Posted 8/10/2021By Susan Thompson Lake Panorama Times
A chance meeting in California in 2017 between two U.S. Army veterans led to one visiting the other at Lake Panorama for three nights in July. But this second meeting wasn’t by chance; it was part of a much larger story.
Alex Seling is a U.S. Army veteran whose home is in California. He served as a combat medic with the 25th Infantry Division, 2-27 Wolfhounds and deployed to Iraq in 2008.
“For years after leaving the military, I struggled with severe depression, anxiety and insomnia, eventually leading to serious suicidal thoughts,” Seling says. “In 2017, I’d finally had enough suffering, so I decided to do something different that would force me to grow and transform into a healthier, happier person.”
That “something different” was to hike the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to Canada over a period of seven months. It was outside a general store in Kennedy Meadows, which is known as the gateway to the Sierra Nevada, that he talked with Jillian Ortner, who now lives at Lake Panorama. Ortner grew up in California and was in the area with family members.
“We grab ice cream there when we take a day to be in Kennedy Meadows,” she says. “I saw a few hikers, restocking and resting, and I asked what they were doing. Alex gave me his card, explained why he was hiking, and was on his way. I thought it was a very cool thing he was doing, and I’ve followed him on Instagram ever since.”
Ortner also is an Army veteran, serving four years in Louisiana, Kuwait, Germany and Iraq, where she was stationed for the initial invasion. She empathized with some of the feelings Seling expressed about feeling lost and unsettled after her Army discharge.
Seling says hiking the Pacific Crest Trail ended up being much more than he expected.
“It brought me more joy and fulfillment than anything I had ever done in my life,” he says. “The journey tested me constantly and forced me to grow as a person in order to break through new challenges.”
Once back home, Seling says he handled challenges much differently than he had before his journey.
“I now had the courage and confidence to face challenges head on,” he says. “Instead of feeling stuck and hopeless, I fought for better outcomes and followed through making important changes and difficult decisions.”
Seling started a job that paid well and he enjoyed.
“I found I was much happier, loving, and accepting of people and new situations. I had more joy in my life,” he says.
Three years after returning from his hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, Seling says he felt called to take on an even greater challenge, hiking across the United States on the American Discovery Trail (ADT).
“Knowing the positive effects this type of adventure can have on a person, I decided to dedicate this hike to raise funds for other veterans to go on similar long-distance adventures,” he says. “I know from experience that, for many veterans living on the brink of suicide, embarking on a long-distance adventure could transform their lives.”
Thus was born “Alex’s Coast to Coast Hike for Veteran Suicide Prevention.” He started in late December 2020 on a beach in Delaware. That was followed by difficult winter weather in West Virginia, where he used snowshoes to walk through knee-deep snow and sometimes across snow drifts 6 to 8 feet tall.
“Ohio was tough, as there was a lot more wilderness, and the trail was really overgrown,” he says. Next was Indiana and Illinois, before crossing the Mississippi River into Iowa at Davenport June 9. He soon became ill and spent more than a week in a hotel in Muscatine, recovering and resting.
“When I saw on Instagram he was hiking the American Discovery Trail, I reached out,” says Ortner. Since Seling is hiking the northern route of the trail, she knew he would be going through Iowa and close to Lake Panorama. She offered housing and food for the stretch of trail in the Guthrie County area.
The ADT is a series of much shorter trails, many of them rails to trails, especially in Iowa. That means Seling didn’t hike a straight line across the state. From Davenport, he worked his way north to Waterloo, before heading back south to Des Moines. That’s where he got on the Raccoon River Valley Trail.
Ortner picked him up south of Yale late in the day on July 7. After an overnight stay with her and her family, she delivered him back to the same spot the next morning. That evening, she picked him up near Coon Rapids and returned him to the trail there the morning of July 9. She picked him up again that evening, and once again returned him to the trail the next morning, about 10 miles east of Audubon. Seling crossed into Nebraska July 19.
In an interview at the Ortner home July 8, Seling reflected on his time so far in Iowa.
“There is a big bike culture here, which means Iowa has a lot of nice, paved trails,” he said. “And I’ve learned Iowa is hillier and more scenic than both Illinois and Indiana.”
Seling carries a small tent, backpack and a ukulele bass he enjoys playing in the evening. He started out cooking meals as he camped along the trail but found it was easier to rely on bagels with tuna, protein bars, and food picked up at convenience stores. Occasionally, he treats himself to a restaurant meal.
Sometime in November, Seling’s 4,800-mile trek will end in Pt. Reyes National Seashore in California. Between Iowa and there, he will walk through Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. When he first started, he was walking 12-15 miles a day, but now tries to average 20-25 miles. Seling says this pace is necessary to get him through mountain passes to the west before winter weather gets too bad.
His website is www.alexanderseling.com
. That’s where information about the two nonprofits he is raising money for can be found and donations made. Eighty percent of all donations go to Warrior Expeditions, which specializes in long-distance adventures for veterans.
“Their programs are perfect for those who are new to this type of adventure, as they outfit veterans with everything they need to embark on long-distance hiking, cycling, or kayaking adventures,” Seling says. “They provide top-of-the-line gear, orientation and training, a monthly allowance, and coordinated assistance with local supporters.”
The remaining 20 percent goes to Mission 22, a nonprofit that helps veterans in many different ways, such as comprehensive health programs, fitness, martial arts, outdoor recreation, community and other creative methods.
While Seling spent a year saving money for this trip, contributions to help pay for his personal expenses also are welcome. Some donors provide regular support and are rewarded with early access to his videos, adventure journals and photos.
In addition to his website, it’s easy to track Seling’s hike across America on social media, where he has a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.