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The Entire World is a Family

- Maha Upanishad

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Reviews

Apr 04, 2019

Film Review: Constant Thought, PTSD and a Veteran in the Outdoors.

Unpredictable adventure doc follows one enduring soldier’s challenging journey towards health and family. We gave it our take, before interviewing the man himself.

WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

A deadly force accompanied Brandon Kuehn home from Iraq. His wife and son, and a seemingly idyllic life awaited him in Umatilla, Oregon; but Brandon still faced a danger lurking in the corners of his mind.

Upon returning home, most medically discharged soldiers struggle to adapt to new physical limitations such as missing limbs. But Brandon’s injury was invisible. Civilian life imposed a crushing weight of anxiety, depression and anger. After attempting to take his own life in 2014, Brandon finally identified his new enemy – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Through unrelenting trial and error, Brandon discovered outdoor therapy as a means to heal his PTSD.

Brandon in action on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Constant Thought follows Brandon’s attempt to walk the 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. In addition to psychic and spiritual healing, Brandon seeks a connection to the land he fought to protect, literally crossing America from Mexico to Canada.

“You survived for a reason, now do something with it!”

The central lesson of Constant Thought is that the best way to face a range of human trauma is to reach for literal, physical summits. By challenging himself on the PCT, and sharing his story, Brandon is raising awareness that immersion into the outdoors can start the healing process for a variety of mental health issues such as PTSD, while providing concrete coping skills.

As the film opens, Brandon awakes in a tent, in the pitch darkness, to his phone alarm – the military bugle call. Although he has returned to civilian life, Brandon still carries his military experience with him.

Close-up shots show Brandon packing up his gear that will help him hone new mental tools to cope with his PTSD, something he says, “can never be cured.”

Directed and produced by Palmer Morse & Matt Mikkelsen of Spruce Tone Films, a full suite production company, Constant Thought composes a POV experience, with Brandon vlogging the stages of his journey on the PCT (a noticeable change of pace from the mostly voice-over intercutting of the introductory chapter). Morse’s thoughtful cinematography is highlighted by a powerful establishing shot at the US-Mexico border.

Read next on TOJ: A Visit To “The Border Wall”: Here’s What I Found…

Notwithstanding the epic scale of the challenge to hike the 2,650 mile PCT, the filmmakers focus on mundane details of the journey to bring out Brandon’s personality. Everyday moments like filling up water bottles on route are intercut with cathartic moments like hitting the 100-mile marker.

“There’s always time for a tire swing.” Brandon has learned to relieve the pressure of PTSD by appreciating the small things, like the sensation of fun while riding on a tire swing, and connecting with his youthful self before his traumatic experiences.

Brandon’s playful personality shines through in the film.

At the middle point of the film, everything comes to a halt, and you question whether Brandon will continue. The filmmakers did something clever here. The audience hears Brandon’s voiceover commentary from the opening of the film in a distinctly new context. In the first instance, you’d think his comment “I don’t want to be here” reflects his feelings about being here on Earth, alive, but, not to spoil it, the second occurrence of the voiceover shifts its meaning. Palmer and Matt of Spruce Tone Films said that the doc went through several iterations of storytelling. That thoughtfulness paid off by yielding this chills-inducing moment.

With disciplined color grading by Kent Pritchett, and an introspective, original score by Ben Sollee that’s subtlelly uplifting, Spruce Tone Films orchestrates a solid documentary experience.

Constant Thought presents Brandon’s admirable journey to minimize PTSD’s effects on his daily life, for his family. Echoing a lesson taught by his father, Brandon leads an inspiring challenge to overcome a life-threatening obstacle: “If you don’t have a tool to help you complete what you’re doing, find that tool.” After struggling with survivor’s guilt through witnessing the death of his comrades in battle, Brandon has pushed passed his breaking point to forge a future that centers around devotion.

By Spruce Tone Films 

The Outdoor Journal connected with Brandon to discuss his personal battle with PTSD and his experience filming Constant Thought.

TOJ: How did you first learn about the PCT?

Growing up in Oregon, I had heard of it my whole life but it wasn’t until I met Hadley “Spinach” Krenkel that I really grew interested in it.

TOJ: Your wife describes your decision to hike to PCT as coming out of the blue. When did you first get serious about actually doing it?

I really didn’t get serious about it until I had a breakdown at my old IT job. We moved and I had time to think about how I could prevent more breakdowns like the one I had and all I could think of was to hike.

TOJ: What was your first step of commitment?

I got a job at REI.

The PCT is a long-distance hiking and equestrian trail closely aligned with the highest portion of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges.

TOJ: What gear and supplies did you need to complete it?

The gear and supplies were a year and half of trial and error – finding out what weight I wanted to carry and how little I needed. I used a Zpacks Arc Haul, Zpacks Duplex Tent, Zpacks 0 degree quilt and a Nemo Tensor Sleeping Pad. Those items I still use to this day and made up my big four, the most important items in my pack.

TOJ: What was your most important / trustworthy piece of gear?

