When Army veteran Will Robinson returned home from a combat tour in Iraq, he struggled with depression and PTSD. He spent more and more time at home, withdrawing from civilian life and turning to alcohol for self-medication. One day, he flipped on the TV and saw Reese Witherspoon wrestling with an oversized backpack in the movie “Wild.”
That movie scene took Robinson back to his deployment overseas when he read a book about hiking the 2,660-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Inspired, Robinson shut off the TV and got to work planning his hike. Just two weeks later, Robinson put two feet on the trail and began walking north.
That first PCT thru-hike “was like an epiphany,” Robinson says. “I really, really enjoy through hiking. This is going to be my life. This is for me. It’s not just that I want to come back next season because I had a goal and I feel like I didn’t accomplish it. I want to come back next season because I love this lifestyle and it’s helped me so much and I enjoy it so much. I just need to go back.”
Dubbed “Akuna” on the trail, Robinson sat down with Shanty for episode 8 of the Out and Back podcast. He engages in a frank discussion about how the trail helps him find purpose, community, and the space and time he needs to focus on himself. He recounts how the PCT hike allowed him to address his PTSD and depression. Inspired by the way the trail made him feel, Akuna continued on to hike the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail — becoming the first Black man to complete the Triple Crown of long trails in America.
Tune in as Robinson talks about being the first Black man to complete the Triple Crown, what that achievement has meant to him, and how all the hateful comments on social media mentally drained him. Akuna also touches on the recent flood of media requests in his inbox regarding speaking about the issues people of color face in the outdoors. He explains what he believes his fellow hikers can do on trail to make the outdoors a more welcoming place for people of color, and what it means for outdoor brands to become better allies. Laid back yet passionate about hiking, Akuna highlights the healing nature of trails everywhere, whether long, short, or in between.
Learn more about Akuna on his brand new website www.akunahikes.com and follow Akuna on Instagram to catch a glimpse of his latest adventures.
3:50: Akuna describes his upbringing living in Germany as a military kid and coming back to New Orleans.
6:30: Racism is real; it is not a made up thing.
7:05: Akuna did not grow up backpacking and camping, but enjoyed being outside as a kid.
8:45: Akuna’s dad told him that joining the military was out of the question.
9:15: An Army recruitment officer diverted Akuna from going down the wrong path in 1999 when he was a young man.
11:10: Akuna served in Iraq and was medically evacuated and sent home to New Orleans.
13:45: Upon returning home, Akuna underwent a number of surgeries and struggled with PTSD.
18:20: The military was not yet prepared to addressed the number of soldiers coming home with PTSD.
18:30: Akuna fell into a downward spiral, getting worse and worse. His room at home became a prison and he withdrew from social interactions.
20:00: Akuna knew he had to do something drastic to get out of this situation.
20:20: He looked up at the TV and saw the movie “Wild” and it inspired him to hit the Pacific Crest Trail.
21:20: Akuna thought “this is where I need to be” and two weeks later he was in Campo ready to start the trail.
24:30: Social interaction is the best part of Akuna’s thru-hiking experience.
27:15: Learn how Akuna earned his trail name.
28:20: Akuna loves the desert section of the PCT.
30:35: How thru-hiking helped alleviate Akuna’s PTSD and Depression symptoms.
39:00 Akuna is dealing with injuries on the PCT and has to leave the trail.
45:00: Akuna comes back and completes the PCT and goes on to nab the AT and CDT, becoming the first Black man to complete the Triple Crown.
48:00: Akuna shares his experience on each of the three trails and the benefits of each.
51:03: Akuna inadvertently completed the Triple Crown.
54:10: Akuna is proud to be first Black man to achieving the Triple Crown because it provides an example to other people of color that they can complete the trails too.
55:40: The community response to his Triple Crown achievement was overwhelming.
56:00: Akuna is sponsored by Merrell.
57:00: Since George Floyd’s murder, Akuna and other Black and BIPOC athletes’ phones have been ringing off the hook.
