When Brandon Kuehn returned from combat duty in Iraq, something was wrong. He’d been discharged after being wounded in battle and struggled to return to life as a civilian, living with his wife and son in Washington. He’d seen terrible things at war, seen people die that he knew well. Kuehn was wracked with unsettling thoughts: Why not me? Why were others killed but I lived? The chaos and cruelty of it all weighed heavily on him.
Alcohol and drug abuse became fixtures in Kuehn’s life. He spiraled into a cycle of anguished anxiety and a deep depression. In 2014, he attempted suicide and survived.
While recovering, Kuehn came to understand that he was suffering from PTSD. As he worked to put his life back together he began spending more time outside. Hiking, spending time in nature soothed his anxiety, calmed his nerves, brightened the edges of depression. Kuen became so enamored with hiking, he decided, as many people do, to attempt a thru-hike of the PCT as a kind of reset, a challenge that would help prove to himself he could overcome anything.
The below film, Constant Thought, is a profile of Kuehn and a look into his attempt at the PCT. It also shows that recovery is never as simple as just going for a months-long hike. Kuehn, thoroughly prepared physically for his PCT trip, abandons the trail early on in his hike. It’s a powerful moment when he decides he’s not going to continue, and a reminder that it takes more than simply hiking to heal from deep mental wounds. That there are ups and downs to any form of therapy.
But Kuehn learned enough to realize how crucial it was for him to embrace nature and wild spaces as a critical means of healing. Though he wasn’t successful on his thru-hike, by the end of the film he’s decided to pursue training as a forest therapy guide to walk with others along his same path.
Impressed by the film, we spoke with the filmmakers Palmer Morse and Matt Mikkelsen about how they heard of Kuehn’s story, and what it was like trying to tell such a powerful, but sensitive story. The film can be viewed in its entirety below the conversation.
AJ: How did you initially hear about Brandon’s struggles?
We met Brandon a few years ago while shooting another short film for the National Parks Conservation Association in Olympic National Park. We spent a few days with Brandon, and in that time we were able to witness him talk about the effect that spending time outside had for him and how serious he was about it. We also learned about his plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail as an ultimate test of this idea of outdoor therapy, and we knew then that just a few days spent with him wasn’t enough to capture the entirety of his story. We stayed in contact with Brandon, and a few weeks later asked if he was interested in having us make a film about him, and he immediately said yes.
Were you initially planning to hike the whole way with Brandon on the PCT? Or did you already know he hadn’t finished the hike and you recreated the backpacking scenes?
The film was shot in “real-time,” so we had no clue when we began filming that he wouldn’t finish the PCT. He had every intention of hiking the whole trail, and we had every hope to follow him along the way. We actually spent weeks planning out how it would work. Traveling out of a van, our plan was to drive along the PCT and meet up with him when the trail crossed a road and follow him in for a few miles, or a day or two in some cases. From day one, we knew that he may not finish. When Brandon decided to pull off the trail we were there to capture the moment. Brandon recorded himself and kept audio diaries along the way as well, which led to some of the more intimate moments of the film.
Do you know how far into the process to become a forest therapy guide he is?
Brandon will be taking a course with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy in April of 2019. The ANFT is a really incredible organization that offers courses all over the world and expeditions for those looking to treat themselves through forest therapy. He ultimately hopes to help others who have experienced trauma by bringing this information he’ll learn back to the veteran healing farm he’s now living and working on in Eastern Washington.
Does Brandon have any plans to try the PCT again?
Yes, most definitely. Just the other day he texted us and said “March 2025, PCT 2.0.” What’s important to realize about his journey, and this film, is that the trail was never really a villain but rather a backdrop for the many challenges he faced internally. Brandon is actually hoping when he attempts it again that his family can follow along in a camper, and maybe his son can hike portions with him. If anything, this goes to show how important trails like these are for folks like Brandon and how access and conservation of our public lands and outdoor spaces are so crucial, not just for veterans like Brandon, but for the enjoyment of all people.