American Legion Post 800 played host to five service veterans hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as part of Warrior Hike “Walk Off the War,” a wilderness recreational therapy program designed to help vets transition from combat to civilian life.
On Saturday, April 26, Post 800 members served up a festive spaghetti dinner and mingled with the tired but spirited hikers. Legion members and supporters also provided overnight housing and laundry facilities for the five vets.
Representing Army, Air Force, Navy and the Marine Corps, the five, Thomas Bielecki, Shawn White, Joshua Shields, Angela Powell and Kevin Black, evinced a “can do” military attitude and shrugged off any trail discomfort as they discussed the first 180 miles of their hike.
Navy vet Powell, limping slightly from shoe issues that developed during the first two weeks on the PCT, actually hiked into Idyllwild wearing sandals to give her feet a chance to flex and rest from toe bruising. Black’s wife, Kristi, had met the group at Paradise Corners with food, beverages and treats and Teva sandals for Powell that gave her feet a much-needed break. “I’ve got new shoes now,” said Powell on Saturday at the Legion, showing off her lighter and more flexible hiking shoes acquired in Idyllwild. “I’m not fast, but I won’t quit,” she said. “It’s all worth it. We’re family.”
Other than Powell’s foot problems, the current challenge facing the group is the selection of trail names. PCT thru-hikers seldom travel under their own names. They are known by trail names that come to them under two conditions: First, someone else must bestow the name, and the newly named hiker must accept their trail moniker.
Only Black has his — “Buttercup.” “I’ve been asked about my trail name, ‘Buttercup,’” said Black. “I got it from my best friend, Kevin Gannon. It comes from my Marine Corps days because when a young Marine would complain about what we were doing for physical training or about a task I’d assigned him or her, my response was frequently, “Suck it up, Buttercup.”
Shields, the youngest of the group, is close to having his trail name and may have accepted it on Saturday at the Legion. “He can’t grow hair on his face,” said Black of the baby-faced Shields, “but hair does grow on his neck, so we’ve started calling him ‘Neck Beard.’” Asked what he thought about the name, Shields said it suited him.
Black, the official photographer and blog chronicler of the hike (www.sobadadventures.com) trained hard for the PCT. “I did 20 to 30 miles with a 30-pound pack two to three times a week,” he said. He was upbeat at the legion about the hike and his plans for post-military life.
“The PCT hike is the first item on my bucket list,” he said. Black’s wife, also a retired Marine, was at the legion event. She will meet the group along the trail at various points and help with resupply. Black noted that together he and Kristi had served 54 years in the Corps (30 for Kevin and 24 for Kristi) and that their post-Corps adventures are just beginning.
After completing the PCT, Black said the couple will spend six months in Cuenca, Ecuador, learning Spanish. Then they’ll move on to the Caribbean and shop for a 40 foot catamaran that they’ll break in by doing coastal sailing and then eventually sail around the world.
The post-hike plans for the other four are more classroom oriented — to finish long-planned academic degrees.
On his blog, Black recounted Saturday, the day the group arrived in Idyllwild: “The morning was cold. Getting out of the sleeping bag is the hardest part of the day. I think it was hovering around 45 or so where we were. But I soon warmed up as the hike began. We ended up going up and up to almost 7,000 feet, the highest we’ve been so far and I believe the highest point of the PCT in Southern California. We had a fantastic view overlooking Palm Springs.
“After a few more miles we hit the closed section of the PCT and had to get off trail using the Cedar Springs Trail that dropped us about 1,000 feet in a mile or so. Once we got down to the bottom, we were picked up by members of the Idyllwild American Legion who are kind enough to host us until first thing Sunday when we get back on the trail and head for Big Bear. We are supposed to get snow tonight and tomorrow in the higher elevations, so it could get interesting when we get back on the trail.”
For now, all five are focused on the next 2,400 miles, having completed the first 180. “We’re leaving Idyllwild early Sunday morning [April 27], snow or not,” said Black.
Asked why he was making the hike, Black summed up what it was for him and the group: “I’m out here to experience perfect days unlike so many years tied to a desk answering to someone who told me what to do, how to do it and when it needed to be done. Out here, there aren’t any deadlines except for what I set for myself. Oh, and don’t forget those mornings like this morning when we’re treated to a mind-blowing view.”
The PCT challenges hikers with widely varied terrain from desert to high alpine passes with an elevation gain of more than 13,000 feet from the lowest point, sea level at the Oregon/Washington border to 13,153 feet at Forester Pass in the Sierra Nevada Range in Tulare County, California.
The five are part of a group of 26 combat veterans beginning thru-hikes this spring of more than 2,000 miles on each of three National Scenic Trails — the Appalachian, Continental Divide and PCT. Warrior Hike Executive Director Sean Gobin said, “We are pleased to expand this opportunity [adding the PCT and Continental Divide hikes this year] through the help and support of our sponsor community, which includes a wide array of federal and local organizations, corporations and individuals.”