Bradley Livingston is on a 4,000-mile journey to raise awareness for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and he's doing it primarily on foot.
Livingston, a U.S. Army veteran who lives in Park Rapids, plans at the end of March to hike the popular 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from California to Canada. If all goes well and he completes the PCT, he'll be back in Park Rapids to tell his story in September.
Livingston said he's always been drawn to the PCT, and as he struggles with his own PTSD and personal issues, the veteran of the Gulf War and Iraq is drawn even more to raise awareness.
Livingston was active duty in 1989-92 and served in the first Gulf war in 1990-91. His last tour was in Mosul, Iraq in 2005-06. He retired from the U.S. Army Reserves in 2009 after 23 years on and off active duty.
"From then I've struggled with PTSD for years," Livingston said. "I was at a point in my life where I knew I've got to do something. I've always been outspoken about PTSD and I thought this would help get the word out. This trail (PCT) has been on my bucket list."
He uses the term "hiking it off" when talking about how some with PTSD are dealing with difficult issues like trying to beat alcohol, bad relationship, midlife crisis, whatever it is, and they're trying to find themselves. "Hiking it off. That's my piece, that's for me. I thought I could do something for the greater good."
But before he takes on his "PCT 4 PTSD" hike he's doing what he calls a "practice hike" from Florida to California.
Livingston left the Park Rapids area in November and drove to Florida where he left his vehicle in the town of Hudson, Florida, north of Tampa. He started his walk from a campground there the week of Thanksgiving. Now, over 500 miles later and averaging 20 to 25 miles a day, Livingston is crossing through Alabama. He spent New Year's Day at the ocean in Orange Beach, Alabama.
Livingston said he isn't doing this southern route all on foot, as he plans to skip walking through Texas, but at this point is mainly trying to raise awareness and funds for his upcoming PCT hike.
Livingston plans to start the PCT hike at the trail's head in Campo, California on March 28. It's a date that holds particular significance.
"That's my sober birthday. I've been sober since 2000 and that's why I want to start that day," he said when reached by phone last week.
Looking ahead to the PCT, Livingston said about 2,800 people try to complete the hike each year with on average 50 people starting a day from the middle of March through June.
"Most are doing it for a spiritual awakening, some are doing it because they enjoy hiking," he said. "A lot of people think we're running from something but the trail kind of leads you in a weird direction."
For now, as he makes his way along the I-10 corridor, he's learning a lot about hiking and his purpose grows. People pull over to the side of the road and ask what he's doing, and he'll visit with folks at gas stations or campgrounds.
"I tell them I'm hiking for PTSD and for the 22 soldiers we lose to suicide nightly," Livingston said. "I say, I could have been one of them."
Following others on similar projects through social media, Livingston says he's met a lot of hikers and some of them are helping him plan the PCT hike. He has a PayPal account set up to help him directly now, which helps pay for essentials like food and gear along this journey. He also has a PCT 4 PTSD GoFundMe page set up for those interested in contributing to the hike and organizations that help PTSD. For more information go to his blog at www.pct4ptsd.wordpress.com or on his Facebook page.
As Livingston makes his way across the southern U.S., he is navigating his way through the process of raising awareness, and at the same time gaining valuable information to prepare him for the PCT hike.
He stays at campgrounds, hotels or does "stealth camping," which basically means sleeping some place out of the way when other resources aren't available.
"Anywhere I can find," he said. "I've stayed under a bridge, which was actually a spiritual awakening."
He's met a number of good people early in this spiritual journey which, he says, can be difficult during those long hours walking alone along the road.
"It's tough when you're walking and you don't know if you can put in the miles, where you're going to stay that night," he said. "You're walking homeless. It's tough to ask people for help, wears you out mentally."
He's technically not thru-hiking all the way to California this initial part of the project, but Livingston says he wants to stick to the 20 to 25 miles a day average for the additional meaning of 22 soldiers lost daily to suicide.
Livingston got a break from the rigors of the road about two weeks into the trip when a lady picked him up and helped him along. He was hiking with a backpack that he says was way too heavy - about 70 pounds and weighed down by a camping stove and propane canisters he had purchased at the start. That morning he was in a stealth camp and decided to throw the stove into the woods so "another homeless person could use it."
Livingston had hiked 18 miles with about five more to go to a state park he wanted to reach. His spirits were down, he was struggling, hungry and still had three days until money would come into his account.
There was a church across the road and as he sat and rested, he prayed. He continued on his hike and a lady pulled up in a convertible and asked what he was doing.
"I said I was hiking for PTSD and I had to get to this place and had five miles to go."
She insisted on driving him where he needed to go. At first he refused, saying he hadn't showered for a few days and smelled awful, but she insisted.
The stranger in the convertible didn't take him to the campsite but rather drove him to her sister's house where he was welcomed in and he got cleaned up. They fed him fresh crab for dinner as they celebrated their mother's 83rd birthday.
He set up his tent for the night in a tree farm about 500 meters from the house.
"That was my first true trail angel on the hike," Livingston said. "Sometimes you just have to take a chance, you just never know who is going to help you out. I've always been a spiritual guy. I've never been real religious, but every time I've prayed something crazy has happened."
When he gets to the main hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, Livingston expects to encounter more trail angels. He doesn't want to lose sight of the ultimate purpose of this spiritual adventure - now and in a few months when he gets on the PCT - and that's to raise awareness for PTSD.
Livingston is gaining support for the hike and knows what he's doing is important at home in Park Rapids and across the country. Once he completes the hike and returns to Park Rapids in September, Livingston hopes to get a group started where veterans can help each other out.
"Sometimes you have to do something out of the box, and that's what I'm hoping this will do," he said. "There are people in that community that are struggling hard. They just don't want to tell you they are struggling."