26 Jun A Discussion with Triple Crown Thru-Hiker Will “Akuna” Robinson
Having served in the United States Army through the Iraq War, Will “Akuna” Robinson suffered from severe bodily injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. When he returned home in 2003 after a tour of duty in Al Asda near the Syrian border, he found civilian life challenging and was full of despair. As he struggled through physical and occupational therapy, trying to manage chronic pain, he self-medicated with drugs and alcohol to make it through each day. Thankfully, he found support where he was raised in Southeastern Louisiana near New Orleans — from his loving family. They had instilled in him the values of hard work and self-discipline, encouraging him to pursue a healthier path forward.
Akuna found the medicine he was looking for in the outdoors. He joined the world-wide community of long-distance backpackers to challenge his mind and body through the physical act of walking. On the hiking trails of North America he discovered his way to heal. In 2016, Akuna successfully thru-hiked the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Then in 2018, he completed the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. And in September 2019, Akuna achieved the Triple Crown of thru-hiking after walking 3,100 miles to finish the Continental Divide Trail.
Although these stats are impressive to anyone, his accomplishments are all the more remarkable because Akuna is the first Black American man to achieve this feat. As the second person of color to achieve the Triple Crown – after Elyse “Chardonnay” Walker in 2018 – this marks another milestone in the progress of Black and brown athletes’ toward better representation in adventure sports. Akuna is being recognized nationally for the impact he’s made. In 2022, Akuna received the George Mallory Lifetime Achievement Award. And at the 2023 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City, Utah, he will give the keynote address at the Outdoor Industry Association Breakfast.
Prior to this eagerly awaited presentation to the collective members of the outdoor industry, journalist James Edward Mills interviewed Akuna for the OR Daily.
JTP: Apparently, you were inspired by the movie Wild with Reese Witherspoon — the story of Cheryl Strayed in her thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. Was that when you first decided that thru-hiking was going to be something that you’d be interested in doing?
Akuna: I actually got interested in it when I was still in Iraq. You know, people would send donations to the soldiers out there. Sometimes there’d be boxes of candy, and sometimes it would be books and magazines. But I found a guidebook on the Pacific Crest Trail while I was in Iraq. And I used to look at the pictures and read this thing all the time. And it was something that I would love to do one day. But, you know, after 13 years of disabilities – and managing my mental health and people telling me what I can and can’t do anymore — I just forgot about it until 2016 when I saw Wild. And it was like I knew right then and there, seeing the PCT Trail tag, that I needed to do this if I was going to try to get back to living again. This is what I needed to do.
JTP: How long was it after you saw that film when you decided that you were going to make this happen?
Akuna: I decided I was doing it ten minutes into the film. I started checking out the film and going on Google, making sure people still hiked that trail. I had a permit before the film was over with. I was ordering gear, and like two weeks after that date, I was in the southern terminus, ready to go.
JTP: At the time, what was your physical ability like? You know, you’re still dealing with your injuries. How fit were you when you hit the trail?
Akuna: After 13 years, I learned how to manage my disabilities a lot better. But I was still on all kinds of pain medications and things. So, I brought all of those things with me. But, for maybe six months to a year prior to starting thru-hiking, I started trying to better my health and started going to the gym and working out a couple of days a week. I was in a lot better shape than I had been prior to that moment. But as far as hiking goes, I had to basically pick up everything on the fly. My training consisted of two weeks of putting on my backpack and just hiking around my local city or going up and hiking around the French Quarter with a backpack on.
JTP: How long did it take for you to get your rhythm going so that it was not the hike of the people who were running past you in trail runners and light backpacks? At what point did you feel that you were in your stride doing the thru-hike that was meaningful to you?
Akuna: I think I hit my stride – as far as my pace goes and my goals for the PCT – pretty early on. As the person with disabilities, for as long as I had them, I’ve always known that I have to make things that work for me. I had to make things work for what I can do. So, I never pushed it early on to keep up with people who I might have wanted to keep up with. And then, I was lucky to make a trail family early who had the same goals, and the same speed, and the same pace as I did. So, that really helped me to just stay right in my wheelhouse.
JTP: Was there a particular moment in time when you said, “I can’t do this. I’ve got to get off the trail. This is just not for me.” I know that we all have those moments, but what was that moment for you?
Akuna: You have those moments multiple times on every thru-hike. If a thru-hiker is telling you they’re not, they’re just giving you a story. But the first one for me was the first night. My first day was a 15-mile day through the desert. I had never been hiking in that type of terrain; never experienced this type of thing. By the time we got to our campsite, I didn’t even want to cook dinner. I just wanted to get in my tent, and lay there in the fetal position. And I thought, “I don’t know if I can do it. Today obliterated me, and I have to do the same thing again tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that.” So, night one was the first time I thought, “I can’t do this.”
JTP: So, what kept you going? What was the thing that made you say that, “Despite what I’m feeling right now, I’m going to keep walking”?
