Man hiking 13,000 miles to raise PTSD awareness

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A man who aims to walk 13,000 miles and visit all four corners of the U.S. to raise awareness of veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has reached Port Townsend.

He's hiked 4,400 miles so far.

"Just under 9,000 to go," said Eli Smith, 37, of Columbus, Ohio. In total, it will take him three and a half years to finish the hike.

"I am going to all four corners of America raising awareness for PTSD," he said.

To trek across the country, Smith wears a bright orange pair of running shoes. It's the 11th pair of shoes he's worn so far on his journey. Smith said he hikes about 15 miles per day.

Smith served in the Army as an M1A1 tank gunner for two years until 2002. A specialist E4, he was stationed in South Korea, he said.

"I lost a couple friends I served with to suicide," Smith said.

He received eight letters from veterans who learned of his hike and told him they changed their mind about suicide as a result of his hike, Smith said.

Those sorts of letters were the "ultimate motivation," Smith said.

Smith said an average of 20 veterans commit suicide every day. Most are Vietnam veterans, he said, who might be older and perhaps divorced with "no sense of purpose anymore."

Smith advocated that friends and family call or send a text message to veterans to keep in touch.

"It can really make a big difference in their life," he said.

Smith's hike began in Pensacola, Florida, on Nov. 22, 2016. He hiked westward, across the southern states for five months before reaching the first corner in San Diego, California. He hiked along the Pacific Coast to the second corner – Cape Flattery – which he reached Tuesday, Oct. 17.

He is in Port Townsend to meet with supporters and to raise funds for the next leg of his hike, which is to begin in April, he said, continuing from Port Townsend.

He plans to stop in Boise, Idaho; Salt Lake City, Utah; Jackson, Wyoming; Denver, Colorado; Kansas City, Kansas; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; St. Louis, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee; Nashville, Tennessee; Louisville, Kentucky; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Boston, Massachusetts; New York City, New York; and Washington, D.C., to name a few.

That leg is to end at the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Maine. The final corner is Key West, Florida.

HIGH TEMPERATURES

He carries a 60-pound pack with him. A small U.S. flag flies at the side of the pack. He also used a wheeled cart for some of the trip, but said he stopped using that in San Francisco because it was heavy and had no brakes and would be difficult to use on mountain passes.

Smith is camping his way across the country, or staying with friendly strangers. In Port Townsend, The Palace Hotel and Port Townsend Inn have let him stay a few days.

He routed his trip so that temperatures would be bearable. Smith said he began in Pensacola in November in order to avoid high temperatures as he hiked across the southern states.

Temperatures were bearable until he was near Yuma, Arizona, where temperatures reached 100 degrees.

"I had a heatstroke outside of Gilroy, California," he said.

Texas was tough on him.

"Someone tried to kidnap me in west Texas," along County Road 2092 near Menard, Texas.

It was also in flat, treeless Texas that he wondered if he might be struck by lightning.

"You could just see the big storms rolling in," Smith said. He got "drenched" by the storms.

"Even rain gear doesn't keep you dry."

He came across a bear in Ashland, Oregon, and has encountered rattlesnakes, and even met actor Courteney Cox at a farmers' market in Woodland Hills, California, in May.

"All kinds of crazy adventures."

Smith said crosswalks were where he was most often hit by vehicles, he said, adding that he was also mindful of fast-moving logging trucks in western Washington.

"Some of these logging trucks, they just don't care," Smith said in a recent Facebook video post. "They were missing me by less than my shoulder width."

"I've never seen forests like the forests out there. Neah Bay was just great. There's bald eagles all over the place out there," he said in the video.

He said he hosts dinners for veterans as he makes stops along his hike, soliciting community members to pool gifts or baked goods for the get-togethers. In Las Vegas, he said, veterans were given gift cards valued at $400. In Los Angeles, he said, he took a homeless veteran shopping and took him out for a meal and put him up in a nice hotel.

Smith's friends and family "thought [the hike] was crazy at first ... they're not so worried now," he said.

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