Triple Crown of Hiking in September 2019. His visage can be seen in catalogs and on banners online as a Merrell brand ambassador.
It's late august, the sleepy time of the year when the sun shines brightly one minute and the night is cool with a chill. Akuna is leading our group of three: Andy, a Wyoming-based photographer, and me, an idiot writer who overpacks, just happy to be keeping up -- through the Goat Rocks Wilderness in southern Washington, near White Pass. Mount Rainier is to our north and Mount Adams to the south. It's difficult to ignore the scattered, echoing birdcalls in one's heart.
Everything is on fire in the rest of the world. It seems as if the concepts of unity and common purpose seem far-fetched in an America divided. COVID-19 is now being rewritten in a new version that threatens the fragile "return to normal” society we have been seeing. Kabul is overthrown by the Taliban the same day as we set foot on the trail. Both Akuna, Akuna, and I were both wounded in the Iraq War. Both of us have close friends who were in Afghanistan and are struggling to cope. A tropical storm is forming in the Caribbean, prompting meteorologists to wonder whether it could make a play for Gulf Coast.
The poor reception of cell phones is not the worst thing. These are dark times.
Akuna has been through dark times before. After returning from Iraq, Akuna experienced many of these dark days. He was a shell of his former self, locked in his room, consuming alcohol and painkillers and only leaving when absolutely necessary. He was unable to let go of the past, his unrelenting hold on memory. He was open to all possibilities, joy, and even tomorrow. He was there to be. These words, life, fulfillment, belonged to other people.
The nights are getting darker. It was then that darkness was at its most intense. Although it didn't have a face or a shape, it smelled: A bitter mixture of diesel fuel and manure that he had associated with Iraq. He tried to flee one night. The VA prescribed medication, a few drops of the stuff. He vomited most of the stuff up due to chance, God or whatever, and was saved by the very same body that he had wanted to destroy. He made a promise to his mother not to do it again.
He returned to Southeast Louisiana, where he was born, a place filled with joy and resilience that could not heal what was wrong. He had fought in a terrible war for his country, and he came back stronger in some areas and perhaps not in others. This was an old tale that was older than the country he had fought for. Even so.
This is all before the trail, thru-hiking and the accolades. Before he was saved by intention, before his self-sacrifice, before he discovered the trail.
As a Southerner, Black American, and veteran of war, he knows that the past will always be there for him. Darkness thrives in the peripheral. There is no cure for darkness, but there are new beginnings and the man is grateful.
So, Akuna keeps moving. One mile more, one campsite more, one more trail town. Now that his mother is gone, each trailhead is a tribute for her, for saving him in the darkest hours, and for the promise she made to him: Start again.
Robinson uses his stove to boil water while he hikes the PCT in Washington. Andy Bardon, ESPN
The PACIFIC CREST Trail (or PCT) is a 2650-mile stretch that runs from San Diego's desert outskirts to British Columbia's Pasayten Wilderness. The trail takes hikers to all of the wild beauty and dangers that western North America has: desert badlands, Sierra Nevada Snowpacks, wild rivers passes, forest fires and lava fields. According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, thru-hikers heading north should start in mid-April or early May. If you start too soon, the Sierra snows will not have melted sufficiently to allow you to continue on. Too late and the autumn cold in Pacific Northwest will make you a statistic.
The simplest form of thru-hiking, or long-distance backpacking is a journey that involves walking on your own, carrying your own pack, and navigating from one end to the other. Since at least 1970, thru-hikers have been flocking to the PCT. This was when adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts decided to create a western version the Appalachian Trail. It has since been regarded as the most famous trail in the world, and Akuna considers it his personal favorite. This is why we are here, in the land where mountain goats.
As we climb a ridge, he exclaims, "Nothing against other trails", and stretches his arms towards a bright, colorful sky. "But the PCT has it all!"
It is hard to argue with. Akuna's nickname is the PCT. It's where he got his Swahili phrase, "Hakuna matata," which was popularized by a Disney movie. This means "no worries". He learned from an old-timer on his 2016 first thru-hike that thru-hiking is more about experience than race because "people who get there first lose". He met Dawn Potts, a fellow thru-hiker, and he discovered that he wasn't able to keep up with all the athletes in the community. Instead, he could thrive within them.
He muses, "The trail has the right amount of weird on it."
Akuna is light and carries less than 30 pounds. His pack includes tent equipment, fuel, layers and batteries, as well as baby wipes. This combination was created over many years of trial and error. Akuna aims to have five days' worth of food and two liters water before he enters a new section. He likes a few Black & Mild cigars every day; everyone has their vices and he's had worse.
