Iraq War veteran Will ‘Akuna’ Robinson is the trailblazing superstar of thru-hiking

WILL ‘AKUNA’ ROBINSON, 40, strides with authority and speed on the trail. He learned long ago that if you’re gonna do something, you do it right. After five years of avid thru-hiking, he still pauses to say hello to everyone he can. Some he knows from previous trails, when they shared miles and hardships. Some recognize him from Instagram, or as the first Black man to complete America’s nearly 8,000-mile Triple Crown of Hiking in September of 2019, his visage in catalogs and strewn across web banners as a brand ambassador for Merrell footwear.

It’s late August, that sleepy part of the calendar full of rich sun one moment and whispering with near-autumn chill the next. Akuna leads our squad of three — the photographer Andy, a rangy outdoorsman from Wyoming, and myself, the standard idiot writer who overpacked, just glad to be keeping up — along a section of the Pacific Crest Trail in southern Washington state through the Goat Rocks Wilderness, near White Pass. Mount Rainier looms to our north, Mount Adams to our south, and it’s impossible to not let the scattered, echoing birdcalls into one’s soul.

Back in the world, everything’s on fire. The concepts of common purpose and unity seem as far-fetched as they ever have in a divided America. A new variant of COVID-19 has emerged, threatening the tenuous “return to normal” society’s been creeping into. The same day we enter the trail, Kabul falls to the Taliban. Akuna and I are both veterans of the Iraq War. We both have friends who served in Afghanistan, and are having a very hard time with it all. And a tropical storm’s forming in the Caribbean, causing meteorologists to wonder if it might make a play for the Gulf Coast …

Point being, the sparse cell reception isn’t the worst thing. These are dark days.

Akuna knows dark days from before. He experienced years’ worth of them after returning home from Iraq, days when he felt a husk of a person, barricaded in his room under a hazy miasma of alcohol and painkillers, leaving only when he absolutely had to and sometimes not even then. The past kept him there, the relentless hold of memory refusing to abate. Possibilities, joy, even tomorrow, those were hopes tossed at his door. He existed to exist. Life, fulfillment, these words belonged to others.

And the nights? The darkness was at its strongest then. It bore no face nor shape, though it did smell: an acrid mélange of diesel fuel and manure he associated with Iraq. One night, he tried to escape. Medication prescribed by the local VA, handfuls of the stuff. Because of chance, God, whatever — he vomited most of it up, saved by the same body he’d sought to destroy. His mother made him promise never to do it again, and such was the force of this woman, he hasn’t.

He returned home to his beloved southeast Louisiana, the place that shaped him, a place teeming with resilience and cheer, and even it couldn’t cure what ailed. He’d fought in an ugly war for his country and come back changed, stronger in some places and maybe not stronger in others. He understood this was an ancient tale, one older than even the country he’d fought for. Even so.

All this is from before the trail, before thru-hiking, before the accolades. Before he was saved by purpose, before he saved himself, before he found the trail.

He knows that as a southerner, as a Black man in America, as a veteran of war, the past endures. Darkness thrives at the periphery. There’s no cure, but there are new beginnings, and for that, the man is grateful.

So, Akuna keeps moving. One more mile, one more campsite, one more trail town. His mother’s gone now, so each new trailhead is a tribute to her for pulling him from the darkest days, for the promise she held him to: Begin again.

THE PACIFIC CREST Trail, PCT for short, is a roughly 2,650-mile stretch of land that runs from the desert outskirts of San Diego all the way to the Pasayten Wilderness in British Columbia. It takes hikers through all the rugged beauties and dangers western North America has to offer: arid badlands, Sierra Nevada snowpacks, wild river passes, forest fires, lava fields. The Pacific Crest Trail Association recommends northbound thru-hikers begin in “mid-April thru early May.” Start too early, the Sierra snows won’t have melted enough to push through. Start too late, autumn cold in the Pacific Northwest will turn a human into a statistic.

