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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.

For his 2012 thru-hike, Rivera teamed up with a high-school friend and Marine, Tyler Blauvelt—Task Force PCT they called themselves. They walked together through much of California, but parted when Blauvelt slowed down to hike several days with his brother, who wasn’t accustomed to the high mileage. When I met up with Rivera, Blauvelt was still a week back.

But that’s the nature of the trail, everyone moving at his own pace and hiking for his own reasons, an endeavor both individual and communal. Take your time on the PCT and it might stretch to six months or more, but even a faster hiker needs about four months of sunrise-to-sundown walking.

“There’s no way to rush anything out here,” Rivera told me. “You can only go so fast. You’ve got to have patience to do this, and if you don’t, you are going to acquire it soon enough.

“Even when the trail seems determined to thwart you, you just have to accept it,” he says. “You can yell all you want, but there’s no one to argue with. Everything just is what it is. And if you finish the trail, you’ve put your mind through half a year of training at just accepting things as they are.”

He told me about one particularly frustrating week, leaving Cascade Locks in Oregon. With the next resupply a week away and a long, dry stretch in the immediate miles ahead, the extra food and water swelled his pack to 45 pounds. He hadn’t carried that much weight in six weeks and he was burned out from 30-mile days through Oregon. A heat wave pushed temperatures into the high 90s and the first miles presented a steep climb. “But the benefit of having done this long enough is that when I find myself cursing, I realize that’s just slowing me down,” he said. “I’m just losing my breath. So okay. Calm down. Just get it done.”

The trail soon gave me just such a lesson in patience and perspective.

In 2003, flooding knocked out the 265-foot Skyline Bridge over the Suiattle River. The Forest Service built a new bridge downriver, but that detour would add more than 5 miles. Instead, we could cross the river on one of the precarious-looking fallen trees and walk several miles of the now-disused section of the PCT.

When Rivera first told me about the reroute, on my first day on the trail with him, the extra miles didn’t seem so bad, and more prudent than a sketchy log crossing over a frothy, fast-moving river.

But by the third day, 75 miles in, I’d learned some simple trail math: Five miles is two hours, and two extra hours on the trail can be a very long time, when blisters rub raw and neck muscles seize, or my right big toe throbs so badly I’m sure it would be less painful to just cut it off.

We opted for fewer miles. We scouted a few crossing possibilities from the trail, then bushwhacked and slipped 50 feet down a steep embankment to Vista Creek, where two trees had fallen nearly side-by-side, creating a safe-looking bridge, which we crossed. After 200 more feet of bushwhacking, we found the trail and started down it, rather pleased with ourselves for having saved two hours.

But after the first mile, doubt crept in. This seemed to be the old PCT, but the map showed us gaining 1,500 feet, while we’d only climbed a couple hundred. Had we instead gotten onto one of the smaller local trails? Still second-guessing ourselves, we pushed on and soon heard whitewater.

The trail ended at the edge of a 200-yard-wide stretch of rock and sand. Here we saw the full destructive force of the 2003 flooding, with 100-foot trees pitched like cordwood and the embankment scoured away, leaving 100-foot drop-offs in places. We spotted the first of a half-dozen stone cairns marking a zigzag path across the sand and rocks. This must be the way. On the far side, the Suiattle River raged. We crossed on a fat log, stepping over strips of loose bark, and I pushed from my mind an image of falling 8 feet down to the water and being sucked under, weighted by my pack, bouncing off boulders.

We climbed into the forest and our optimism waned. For a half hour, we crawled over an endless tangle of fallen trees looking for the trail. If we went much farther, we could easily get lost. With the sun dipping behind the ridge, we finally turned back, recrossed the Suiattle, and backtracked 3 miles.

We made camp in the darkness, right where we’d started, next to Vista Creek. In trying to save 5 miles, we’d added an additional 6.

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