An Army veteran hiking around the country found comfort in the home of an Austin area stranger this Christmas.
Eli smith is hiking around the U.S. to bring awareness to veterans with PTSD.
“No one’s ever hiked to all four corners of the continental U.S.,” Smith said.
That hasn't stopped him from setting out on the 13,000 mile hike.
“When people tell me, ‘This hikes crazy,’ it's like, yeah, there’s a reason that no one's ever done this hike before, but it's still not as bad as what some of our veterans go through,” said Smith.
As an army veteran himself, Eli watched as several of his military friends struggled with post-traumatic stress.
“I had a few friends that passed away from PTSD because they took their own lives,” Smith said.
He couldn't just sit back and do nothing, so he started walking towards a solution, educating everyone he meets about PTSD and the debilitating effect it can have on a veteran's life.
“I'm going to go through two winters in the north… Different gear's going to have to be switched out. I'm away from my family. I'm going to be hungry. I'm going to be lost a couple times I'm sure and it's going to take a long time, but it's nothing compared to what veterans with PTSD go through every day,” said Smith.
600 miles and 5 states in, with Christmas on the horizon, Eli was looking for his next shelter. That's when he walked into Tess Johnson’s life.
“I know what it means not to have a place to go for Christmas, so we kind of needed him here, he kind of needed us,” Johnson said.
Tess has a son enlisted in the U.S. Navy who couldn't make it home for the holidays this year.
“I miss him terribly,” said Johnson.
When Tess got an email asking if she could help Eli with a place to stay, she said it felt like fate.
“There you go! Perfect Christmas,” Johnson said.
“They've opened their home to me, got me a stocking, I haven’t had a stocking in forever so that's pretty cool, went to the Christmas Eve party with her family and friends, and they got me little gifts here, some stuff for the trail. Before I got to Austin it didn't feel like Christmas and now it definitely does,” said Smith.
It's thanks to people like Tess that open their hearts and their homes that Eli is able to put one foot in front of the other sharing his message in order to help save lives.
“The journey so far has exceeded my expectations,” Smith said.