At its most basic, thru-hiking is long-distance backpacking, weeks or months-long journeys solely focused on getting from one terminus to another, on your own feet, with your own pack. The PCT’s drawn thru-hikers and day-hikers to its terrain since at least the early 1970s, when outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers decided to form a western version of the elder Appalachian Trail. It’s since become arguably the most iconic trail in the world and Akuna’s personal favorite, which is why we’re here, in the land of mountain goats.

“Nothing against the other trails,” he says as we crest a ridge, extending his arms toward a vast, vibrant sky. “But the PCT’s got it all.”

It’s hard to dispute. The PCT is where Akuna earned his nickname, for one, an abbreviation of the Swahili phrase “Hakuna matata,” popularized by a certain Disney movie and meaning “no worries.” It’s where on his first hike in 2016 he learned from an old-timer that thru-hiking was more experience than race, because “people who get to Canada first actually lose.” It’s where he met his girlfriend, fellow thru-hiker Dawn Potts, and where he learned he couldn’t just keep up with the athletic hippies who populate the community, he could thrive among them.

“The trail,” he muses, “has the right amount of strange on it.”

Akuna travels light, less than 30 pounds in his pack, a combination of tent equipment, extra fuel and layers, batteries and baby wipes, formed over years of trial-and-error. He aims to carry five days’ worth of food and two liters of water before entering a new section. He enjoys a couple Black & Mild cigars most days; everyone’s got their vices, and he’s kept worse before.

We camp on the shores of Shoe Lake, an idyllic setting off the main path that’s shaped more like a deranged kidney than any shoe. In his deep Louisiana accent — part Cajun, “part clusterf—,” Akuna says — he runs us through some particulars of thru-hiking culture.

“Dropping packed weight is the game now,” he says. He even knows folks who cut their toothbrushes in half for it. Other hikers can smell the tourist on Andy and me — literally. (It’s the deodorant and detergent.) “Safety meeting” means “weed break,” for those inclined. PUDs: Pointless ups and downs. “Blue-blazing” is taking a shortcut. “Yellow-blazing” is a shortcut by hardball road. “Pink-blazing” is chasing a girl you like on the trail. “Banana-blazing” is … well, even I figured out that one.

“You’ll meet a lot of characters out here,” he says, and we do. A ginger-bearded kid who goes by MacGyver hiking in rainbow foam clogs; an older guy named Minnesota Jocko who worked at the same casino in Reno I did, a few decades before me; an earthy, earnest father waiting to resupply his son at the top of a ridge, reminiscing about the era when he, too, could disappear into the woods for months on end. There’s Sandman, Mumbles, Rubber Ball, All-Good, Yard Sale and a trail chef out there going by Gordon Ramsay, too. New names, new identities, new lives. Akuna says he’ll find nicknames for the two of us. Can’t force it, though.

Despite dropping in elevation to Shoe Lake, it’s gotten colder. We’ve arrived on the fore of a rainstorm, so it’s time to pitch our tents and crawl into our sacks. Tomorrow starts early along the trail.

I ask Akuna if he has any tips for someone new to this. I mean it pragmatically, but his answer bends philosophical.

“Take what Mother Nature gives you,” he says. “Always.”

IN EARLY 2016, late at night at his home in Slidell, Louisiana, Akuna turned on the television and became transfixed by the Reese Witherspoon film, “Wild,” based on the eponymous Cheryl Strayed memoir. “Wild” chronicles the 1995 trip a grief-stricken Strayed took along much of the PCT despite a distinct lack of hiking experience.

Akuna had returned home mired in depression and self-isolation. He felt in need of a life-altering event. His time in Iraq left him grappling with both physical and moral injury and nothing he’d tried had taken.

Akuna was deployed to Anbar Province in April 2003, an Apache Attack Helicopter Systems Repairer in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment who found himself doing a whole lot more than that in the chaos of invading a country.

