By Matthew Landis
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 that feeling of bliss in a rare moment that I have sought in the outdoors for over 50 years. I'm Matthew Landis. I'm a United States Air Force Gulf War Veteran living with my service dog, Kawhi (sounds like "Koo-Why"). At 54, I'm sure of two things. First, relationships are the most important thing in life. People. Love. Community. They are necessary because we were created to need them. We need each other. Second, there is a connection unlike any other in life between our soul and the outdoors. A wonder to the mind that combines all our senses in a new dimension, and once we find it we will always naturally seek it. Like relationships and the outdoors, there is a connection. After my personal recovery from several afflictions, a story I will share along this journey, I have decided to dedicate the rest of my life to combining those two connections. Welcome to “The Open Fences Project.”
In 2018, I shook hands with Mike McCord, an amazing Gregory sales rep, at a sporting goods store in Wyoming. I knew he was cool right away as he listened when I shared that I was about to graduate from my 4th rehab program at the nearby VA medical center in Sheridan, that I was leaving everything I owned behind and heading west to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I hadn’t even told the VA I was leaving yet. 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 I knew were in serious trouble. I wanted to lead a way out for them, a new path in life, despite desperately still needing one myself. I knew my next relapse would be a fatal one. Mike was super interested in my story, my hike, and the fact that I was a veteran, and he introduced me to a Gregory Baltoro pack the right way. He was the first person I met that knew how to fit my 6’6” height to the right size frame and took the time to show me how to load it and wear it for an ultra-long distance hike. I was already 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 at his belief in me. Mike was the first of many loving, caring people I was about to meet on this 2,653-mile journey into the grand unknown mountains of the West. Three weeks later I graduated from rehab. I was fresh to sobriety and full of anxiety, yet inside my mind was the message the VA staff left me with, “Matthew, no matter what… just get on the airplane.” And inside my soul was a steady calling to mountains. I had in front of me what seemed such small decisions to make that were crucial to me hitting the trail. With faith and the outdoors knocking, I made the right decisions and went on to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, twice.
Reflecting back on hiking over 5,000 miles through Washington, Oregon, and California, I am often asked, “what’s the hardest part of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail?” People lean toward gear, resupply boxes, locations, and trail angel questions. Although important and interesting knowledge to seek, it's my experience that those answers are best learned along the way. The hardest part of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail for me was the decision to do it. Period.
For me, that required sharing my goals of “intensive outpatient recovery therapy” with the VA. A dream of hiking for five months, living in a tent in three states I'd never been to before where I knew no one. I had no set plan for the PCT hike, let alone therapy, and was convinced the VA would say they simply could not approve my crazy idea. So my outpatient recovery hiking plan was nervously shared with the VA, not so much for approval but to tell them, “this is what I'm doing.” My point of no return had happened 24 hours before, when I booked my airline ticket to Seattle. Yet I will never forget the moment when I told the VA, "I'm leaving in 2 weeks to go hike the Pacific Crest Trail!" Their response? "What can we do to help?" I cried with joy in that meeting knowing I hadn’t blown the only bridge I had left to the place I felt safe. A few weeks later I followed the advice I’d been given to “just get on the plane” and headed west to begin the greatest adventure of my life. I had no clue I was about to find my true calling, and about to meet amazing, loving people who believed in me. Again with faith in God, southbound from Canada…I began to hike.