You’d never know by watching Bob Hamilton hike that only two years ago, a sniper’s bullet shot though his gut, fractured his pelvis in six spots, ripped through his spine, blew out all but seven inches of his lower intestines, and totally paralyzed his left leg. The young retired Marine steps over this rocky Pennsylvania stretch of the Appalachian Trail without even a limp. He is beaming happy as he hikes on this renowed trail.
After sixteen surgeries, Bob spent three months in physcial therapy, having his leg manually moved for one hour, three times a day. No progress was made. His leg continued to skrink and deteriorate. The therapist said, “Give up. Accept your new life.” but Bob was not about to. He had dreams, and one of them is coming true today as he hikes on the AT.
Bob is out for a hike with River House PA, my non-profit for Veterans, which I started two years ago. Twice a month, two long, navy blue vans arrive from the Lebanon, PA Veteran’s Hospital, with Veterans enrolled in a rehab program. They are accompanied by their recreational therapists, Amy Cook and Ida Carvel, visionaries who believe that recerating in nature heals. Throughout the year, (about 20 x) I take the Veterans hiking on the trail, paddling on lakes, innertubing down the river, and cycling on the rail trail. We make campfires and serve them homecooked meals, and provide a safe space to experience comraderie in the beautiful natural world.
This week’s outing was an experience on the AT. We would walk a section of trail, following the white blazes to Hawk Mountain Road, then head down to the Eckville Shelter, the rustic hostel that Todd and I ran under the Volunteers in National Parks Program back in 1988-90. Our friend, Mick Charowsky lives there and has been running the shelter ever since, under the jurisdiction of the local Blue Mt Eagle Climbing Club. With any luck, there will be a long distance hiker there and the Vets can hear their story.
At the Eckville Shelter, we show the Vets the bunks and the register, where Bob is thrilled to find an entry of a fellow Marine, Steve Clendenning, who thru-hiked in 2013, who also happens to be a close friend of mine. A long distance section hiker cooks up a pot of rice at the picinc table and the guys quiz him about his life on the trail. Mick shares some stories of running a hostel and how many hikers he serves in a year.
On our hike back, I fall in line with Bob and hear his story of how he learned to walk again.
“I took two lengths of rope and tied them to the ankle of my paralyzed leg. For nine months, all day long, I pulled it back and forth. I had nothing better to do then to convice my leg to start to move again. I figured the therapist had the right idea; she just didn’t do it long enough.”
Bob’s arms got beastly strong from pulling his leg. He got caught up on watching movies.
“I would stare at my leg and try to activate my thigh muscle to move, try to make it happen. And then it did, just a little bit. Then I knew I could walk again.”
His wife bought children’s Wee Fit videos and they exercised together practicing balance. He fell a lot. But now, two years later, Bob is hiking up and down the Blue Mountain, stepping over rocks like its second nature.
I look at him and say, “You are a miracle. I would have never known.”
Bob said, “It taught me not to believe it when someone tells you that you can’t do something. It taught me never to give up.”
I hear more stories like this around the campfire as the Vets take turns sharing what they are grateful for, what the hike meant to them, where they are at in their lives now.
When it is Bob’s turn, he shares, “Hiking on the AT has been one of my lifelong dreams. When I got shot, I felt like I it had been stolen from me. I’ve been afraid to go out for a hike for I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get back. This is the first time I am hiking since before I got shot and it feels really good. I could have been in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, but I’m here and I am so grateful. I wonder now, maybe I could hike the whole trail.”