While I waited to board my plane for a long weekend in Cabo, he told me about his mission - 4CornersHike, which had taken him across the US… twice… by foot. Listening to Eli’s story was the reminder I needed; a reminder in gratitude.
Even though we had chatted several times and I knew a good deal about his journey already, I was anxious to hear more details about where his travels had taken him so far. As his dates for arrival in the Seattle area neared, we chatted more frequently. I had vowed in January to meet up when he was in the area and it was a vow I was eager to keep.
After serving in the US Army, Eli lost several friends to suicide as a product of PTSD. This hit home with Eli. Hard. When it felt like no one was doing anything, he felt an overwhelming urge to do something. He wanted to give these victims and the millions of other Veterans suffering from PTSD a voice. It was with this determination that Eli sold almost everything he owed- his clothes, his truck, his beloved belongings. He was left with only a few small boxes of his most prized possessions.
Eli set out to share his stories of loss with hope of bringing light to others. He planned a several year route taking him from Florida westward, up the Pacific Coast, across the northern Rockies, and through the flats of the midwest. Along the way he meets with Veterans and families at VFW halls, community centers, or schools spreading his message. In February of 2019 he will complete his epic adventure trekking from Maine back to Florida.
Hearing about this journey on the phone was one thing, but I was eager to meet Eli in person. The morning of our meeting, we ate a hearty breakfast while chatting endlessly. We covered the normal stuff- How’s your e-bike leg going? How do you like your KINEKT Seatpost? How’s the bike holding up? How are YOU holding up? Then I asked Eli what three people have been most inspirational to him. The first one was easy for him- his mother. She’s been a rock for him. Secondly, was Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters. He loved their music and the acts of generosity they’ve exhibited to their fans. He appreciated how humble and human they were, even while being celebrities. He couldn’t think of a third one right off the bat, but he was intrigued having never been asked that before. He needed more time to think. Fair enough, Eli. I’m sure you have a lot of time to think while you’re pedaling through the sweltering desert or over rough mountain passes. I’ll make sure to follow up on this.
Eli sought to raise awareness of PTSD in Veterans when it often feels (to them or their families) like no one is listening or willing to help. In general, our society does a crap job at managing mental illness. They place this taboo on it like we’re not supposed to talk about it or we’re judged for asking for help. Throw in the stigma of the “hard-core” military men or women and the taboo becomes more elevated. Statistics show an estimated 10-20% of Veterans returning from war suffer from PTSD. Of those, roughly 20 lose their lives to suicide every day. That’s over 7,000 lives per year. Eli gave me a relatable equivalent. That would be more than all the NFL (~1,700), NHL (~1,500), MLB (~1,200), NBA (~500),. Seems to me like if our country were losing all those people, there’d be a big stink made, right? So why don’t we put the same sense of urgency or attention on helping the men and women who work hard risking their lives to keep us safe?
Eli first set out on his 13,000 mile trek in February 2016. He set out by breaking his journey up into a few reasonable chunks:
Leg #1: Pensacola, Florida to to Las Angeles, California | Mode: By foot | Status: Complete
Leg #2: Las Angeles, California to Seattle, Washington | Mode: By foot | Status: Complete
Leg #3: Las Vegas to Seattle, Rockies, Plains, landing in Maine | Mode: E-bike | Status: In Progress since March 2018. ETA, Fall 2018
Leg #4: Maine to Key West, Florida | Mode: E-Bike | Status: ETD late Winter 2019
By Fall, Eli will arrive in Maine before resting for the winter at home in Ohio. Once the unpredictable East Coast temps mellow, he’ll embark on his final leg. So far, he’s encountered people who have tried to kidnap him, rattlesnakes, heat stroke, and he’s even been hit by a car. Thankfully he’s avoided major catastrophes, but it hasn’t been easy. I’d venture to guess that most of us would face quitting such a journey long before it got that challenging. Not Eli. He’s persevered through it all because of his commitment to helping save lives all with a giant smile planted on his face.
If you’re a Veteran, you need to know you’re not alone. There are resources and help available. It’s difficult to swallow those fears and reach out, especially when society portrays this stereotype of the”tough guy”. Honestly though, facing these mental issues may be the hardest thing you ever actually do. It’s not easy to overcome mental disorders and often times it’s difficult to know where to start or who to ask. Eli’s message to Veterans is this: think about your loved ones and the pain you’d cause if you took your life. They want to help you, they want you in their lives.
If you’re the loved one of a Veteran suffering from PTSD, Eli recommends not giving up. These folks need your help and need the determination of loved ones to help intervene. It may take persistent discussions, but Veterans suffering from PTSD need gentle coaxing.
So far Eli has received nine letters from Veterans thanking him. These people are thanking him for saving their lives because somehow, they heard his story and got help. Eli has saved nine lives so far. For most of us, we’ll never know that feeling of legitimately saving a life because you were present, selfless, and fought for something you believed in. Imagine the change we could all make in the world if we sacrificed a little and took the road less traveled.
If Eli’s journey isn’t the greatest example of selflessness and humanity that I have ever personally witnessed, I don’t know what is. Eli is one of the most charismatic, humble people I’ve ever had the honor of meeting. I’ll continue to follow his journey and share it with those I meet. As for me, if you were to ask me the most inspirational people in my life, I would hands down say Eli Smith falls in the top-three. While I’m here fretting over what new light fixtures to buy for my new house or the shade of grey to paint my walls, Eli is out saving lives. That makes you stop to think. And if it doesn’t, maybe you need a dose of reality.
Watch the short video of El and I chatting. You’ll get a taste of his bubbly personality and passion for his cause. If you want to learn more, check out his Facebook page- 4cornershike. You’ll find a list of cities coming up on his journey. There’s also a donate button, if you feel inclined to help. $5 buys him a nice lunch, $25 can fuel him for a couple days. $100 ensures he eats for at least a week. If you want to connect with Eli, you can email him at email@example.com (which is also his PayPal donation address).
You don’t have sell all your belongings and hike around the country to make a difference, but I challenge you to take a moment to think about how you can Be Nice and Do Good in your community.