The most trustworthy and important piece of gear I had was my Combat Flip Flops shemagh. I used this as my head wrap for hot, cold and wind protection, used it for a shade for siestas, and even as a towel.

TOJ: Can you describe your experience with PTSD?

It’s lead through depression, anger, alcoholism, pill addiction, violence, suicide attempts and loss of friends. But it has also taught me what is important family, friends and their future.

TOJ: When did it present itself, immediately upon returning home?

I did not realize and/or accept that I had PTSD until almost 3 years after I had gotten out of the Army.

TOJ: Is PTSD a universal experience amongst soldiers?

No, PTSD is not universal. Some have it and some don’t. Those that do have it, have it impact them differently.

The PCT runs from the U.S. border with Mexico, just south of Campo, California, to he Canada–US border on the edge of Manning Park in British Columbia.

TOJ: Does PTSD exist in the mind, the brain or the central nervous system, or all three?

PTSD for me hits me in every aspect of my being. It hits my mind, body and soul, sometimes all at the same time.

TOJ: Besides outdoor therapy, what other stress relief methods did you try to combat your symptoms of PTSD?

I have tried pills and general therapy but to no avail. I then tried road running and that started to help but only lasted a little after my runs. The trails were my way to combat PTSD on a longer timeline.

TOJ: How would you describe “survivor’s guilt” to someone with no military experience?

Survivor’s guilt is just that you feel that you should not have survived when someone else did or you feel guilty that you survived and they did not.

TOJ: Why do you still use the military bugle alarm to wake up?

The bugle alarm is just a mental reminder of the Army days and it was always a call to work. It is the easiest way for me to wake up.

The PCT weaves through California, Oregon, and Washington.

TOJ: How did you get connected with the directors and producers, Palmer and Matt?

Meeting Matt and Palmer all happened due to a cleanup day at the beach in Washington. I was with the Mission Continues and was introduced to Rob Smith from the NPCA and through those two I was asked to participate in a documentary called Hear Our Olympics that Matt and Palmer were producing.

TOJ: What made you willing to share your story with others by participating in this documentary film?

I was willing to share this due to an old squad leader from my Army days. He had told me “You survived for a reason, now do something with it!” Those words have stuck with me since then and this was a way to do something.

TOJ: Did you have any previous experience with film before?

I have had no film experience at all.

TOJ: What inspired you to join the military?

Joining the army was two-fold. One is that most of my male family as far as we can go back served, and second, I lost a few friends in high school who had deployed to Iraq, not the best reason to join but it was a factor.

Brandon’s military uniform.

TOJ: What drives you to spread this message about preserving natural resources?

It’s not just for us to use as a quiet space but also we need them for so many factors like clean air, animal life and food.

TOJ: How does it feel to know that by sharing your story, you will be helping other people, soldiers and civilians alike, to cope with their mental health issues?

The one thing that I told Matt and Palmer was as long as this spreads positively, that was all I wanted.

A behind-the-scenes look at production.

TOJ: What was your hardest challenge, or your most difficult moment on the PCT? 

The most difficult thing was getting back on the trail after my knee injury. I almost did not leave home to start again.

TOJ: Does hiking put you in a flow state that stops the thinking element of the brain and lets you just be in the moment?

When I get out there I just enjoy what’s around me and forget (or try to forget) the crap that is going on in my head.

TOJ: Do the physical sensations of hiking, such as burning pain in the legs, take over the mental ruminations?

The exhaustion is the best part. I get so tired I just sleep with no nightmares and sleep a full sleep.

TOJ: Did you set your mileage goals in advance or did you go day by day?

I had mileage goals but I also did not follow those. I way overdid it and when I go back I will be just going day by day.

TOJ: Did you celebrate mileage milestones along the route?

I took some pictures but never really celebrated, I should have.

PCT marker.

TOJ: Why was it so important to take on this route on a solo mission?

I thought solo was going to give me the best time to work on healing but realized that I needed others to talk to when I had those moments of weakness and doubt.

TOJ: How do you feel now about your decision to stop at 160 miles?

I am OK with stopping where I did but I will finish.

TOJ: How has your experience helped you succeed in other areas of your life?

The “failure” to complete the trail really has helped me put things in order in my life. Family, career, friends and enjoyment – those are my focuses now.

TOJ: You talk about “running away” in the film. What do you mean by this?

I had issues at home that I needed to deal with and I was running from those by getting on the trail instead of facing them. Earlier, I viewed my running away as my use of alcohol and pills to “run” from my issues and my pain.

TOJ: How are things going with becoming a Certified Forest Therapy Guide?

I have been slowly gaining the knowledge to become a Forest Therapy Guide and I plan on achieving that in the next five years.

