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Reviews

Aug 16, 2018

Unbounded: Cotton Hoodie-Wearing Newbs Go Expeditioning Across Patagonia

We love expedition documentaries, but weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry while watching total newbies packraft without knowing how to swim, or put on makeup before hiking the Greater Patagonia Trail… wearing cotton sweatshirts.

WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

The Greater Patagonia Trail (GPT) is a 3,000km route running north-south through Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia. I call it a “route” rather than a “trail” because, the GPT is more of an idea of a trail, rather than an actual trail at this point. Much different from the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian trail, the route does not have one clear trail to follow. The route follows horse trails, foot paths, dirt roads, and rivers from Santiago, Chile all the way to a glacier just south of Fitz Roy, Argentina. Sometimes the “trail” map simply shows a straight line moving in a certain direction, and hikers are expected to use GPS or map and compass to figure out how to bush-crash their way there. Testaments about the GPT have dubbed it the hardest long-distance “trail” in the world. The route brings hikers through jungle-like brush, scree fields, and peat cliffs. It brings hikers up cliffs, across rivers, down rivers, and through mountain passes. The route is dangerous, remote, committing, and not for the inexperienced.

the GPT is more of an idea of a trail, rather than an actual trail at this point

Last year, a group of four backpackers and filmmakers set out for four months on the GPT to document the route and their journey. Their documentary film, Unbounded, highlights the lack of experience the group had coming into the trip (extremely unprepared), and their resulting learning experiences throughout the journey.

The film begins by introducing each group member, describing their purpose on the team, and their level of experience in the backcountry. Only one (if that) out of the four team members had the proper backcountry experience necessary to safely pull off an expedition of this caliber. Seriously, they were packrafting a section of the route, and one team member didn’t even know how to swim! That isn’t exactly what I would call safe decision-making. Nearly half of the film’s narrative is based on the struggles, mishaps, and dangerous situations the group gets into due to their lack of backcountry experience and knowledge.

Seriously, they were packrafting a section of the route, and one team member didn’t even know how to swim!

While reviewing a documentary like this, I can look at it one of two ways. I can either judge the group harshly for going into this expedition without the proper experience, or I can celebrate them for putting themselves out there, getting uncomfortable, and enduring a bit of suffering in order to make the expedition a success. Yes, the group was very unprepared, and yes they probably put themselves at serious risk by coming into this with such little experience. But despite all this, I am surprisingly finding myself inspired by their tenacity to keep moving forward through the suffer-fest. The group didn’t exactly make the best safety decisions in the backcountry, and they struggled quite a bit because of it, but I think these struggles and mishaps actually made the film more interesting. I am therefore going to choose the latter of the two options for this review and congratulate the team on their film.

With the majority of today’s adventure films being about world-famous mountaineers with high-profile sponsors, it was actually a bit of fresh air to see a film about the average joe seeking out an epic adventure and making it happen. I liked watching the group take a risk by deciding to throw themselves full-on into this expedition, just because they wanted to. No sponsors, no professionals, no fancy gear. Simply a group of like-minded individuals seeking out an epic adventure in the backcountry of Patagonia. In an expedition-based film, I would never expect to see the expedition members wearing cotton sweatshirts while backpacking through Patagonia, or applying makeup before a 16-km day (I laughed so hard when I saw that). There were many times in the film where the expedition members would outwardly admit their incompetence. But instead of being stupid about it and continuing to make bad decisions, they would learn from their mistakes, and keep chugging along with their mission. The film turned into a coming-of-age story as the expedition team made poor decisions, suffered a bit, and eventually learned to make better decisions! I found myself laughing at the team members a lot, but also feeling a bit of empathy for them as I was reminded of the poor decisions I have made in the backcountry.

The last ten minutes of the film strayed a bit from the group’s journey, and instead turned into an advertisement for Patagonia, leave no trace backcountry principles, and environmental conservation. I like that the film is promoting environmental conservation and good backcountry ethics, but I would have been happier if the message had been more subtly added into the story throughout the film. Having the promotional message in a seemingly separate segment at the end felt like I was being preached at.

I found myself laughing at (or with) the group members as they made mistakes, then felt proud of them when they overcame the difficulties.

All in all, I enjoyed the film and the message it portrayed. I found myself laughing at (or with) the group members as they made mistakes, then felt proud of them when they overcame the difficulties. I do think the group took a massive risk in taking on such a big expedition with such little experience. While I would definitely not recommend this approach to backcountry expeditions, it ended up being fun watching them learn from their mistakes and eventually accomplish their goals. And, despite my slight negativity about the way the film pushed the environmental message in the last ten minutes, I really shouldn’t complain. It is an important topic that needs to be openly talked about, especially when referring to wild areas like Patagonia that are under threat of development.

Photo: VentureLife Films

You can watch the film for yourself in the following places: iTunesAmazonGooglePlayVimeo

Filmed by VentureLife Films

 

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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.

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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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