NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - The Triple Crown is a fabled summit in sports, a seemingly impossible trio of wins in horse racing and an even more impressive collection of batting stats in baseball, but when it comes to hiking, few people have ever achieved that summit, known as the Triple Crown.
“There are less than 450 Triple Crown hikers. More people have gone into space, more people have climbed Everest,” Will “Akuna” Robinson, a New Orleans native, said.
Robinson is one of the few, achieving the Triple Crown in hiking earlier this year, becoming the first recorded African American male to complete the feat of finishing the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail.
“It's pretty overwhelming when you think about it It's humbling to know that you're in a group of so few people,” Robinson said.
It took Robinson more than 8,000 miles to get his crown but taking the first step wasn’t easy.
After a five-year stint in the Army including fighting overseas in Iraq, Robinson found himself battling demons.
“I didn't sleep much I had nightmares I had flashbacks,” Robinson said.
Diagnosed with PTSD, he started taking medication, but that left him feeling sluggish and less than himself.
“For a while, I had a problem with figuring out what reality was. Was I really here at home living these years or was I asleep on my cot in Iraq and I was going to wake up back there,” Robinson said.
Then he attempted suicide, multiple times, trapped in a dark place in his life.
It wasn’t until 2012, when he buried his mother, that he committed to finding a path back to himself.
“Before she passed she made me promise that I would never hurt myself again and I did everything I could to keep that promise,” Robinson said.
He remembered a trail guide he read while on the cot in Iraq, a book on the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT as it’s known in the hiking community, a through-hike more than 2,600 miles long.
So in 2016, he packed a bag and began a journey that would take him across the country and little did he know, into the history books.
“Right away on the PCT you start to feel it maybe two miles past the terminus, you’re now away from the roads, away from cars, away from all the distractions that come with it,” Robinson said.
Uncertain of the task ahead, what amounted to a months-long hike, Robinson was determined to keep going.
“I felt like I was going to be out there for as long as I needed to be out there to feel like myself again and I didn't know if I was going to be able to make it 100 miles, 20 miles, 5 miles, I just knew I needed to try,” Robinson said.
Things were going well, until 1,600 miles into the trip, he dislocated his knee, but his feet already had a taste of the freedom that comes with through-hiking, so in 2017 he hit the trail again, back from the start and in just more than five months, Robinson completed the Pacific Crest Trail.
“When I got there to the end I was like, ‘you know what, you’re not a burden, you can accomplish things. You just needed to be reminded of that.' So, it was an incredible feeling, but it was also a little bittersweet that it was the end of the trail,” Robinson said.
But the end of that trail was far from the end of Robinson’s journey.
“That was my medicine, everything has been so much better for me since,” Robinson said.
On the PCT Robinson was given his trail name, “Akuna,” short for Hakuna Mata, because of his carefree attitude on the trail, with one trail down, he was ready to set his sights on the next leg of the triple crown, the famous Appalachian Trail.
“It may be the shortest trail, but it has the most elevation gains and losses of any of the three. It just made for a mentally tough hike,” Robinson said.
Nearly 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine, often wet and sometimes cold, the Appalachian Trail was just a precursor to his final leg, the Continental Divide Trail, from Mexico to Canada.
Robinson walked 3,100 miles, making him the first-ever recorded African American male to complete the Triple Crown of hiking and while he had joined a club of few, he was determined to ensure the crown didn’t remain exclusive.
“I just didn't want to be the last African American to Triple Crown. That was the last thing that kept me going through all these years of hiking was trying to get more people like me out on these trails,” Robinson said.
Now he encourages others to lace up and hit the trails.
“[The Crown] meant that I could inspire more people, more African Americans will see that this guy went out there and hiked this trail and he finished the other two and he accomplished something that so many people didn't. So, if he can do that maybe I can do that,” Robinson said.
These days Robinson is training for some new adventures and as he pushes others who may be struggling in life to get out and take a hike, even if you can’t walk thousands of miles, just a few will do.
“It's going to give you something different to look forward to, so hiking in towns or on small trails like this maybe for a half a mile, just seeing something different, it can do a lot for a person,” Robinson said.
More than a crown, Robinson found peace on the trail, during the darkest time in his life, he found a light in the woods.
“I want more people that have mental health [problems], people with disabilities, more people of color, I want more people just from any background to get out and explore nature and enjoy it and see the things that I fell in love with and the things that helped me,” Robinson said. “When you're out in places like this that's all you have time to do is actually take time to take care of you.”
Content to keep walking, Robinson’s next adventure, the North Country trail will take him across North America on a more than 4,000-mile hike.