Though his father was career Army, though his parents met on Fort Benning, though he’d been born on an army base in Germany, Akuna never thought he’d become a soldier. He wanted to do something — anything — else. But when he was 18, he was arrested for theft over $100 and the judge offered a deal: Enlist and your record is expunged.

“I got my fresh start,” he says now, “and never looked back.” He enjoyed soldiering, was good at it, the daily challenges and unit camaraderie the healthiest of rushes. He was stationed in Korea on 9/11 and knew straightaway all had changed. A couple years later, he found himself driving into Iraq from Kuwait on his 22nd birthday.

Like some veterans, he’s reticent to talk specifics of his combat tour — “I try to stay away from that area of thought,” he says, “because it ends up making me go backwards in my progress” — but six months into his deployment, he was medically evacuated to the same Germany he’d been born in. Post-traumatic stress and chronic, service-related injuries to his wrist and knees have dogged him ever since. His marriage to another soldier crumbled after his medical separation from the military.

One morning, he looked up and saw that he was driving a car with a disability placard hanging from the rearview mirror. He was 23.

“[It’s] sad, man, the only time we’re united is when we’re at war.”

Will “Akuna” Robinson

Nothing seemed to be going right, so he moved home to be among family and old friends. He thought it would be a fresh start, but Hurricane Katrina arrived a few months after.

Akuna’s wary of comparisons between this natural disaster and what he saw and did abroad, but one parallel strikes him. “What made Katrina so bad is people couldn’t leave, they didn’t have the means to,” he says. “A lot of regular Iraqis were stuck in the war like that, too.”

His great-grandmother, “Big Mama,” died at the Superdome waiting to be evacuated to Houston. He says it took more than half a year for something like normalcy to return to Slidell, and by that he means consistent, city-generated power. In the meantime, matters were “very clannish … we defended our neighborhood, relied on each other.”

Akuna stayed in Slidell, helping Willie Senior with house repairs, their own and neighbors’ and families’ who’d suffered far more damage. This work proved a temporary reprieve from his despondency, and a job as an electronic technician didn’t last. He tried computer science and college. That didn’t take, either.

Akuna’s mother Delores was a career educator. After his 2011 suicide attempt, when he promised her to never hurt himself again, he was listening, perhaps genuinely for the first time, to someone trying to help. A few months later, her cervical cancer recurred. She died in 2012 at the age of 54.

It was right as those dark days were threatening to become forever days that “Wild” came along, which felt like a lifeline to Akuna even in the moment. He made the decision to emulate Strayed’s journey well before the credits rolled. Only a couple weeks later, Akuna arrived at a small, dusty hill in California, along the Mexican border, where a monument stood to mark the southern terminus of the PCT. His friends and family had reluctantly let him go, but insisted he bring a satellite navigation device so that they could check in and monitor his whereabouts.

“I just knew I had to be out there,” he says now, laughing about his younger self lugging 60 pounds of military-lite equipment. “It was going to force me to do something, and if I went a hundred miles or a thousand, it’d be something.”

He still went by will. Anxiety still clawed at him, and he didn’t know what to make of gregarious fellow travelers, but he was moving forward. He didn’t know what lay further down the trail. He’d never been there before.

Already, he thought, this is something.

AKUNA PROVES A bona fide celebrity in the Goat Rocks. Hiking is a fairly insular community, prone to celebrities who mean everything to the initiated — like CrossFit stars. He doesn’t bask in it, nor does he run from it; it’s just become a fixture of his trail life. Strangers take selfies with him, eager to post to their social media accounts. His DMs fill with queries of when he’ll pass through. (“Having a girlfriend make those happen more, somehow,” he says.) A hiker asks that Akuna attend his engagement proposal on the nearby Timber Trail in Oregon, to be there as some sort of high cleric of the life. Once, as we’re taking a snack break, Akuna’s mere presence causes a potentially relationship-ending argument between a young thru-hiking couple.

“That was him!” the woman says down the trail but not out of earshot. “That was Akuna!”

“It was not,” we hear the man say, ever certain. “I can’t believe you would think that.”

