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Before he was “Akuna,” before he’d hiked a single mile, Will Robinson was a U.S. Army veteran with a chronic wrist injury from the Iraq War, a PTSD diagnosis, and a 12-year streak of self-medicating to release himself from both. He was isolated, alone, and didn’t know how to help himself. Then, by chance, he came across the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s PCT memoir Wild on TV and felt a spark. Three weeks later, he was standing at the PCT’s southern marker outside Campo, California with the desert stretched out before him and a head full of doubt. He hiked 1,600 miles, walking off the war in the tradition of Earl Schaffer, the AT’s first thru-hiker, until he dislocated his knee on Mt. Whitney in California—another remnant injury from the war. But the man who returned to his home in Louisiana wasn’t the same man who left. He had found his purpose and community. The next year, in 2017, he thru-hiked the PCT. The year after, the AT, but he came with a new mission: To help those who needed it, to dispense advice and encouragement, and to be a trail mentor. In 2019, he became the first recorded African American man to become a Triple Crowner. Here, he recounts the highs and lows of his Appalachian Trail hike in his own words.
Anxious at the Outset
Amicalola Falls State Park, Georgia
The shuttle had just dropped me off at Amicalola Falls State Park and I was fighting panic already. When I started the PCT the first time, I was alone. The second time, there were maybe 10 or 12 people there. Now, there were 40 or 50 all starting on the same day. That’s OK, I told myself. That’s why I’m here. I wanted to somehow give back to the hiking community that had given me a new life, and I wanted to overcome the PTSD-fueled anxiety I still felt around big groups of people. This would be a different kind of test for me.
Neels Gap, Georgia
When there are tough times, a trail family helps you get through. On the PCT, I’d gotten used to sunshine and 24/7 views. The AT was a different monster. The climbs were steeper. The rain was endless. I hate this, I thought. But by the time I reached Neels Gap, I was traveling with an enthusiastic, first-time thru-hiker and was able to absorb some of his excitement. Beaver (the trail name I gave him after he built a dam around his camp one rainy night) and I kept hiking together. I did everything I could to pass on what I knew.
My trail family kept growing to a core of 6 or 8 hikers. We’d been seeing one hiker, ET, on and off for 600 miles. Every time we spoke, she complained about being too slow. “Listen,” I said. “Sure, you’re the last to camp, but you hike the same miles as everyone else. And as this thing goes on, you’ll get stronger.” I don’t know if she believed me. I saw so much of my early self in her uncertainty, and I wanted to see her confident. But I also realized that there was nothing I could say to convince her. She needed to learn for herself—and I had to let her.
On the day before my 37th birthday, my body gave up on me. I was with my trail family—Beaver, Undecided, and 44 at that point—plus this guy Mumbles who’d started hiking with us a few days prior. I took a big step down and could feel my knee twist out of place. I urged everyone to go ahead without me and get dry, but they refused—even Mumbles, who barely knew me. They stayed with me for two days until I was ready to go.
You Get What You Give
A new pair of shoes I was expecting in High Point, NJ never arrived, so all I could do was hike on. I was telling a trail angel about in Unionville and he said he’d drive back to High Point—80 miles—and get them for me. He called me when I was camping and said he’d drop them off at the next road crossing. I couldn’t believe it. But I’m all about good vibes. Positivity is contagious. When you put it out in the world, people want to respond.
Baxter State Park, Maine
Over time, my trail family fractured as our paces changed. By the time we reached Baxter State Park, we hadn’t seen ET in months. When I finished the PCT a year prior, I had been through-the-roof excited. But now, starting up Katahdin, I realized that’s a feeling you don’t get back; you only finish your first thru-hike once. Then we turned a corner. There was ET, already on her way down. So much for being the slowest. Joy and pride washed over me as I hugged her.
As we summited, I thought back to the injuries, storms, anxiety attacks, and the weeks of being wet. I rose above all that, I thought. I’d not only gotten better at managing my anxiety around people—I’d become a leader, an ability I thought I’d lost during the years of PTSD and depression. The trail reminded me of the man I was before all that. It reminded me that I had plenty left to give.