I like to think that things happen for a reason. I like to think I’m usually on the right path in life, that I’m being guided by Divine Providence. And things are all good. I had serious doubts however, this past October when I attended the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Gathering at Williams College, MA. I was so unbelievably scattered. I was giving multiple presentations and I could not keep track of my shit. I left my car keys, my jacket etc at multiple places around campus and spent much of my time walking all over town and campus to look for them. I was growing ever more disgusted with myself when I lost my purse. It had my wallet and credit cards in it and I was departing for a trip to Turkey very soon. I have always been forgetful but moving into menopausal years has taken this lifelong flaw and blown it up.
After hours of searching, I gave up and began the long drive home, completely disgusted with myself. But it occurred to me that although my comrades that I was staying with searched our hotel room itself, perhaps the front desk might have had someone turn it in. They did. I turned around and began to drive the half hour back to the hotel. Out of the many hundreds of friends at the event that were concerned for me and my lost purse, I only chose to call one- Travis Johnston, to share the good news.
Travis was an Airborne Ranger who just got off hiking the entire Appalachian Trail to “walk off his war” and for the memory of his fallen Airborne Ranger brother, Zach Adamson. Zach hiked the whole AT in 2013 and then four months later was found dead from a gunshot wound to his head. His death rocked the whole AT trail community as well as all those close to Zach. Besides hiking the trail in Zach’s memory, Travis orchestrated a memorial climb up McAfee’s Knob in Virginia for Zach, which I made a YouTube video on.
The 6 month long hike proved to be very good for Travis. His Ranger friends watched his transformation through the many happy photos that he posted on Facebook. Spending all that time in nature, walking, was visibly healing Travis’s heart wounds. And as soon as he climbed Mount Katahdin, his friends began calling, looking for help, hoping for counseling, “Do you think hiking would work for me too?” Travis and I sat over lunch and he told me of a dream he had to be counselor/therapist as an occupation. But instead of sitting on some couch in an office, they would have their session in a canoe on a river, or on a trail in the woods. And perhaps my non-profit organization, River House PA would benefit from his gift someday, leading my veterans and being a part of our mission.
Travis does possess a gift. Extrovert by nature, (unusual for long distance hikers) he is a people person but has a command of the language and articulates very well what he is trying to get across. And he talks veteran’s language. I don’t have to go into detail what Ranger language sounds like. He doesn’t take any bullshit. He was in a leadership role in the military and he knows how to delegate. But his heart is as wide as the ocean. And he is not afraid to shed tears, or hug or tell you flat-out, “I love you, man.” This is exactly what these struggling veterans need, and some direction on how to pick themselves up and find some happiness and peace in their civilian life.
One of his Ranger friends, who is presently struggling happens to live in Pennsylvania. Travis planned to go visit him on his way south from Massachusetts to Savannah, Georgia. I told him to let me know WHERE in PA his friend lived. PA is a very large state, but just maybe he was down the road and Travis could stop in and visit us en route.
So when I called Travis to tell him the good news of the lost purse, he said “Hey, I just found out where my friend lives, in Reading, PA.”
“Wow, I said, “pretty weird. That is ‘right down the road.” I grew up there.
So besides the gift of the purse, I had Travis’s company and could give him a ride all the way down to PA.
(When I told my daughter Sierra this and told her there was a REASON that I lost it, she said, ‘Nice story mom, but you still have to become responsible for your shit.”)
Travis came back with me and I gave him my car to go see his friend but I got an idea. His Ranger friend was becoming a recluse. Staying in his home, where he lived alone, for months without going out. He was very depressed and felt as though he was living a nightmare. He suffered from back and knee pain because on his last jump, his chute collapsed and he hit the earth from 120 feet up with no shoot.
Then he proceeded to come home from deployment and had a motorcycle accident where he “stopped his bike with his head.” For the next three years, he was in eight different hospitals, psychiatric wards, rehab centers, trying to get better.
I told Travis to go fetch him- bring him up to our log home, get him out of the city, his home and his head. It was a stretch for him but he trusted his Ranger Leader Travis and he packed his overnight bag and came.
