By: Matthew Landis – Gulf War Veteran, two-time PCT Hiker, and Gregory Ambassador
What is it we covet in the mountains? What’s out there that calls us so deeply? Where is your sacred space outside? Do you remember its color? The details of the landscape? On your last visit, were you alone or with someone? Mostly, do you remember how you felt?
It’s the feeling of bliss in a rare moment that I have sought in the outdoors for over 50 years. My name is Matthew Landis, and I’m a United States Air Force Gulf War Veteran living with my service dog Kawhi (sounds like Koo-Why). At 53, I’m sure of two things. First, is that relationships are the most important thing in life because we need each other to thrive. Secondly, there is a bond unlike anything in the world like the bond between our soul and the outdoors. Like relationships and the outdoors, there is a connection. So, after my recovery from several afflictions – a story I will share along this journey. I have decided to dedicate the rest of my life to starting a nonprofit called The Open Fences Project, which combines those two connections.
In 2018 I shook hands with Mike McCord, a Gregory sales rep at an annual sporting goods store in Wyoming. I knew he was cool right away as he listened when I shared that I was about to graduate my 4th rehab program at the nearby VA medical center in Sheridan, WY. As well as leaving everything I owned behind and heading west to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I hadn’t even told the VA I was leaving, so confiding in Mike meant a lot. I could see the attention change in his eyes when I shared that it was in my heart to start a nonprofit organization someday to help other Veterans who were in trouble and that I wanted to lead a way out for them despite desperately still needing one myself.
Mike was very interested in my story, and my hike, and is responsible for introducing me to Gregory. He was the first person I met that knew how to fit my 6’6 height to the right size frame. He even took the time to show me how to load it and wear it for a thru-hike. I was immediately sold. But on top of that, he took me to his car, opened his trunk, and gave me socks, a water bladder, a t-shirt, a hat, and most importantly, his trust. He said, “If you ever need anything out there on the PCT, give me a call”. I was humbled by his generosity and belief in me. We exchanged phone numbers, which later turned out to be the most important contact I ever made on the 2,653-mile journey into the grand unknown.
Path to the PCT:
I had a dream of hiking for 5 months and living in a tent in 3 states I’d never been to before where I knew no one. Unfortunately, I was required to share my goals for intensive outpatient recovery therapy with the VA. I had no set plans for my PCT hike let alone therapy and was convinced the VA would reject my crazy dream. I finally got the courage to share my outpatient recovery hiking plan with the VA, not so much for their approval, but to tell them this is what I’m doing.
I will never forget telling the VA hours before I booked my flight to Seattle that I would be leaving in two weeks to go hike the Pacific Crest Trail. At that moment I was frightened about what would happen, but the VA’s response was simply what can we do to help. While a simple response, it meant the world to me. I cried in that meeting knowing I hadn’t blown the only bridge I had to feel loved. Three weeks later, I graduated from rehab and had an almost life-ending relapse. During it, two things got me through my relapse and saved my life. The message the VA staff left with me with “No matter what, just get on the airplane”, and the steady call of the mountains. In closing, I am often asked what the hardest part of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is. Most people lean towards gear, resupply boxes, locations, and finding trail angels. For me, the hardest part of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail was the decision to do it.