We camp at the shores Shoe Lake, a beautiful setting just off the main trail that looks more like a dysfunctional kidney than any shoe. He speaks with a deep Louisiana accent, part Cajun, part clusterf Akuna and guides us through the details of thru-hiking culture.
He says, "Dropping packed is the new game." It's not uncommon for people to cut their toothbrushes in half, as he knows. Andy and I are both smelt by other hikers. It's the detergent and deodorant. For those who are inclined, "Safety Meeting" is "weed breaking." PUDs: Nothing but ups and downs. Blue-blazing is a shortcut. Yellow-blazing is a shortcut via hardball road. Pink-blazing is the act of chasing down a girl on the trail. "Bananablazing" is...well, that's what I discovered.
He says that you'll be meeting a lot of people out here. An older man named Minnesota Jocko, who used to work at the same Reno casino as me, is a ginger-bearded kid, who hikes in rainbow foam clogs. A father who is still earnest and earthy at the top a ridge, looking back at the days when he could disappear into the woods for many months. Mumbles and Rubber Ball, Sandman, Yard Sale, All-Good, Yard Sale, and a trail cook going by Gordon Ramsay are just a few of the many people out there. New names, new identities and new lives. Akuna promises he will find nicknames for us both. It's not possible to force it.
It's getting colder despite the fact that it has dropped in elevation to Shoe Lake. It's raining so we're ready to pitch our tents, and then crawl into our bags. Tomorrow begins early on the trail.
Akuna asks me if he has any tips or tricks for someone who is new to this. Although I meant it pragmatically, Akuna's answer is philosophical.
He said, "Take what Mother Nature has given you." "Always."
Soon after Robinson returned from Iraq in 2004, Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana. Robinson, who was standing in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, Washington, promised his mother that he would start over, just like his hometown New Orleans. Andy Bardon, ESPN
IN EARLY 2016 at night, Akuna, a Slidell resident, turned on the TV and was captivated by "Wild," a Reese Witherspoon movie. It is a film based on the memoir of Cheryl Strayed. "Wild" is a story about the 1995 trip that a grieving Strayed made to the PCT, despite not having any hiking experience.
Akuna was depressed and isolated after he returned home. He needed a life-changing event. He was left with both a moral and physical injury from his time in Iraq. Nothing he tried worked.
Akuna, an Apache Attack Helicopter Systems Technician in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, was deployed to Anbar Province in March 2003. He found himself in a lot more than just helping in the chaos of invading another country.
Although his father was a career Army soldier, Akuna grew up on Fort Benning with his parents. He had been born on an Army base in Germany and never imagined that he would become a soldier. He was determined to do something else. He was 18 when he was arrested and charged with theft of more than $100. The judge made a deal: You can enlist and your record will be expunged.
He says, "I got my fresh beginning" and "never looked back." He loved soldiering and enjoyed the challenges and camaraderie that it brought. On 9/11, he was stationed in Korea and immediately knew that everything had changed. He found himself in Iraq on his 22nd Birthday, two years later.
He's not like other veterans and is reticent about discussing details of his combat tour. "I try to avoid that area of thought," says he. But six months after his deployment, he was medically evacuated to the same Germany where he was born. He has been plagued by post-traumatic stress and service-related injuries to the wrist and knees. After his military separation, his marriage to another soldier fell apart.
He woke up one morning and noticed a placard with a disability attached to the rearview mirror. He was 23 years old.
"[It's] very sad, man. The only time we are united is when it's at war." Will "Akuna” Robinson?
He felt that nothing was going well, so he returned home to his family and friends. It seemed like a fresh start. However, Hurricane Katrina struck a few months later.
Akuna is wary about making comparisons between the natural disaster and his experiences abroad. But, he sees a parallel. He says, "What made Katrina so terrible was that people couldn't escape, they didn't possess the means to." "It was like this for many regular Iraqis."
He lost his great-grandmother, "Big Mama", at the Superdome while awaiting to be evacuated from Houston. It took Slidell more than half a decade for normalcy to return. He means city-generated power. Things were still "very clannish" in the interim. We defended our neighborhood and relied on one another.
Akuna stayed in Slidell to help Willie Senior with repairs to their homes, as well as those of neighbors and families who had suffered more severe damage. Although this work provided temporary relief from his depression, a job as an electronics technician wasn't sustainable. He tried college and computer science. This didn't work either.
Delores, Akuna's mom, was a career educator. When he tried to commit suicide in 2011, he was listening to her, possibly for the first and only time, to someone who wanted to help. Her cervical cancer returned a few months later. She was 54 years old when she died in 2012.
