How one veteran left his fishbowl by thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

Not long ago, Kevin “Buttercup” Black, stood at the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail after retiring from the Marine Corps. He’d walked off the war as a part of Warrior Hike, a program in which PCTA has been involved this summer. I met Kevin and his wife Kristi last week near Snoqualmie Pass, Washington. Kristi and I had exchanged a few emails and I’d been following their blog at sobadadventures.com. With permission, here’s Kevin’s final essay about how the PCT helped him in life.

Well, it’s been just over five months, five-plus million steps, and 2,660 miles through three states from the border of Mexico into Canada. There are so many people who were involved in making my dream a possibility.

My fellow hikers were a huge part of it. I learned so much from them. When I’d get to a new section, I could always count on getting good info from them. I received many tips on how to deal with difficult situations. And the camaraderie was always welcome. They are all truly unique and wonderful!

My friends and family. The encouragement I received played a huge part in making this dream a reality. From my good friend and former neighbor, Ben, who took the time to research the best hiker foods to fill the calorie void I found myself in early on to the many other suggestions and comments of encouragement I received.

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The 2014 PCT Warrior Hike team.

There were many, many trail towns we visited where we were welcomed with open arms! The people we met and the kindness/generosity they showed us was more than I could have ever expected or hoped for!

The many blog readers gave me not only encouragement, but an even stronger desire to complete this journey. I can’t thank you enough!

Sean Gobin, the founder of Warrior Hike, and his staff who worked tirelessly to provide gear and points of contact at the various trail towns for resupply and a place to clean off and get some much-needed rest.

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Lon “Halfmile” Cooper and Kevin “Buttercup” Black in the Sierra Nevada.

And finally, my wife, Kristi, who did everything she could to support and encourage me while sheltering me from the many situations she was dealing with on the home front so I could focus my full attention on the hike. Yet one of the hundreds of reasons why I love her so much and was smart enough to marry her!

I’ve been asked what was my favorite part of the hike. Ever since stepping foot in Yosemite Valley, it’s been the prettiest place I’ve ever been. But the trail doesn’t go through the Valley.  It is just east of it.  I’d never been in the High Sierras, and they certainly didn’t disappoint! I thought that was going to end up being the most beautiful section of the trail…until I got to the Northern Cascades. Although I can’t say I enjoyed them more than the High Sierras, I can’t say I enjoyed them less either. I was fortunate to have great weather while hiking through most of Washington, which helped. But believe me when I say, every time a turn or a pass was coming up on the trail, I approached it with anticipation of what I’d see next! Rarely was I disappointed! Don’t get me wrong though, the entire trail had its grandeur and beauty. All in all, a phenomenal journey.

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Kevin, with his #1 supporter, his wife Kristi on the PCT in Washington state.

During the course of the hike, I’ve been asked by many people what I expected to get or was getting out of the hike. My answer normally revolved around the wonderful people I met on and off the trail and the beauty of nature. But it wasn’t until two days before reaching the Canadian border that the answer hit me. I was standing at a pass and looked down on the ground. Someone had taken the time to meticulously write something using small stones. “50 Miles to Canada! Eh!” When I looked at it, at first, I laughed. But then it hit me…only 50 miles left before I’d be at the end of this trip. I’d changed in ways I never could comprehend before I started. But to really understand how I’ve changed, I need to take you back to Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm over two decades ago.

During our deployment to Kuwait, there were a lot of unknowns. We didn’t have the communication system like we do now. No contact with home for the first few months. No cell phones. No internet. When the war started, family and friends didn’t know whether we were dead or alive. We didn’t know what we were facing. When the U.S. started bombing units in Kuwait, we were subjected to numerous daily and nightly missile alerts. The sirens used to alert the entire region were right outside our hooch. So the four or five times they went off at night, they didn’t wake us up. They literally launched us out of the rack. We were under the assumption that the Iraqis would use gas. What kind we weren’t sure — nerve agents, mustard gas, etc. So each time the alert went off, we were getting in our protective gear with gas masks. There were other times when things happened that…well, let’s just say that it got my heart rate and adrenaline levels way up. I’ll leave it at that.

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Kevin, and the rest of the Warrior Hike team, did numerous public appearances up and down the trail. They were a highlight for everyone. Here they are with the Enumclaw VFW Post.

When you’re deployed in an environment like that, you’re always hyper-alert. When I returned from deployment, loud noises still made me jump and my heart race. But after awhile, things went back to normal to a great extent. But the one thing I noticed was emotionally, I felt like I was in a fishbowl. Things that I used to enjoy doing didn’t bring as much joy to me. It was that way for all my emotions. Feelings of happiness, joy, and love didn’t make it through the fishbowl very well. I remember thinking about it after I returned from deployment. But I figured it would get back to normal as well, eventually. And to an extent, it did, but it never got back to my pre-deployment days…until this hike.

The first time I realized something was going on during the hike was when I called Kristi after I had gotten through the High Sierras. Up to that point, it was the most difficult section…and the most beautiful. When I finally was able to call her and she picked up the phone, all the emotions came welling up to the point that I wasn’t able to say anything when she answered. I got all choked up. It took me a few seconds before I could even mumble a few words. I knew something was up. I’m not prone to emotional outbreaks like that. It happened a few other times on the trail as well. It wasn’t until I got to the point on the trail where I saw “50 Miles to Canada! Eh!” written in stone that I realized what had happened to me. At first I laughed when I saw it, but within moments, tears started streaming down my face. I realized that the fishbowl was gone. It was like a reset button for my emotions had been hit. Things that didn’t really impact me before were having an impact. I felt like I did when I was young. Earl Shaffer, the first person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, was asked why he did it. His response was that he did it to “walk off the war.” Now I understand what he meant!

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Life changed, Kevin stands at the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.

So this bucket list item is one I can check off now. I think now you better understand why, when I say I can’t thank you all enough, what I mean and why.

John Muir couldn’t have said it better when he said: “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”

The only other thing I’d like to say is to my wonderful wife, Kristi.

Honey, I’m home.

I’m finally home….

Author: Jack "Found" Haskel

As the Trail Information Specialist, Jack works to connect people to the PCT. He's involved with a wide variety of projects that help the trail, the trail's users and the community that surrounds the experience. He has thru-hiked (Pacific Crest Trail in 2006; Colorado Trail in 2008; Continental Divide Trail in 2010) and is an obsessed weekend warrior.

Photo by: Nathaniel Middleton