59:00: Akuna’s advice on how hikers and outdoor brands can be better allies to people of color in the outdoors.
1:04:10: Akuna took a mental health break from social media recently.
1:05:00: What’s on Akuna’s bucket list of hikes? You will NEVER guess.
1:08:05: Favorite trail town food: milkshakes.
1:09:00: Shout out to Erick Schat’s Bakery in Bishop, California, Akuna’s favorite trail town stop.
Next Episode: Justin “Trauma” Lichter on Lessons from Africa, the Himalayas, and a Winter Traverse of the PCT
You won’t want to miss the next episode of Out and Back with world adventurer and author Justin “Trauma” Lichter. Hear Lichter’s wildest stories from across the globe, including how stampeding elephants and stalking lions stopped him in his tracks on his attempted thru-hike of Africa. Learn about his high-altitude traverse of the Himalayas, and the trip that made the most headlines — becoming the first person along with Shawn “Pepper” Forry to successfully complete the Pacific Crest Trail in winter.
Lichter gives insights to the challenges and rewards of international adventure travel and the complications of winter travel on the PCT. And he digs into what motivates him to keep pushing the limits in the outdoors:
“The challenge — to see what what you can handle and what you can’t handle — that’s that’s definitely part of it. And the other part that keeps you going is just seeing these places. It’s just rewarding. When you’re out there at the twilight in the alpen glow and nobody’s out there, it’s just an amazing moment.”
Lichter is truly an expert of backcountry travel in all its forms: hiking, skiing, and bikepacking. In fact, he’s the source of trail details and information on many of National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated maps.
To learn more about Lichter, check out his website: www.justinlichter.com. Tap into his knowledge by reading one of his many books, including: Trail Tested: A Thru-Hiker’s Guide to Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking and Survive: Mountains.
Last Episode: Thru Hiking Budgets and Urban Backpacking Routes with Liz “Snorkel” Thomas
If you’ve ever wondered how much money it takes to set off on a long thru-hike like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, guess no more. In this episode, Shanty tackles thru-hiking’s financial costs with author, gear reviewer, and dedicated long-distance hiker Liz Thomas. Known as “Snorkel“ in the trail community, Thomas gives an honest and realistic picture of a thru-hiker’s budget. Learn Snorkel’s philosophy on buying gear, ways to save money in trail towns, and get a glimpse at hidden expenses that most hikers never even consider.
Snorkel also takes us out of the wilderness and onto the city sidewalk with 14 urban trekking routes across American cities. From Los Angeles to Seattle, Snorkel created 100-mile hikes through metropolitan areas to make the joy of thru-hiking more accessible to people who enjoy the comforts of civilization. The best part of urban thru-hiking, Snorkel says, includes checking out city art exhibits, walking through neighborhoods you never knew existed, and getting to eat the most delicious trail food for every meal. One of her favorite routes samples all the breweries in Denver. While not the most economical thru-hike, these trips provide a unique way to experience the hustle and bustle of any metropolis.
Learn more about Liz Thomas and her urban thru-hikes on her blog and follow her on Instagram. Follow Snorkel’s latest adventure: Treeline Review, a comprehensive gear-review website that helps you find and buy the right equipment the first time around. Read her book Long Trails, Mastering the Art of the Thru-Hike and her recent Falcon Guide, Hiking Waterfalls Southern California: A guide to the Region’s Best Waterfall Hikes, released in November 2019.
Meet the Host: Andrew “Shanty” Baldwin
In 2019, host Andrew Baldwin completed a southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. After five months on the trail, Baldwin returned home to pursue a career in voice acting. A friend of the Gaia GPS company, Baldwin was a natural choice for hosting the Out and Back podcast.
In each Out and Back episode, Shanty strives to bring you conversations with people who spend an extraordinary amount of time outdoors. Listen in as Shanty taps into each backcountry expert’s superpower so that you can take their knowledge and experience with you on your next adventure.