Read next on TOJ: 3 Sons & A King: Documentary Film Review

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Reviews

Jul 03, 2019

Gear Review: Dark Peak NESSH Jacket

Buy one, give one. A Sheffield, UK-based startup outdoor brand brings the one-for-one business model to outdoor clothing.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Does the world really need another [insert new clothing or gear item]? After more than a decade as an outdoor journalist and having hit the floor of trade shows year after year, I found it impossible to show any kind of genuine excitement or interest over the latest [insert marketing-driven fancy-word-for-a-zip-or-waterproof-layer]. For years now I’ve been content with a few pieces I’ve acquired over the years that have proven their worth. A bomber Millet down jacket for hardcore use, an Arcteryx ultra-light shell for alpine climbing among others. The cold, hard truth is, apart from the invention of some very lightweight and strong fabrics, incrementally improved waterproof-breathable inserts and coatings; clothing technology has not significantly advanced in the last decade or so. Whatever we do, 99% of the consumer population who buy outdoor gear or clothing don’t need anything beyond what already exists and has existed for a while. Making and buying new stuff simply perpetuates a flawed economic model that encourages consumerism and is bad for the planet.

So what the world does need is a better business model.

When Dark Peak reached out to us to do a review of their Kickstarter-launched NESSH down jacket, we were, therefore, intrigued not because of the impressively complete tech specs of the product itself, nor the genuine credentials of the team – those were a given for any new product today – but by their mission and business model.

  1. A reasonably priced jacket that sells direct to consumers – unlike mainstream brands, built around a lot of marketing and distribution costs, requiring the company to sell even more simply to justify their model.
  2. Buy one, give one away to someone who really needs it. Just like well-known consumer brands Tom’s and Warby Parker, Dark Peak donates a new jacket (via homeless shelters) for every jacket sold on their website.
Press Photo

This model is not new, of course, given that Tom’s has been doing it since 2006. However, the outdoors industry – a USD 800+ billion behemoth – has, for the most part, refused to leverage its size to genuinely do good in the world. So it was a refreshing change to hear Dark Peak’s pitch and note their Kickstarter success.

Cut out the expensive retail spaces, middle-men, third-party licensing fees and so on, and you get a high-quality product (it is made in Asia, like all other major brands) at something like half the price.

The jacket they give away is not the same as the one you buy, of course. It’s non-branded and made with different, less performance-oriented but equally warm, weather-resistant materials. Given our own beliefs at The Outdoor Journal, we felt this deserved a real review.

Dark Peak launched the jacket on Kickstarter, blowing past their goal of £15,000 to eventually raise £107,084.

It took a little while to get my hands on the actual jacket – shipping couriers seemed to have some problem with my address in Helsinki, Finland, which is where I tested it over the winter. In other words, yes, the weather was cold.

I received a maroon colored, lightweight NESSH (UK S, US XS size) jacket that came with some very positive first impressions. The build quality and shape were almost better than I initially expected. But I was genuinely struck by the weight or lack thereof. A 340g winter jacket is very, very light indeed. It comes complete with details that are more common in the higher-end models of more mainstream and expensive brands. Integrated wrist gaiters with thumb loops? Check. Two-way YKK zips? Check. 10D Nylon shell inside and outside? Yep. 850 fill down with hydrophobic coating? Check. (The company says that the down is “responsibly sourced” and certified by Responsible Down Standard). You can also choose to get the same jacket with 3M synthetic insulation too, should you prefer that (or spend more of your outdoor time in wetter conditions).

The jacket is clearly made for outdoors people (in other words, shaped to fit your body, and not built like a rectangular sack, unlike many a brand. I find it almost impossible to fit in many other jackers, which, understandably, seem to be built for people who have bulging middles and larger waists than shoulders).

If you haven’t spent time in Helsinki, Finland, well, the weather in winter is a bit weird. It can go from -20 C to 0 C overnight – and then repeat the thermometer yoyo again and again. It was almost disconcerting to have such a lightweight jacket on while going about daily life, but it worked as long as it was not too deep in the negatives. More importantly, it worked while I was active, including a bit of skiing and ice-skating – in fact, it was a great deal more lightweight, athletic and comfortable than most of the major brand-name jackets I’ve used or own. That may relate to the fit and cut – in general, I fit better in the UK or European brands than US ones, which is a function of body type – but it felt like the Dark Peak team had made an effort to build a product that is genuinely for outdoor enthusiasts, and not the average retail consumer (think about it – bigger brands need to sell to the widest possible audience to maximize revenues and profitability). While I haven’t taken it on an all-day, multipitch climb yet, so far it really feels like this may soon become my favorite warm layer to have with me, assuming the jacket survives the shred. I’m really quite curious to put it through the serious beating in my pack and up a climb, later in the year.

Press Photo

Dark Peak’s jacket genuinely feels like a very high-quality, ultra-light high-end 850 down jacket, the kind you’d usually buy from a well-known brand like The North Face or similar and expect to pay nearly twice as much for. And the fact that they’ve indeed gone with the one-for-one business model, makes Dark Peak’s NESSH a jacket we’ll recommend without hesitation. Go buy yours on their website here.

Pros: A highly affordable, high-quality technical jacket backed by a purpose-driven business model.

Cons: The website feels incomplete and buggy. The athletic cut and shape and technical nature of the jacket may not be for everyone, or appropriate for business meetings!

Rating: 5/5.

Full Disclosure: The Outdoor Journal received one NESSH jacket for the purpose of this review.

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