It’s hard not to laugh, so we do. The subtext in the argument may’ve been because Akuna’s Black.

“I’m a unicorn in this world,” he says, estimating that thru-hiking is “at least” 95% white, an assessment that seems accurate during my minor trail sampling. (A 2018 survey conducted by The Trek, specifically about Appalachian Trail hikers, supports that figure.)

This discrepancy, and Akuna’s growing public profile, has led to him becoming a sort of ambassador for people of color in hiking and the greater recreational outdoors community. He considers himself a helper and carries himself like a leader, even if it happened more out of necessity than choice. When he speaks to hikers of color, or aspiring ones, he tells them one of the biggest hurdles is “getting over your own barrier of disbelief.” The rest, he says, is easy.

That “rest,” though — the not infrequent Confederate flags in some trail towns, the not infrequent-enough racist jokes told when people think he’s around the bend — still happens. The trail may be the trail, but it’s still America, too. Just this spring, a notorious leader in the political extremist group the Proud Boys was seen hiking the Appalachian Trail. Most thru-hikers are good people, Akuna stresses. But he’s been a Black man his entire life. He knows what stares to steer clear of.

He dresses “strategically,” his hiking clothes bright and cheery, never matching blues or reds for fear some country hunter panics that the Crips or Bloods have come for the holler. He speaks loud and clear, something ingrained in him young by Willie Senior. Unlike a lot of those on the trail, he abides by local and state laws with marijuana, despite its positive effects for his PTS.

“Not worth it,” he says. “I don’t blend in out here, I know that.”

Of course, Akuna’s more than a Black thru-hiker: He’s an excellent one. He made it about 1,600 miles on his maiden PCT voyage in 2016 before a knee injury returned with wrath. The trail taught him then, he says, to listen to his body. But somewhere in the misery of the Sierras, that year changed something in him, and for the better. He flew home a man renewed.

“My best friend said, ‘Dude, it’s so good to see you back,'” Akuna recalls. “He didn’t mean Louisiana. He meant in spirit. He said I was smiling more, joking more, loving life again. He was right.”

Akuna returned to the southern terminus of the PCT the next spring. His pack was lighter, his trail knowledge deeper, and he’d found a fitting brace for his most troublesome knee. He did the whole thing this time, all 2,650 miles. Other hikers kept mentioning the Appalachian (2,190 miles), so he did that the next year. Then came the Continental Divide (3,100 miles), which traverses the Rocky Mountains, in 2019.

All three major trails conquered — less than four years since he’d stumbled across “Wild” in the self-made prison of his own room. Overseen and facilitated by the American Long-Distance Hiking Association-West, just 525 people have ever completed it. Akuna’s feat came one year after the first recorded Black woman, Elsye ‘Chardonnay’ Walker, accomplished the same.

Each of the trails took Akuna roughly five months to complete. At 6-feet tall — a former point guard who first dunked at age 12 — his rapid ascension to thru-hiking’s pantheon defies the norm. The competitive parts of thru-hiking skew Generation Z-young, and most new arrivals to the trail don’t come with Akuna’s unique blend of desperation and military training. Be inspired by Akuna, certainly, but don’t try to be him.

Only months after his accomplishment, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and stayed twice as long, disrupting best laid plans across the globe. Akuna debated hiking through it but decided it wasn’t worth the risk, both for his own health and that of the small communities that line the various trails and don’t always have access to immediate, top-notch medical care.

He stayed in Louisiana during the pandemic, which came with its own trepidations. “Would I revert back to who I was?” he asks now. “That was a big fear.” He didn’t.

His isolation was different this time. Instead of bringing his world, darkness and all, to the trail, he brought lessons from the trail home, day-hiking through nearby marshes, exploring his native state in ways he never had.

Still, it wasn’t until he got back to the show and hiked the Tahoe Rim Trail with his girlfriend Dawn in July 2021 that he felt right again.

“Getting back out there was like reentering life, you know?” he says at Shoe Lake, words that resonate well beyond the trail. “I’d already been given a second chance. I know how important it is to enjoy that, to appreciate that.”

