SUBSCRIBE | NEWSLETTERS | MAPS | VIDEOS | BLOGS | MARKETPLACE | CONTESTS
TRY BACKPACKER FREE!
SUBSCRIBE NOW and get
2 Free Issues and 3 Free Gifts!
Full Name:
Address 1:
Address 2:
City:
State:
Zip Code:
Email: (required)
If I like it and decide to continue, I'll pay just $12.00, and receive a full one-year subscription (9 issues in all), a 73% savings off the newsstand price! If for any reason I decide not to continue, I'll write "cancel" on the invoice and owe nothing.
Your subscription includes 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Or click here to pay now and get 2 extra issues
Offer valid in US only.

Also on Backpacker.com


Enter Zip Code

Backpacker Magazine – May 2013

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT

Can you walk off a war? A veteran who served in Iraq embarks on a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail to find out.

by: Brian Mockenhaupt

Rivera in Iraq in 2003 (John Rivera)
Rivera in Iraq in 2003 (John Rivera)
After the PCT. (Brian Mockenhaupt)
After the PCT. (Brian Mockenhaupt)
Approaching Mt. Rainier. (John Rivera)
Approaching Mt. Rainier. (John Rivera)
Rivera washes off trail dust. (John Rivera)
Rivera washes off trail dust. (John Rivera)
A shelter atop Mt. Whitney. (John Rivera)
A shelter atop Mt. Whitney. (John Rivera)
Breakfast on Fire Creek Pass. (John Rivera)
Breakfast on Fire Creek Pass. (John Rivera)
Getting the last resupply box. (Brian Mockenhaupt)
Getting the last resupply box. (Brian Mockenhaupt)
2,000-mile marker in Oregon. (John Rivera)
2,000-mile marker in Oregon. (John Rivera)


In the morning, we took the detour to the sturdy new bridge. Another hour later, we stepped into a clearing and there it was, a few hundred feet away, the tree we’d crossed—twice—over the Suiattle River. If we’d gone another 100 feet through the forest, we would have found the trail.

We saw the tree and laughed. As Rivera had told me, you can get mad, but the trail just is what it is. Besides, we experienced a little adventure, we didn’t get lost in the woods, and neither of us was swept downriver. I could have used that perspective while dealing with frustrations during my deployments. I played a tiny part in the war, with limited influence, and often the best I could do was to try to keep myself and the people near me safe. But, as it was for Rivera, that realization was slow in coming, only drawing into full focus after I left the battlefield. Which made me think how helpful this hike would have been soon after I left the Army and set about finding my place back in the civilian world. The trail isn’t a cure-all by any means, but it’s an amazing source of perspective and a refuge from a world that, for some veterans, can feel even more confusing than the war zone. By this point in the trip, I’d had enough time alone in my head for a first glimpse of the mental housecleaning Rivera described. Even if he and I spent two hours in constant conversation, that left another eight or nine hours of quiet hiking. Without life’s normal distractions, thoughts doubled back on themselves, refusing to be pushed aside, demanding attention. This may not be the most efficient way to work through an issue, but it’s effective. Some family stresses that had nagged at me before the trip started to seem far more manageable. After only a few days on the trail I knew I would be back. Even if I never made time for a full thru-hike, I would return for regular retreats and the sort of mental tune-up I hadn’t found anywhere else.

And as for my immediate circumstances, yes, the blister on my right heel burned, my back ached, and my right big toe throbbed. But what could I do? Put on some moleskin and just keep walking.

We hammered out 28 miles, made camp next to the rumble of a rushing stream, and built a quick fire that seemed wonderfully luxurious and decadent after such a long day. The next morning, we hiked a quick 5 miles into North Cascades National Park, where a bus took us and a half-dozen other thru-hikers into Stehekin, the last resupply point on the PCT.

We returned to the trail by mid-afternoon and put in 8 miles before nightfall, the last 2 under a sky that threatened heavy rain but gave us only a cold, light drizzle. We watched a patch of trees high on a mountainside burn like giant candles in the twilight—a small forest fire from a recent lightning strike.

On Rivera’s last day on the trail, we woke to an icy wind whipping through our campsite in a high pass, 26 miles from Canada. As a welcome morning sun crested a ridgeline, we hiked north, up and down, at times chatting, at times a quarter-mile apart. Ahead of us, the skinny, tan ribbon of trail snaked along the mountainsides. Through the afternoon, we walked together, but mostly in silence, on a long, 3,000-foot descent, from a mountaintop at 7,100 feet to Castle Creek on the Canadian border.