Akuna: Knowing that I needed to push myself. I knew what the alternative was; I was going right back to the dark places that I had just left. I needed to give this an actual go and see if this was going to be the medicine for me. So, I had to battle back those thoughts of quitting and not being right for this environment, and I just pushed on to see if it could work for me. And by the time I got to mile 100, I was pretty much hooked.
JTP: What people have really come to appreciate about thru-hiking is that it’s a communal experience. You have what’s described as trail magic, where complete strangers show one another unconditional kindness. Was there a particular moment when you experienced trail magic, perhaps for the first time, or in a way that was most profound for you?
Akuna: I’ve experienced trail magic on every trail I’ve been on. And it really shows you that there are some good people still out in this world. I mean, when you look at the Pacific Crest Trail, the trail doesn’t run through any town. Every town requires somebody taking up your nasty, stinky, funky butt and allowing you in their car to take you to town just to resupply. Then when you get to these towns, you have people that will open up their homes, wash your clothes, feed you, and make sure every need that you have is taken care of. And this is up and down most of the trail systems. And a lot of these people have been doing it forever. The PCT has iconic Trail Angel Houses like Hiker Heaven and Casa de Luna, where these people have been opening up their homes in their lives to people for years. And it was such an amazing thing to be a part of.
JTP: Did that come as a surprise to you, or is that something that you were expecting once you got out on the trail?
Akuna: I didn’t expect this at all. With my limited research on the Pacific Crest Trail and thru-hiking culture, I honestly got out there and expected that I was going to be by myself most of the time. I didn’t expect to have a whole support system. With all of these trails and all of these hikes, I didn’t expect to see as many thru-hikers and to have a hiking family, and then to get to town and see all of these people out there that wanted to be a part of your hike. And they don’t want anything for it. At first, I was kind of standoffish. I was like… “I’m not going to the angel house. I’d rather pay for a hotel because I don’t feel right accepting these people helping me, and we don’t even know each other”. But, you know, as the hikes went on, it was like I got more and more comfortable with it. And it was something I had to relearn — that there are some good people out here, and at times you will need help. You can’t do it all on your own.
JTP: One of the other traditions of thru-hiking is getting a trail name. And your nickname is Akuna. Did you always have that nickname, or was that a trail name that was given to you?
Akuna: That was a trail name that was given to me around the second or third day of the PCT. The person I was hiking with at the time, they would ask me questions like, “It’s a dry year. What were you thinking about what it will be like?” “I’ll figure it out.” “It’s a high snow year in the Sierras. What was your plan for that?” “It’s like 702 miles. I’m not worried about that. We’ll figure it out when we get there.” This was pretty much my standard answer for everything. And finally, they were like, “Yeah, you just seem not to worry about anything.” I do that in my normal life every day. So, here I just want to worry about going the right direction. That’s it. So, then they are starting to call me No Worries, which morphed into Hakuna Matata, and then I shortened it to Akuna.”
JTP: What was it like for you as a person of color on the PCT? Did your experience as a Black American have any direct relevance to your overall experience on the trail? If so, how?
Akuna: I think for every person of color that jumps into an outdoor space, we come with an above level of caution. So, that is always going to hinder our experience on these trails. Like for my first year in 2016, it took me a long time tobe really comfortable with people, to kind of open up and let them see my personality. And a lot of the time, when I think back about it. People really didn’t get to see my real personality until my next year of hiking in 2017. In 2016, I was just too much in caution mode. You just never know how people are going to accept you in towns within the hiking community; in national parks. So, you’re always approaching everything with the level of caution that, quite frankly, white hikers don’t have to take.
JTP: Was there ever a moment where you felt that you might have been treated differently or with a certain amount of mistrust or concern as a person of color?
Akuna: My first year on the PCT in ’16, I remember being ahead of my trail family, like it often is. You don’t always hike together. Sometimes you just move at your own pace; you take your own time. But, I got to a point where we needed a hitch into town. And I was hitching by myself, which was something that I always had a concern about. How easy will that be for me as a Black man? And I did have a vehicle pull over — and he stopped, and he started talking to me. He gave me an ice-cold beer, and I’m thinking, okay, cool. So, I’m going to get this ride into town. But then he says, “Is there anybody else coming up behind you? Because I’d feel way more comfortable if it wasn’t just you in the car.” Then I’m thinking, “I can’t even be mad at you. This is your vehicle. This is your time. If you don’t want to extend that to me, it is what it is.” We waited around for about ten or 15 minutes. No one else showed up. So, he gave me another beer and kind of wished me well.
JTP: What do you think we can do collectively, as people of color, to encourage one another to have these kinds of transformational experiences in the outdoors?
Akuna: You know, I think it’s about sharing our experiences; what I try to do with my Instagram or with people, like the Black Appalachian, or like what you’ve been doing. You put everything up on your platforms. You talk to the media, you do your press, you get that exposure and get our stories out there. Because people hear these – people that are from our communities – and it makes them a little more confident in trying to get out there and do things. And ultimately, for people who have been in the outdoors their entire lives that are primarily white, this benefits them too by getting so many people from marginalized communities onto the trails. Because, the more people that connect to nature, the more people that will be here to preserve it.
This interview originally appeared in The Daily in advance of the 2023 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market