It was the lovely sound of falling rain that filled the evening air, pulling our attention to the tattooed man who just upturned the Rain Stick. Tiny pebbles zig-zagged down the hollow cactus, ricocheted off the thorns inside. It was an indication to the group gathered ‘round the campfire, that the person holding this makeshift Talking Stick had the floor. When the beautiful sound ceased, all ears and eyes were on the Warrior.
There was talk of exploding bombs and needing to scrape Iraqi guts up with a shovel and picking up hands and legs after the suicide bomber drove his dump truck into the Marine’s post. ..the kind of stuff that kills your best buddies and afterwards, puts you on a dozen different meds. The kind of stuff that puts you on your guard, so that after you return home, you never sit with your back to a restaurant entrance and watch doorways and are forever vigilant. The kind of stuff that forces you up in the middle of the night to check and recheck windows and doors when you hear a sound, and even years later, years after you are home, it continues, for this is the kind of stuff nightmares are made of. You don’t ever sleep well, you have a hard time finding peace and if you get snippets of it, it doesn’t last. It is all so exhausting …. Until, until, you find yourself as a vet walking the Appalachian Trail.
The Talking Stick is a tool used in many Native American traditions when a council is called. It allows all members to present their sacred point of view. It is passed from person to person as they speak and only the person holding the stick is allowed to talk during that time period. Every member of the meeting must listen closely to the words being spoken. My family does not own a Talking Stick so instead we used our Rain Stick as a Talking Stick.
But the Warrior holding the Talking Stick in my backyard did not need to command attention from the group of people gathered in the woods. All ears were cocked towards him and not an eye was dry. My friends were here for this reason alone, to fill the Warriors bellies with good food, and hear their stories as they attempt to “Walk Off the War.”
Last year, two retired Marines, Sean Gobin and Mark Silvers thru-hiked the entire 2,100-mile National Scenic Appalachian Trail. They had just returned home from active duty in Afghanistan. What occurred to them while following the white painted blazes that led from Georgia to Maine on the longest continually marked footpath in the world, was that while they were actually “walking the war” out of their systems, they were becoming healthier, happier and healed.
This idea to rid your psyche of demons by walking in nature is not new. The very first thru-hiker ever, Earl Shaffer did just that back in 1948, to walk World War II out of his mind. To us Appalachian Trail long distance hikers, he is our father, our mentor, the one who led the way. In that same vein, Sean and Mark spearheaded the Warrior Hike non-profit organization geared to raise funds for wounded veterans. The vets receive support in the way of scholarships and equipment as well as support from veterans in trail towns along the way hosting events and cook-outs.
In March 2013, thirteen Warriors left Springer Mountain, Georgia with their eyes set on reaching Mount Katahdin at Baxter State Park, Maine, the northern terminus of the trail, six months later. But statistics illustrate that only one in four make it all the way. At my home in Pennsylvania, a little bit beyond the half-way point, about half remain and only four of them are my guests.
I had been following their progress on Facebook, as many of their personal friends, but also on the organization website, Warrior Hike. I watched them (through their photos) swim through multiple feet of snow down in Georgia. I watched as they shed weight and became fit. I chatted with them on instant messaging, sent them inspirational quotes to help them along, and came to feel like they are my friends. Although I was not a member of their very elitist club, that of serving our country and experiencing war, we did now share membership in another specialized group- that of the long distance hiker. We were fellow tribal members.
There were two vets who came to our home before they even ventured to Georgia to begin the walk- Adam Bautz and Tommy Gathman. Both boys were residing in State College at the time and so we invited them down to share our wisdom and information should they need it as well as give them a pep talk. It was Tommy’s birthday and altho we had just met, discovered it was his birthday and so baked a cake and had a little dinner party. We became fast friends.
And so the Warriors finally arrived in Port Clinton, PA, on July 7th, just a few miles away from our home at the base of Hawk Mountain. I attended an event at the Hamburg VFW with them and proceeded to bring them all home.
Whenever I shared my enthusiasm for the Warriors’ upcoming visit, any of my friends who expressed a desire to help make food /hear their stories, I invited to come to my home and spend the evening with them. The next evening, after hiking from Port Clinton to Eckville, they returned to my home for an “event.” After feasting on food, we settled around the campfire to share stories.
I asked the Warriors to share one story from their time in the service and one story from the Appalachian Trail. What we got were great gifts from their outpouring hearts. Stories of their childhood and what made them enlist. Stories of their conflicts in the Middle East, life on ships, life on the front line, from Marines, a Sergeant Major, a Navy welder, a missile man, a gunner, a corporal; ages anywhere from their late twenties to fifty, from being retired for 20 years to only week ago. They shared what it felt like to be shot at, to be in the middle of an exploding IUD and knocked unconscious with head trauma, to being so depressed that you gain so much weight that you fail the physical readiness tests and get kicked out of the service. Every story, every path and life was different, but they all shared one big thing- the desire to Walk Off the War.
Every story that leaped from their lips was heartfelt and captivating. We were all mesmerized, even the youth present. When it came time to pass the Talking Stick to my friends, I was amazed to learn facts and stories from their past lives in the military. Most of these stories had never surfaced in our shared conversation over the years and I was treated to personal and private memories of those near and dear to me. As a result, I was drawn closer to my dear friends as I learned yet another layer of their past and what had contributed to creating the fine person I know today.
