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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.

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. 


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