MODERN AMERICAN SCHOLARSHIP and understanding what we now call “post-traumatic stress” owes a great deal to clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who’s widely credited with naming and spreading the concept of “moral injury,” an affliction not unique to war veterans, of course, though still one often associated with them in post-9/11 America.

Not to oversimplify Shay’s books “Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America,” which blend cognitive and mental health research, therapy experiences with veterans of the Vietnam War, and contemporary analysis of ancient Greek literature, but it’s all been done, for centuries. This is something that’s given me comfort over the years, both as a person and as a combat vet navigating his own way through life in the afterwar. It’s all been done.

For example, take thru-hiking. One of the godfathers of the Appalachian Trail, perhaps the first man to thru-hike its entirety, was a man named Earl Shaffer. Shaffer served in the Pacific with the signal corps during World War II, then returned home to his native rural Pennsylvania, decades before the Greatest Generation mythology congealed. A 1947 War Department survey reported that 1 in 5 World War II vets were “completely hostile” to civilians — and the resentment wasn’t one-sided, either. Some Americans saw the G.I. Bill, which revolutionized education legislation, as a societal bane. The Saturday Evening Post tapped into that dread in 1946 when it asked, “Are We Making a Bum of G.I. Joe?”

Like many of his generation, Shaffer felt aimless, adrift. He missed his best childhood friend, killed at Iwo Jima. So he took to the trail in 1948, to walk the war and the army “out of my system.” He kept hiking until he passed away in 2002, only four years after he’d walked the full Appalachian Trail again at the age of 79.

Akuna hikes in this tradition, though he’s hardly alone. “There’s a lot of vets that hike,” he says. “It’s not a coincidence …veteran or not, the majority of people coming out here are working on something.”

It’s not normal to leave behind society for six months to test one’s own limitations, I think. It’s an open rejection of normal.

How does Akuna recognize other military veterans on the trail? It’s all in the little details. “We walk like we march,” he says, monitoring my navigation down a ridgeline. “There’s physically a kick-step.” A couple times, he’s seen men and women field-strip a cigarette. “When they do that, I don’t even need to ask.”

Not unlike the army, being a good trail leader sometimes means being a good follower, Akuna says. He pushes groups to be as democratic as possible, something domineering young men occasionally bristle at. If and when his background comes up, Akuna addresses stereotypes head-on: “I want them to know,” he says, “I won’t go Full Metal Jacket on you. I’m a pretty chill guy.”

Despite his own mixed experiences with VA healthcare efforts, he tells younger vets to seek medical treatment there, as a baseline, if nothing else. He’s learned the hard way to “embrace the fight,” that his PTS is not unlike his wrist and knees, a chronic thing that’s just part of his body and being now, not something to be vanquished but tamed.

Helping newer hikers adapt to the life is one of his favorite things, figuring out which equipment works best for them, how many miles a day they should aim for. Still, “you can keep things to yourself,” he admits. “Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes I go off by myself because that’s where I need to be in that moment.”

“People get that out here,” he continues. “If you need to, you’re allowed to be dark.”

With Kabul falling but the forever war we both served in enduring, talk turns to the world. We’re not in a VFW beer hall but at the shores of Shoe Lake, soaking up sun, listening to the sounds of a breaking day. The three of us talk love, God, war, country.

“America doesn’t care about veterans, not in that hard, meaningful way,” Akuna says, the sweet tang of his Black & Mild floating through the air. “If it did, would Afghanistan have lasted this long? It cares about active-duty because that’s when we’re young, fit, healthy, can’t ask any of those messy questions … it’s sad, man, the only time we’re united is when we’re at war.

“People have lost a sense of community, and I get that, I get what that lack of connection can do.” He means his own journey, going from the shared purpose of the military to the screaming isolation of trapping himself in his room in Southeast Louisiana. “Thru-hiking has that community and it’s why I love it so much. People need to know they belong to something.”

