I had walked 25 miles in a single day once before, years earlier, and I was with John Rivera on that day, too, back between our first and second deployments to Iraq. We started in the morning,with rain clouds gathering.We carried M4 assault rifles and wore camouflage fatigues and black leather boots, helmets, and Kevlar vests with thick plates on the front and back that can stop high-power rifle rounds.Together, with more than 100 other soldiers, we snaked down the roads of the vast wooded training area in upstate New York’s Fort Drum, home of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division.
Several times throughout the day, other soldiers playing the enemy shot at us from the woodline with blank rounds, simulating an ambush. With our 40 pounds of gear, we’d dive for cover, return fire, and maneuver on the enemy, then continue our walk down the road. The rain started in the afternoon, and by nightfall we were soaked through and shivering and still a couple of miles from home. I trudged through the darkness on sore feet and wondered if the march would ever end.
That long, wet trek was easy—and flat—compared to my first day on the Pacific Crest Trail with Rivera. Over the day’s 26 miles through Washington’s Cascades, we climbed more than 5,500 feet, broken up by steep descents. Rivera, a 29-year-old former Army sergeant from Palm Springs, California, had already been on the trail more than five months, and he moved with an easy, steady rhythm. My technique more resembled an interval workout: several minutes of hard effort, then a long pause to catch my breath.
With water, food, sleeping bag, tent, clothes, stove, and too many odds and ends, my pack neared 40 pounds. Rivera, who carried about 10 fewer pounds than I did, had spent months working out weight-saving strategies—like hiking dry in areas of plentiful water. Better to guzzle a bottle and walk to the next stream carrying just some emergency water, he reasoned. At about 2 pounds per liter, no sense carrying the extra weight.
I thought about this on the day’s first climb: 1,200 feet up steep switchbacks, with more than 20 miles to go before camp (and another 170 miles in the following days as we hiked toward the trail’s end at the Canadian border). What extras were weighing me down?
Which reminded me of an email Rivera had sent me weeks earlier, during a brief resupply stop along the trail.
“One must divest one’s pack of all but the essentials,” he wrote. “And, in a similar way I feel like whatever a soldier might bring home from a war eventually must be discarded along these 2,663 miles of trail.”
It seemed Rivera had stumbled upon something important—a novel means to reconcile who he was before the war and who he is now, an attempt to dive into himself and resurface with a better understanding of where he had been, and where he is headed. But why does thru-hiking appear so effective? I came to the Washington wilderness to see what Rivera had learned over these months on the trail, and what this sort of deep, prolonged immersion in nature, coupled with a monumental physical task, had given him and might give other veterans. Myself included.