He started the PCT in the spring of 2010 and hiked the length of California, through the desert and the High Sierra, and into Oregon. He learned he’d been accepted to the University of California at Santa Barbara and couldn’t finish the trail before the school year started, so he abandoned the path after 1,726 miles. But he already knew he would return, after completing his political science degree, to hike the whole PCT, beginning to end. He’d discovered that a thru-hike offered much more than he’d imagined while pondering that PCT map in Iraq.
Walking a marathon every day through the mountains with a backpack takes a long time. Rivera typically hiked 2.5 miles an hour. With a few breaks, he was on the trail at least 12 to 14 hours a day. Even if he had a couple-hour conversation with another thru-hiker, that left many hours of solitude. Sooner or later, he said, he would run out of things to think about. After remembering movies and favorite foods, taking in the scenery, or planning future trips, his mind would feel empty, save for the boxes he’d tucked into the back corners, and they would demand attention.
“If something’s bothering you out here, you have to deal with it,” he said. “At home, you might have something on your mind when you’re at work, out with friends, or washing the dishes, but out here it’s different when your mind is facing a void.”
Had he been hiking with a group or on a shorter trip, he might never have reached this point of deep, stripped-down introspection. But alone on the trail, he’d find the same thoughts popping into his mind over and over, gnawing and relentless, the same hurts or frustrations. Tamped down for a while, they’d soon resurface. “Maybe it’s a conversation you had, something you’ve lost, or things you regret, things that have been unresolved,” he said. “You’re thinking This is stupid or It’s my fault. At some point, you realize you’ve been mad about it so often that it’s making you grumpy and sad. You have to leave it alone and drop it,” he said. “You can’t carry it forever.”
Since his first PCT hike in 2010, Rivera says, he hasn’t stayed mad about anything for more than five or 10 minutes, and he’s more accepting of himself. He let go of the frustrations that dogged him during the last deployment, that sense of futility. He couldn’t change the war; he could only make peace with his small role. He focused more on positive experiences from the deployment—close bonds he developed and his mentoring of several sub-par performers who became good soldiers.
“It’s about being okay with everything,” he said, “with who I am and where I am.”
Indeed, it was that quest that pushed America’s first thru-hiker. World War II veteran Earl Shaffer hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in 1948 to “walk off the war” and flush from his mind the sights, sounds, and sharp memories of loss. In recent decades, science has backed up the psychological benefits Shaffer sought, with research that shows wilderness solitude and extended hiking can reduce stress, improve understanding of purpose, and increase both mental well-being and connectedness with the world.
And for veterans, the wilderness may offer additional unique benefits. “Exposure to war and trauma can disrupt the most basic beliefs about safety, trust, and control,” says Jennifer Romesser, a clinical psychologist with the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City who is studying the effects of taking veterans on outdoor activities. “Nature can help reconnect veterans with the experience of positive emotion, and develop a renewed sense of awe and appreciation for the outdoors.”
Shaffer wasn’t the only vet heading to the woods after World War II. Veterans from the 10th Mountain Division—the unit with which Rivera and I served—played key roles in developing outdoor recreation in America, using their training in skiing, mountaineering, and backwoods survival. Paul Petzoldt founded the National Outdoor Leadership School, David Brower led the Sierra Club, and other veterans established ski resorts across the northeast and the Rockies.
Nature no doubt brought them healing, but taking war veterans into the outdoors specifically as therapy didn’t arise until after the Vietnam War. And the idea has gained significant momentum in recent years. As part of the explosion in veteran services over the past decade, scores of programs have sprung up to take vets surfing and fly-fishing, paddle boarding and climbing. Many of these are short, weekend-type courses, with some stretching to a week or longer. The programs can give participants new toolkits for life challenges—and confidence from overcoming physical obstacles and learning new skills—but they don’t offer the deep solitary introspection Rivera experienced on the PCT. Neither are they long enough to be habit-forming—the difference between a yoga retreat and months of regular practice.
Like thru-hikers, soldiers are not made over a weekend. Unlearning old ways and forging new habits—of the mind and body—require weeks of repetition, reinforcement, and the steady, repeated confrontation with obstacles. Months on the trail offer this opportunity for change.
Hiking the PCT made Rivera an evangelist for thru-hiking and deep immersion in nature, and he believes other combat vets could realize the same growth he has. But he knows there are many who need a different type of help. For them he’s raising money—through public speaking before the hike, and soliciting donations along the trail—for the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps injured service members and their families with everything from job placement and physical rehabilitation to combat-stress programs that take veterans rafting, rock climbing, skeet shooting, and skiing. Before the 2010 hike, Rivera started a blog called Help Feed Starving John, with a list of food-drop dates and locations, along with sample menus. Friends and family covered more than half the food drops. If people were willing to buy him food, they’d likely donate money for a charity, he figured.