Just as the darkest days seemed to be threatening to turn into forever, "Wild" appeared. It felt like a lifeline for Akuna at that moment. Before the credits even rolled, he made the decision that he would follow Strayed's footsteps. A few weeks later, Akuna reached a small hill in California near the Mexican border where a monument marked the southern terminus on the PCT. Although his family and friends had refused to let him go they insisted that he bring a satellite navigation system so they could monitor and check in on his movements.
He laughs about his younger self carrying 60 pounds of military-lite equipment. "I just knew that I had to go out there," he said now. It was going to force my to do something. And if I traveled a hundred or a thousand miles, it would be something.
He continued to follow his will. He was still going by his will. His anxiety was still there, and he wasn't sure what to do with the gregarious fellow travelers. But he was moving forward. He wasn't sure what lay down the trail. He had never been there before.
He thought already, "This is something."
Robinson, 22, returned from Iraq with chronic injuries to his wrist and knees that were caused by service. He saved himself by hiking. Robinson says, "I knew I had to go out there." Robinson says, "[If] it was a hundred or a thousand miles, it would be something." Andy Bardon, ESPN
AKUNA PROVES A bona-fide celebrity in the Goat Rocks. The hiking community is very closed-knit, and celebrities like CrossFit stars are a common sight. He doesn't hide from it nor do he try to avoid it. It's become part of his daily life. Strangers often take selfies with him and post them to their social media accounts. His DMs are full of questions about when he will pass through. He says, "Having a girlfriend makes those happen more, somehow." Akuna is asked by a hiker to attend the engagement proposal on the Timber Trail in Oregon. He would like to be there as a high cleric. As we are taking a break from snacking, Akuna's presence causes a potentially damaging argument between two young thru-hikers.
"That was him!" The woman speaks down the trail, but not out of earshot. "That was Akuna!"
We hear the man saying, "It wasn't," which is ever certain. "I cannot believe that you would think this."
It's difficult not to laugh so we do. It could have been that Akuna's Black was the subtext of the argument.
He says that thru-hiking is "at most" 95% white. This assessment seems to be accurate based on my limited trail sampling. The Trek conducted a 2018 survey about Appalachian Trail hikers. This figure was supported by The Trek.
This discrepancy and Akuna’s increasing public profile have made him a kind of ambassador for people of colour in hiking and the wider recreational outdoor community. Akuna considers himself to be a leader and acts as a helper, even though it was more by necessity than choice. He tells hikers of color and aspiring hikers that one of the greatest obstacles is to "move past your own barriers of disbelief." He says the rest is easy.
This "rest" is still there, with the occasional Confederate flags being displayed in trail towns and the often-enough racist jokes made when people believe he's around a bend. Although the trail is called America, it's still America. A leader of the political extremist group, the Proud Boys, was just seen hiking the Appalachian Trail this spring. Akuna emphasizes that most thru-hikers can be considered good people. He's been a Black man all his life. He knows which stares to avoid.
He dress "strategically", his hiking clothes are bright and cheerful, not matching any blues or reds in fear that some country hunter will panic that the Crips or bloods may have arrived for the holler. Willie Senior instilled this trait in him early. He is not like many others on the trail. He abides to all laws regarding marijuana in both local and state, despite the positive effects it has on his PTS.
He said, "It's not worth it." "I don’t blend in here, I know this."
Akuna is more than just a Black thru-hiker. He's also an exceptional one. Before a knee injury inflicted him with pain, he made it 1,600 miles on his first PCT trip in 2016. He says that the trail taught him to listen to his body. That year, in the misery of Sierras, changed his life for the better. He returned home feeling renewed.
Akuna recalls that his best friend said to him, "Dude, it's so nice to see you back," "He didn't mean Louisiana. He meant spirit. He said that I smiled more, laughed more, and loved life again. He was right.
The next spring, Akuna made his way back to the PCT's southern terminus. His pack was lighter and his trail knowledge more extensive, and he had found the perfect brace to help his most problematic knee. He completed the entire 2,650-mile trek this time. He did the Appalachian (2190 miles) the next year because other hikers kept calling it out. In 2019, he completed the Continental Divide (3.100 miles), which crosses the Rocky Mountains.
He'd conquered all three major trails in less than four years, having first found "Wild" while living in his own prison. Only 525 people have ever completed the trail, which was facilitated by American Long-Distance Hiking Association-West. Akuna's achievement came one year after Elsye "Chardonnay" Walker, the first Black woman to do the same feat.