We took Airborne Ranger Danny Stein up to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for a hike to see if his body could handle the hike and it was okay. The hike in the beautiful autumn woods did him good. There were people there counting hawks and although we sat over to the side, he had a short anxiety attack where he had to hold onto our hands and squeeze them until he felt calm and safe again.
We made a campfire and cooked dinner. We acted as though Danny was part of the family and no different from anyone else. The men slept in my writing cabin- the first time our Danny was away from the security of his own home and bed for a long time. He did okay. He stayed for two nights and two days.
When Danny left, he paused at the door and abruptly turned around and said, “October 15. I will never forget this day for as long as I live. Because on this day, a family reached out to me, who never met me before and welcomed me into their home and that has never happened before, and because of that, I will never forget this day.”
I was holding back the tears when I threw my arms around him for yet another hug. My goodness. This is easy, having people over and welcoming them into our home, feeding them, getting to know them. We do it all the time. And lately with veterans.
I told Danny that I was going away for a few weeks to Turkey but I would call him when I returned and take him for a walk in Reading. (He cannot drive right now as he had a seizure and must wait many months before getting behind the wheel again.) He told Travis and I that everyone forgets about him and I did not want to be added to that list of those who just give lip service.
Since I returned from Turkey, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with the business end of my non-profit organization, River House, which was not my forte and I needed a secretary to take notes, compile a list of e-mails etc, etc. Danny said he would love to help. I would love to have his help. We made a great team.
He stayed at the house for two days and two nights. I got him on a longer more strenuous hike to see how his back and knees held up. I would like to get him to the point where he could go out for a backpack trip. He was OK with it, took some Ibrofrofin.
Danny fetched hay with my husband, which was big to trust being in his company. We took him to Sam’s Club and he food shopped and made healthy food choices and talked and laughed with the check out girls. We played Rummy at the kitchen table. He said that interacting with three other people in close quarters was a huge step for him.
He needed help to play and I looked over his shoulder to help him with his hand. He said, “I forget what I’m doing, what cards are in my hand, on the table,” and I felt like I have found a kindred spirit when it comes to forgetting. When I couldn’t find something on my desk, I was complaining to Danny, “I’m losing my mind,” and he brought me back to reality and responded, “I HAVE lost part of my mind” as Danny sports an impressive 12 inch long curved scar on his skull, clearly seen through his hair. Danny aligns my perspective
We teased him. We told him to get used to this, he was going to do more of it. More experiences, more people to meet, more time in nature…but small steps. We didn’t baby him nor feel sorry for him. I would like to pick him up every week and take him with me in my life.
Danny was sitting at my desk, working on River House material when he said, “You know, this organization could really take off. There is a real need for this.”
I know that. When people ask if they can come see the actual physical River House I give them the “build it and they will come” speech. If I had a River House now in Port Clinton, my Ranger here could help run it, he could live there and be with like-minded comrades. He could be helpful and useful and be productive and feel needed because he is, even now. That is the secret of helping them get better, finding a purpose, besides showing them how nature heals.
When my husband Todd and I were in the Florida Keys for our anniversary last year we met a psychologist on the ferry, and we got to talking about River House. She has been working with veterans with PTSD her whole life. And she said to me, “It is extremely rewarding work, because they get better.”
Yes, they certainly can get better. I hope to catch one or two so they don’t have their lives cut short like Ranger Zach Adamson. I have seen my Ranger friend get better in only two short visits. It is completely remarkable how much better he seems, something that can’t be faked nor imagined.
I do get frustrated because I had to cancel some of River House’s programs this past summer because I couldn’t motivate the veterans to sign up. But I have my faith restored. I can help, even if it is only one veteran at a time. The change occurred in me on our walk yesterday. My son grabbed a wild grape-vine and went for a swing. And after watching a few times, Danny grabbed the vine with his hands, tested it to see if it would hold his weight, trusted it and swung out over the mountainside, catching air. He was laughing. He was being playful. He was Airborne again.
(see related story/video)