If there’s one thing Will “Akuna” Robinson, the first Black Triple Crown Hiker in the world, has learned after hiking the nearly 8 thousand miles that comprise the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Trails, it’s this: Never quit on a bad day.
By: Stefanie Schefter
It was a hard-won lesson—before Akuna was the king of the trails, he was silently suffering from intense PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Years stationed in Iraq had left him traumatized and struggling to adapt to life back home. In 2010, he even attempted suicide. Once he recovered, he realized that he needed to change his life—he just wasn’t sure how.
Six years later, Akuna caught the film adaption of Wild on TV. When he saw Reese Witherspoon hiking through the beautiful, untamed wilderness on the screen, he knew exactly what he needed to do.
Akuna bought a permit to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile stretch from Mexico to Canada, that night. It was the last permit left for the season.
His first day on the PCT, Akuna hiked 15 miles, most of them fueled by sheer panic. He had never hiked before, and every snapping branch or rustling tree was a bear waiting to attack. Akuna had no idea what he’d gotten himself into, and he was sure that he’d end up quitting.
Then, somewhere in the middle of the desert, something incredible started to happen—step by step, mile by painstaking mile, Akuna began to feel more capable. He met goal after goal after goal, and with each one, felt a little bit of himself return. He was getting his life back, one day at a time.
Of course, there were hard days on the trail. There were the aforementioned bears, but they didn’t scare Akuna anymore. Far scarier were the thoughts that plagued him on long, solitary stretches through the wilderness—thoughts about the past, about people he’d wronged, or decisions he’d made. There were also days that were just plain relentless—days it rained for eighteen hours straight, with nothing to see but trees and mud, his boots trudging along beneath him. On days like these, the trail exits beckoned, and when they appear every two miles like they do on the Appalachian Trail (which Akuna hiked in 2018) it can be nearly impossible to keep going.
The antidote to these backbreaking days? The trail family. Friends made on the trail are often friends for life. Akuna met his close pal “Eager Beaver” on the Appalachian Trail, after he spotted him hiking up ahead sporting some can’t-miss gear—a tie-dye bandana, Prince Purple Rain-style sunglasses, and an ancient-looking pack with a giant frame. The two became fast friends—Akuna gave Eager Beaver, a first-time thru-hiker, some tips on tent-pitching, pack-paring, and more. In return, Eager Beaver gave Akuna a boost of positive energy with his tireless good attitude and infectious enthusiasm as he discovered the joys of the great outdoors.
Akuna realized then that this is what would keep him coming back to the trails—the powerful sense of community and genuine good vibes he gets from his fellow hikers. “Positive energy is contagious,” he told me. “It can change someone’s day, and it can certainly change someone’s life. It changed mine.”
Akuna found that it also helps to remember this: If you’re in the thick of it (in hiking or in life), you just need to keep going—you’re bound to come upon a fantastic view eventually.
Hiking the PCT was supposed to be a one-time adventure for Akuna, but instead, it changed everything. “Nature saved my life,” he told me. He keeps going back into the wilderness for the peace and clarity that long walks with Mother Nature provide, but also because he just wants to keep meeting amazing people and helping whoever he can along the way.
Akuna knows that every time he hits the trails, he’s serving as a source of inspiration and providing much-needed visibility—for other Black hikers who aren’t sure that the outdoors is a safe space for them, for fellow vets who don’t know if they have what it takes, for beginners looking for a way to start. Well, the way to start is just to start—put one foot in front of the other and keep on going. When you think you can’t go anymore, give it another day.