Akuna took five months to complete each trail. His rapid rise to the top of thru-hiking's ranks is remarkable for his 6-foot height. He was a former point guard and first dunked at 12 years old. Through-hiking's competitive elements tend to skew Generation Z-young. Most new hikers don't have Akuna's unique combination of military training and desperation. You can be inspired by Akuna but not try to imitate him.
The COVID-19 pandemic struck just months after Akuna's accomplishment. It stayed for twice as long and disrupted all plans. Akuna considered hiking it, but decided against it, for both his own health as well as the safety of small communities along the trails that don't have immediate access to top-notch medical care.
He remained in Louisiana through the pandemic. It was a time of great anxiety. "Would it be possible to go back to the person I was?" He asks him now. He said, "That was a great fear." He didn't.
This time, his isolation was different. Instead of bringing his entire world to the trail, dark and all, he brought his lessons home from the trail, day-hiking through the nearby marshes, exploring his native land in ways he had never experienced.
He felt good again when he returned to the show and hiked Tahoe Rim Trail in July 2021 with Dawn, his girlfriend.
"Getting back out there was almost like entering life again, you know?" He says it at Shoe Lake. His words are a powerful reminder of the importance of the trail. I'd been given another chance. It is important to be able to enjoy it, to appreciate that.
Robinson makes dinner and then winds down with a Black & Mild, after a long day of walking the PCT. Andy Bardon, ESPN
MODERN AMERICAN SCHOLARSHIP and understanding "post-traumatic stress" is owed a lot to Jonathan Shay, a clinical psychiatrist who was widely credited for naming and spreading "moral injury" as a condition not only associated with war veterans but also one that has been frequently associated with them post-9/11 America.
It's not easy to simplify Shay's books, "Achilles In Vietnam" and "Odysseus In America," which combine cognitive and mental health research, therapy with Vietnam War veterans, and modern analysis of ancient Greek literature. But it's been done for centuries. This has been a source of comfort for me over the years as both a combat veteran and a person trying to make his way in life after war. It's over.
Take, for example, thru-hiking. Earl Shaffer, one of the Appalachian Trail's godfathers, was perhaps the first to complete the entire trail. Shaffer served with the signal corps in the Pacific during World War II and then returned to Pennsylvania, his home, long before the Greatest Generation mythology was congealed. According to a 1947 War Department survey, 1 in 5 World War II veterans were "completely hostile" towards civilians. This was not a one-sided view. Some Americans saw the G.I. The G.I. Bill revolutionized education legislation and was viewed by some Americans as a social curse. In 1946, The Saturday Evening Post asked the question: "Are we making a bum of G.I.?" Joe?
Shaffer, like many others of his generation, felt lost and aimless. Shaffer was sad to lose his best friend from childhood, who died at Iwo Jima. He set out on the trail in 1948 to "out of his system" and walk the war and army. He continued hiking until his death in 2002, four years after having walked the entire Appalachian Trail once more at the age of just 79.
Akuna is not the only one who follows this tradition. He says, "There are a lot vets that hike." "It's not an accident... veteran or not, most people who come out here are working towards something."
It is not normal to go away from society for six months in order to find out one's limits. It is an open rejection and denial of the normal.
How does Akuna recognize military veterans who are on the trail? It all comes down to the small details. He says "We walk as if we march," while observing my navigation along a ridgeline. There's a physical kick-step. He's witnessed men and women smoke a cigarette a couple of times. "When they do this, I don’t even have to ask."
Akuna says that, similar to the army, being a great trail leader can sometimes mean being a good follower. Akuna encourages groups to be democratic, something that domineering young men sometimes resent. Akuna will address stereotypes head-on if and when his past is mentioned. I'm quite chill.
He has had mixed experiences with VA healthcare and advises young vets to seek treatment there as a baseline. He learned the hard way to "embrace battle" that his PTS is similar to his wrists and knees. It's a chronic condition that affects his entire body, and can't be beaten, but it can be managed.
He loves helping new hikers adjust to their lives. He admits that you can still keep your own thoughts and opinions to yourself. There is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes, I just go with myself because that's what I need in that moment."
He continues, "People get that out there." "If you feel the need, you can be dark.
Talk turns to the rest of the world with Kabul's fall but the forever war we both served in enduring. We are not at a VFW beer hall, but on the shores of Shoe Lake, taking in the sun and listening to the sounds that break the day. Three of us discuss love, God and war.
