When Will Robinson returned home to southeast Louisiana after serving four years in the U.S. Army, he came back broken.
“Mentally, I was not the same person that I was before I left,” he said.
Robinson enlisted at the age of 22, and his time in the Army included one deployment in Iraq in 2003. The following year, he was medically discharged due to injury. He says that’s when things started to unravel. In 2007, Robinson was officially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I didn’t think I had a future at that point,” he said.
After years of suffering, alcohol abuse, medication and therapists, he decided to “do something drastic.” He was inspired to embark on a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
“If I want to get back to being me and try to shake this dark cloud, this is the extreme thing I need to do,” he recalled.
He began his journey at the trail’s southern terminus in the spring of 2016, and although a knee injury kept him from completing the 2,650-mile hike, it was a transformative experience.
“Hiking gave me the ability to be the person I always was: a confident person that was capable of doing anything, instead of allowing me to just sit around and wither away,” Robinson said.
During his hike, he also earned the trail name Akuna, as in Hakuna Matata, because “people realize that I try not to worry about anything on trail. Am I going the right direction and where is the next water? Anything more than that, I’m not going to worry about it.” He returned to the PCT in 2017 for a second attempt and successfully completed the thru-hike.
This summer, Robinson’s hiking journey took him to the Appalachian Trail (AT), which spans 2,190 miles from Georgia to Maine. He began the thru-hike at Amicalola Falls State Park in March and reached Mount Katahdin in early September.
“Every mile I hike, it seems like I bring more of Akuna back home with me,” he said.
Next year, he plans to embark on a thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), traveling 3,100 miles from the Mexico-New Mexico border to Glacier National Park at the Canadian border. Once completed, he would hold the Triple Crown of Hiking—finishing the PCT, AT and CDT.
“There is probably something with hiking that lets you put reality on hold,” Robinson said. “But I’m not sure if it’s you putting reality on hold or if you’re really finding reality.”
Photo Credit: Jessica Colquhoun
Editor’s note: REI is committed to advancing understanding of how time spent in nature improves well-being. To make the case for spending more time outside, REI and the University of Washington recently launched a new initiative called Nature for Health. The new center of academic excellence within the university’s EarthLab will broaden and deepen its examination of how time outside impacts our health. Nature for Health’s current research efforts focus on five populations, including veterans. Learn more about the partnership and research underway.