By Cindy Ross
Around the campfire, the veterans talked of exploding bombs, needing to scrape up guts with a shovel and picking up dismembered limbs after a suicide bomber drove his dump truck into the Marines’ post. They talked about the kind of stuff that kills best buddies and, afterwards, puts survivors on a dozen different meds.
The kind of stuff that makes them forever vigilant; they always watch doorways and never sit with their back to a restaurant entrance. The kind of stuff that jars them awake in the middle of the night to check and recheck windows and doors when they hear a sound. Even years later, after they are home, it continues. They don’t ever sleep well, they have a hard time finding peace, and if they get snippets of it, it doesn’t last.
It is all so exhausting . . . until they find themselves walking the Appalachian Trail.
Last year, two retired Marines, Sean Gobin and Mark Silvers, through-hiked the entire 2,100-mile National Scenic Appalachian Trail (AT) after returning home from active duty in Afghanistan. What occurred to them while following the white painted blazes that lead from Georgia to Maine on one of the longest continually marked footpaths in the world, was that they were walking the war out of their systems — they were becoming healthier, happier and healed.
This idea of ridding one’s psyche of demons by walking in nature is not new. The first AT through-hiker, Earl Shaffer, did just that in 1948 when he walked World War II out of his mind. In that vein, Gobin and Silvers spearheaded the Warrior Hike nonprofit organization geared to raise funds for wounded veterans.
Vets in the project receive support through scholarships and equipment as well from veterans in towns along the trail, who invite them to cookouts and rest breaks. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the umbrella nonprofit which oversees the AT, is their biggest supporter.
In March 2013, 13 Warriors left Springer Mountain, Ga., with their eyes set on reaching Mount Katahdin at Maine’s Baxter State Park, the northern terminus of the trail, six months later. Two Chesapeake Bay area vets were in the group — Rob Carmel from Baltimore and Tommy Gathman from Lewisburg, Pa. Rob grew up hiking in Catoctin State Park and after 32 years in the Army as a sergeant major with deployments to Somalia, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, he thought back to his memories of the peace he found in nature and signed up for Warrior Hike.
One Warrior who sat by the fire told of a being plagued by a recurring nightmare: He is trapped in an abandoned building in Iraq, pinned down — and always dies. But the dream has stopped, he reported as he sat by the fire at the 800-mile mark on the trail. So have his companions’ nightmares, as they sleep cradled in Mother Nature’s soothing woods.
That the Warriors are finally able to sleep is monumental in their healing process. This achievement was worth every minute of work needed to orchestrate Warrior Walk and every blister, arduous climb, rainstorm and sore muscle that the Warriors have experienced.
All the Warriors have seen remarkable improvement in the wilderness of their minds, but two said they were surprised that when they took a break from the trail, the bad dreams and their anger, triggered anew by rude behavior, returned. They realized they needed more time in the maternal cocoon of nature, more miles walking to sort things out. There are about 800 miles remaining to Katahdin; 800 miles to do the job.
The Warriors are thinking about what to do to create more peace when they return home to further nurture their connection with the natural world, be it relocating to a wilder environment, finding a job outdoors or some other action.
The Pacific Crest Trail Society is on board to support the program on the 2,600-mile National Scenic Trail. There are 11 long-distance National Scenic Trails, each authorized by Congress under the National Trails System Act of 1968. They are chosen for their natural beauty and are maintained by private organizations and hiking clubs. Many miles of trail (except for the AT) are not yet built, yet need to be to provide an extended wilderness experience for hikers. The tremendous positive therapy a long hike provides, for Warriors or anyone of us who venture out there, demonstrates how badly we need to conserve wild places.
The fact that the Walking Warriors now know where to go when they need to find peace is monumental. Saint Augustine’s Latin quote, “solvitur ambulando” — it is solved by walking — could not be more true.
Cindy Ross writes from Pennsylvania. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.