The Warriors captured everyone’s heart with every pass of the Rain Stick. Our eyes teared up when we heard their pain from their past military encounters but they also flowed when hearing their stories of healing.
The Warrior who began her hike weighing in at 255 has been able to shed 45 pounds already and is enjoying fitness that’ s been lacking for years in her life.
A reoccurring nightmare in one of the Warrior’s life is a tense situation where he is alone, stuck in an abandoned building in Iraq, is pinned down, and cannot get up nor leave. It always results in the soldier dying. But the dream has completely stopped- at about the 800 mile mark on the trail. So have all their nightmares, as they sleep cradled in Mother Nature’s soothing woods.
The fact that the bad dreams have totally stopped here on the trail and they are able to sleep like babies is huge. It is the first time some of the Warriors have slept through the night in years. This result alone was worth every minute of work to orchestrate Warrior Walk and every blister, tough climb, rainstorm, sore muscle etc. that the Warriors experienced.
All of the Warriors have seen remarkable improvement in the wilderness of their minds, but two were surprised to learn that when they took a break from the trail and returned to society for a considerable length of time, they felt their anger triggered when aggravated by rude behavior. Even the bad dreams returned. They realized they need more time in the maternal cocoon of nature, more miles walking to sort things out. There are about 1,000 remaining miles to do the job.
But the fact that they now know where to go when they need to find peace is monumental. And they are thinking about what to do when they return home to create more peace, more of a connection with the natural world, be it relocating to a wilder environment, finding new work in the outdoors, perhaps continuing their long distance walking and heading to the National Scenic Pacific Crest Trail next year. Co-founder Sean Gobin tells me that the Pacific Crest Society is now on board to support a Warrior Hike on that 2,600-mile trail for next year’s hiking vets…whatever it takes to heal, even the 3,100-mile National Scenic Continental Divide Trail after that. “Solvitur ambulando- “It is solved by walking.
The Warriors came to the right home when it comes to believing and supporting that mentality, as Todd and I are both Triple Crowners- having completed all three national scenic trails. We GET how valuable our long trails are, what gifts can be had from walking their length, and from spending extended time in the lap of nature. We have spent our whole lives manifesting this truth and raising our children to believe in it also.
I was only planning on hosting the Warriors one night but extended it to four. They day hiked, without their fully weighted backpacks and continued their journey northward. But I would pick them up farther down the trail the next evening and bring them back for R&R. They got to jump out of a tree into the refreshing river, they got to swim at my friend’s pool one evening and feast on donuts and coffee, we laughed round the picnic table every night over supper and they took turns doing dishes and setting the table and began to feel like regular family members. Every night we talked and shared stories and got to know one another on deeper levels. Todd and I gladly neglected our other chores and work to be together. Even my son Bryce chose to be together, so enjoyable and rewarding was their company.
This morning’s shuttle was all the way down in Carbon County and took one hour one way to drop them off. Tonight I won’t be bringing them home and it pains my heart. I did entertain the idea of getting them at Wind Gap again tonight but I must get back to work and start recording their words, my notes in and attempt to create marvelous stories of their hike for the magazines that contracted articles.
One of the Warriors paid me a very high compliment this morning… in all the Trail Magic they experienced in 1,000 miles, all the folks who fed them, put them up, took them home, all the VFW’s and trail towns who hosted them and put on welcoming events and dinners, HERE at my home ,was the first place he would not mind staying. That is saying a lot. Someone said I can get my needs met and just run through Port Clinton and bring home new hikers tonight. I said no, These Warriors started out as my friends before they ever even left Springer Mountain and now they are leaving as my family. Every other new hiker would pale in comparison. There IS no comparison.
When I first moved to this area of Hawk Mountain thirty-four years ago, after I completed my AT thru-hike, I used to stop in Port Clinton and bring home hikers and feed them, like my Warriors. I remember complaining in my journal as a single woman, that I was tired of meeting and caring and having them always leave. I wanted someone to STAY. And so Todd Gladfleter did- a thru-hiker that I picked up in 1980 who became my husband and lifetime traveler down the trails. But I have also since learned in my wisdom from living long on the planet, that is not so very necessary if the people who walk into your life return or stay. It is enough to have loved them right now. This may be all you get so make it the best you can- fling your arms out the widest they will go and pour on the love and care because there is a good chance that you will only get one crack at being in this marvelous person’s company. We’ve got to fuel one another to keep up the momentum, keep that love moving outward, paying it forward.
I have a big bouquet of flowers and a beautiful card to remind me of their visit, and I have talked on the phone to them multiple times today as well as chatted on Facebook (thank goodness for social media and transmitting towers ). I would LOVE to meet them in Maine and climb Mount Katahdin with them but I will most likely be off to some far-flung corner of the world on another adventure. But needless to say, the Warriors have won my heart.
I told each of my Warriors that they better stop here on their way south after they complete their hike, but if they can’t and many years go by or we never see one another again, we can rest assured to know that we have helped propel ourselves forward in happiness and healing. I am positive that although I have not seen the horrors of war like my Warriors, I have benefited just as much by their walking through my life.