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The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.

- Alexander von Humboldt

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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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Environment

May 14, 2019

Bringing Kiwi Back to Wellington

As New Zealand announces a new plan to reverse the decline of the iconic kiwi bird, Wellingtonians are already lining up to save their emblematic bird.

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WRITTEN BY

Sean Verity

This article was made available to The Outdoor Journal via a press release by Tourism New Zealand.

As New Zealand announces a new plan to reverse the decline of the iconic Kiwi bird, Wellingtonians are already lining up to save their emblematic bird. Wellingtonians are known for their love of flat whites and their passion for the arts. But there’s a new pastime that’s rapidly growing in New Zealand’s capital and all around the country.

Assembling and setting traps for rats, stoats and other predators in their own backyards. It’s a somewhat unlikely hobby, but in Wellington alone, there are now more than 70 community groups involved in pest management.  They’re all aiming at making their home town the first predator-free capital city in the world and a paradise for native birds such as the tīeke (Saddleback), hihi (stitchbird), kākā, kākāriki and toutouwai (North Island robin). 

In Wellington alone there are now more than 70 community groups involved in pest management all aiming at making their home town the first predator-free capital city in the world. Photo by: Capital Kiwi

Ever since conservation project Zealandia created a fully fenced 225-hectare ecosanctuary within the city limits in 1999, native birdlife has returned to many suburbs and Wellingtonians have embraced their avian friends. The groups are part of a groundswell of community conservation initiatives sweeping New Zealand and delivering fantastic results.

“Where once it would have been a remarkable sight to see a single kākā (a boisterous native parrot) in the wilderness of our mountain ranges, we now have literally hundreds of them across Wellington city, screeching across city skies,” says self-confessed “bird nerd” Paul Ward. Buoyed by the birdsong orchestra he thought, “Why stop there? Let’s bring back New Zealand’s most iconic bird, the Kiwi.” “The only time I’d seen a Kiwi growing up was in a zoo, and that’s not right for our national taonga (treasure),” he insists. 

The flightless birds with hair-like feathers and the chopstick bill have been absent from Wellington for over a century due to the loss of their habitat and the spread of predators. Ward’s ambitious project Capital Kiwi hopes to lure Kiwi back to the Wellington region within the next decade. Approximately 4,400 traps will be set on 23,000 hectares of public and private land stretching from the outskirts of town to the coast.

“Kiwi may disappear from the mainland in our lifetime”

As long as stoats, ferrets and weasels are around, Kiwi chicks have hardly any chance of surviving their first year.  An average of 27 Kiwis are killed by predators each day according to charity ‘Kiwis for Kiwi’ which supports community-led initiatives around the country. They warn that at this rate “Kiwi may disappear from the mainland in our lifetime.” 

But projects in Rakiura / Stewart Island in the south of New Zealand, Whangarei Heads in the north and Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty have shown that with the involvement of the community as kaitiaki (guardians) it is possible to grow a wild Kiwi population. 

The project Capital Kiwi hopes to bring New Zealand’s iconic birds back to Wellington by setting more than 4,000 traps in the hills on the outskirts of the city. Photo by: Capital Kiwi.

Michelle Impey, from Kiwis for Kiwi explains that one of the challenges of Kiwi conservation is “getting people to understand and care about something they can’t see and don’t experience.”

Kiwis are nocturnal, and with only a few exceptions live far removed from cities, towns and villages. “Bringing Kiwi closer to where Kiwis live makes them top of mind, completely relevant, and creates a sense of ownership with those who are privileged enough to have them living on or near their land,” Impey adds. She hopes that the new project will create “a city of Kiwi conservationists” who feel a personal attachment to their national bird. 

In August 2018 the government’s Predator Free 2050 initiative, which aims to rid New Zealand of the most damaging introduced predators that threaten the nation’s natural wildlife by 2050, announced their support for Capital Kiwi, committing more than NZ$3.2 million over the next five years.  It may sound like a lot of money, but the other way of looking at this is “What is the cost if we don’t?” Ward ponders.

“Can we, as a nation of Kiwis, afford to let our national icon die and become extinct? What would that say about us as guardians of the taonga (treasure) that makes our country so special and unique?”

https://www.outdoorjournal.com/featured/environment/reaction-european-single-use-plastic-ban/

Ninety-year-old Ted Smith, who lives in the small seaside settlement of Makara just over the hills from Wellington, helped to kick off the project with the setting of the first trap in November. He and his local community started trapping in their backyards a decade ago which resulted in a remarkable increase in birdlife – tūī, kākā, kererū, pūkeko, kingfishers, quails and others. “If we allow Kiwi to die out then we deserve to be called idiots,” he says. Wellingtonians love the vision of having Kiwi rummaging through their gardens and Ward says he’s been overwhelmed with the offers of help and support from the community.  

“We want to see Kiwi come back into Wellington”

Capital Kiwi has received hundreds of emails from people keen to help. Schoolchildren are now monitoring tracking tunnels, mountain bikers and trail runners check reserve trap lines on lunchtime rides and families come together to build traps. If the eradication proves successful after three years, the Department of Conservation will look at translocating Kiwi to the hillsides. The hope is that in less than a decade, tourists will be able to post their Kiwi encounters on the outskirts of Wellington on social media, and locals will beam with pride at hearing the shrill call of the country’s iconic birds in their backyards. 

“I would love to be woken up by the sound of the Kiwi. We want to see Kiwi come back into Wellington,” the capital’s Major Justin Lester says. 

The Department of Conservation is backing Capital Kiwi too. “Getting Kiwi back into the hills of Wellington where people can hear them call is a great way to demonstrate what New Zealand could look like if we get rid of the stoats and ferrets,” DOC’s Jack Mace says. 

“It would certainly add another feather to Wellington’s cap as one of the best places to see New Zealand’s unique wildlife.”

Introducing The Outdoor Voyage

Whilst you’re here, given you believe in our mission, we would love to introduce you to The Outdoor Voyage – our booking platform and online marketplace which only lists good operators, who care for sustainability, the environment and immersive, authentic experiences. All listed prices are agreed directly with the operator, and we promise that 86% of any money spent ends up supporting the local community that you’re visiting. Click the image below to find out more.

Cover Photo: New Zealand’s little spotted Kiwi at Zealandia Eco-sanctuary in Wellington. Photo by: Zealandia Eco-sanctuary

 

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