He says things like this, sometimes — a lot, actually. My notebook becomes full of eminently-quotable lines Akuna tosses about with the freedom of a man who’s doing something he cherishes. A standout: “They say you’re a thru-hiker when you finish a trail. I disagree. I think it’s as soon as you get out here. Because you’ve already done the hard part.”

Out of gratitude, manners, humility, or something else, Akuna tends to reference the trail as an active force that intervened on his behalf. It’s an object, stunning and vitalizing, yes, but a physical place cultivated and stomped into being by humans.

Akuna wasn’t saved by happenstance. He made a choice. He saved himself.

AKUNA BELIEVES THAT every thru-hiker needs a call, something that belongs to them and them alone and identifies them to others. It’s, at once, greeting and statement, a strident claim that ruptures the stillness of the trail but disturbs nothing permanently.

His goes: “Ai-eeeeeeeee!!!” Equal parts Cajun yowl and Peter Pan crow, fittingly his.

He asks us to deliver ours atop the Goat Rocks. Andy, the photographer, bellows from deep within his soul. I shout “Olly olly oxen free.” It’s stupid but fun as hell.

Akuna’s call finds utility our second morning out. A classic Northwest mist has cast Shoe Lake into in a heavy, dank gray. Visibility extends no further than ten feet, and the three of us hike up to a ridgeline to wait out the haze for photographs. While Andy scouts out some locations and I snack, Akuna stares down into the void, in the direction of our campsite.

“Ai-eeeee!” he shouts into the misty void. “Ai-eeeeeeeee!!!”

I think he’s just playing around. Ten seconds or so later, a voice calls back. “Which way?”

Akuna guides a pair of thru-hikers up the correct path. I have no idea how he saw them through the gray but he did, and as the wanderers pass by, one looks grateful and the other embarrassed.

“How’d you see them?” I ask later. “That was some superpower s—.”

Akuna smiles and winks. “Heard ’em first.”

OUR LAST MORNING on the PCT crackles with high-summer luster. “A good day to be an outdoors model,” Akuna jokes. We even come across a herd of mountain goats sunbathing along a rocky slope, seeing us out of the wilderness that carries their name.

We’ve earned our trail names, Andy and me. He’s Billy Goat from all his climbing and hopping for shots. I’m Sir Doodle. “I figured out you’d been an officer pretty quick,” Akuna says.

To the northeast, dark smoke plumes scar the sky, the inimitable marker of a distant forest fire. Smoke on the horizon — a bit too explicit a symbol for returning to the world. Akuna’s got plans for what’s next. First, Louisiana, to catch up with his family and tutor up his nieces. Then the 800-mile Arizona Trail in the fall, followed by a day-hike event in Huntsville, Alabama, to raise money for a local veterans’ home and welcome people of color to hiking.

Next year, he’s aiming to be at the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, if and when another Black hiker completes their own Triple Crown attempt. Beyond that? New Zealand’s Te Araroa Trail is on his bucket list. There’s the Jordan Trail in the Middle East, the Great Wall of China, over 5,000 miles long, which would take roughly a year and a half to hike …

More places to begin again.

We finish our hike and head to the Kracker Barrel gas station at White Pass. Laundry costs $10 a load, showers are $5 for thirty minutes. So goes the free market. Dozens of self-proclaimed “hiker trash” have gathered at the picnic tables outside, some coming off-trail to resupply, others prepping to get back on. Boxes full of old shoes, flashlights, freeze-dried food packets and spare fuel line the side of the building, communal grab-bags for those in want or need. Akuna spots MacGyver in his rainbow foam clogs and sits down to shoot the breeze.

In the coming hours we’ll learn that Hurricane Ida’s inbound and for real. Akuna’s flight to Louisiana gets canceled because of it. He’ll fly to inland Texas to visit Dawn instead.

On the shuttle to the airport, I ask Akuna about that. He smiles.

“It’s cool,” he says. “I’ve taken the long way back before.”

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or at