With just a few miles to go, I asked Rivera what he was thinking about. “To-do lists,” he said. Graduate school applications. Half marathons he would run in the coming months, training for a full marathon. Jobs. Thank-you cards for all the donations. Test dates for the State Department’s Foreign Service Exam. That’s his dream job, working as a foreign-service officer, and what a sight he must have been to dayhikers as he read The Economist and Foreign Affairs while walking the long, flat stretches through Oregon.

In another day, he would no longer be Oddball. Every thru-hiker has a trail name, which is given, not picked, often arising from a funny moment. Along the way I met Salty Snacks and Dump Truck, Spider and Pilfer. Rivera’s name was Oddball, for Donald Sutherland’s character in the World War II movie “Kelly’s Heroes,” whose lines he’d been quoting. Another hiker picked up on the reference and assigned the name. Tomorrow he’d be heading back to a world where everyone knew him as John. But, for now, he walked on, out of the mountains and deep into the forest. And then, in a small clearing, he was done.

Rivera removed the top of the border marker, a 4-foot-tall brass obelisk, and pulled out the trail log, where hikers can leave last thoughts. He stuck a black-and-white Wounded Warrior Project sticker in the book, wrote a few words about finishing the trail after the aborted 2010 try, then signed off: “Oddball, U.S. Army Infantry, ’02-’09.”

In the pale, fading light of early evening, he climbed to the highest post of the wooden, four-tiered PCT monument, balanced on the small perch, and stretched his arms to the sky. 


Help a Hero Hike A new program encourages veterans to follow in John Rivera's footsteps.

Rivera was in the vanguard of what could be a wave of veterans thru-hiking America’s long trails—and reaping the benefits. This year, Warrior Hike launches its Walk Off the War program with 13 wounded vets who will attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Veterans Sean Gobin and Mark Silvers conceived the project—and enlisted partners like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and Veterans of Foreign Wars—after their 2012 thru-hike on the AT. Participants get gear, food, transportation, and lodging support through program sponsors. Up next: In 2014, Walk Off the War will expand to the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails as well. To apply for a spot, donate, or follow hikers, go to warriorhike.com. 
 
No time for a thru-hike? Veterans Expeditions (vetexpeditions.com) connects vets with all types of outdoor activities. 




Subscribe to Backpacker magazine
Sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter
Name:
Address 1:
Address 2:
City:
State:
Zip:
Email (req):

Reader Rating: -

READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
Keith Genter
Aug 06, 2013

As a retired G.I. and combat veteran, I want to applaud you for printing this story. The only thing that would have made this better was if you had mentioned it on the cover of the magazine. This article was so true to so many of us who have served, and gives those who have not served a little perspective on what service members go through to deal with the experience of deployments. Although I have a wonderful family, career and life, I have wandered all over the world healing my mind and soul. I call those times my mental vacations.
Thanks again for printing such a great story with a powerful message. I wish you a safe and pleasant day, Keith

ADD A COMMENT

Your rating:
Your Name:

Comment:

My Profile Join Now

Most recent threads

The Political Arena
Now Maryland?!
Posted On: Apr 18, 2014
Submitted By: Old Frank
Gear
Back Up Stove
Posted On: Apr 18, 2014
Submitted By: Starbreaker
Go
View all Gear
Find a retailer

Special sections - Expert handbooks for key trails, techniques and gear

Check out Montana in Warren Miller's Ticket to Ride
Warren Miller athletes charge hard and reflect on Big Sky country, their love for this space and the immense energy allotted to the people who reside in Montana.

Boost Your Apps
Add powerful tools and exclusive maps to your BACKPACKER apps through our partnership with Trimble Outdoors.

Carry the Best Maps
With BACKPACKER PRO Maps, get life-list destinations and local trips on adventure-ready waterproof myTopo paper.

FREE Rocky Mountain Trip Planner
Sign up for a free Rocky Mountain National Park trip planning kit from our sister site MyRockyMountainPark.com.

Follow BackpackerMag on Twitter Follow Backpacker on Facebook
Get 2 FREE Trial Issues and 3 FREE GIFTS
Survival Skills 101 • Eat Better
The Best Trails in America
YES! Please send me my FREE trial issues of Backpacker
and my 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Full Name:
City:
Address 1:
Zip Code:
State:
Address 2:
Email (required):
Free trial offer valid for US subscribers only. Canadian subscriptions | International subscriptions