Akuna speaks out, the sweet tang of Black & Mild soaring through the air. "America doesn’t care about veterans. Not in that hard, meaningful manner." "Would Afghanistan have survived if it had?" It cares about active duty because that's when our young, fit, and healthy are able to ask all those complicated questions.
"People have lost a sense community and I understand that. I also see what this lack of connection can do. He is referring to his own journey from the common purpose of the military, to the isolation of living in his apartment in Southeast Louisiana. "Thru-hiking is a community, and that's why it's so special to me. It is important for people to feel they are part of something.
Sometimes he says these things, but he actually says a lot more. Akuna's eminently-quotable phrases fill my notebook with the freedom that comes from doing something he loves. One standout: "They claim you are a thru-hiker if you complete a trail. I disagree. It's just as soon as you get here. You've done the hard part.
Akuna often refers to the trail as an active force, whether it is gratitude, manners or humility. It is an object that is beautiful and vitalizing. However, it is also a physical area that has been cultivated and stomped into existence by humans.
Akuna was not saved by chance. He made a choice. He saved himself.
Robinson wears bright colors strategically. Hiking's population is overwhelmingly white. Robinson prefers bright colors. Robinson says, "I don’t blend in out there, I know this." "I am a unicorn in the world." Andy Bardon, ESPN
AKUNA BELIEVES that every thru-hiker requires a call. It is something that belongs to them, and it identifies them to other people. It is both a greeting and a statement.
His motto is "Ai-eeeeeeeeeeeee !!!"". His is a mix of Peter Pan crow and Cajun yowl.
He asks for ours to be delivered atop the Goat Rocks. Andy, the photographer bellows from deep in his soul. I shout, "Olly olly Oxen Free!" It's silly, but it's fun as hell.
Our second morning out, Akuna's call is useful. Shoe Lake was covered in a classic Northwest mist. The visibility is limited to 10 feet. Akuna, Andy, and I hike up to a ridgeline in order to photograph the fog. Andy is out looking for locations, and I am snacking, while Akuna gazes down at the void in the direction that we are camping.
"Ai-eeeeeee!" He shouts into the misty, empty void. "Ai-eeeeeeeeeeeeeee !!!"
He seems to be playing around. A voice is heard calling back ten seconds later. "Which way?"
Akuna leads a pair of thru-hikers along the right path. It is not clear how he saw them through the grey, but he did. As the wanderers pass, one looks thankful and the other embarrased.
"How did you see them?" Later, I'll ask. I'll ask later.
Akuna smiles, winks. "Heard them first."
Robinson supports hiking as therapy. Robinson says that people have lost a sense community and that he understands the effects of this lack of connection. "Thru-hiking is a great way to connect with others and that's why it's so special. It is important for people to feel they are part of something. Andy Bardon, ESPN
OUR LAST MORNING ON THE PCT sparkles with high-summer luster. Akuna jokes, "A good day for being an outdoor model." Even a mountain goat herd was seen sunbathing on a rocky slope. This brought us out of the wilderness that bears their names.
Andy and I have earned our trail names. From all his climbing and hopping, he's Billy Goat. I'm Sir Doodle. Akuna responds, "I knew you were an officer very quickly."
Dark smoke plumes that ring the sky to the northeast are a sign of distant forest fires. The smoke on the horizon is a sign that we are returning to the real world, but it's a little too explicit. Akuna has plans for the future. To catch up with his family in Louisiana and to tutor his nieces. Next, the Arizona Trail, 800-miles, in the fall. Then Huntsville, Alabama for a day hike event to raise money for local veterans' homes and to welcome people of color to hiking.
He'll be there at the northern terminus next year, if another Black hiker attempts the Triple Crown. What about the rest? His bucket list includes the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand. The Great Wall of China in the Middle East is the Jordan Trail, and it's over 5,000 miles long. It would take approximately a year to hike.
There are many places to start again.
After our hike, we head to White Pass' Kracker Barrel gas station. For $10 per load, laundry costs and showers for $30 each. The free market continues. Dozens upon dozens of "hiker trash" self-described have gathered outside at picnic tables, some on-trail to resupply and others preparing to return. The building's side is littered with boxes full of spare fuel, flashlights and freeze-dried food packets. There are also communal grab-bags that hold extra shoes, flashlights, and other items. Akuna spots MacGyver wearing his rainbow foam clogs, and sits down to capture the breeze.
We'll soon learn that Hurricane Ida is inbound. It causes Akuna to cancel his flight from Nigeria to Louisiana. Instead, he will fly to Texas to visit Dawn.
As we travel to the airport, Akuna asks me about this. He smiles.
He says, "It's cool." "I've been there before."
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.