Eli Smith’s feet have walked over five-and-a-half million steps -- about 2,600 miles -- through hiking trails, on sidewalks and even down major highways since the time he stepped off the tarmac from his one-way flight to Pensacola, Florida, until Tuesday morning, when he walked out of the Best Western in northern Santa Maria.
His adventure doesn’t stop here. In fact, it won’t be over until about three years from now. By Wednesday morning as readers are learning about Smith and his journey, he will have spent Tuesday night in Arroyo Grande, where he walked all day from Santa Maria, and will likely already be on his way to San Luis Obispo.
Smith doesn’t like to stay in one place for long, because the quicker he moves, the bigger the span of awareness he can create about veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He's also raising funds for veterans' organizations and his trek.
Named the “4 Corners Hike,” Smith will stand at each of the four corners of the United States. Last month, he reached his very first corner in San Diego nearly five months after leaving the Pensacola airport.
After being discharged from the Army, Smith said he lost close friends and veterans to the effects of PTSD and, ultimately, suicide. He started brainstorming about how he could do his part to raise awareness and, possibly, prevent another tragedy.
Smith, however, was unable to raise the support and funds he needed for his journey.
“I was 50 pounds heavier when I started,” he said. “People looked at me and didn’t think I’d be able to make it very far, so I had to raise my own funds.”
Smith sold most of what he owned, gave his two cats to his neighbors and sold his truck. He bought a one-way ticket to Pensacola, walked out of the airport and hasn't stopped since.
“I just wake up every day and say, it’s time to go,” Smith said. “One of the main rules of walking across America that I have is to not walk at night.”
But the nighttime is something Smith struggled with until recently. He’s the first to admit that while he is doing this to bring awareness to PTSD, mental health and suicide in veterans, there are times when he is walking alone that he suffers in his own mind.
“I don’t have a support vehicle or people walking with me,” Smith said. "Up to 40 percent of my day was worrying where I'd sleep. It became too much for me."
Smith put a plea on Facebook a few weeks ago asking for help. Now, a volunteer makes sure Smith has somewhere to stay at night, while others are helping with his social media accounts that grew beyond his control.
On Tuesday at the Best Western in Santa Maria, sales manager Robert Cooks explained that in the short time he spent with Smith, he was inspired to help.
“Just talking to him made me feel like I want to help in some way,” Cooks said. “But yesterday, we all pulled together a donation and talked to him. We found out his story and why. I’m in absolute awe of him.”
He said that officials at the Santa Maria Best Western are doing what they can to line up hotels for Smith along his route.
Others have stepped up to lodge him in their homes, send video text messages with words of encouragement and contribute financially.
Smith said such support makes it possible.
“This country is good,” Smith said. “It’s full of good people who just affirmed what I’ve always believed about this country.”
Now that he’s been on the California coast for a few weeks, Smith said he looks forward to all the different regions he will experience in this country, adding that up until now his travels have been mostly across the desert.
Every week, he posts the next week’s adventure and planned stops to his Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages, found at 4Corners Hike.
Smith also tries to host a veterans' dinner in different towns along his route for veterans to express his gratitude and support.