The mountains are calling, and I must go.
—John Muir, American environmentalist.
Christopher B. Merrill
Chief, Combat Systems Test Branch, Automotive Directorate
On a clear, sunny, cool Saturday, I stood atop Springer Mountain in Georgia, at the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, known as the AT. I recall countless details of that day: flying into Hartsfield-Jackson Airport; the shuttle ride for 2+ hours with another hiker, a French-Canadian who later went by the trail name Inflammable because he caught his tent on fire. He would go on to hike the AT all the way to Maine—2,185 miles. I remember the 1-mile hike from U.S. Forest Service Road 42 to Springer Mountain’s summit. Other hikers were gathered there. Some, like my friends Right Here, Dawg and Mio, would hike the AT to Maine.
Everyone uses a trail name when hiking long distance. Usually those names, like Mio, Inflammable, Danger Pants and Rainpants, are earned by something you do along the way—frequently something more infamous than famous. I recall sitting at the southernmost white blaze and taking pictures before heading from Georgia into North Carolina, through Tennessee and Virginia, to end my 1,019-mile hike at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. My most vivid memory was the feeling of having absolutely no idea whether I could hike that far.
Since the trail was completed in 1937, fewer than 16,000 people have hiked the entire distance. The first person known to have completed a “Long Cruise” was WWII veteran Earl Shaffer in 1948. His hike is well chronicled in his book Walking With Spring.
Of the summit of Mt. Oglethorpe, Georgia, then the southern end, he wrote, “This was the threshold of my great adventure, long delayed by WWII and without my trail partner, who had been killed on Iwo Jima. Those 4 ½ years of Army service, more than half of it in combat areas of the Pacific, without furlough or even rest leave, had left me confused and depressed. Perhaps this trip would be the answer….Why not walk the Army out of my system, both mentally and physically…” Through trail towns and farms, when he told residents of his undertaking, they frequently asked why. His response: “I’m walking off the war.”
This famous quotation inspired, and led to the formation of, the modern-day Warrior Hike Foundation. Since 2001, more than 2.5 million veterans have returned from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Department of Veteran Affairs estimates at least 20% suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, known as PTSD. In 2012, after three combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Warrior Hike founder Sean Gobin walked the entire AT. Recognizing the therapeutic effects of long-distance hiking, he created the Walk off the War program to support veterans transitioning from military service by “thru-hiking” America’s National Scenic Trails. Participating veterans receive assistance during and after their hikes: equipment, supplies, coordination of trail town support with veterans’ organizations. Employment opportunities are offered by Walk off the War advocates and partnered veterans’ job placement services.
I had no deep, inspirational reason for hiking the trail. Like many, I went for the challenge, the adventure, and, frankly, to see if I could do it. I met a former Warrior Hiker (Mamma Goose), an amazing woman who has since hiked the Mountains to the Sea and Pacific Crest trails. I came across a few who carried burdens far heavier than their packs. An older gentleman was out to, in his words, “find my way again,” after the death of his infant grandchild; another young hiker was struggling to make sense of a close friend’s suicide. I met a lot of former military folks—young hikers who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan and retired military, including veterans of the Vietnam War.
All in all, my hike went mostly as I had imagined it. It took me 80 days to cover the distance from Springer Mountain to the Potomac River in Harpers Ferry. A rather unremarkable achievement, really, but it produced an endless stream of unforgettable events and people: the heavy rains in Georgia; the occasional snowfalls in North Carolina and Tennessee; the dense fog in Grayson Highlands State Park; the incredibly beautiful balds in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia; the gale force winds as I crossed Whitetop Mountain; the long, steep, cruel climb up Jacobs Ladder after leaving Stecoah Gap in North Carolina; the snow on Cheoah Bald; crossing the Little Tennessee River on Fontana Dam and entering the Smoky Mountains, regaling non-hikers with tales of my magnificence at Clingman’s Dome; Blood Mountain in Georgia, seemingly so intimidating until I encountered the Smokies; drying out at Neel Gap; earning my trail name, Time to Eat, at an all-you-can-eat diner in Hiawassee, Georgia; “It’s an Erwin Thing/You Wouldn’t Understand” T shirts in Erwin, Tennessee—in 1916 Erwin became, and still is, the only town in America to hang an elephant for murder; Hot Springs, North Carolina; Standing Bear Farm, Blueberry Patch, and Woods Hole hostels; McAfee Knob; and, in Virginia, drinking wine with Tank, Cambodia and Chin Music outside the Big Walker Motel in Bland, the intense lightning storm I hiked through to get to Damascus, the 3 Lil’ Pigs BBQ in Daleville; and many more…
I was unprepared only for the people I met along the way. The random acts of human kindness are too many to list. Cynicism is impossible on the AT. Some folks I hiked with, or near, for days or weeks; others I met only once, but they left a great impression on me. I will never be an Earl Shaffer or an Emma “Grandma” Gatewood or a thru-hiker, but I hope to return to Harpers Ferry and hike the AT to its northern terminus at Mt. Katahdin, Maine, in 2017.
For more information on the Warrior Hike Foundation and the Walk off the War program, go to www.warriorhike.org.