Proposed in 1921, the Appalachian Trail (AT) was built by private citizens, and by 1937 it covered 2,185 miles from Maine’s Mount Katahdin to Springer Mountain in Georgia. As one of 11 National Scenic Trails, it’s now maintained by federal and state agencies and thousands of volunteers.
Many people hike portions of the AT, and intrepid “thru-hikers” hike it all in a season. Thru-hiking is no new undertaking. In 1948, World War II veteran Earl Shaffer — seeking to “walk off” his war — became the AT’s first thru-hiker.
Over the years, more veterans have taken up hiking to walk off their war, and several programs assist those journeys. Warrior Hike (www.warriorhike.org), founded by former Marine Corps Capt. Sean Gobin of Charlottesville, Va., provides equipment, supplies, and community support on six National Scenic Trails. After a hike, the group helps veterans with job placement.
Gobin finds hiking has three main therapeutic benefits: “First, hiking eight hours a day with no cell[phone] or computer, your brain has no choice but to process the trauma of experiences. Next, you’re with other combat vets who’ve had similar experiences. Finally, there’s great support from little towns we pass with people you don’t know giving you a hot shower, meals, and a bed. It helps reconnect with normalcy.”
Many of the hosts Warrior Hike depends on are veterans’ groups who provide mentorship and crucial insight, Gobin says.
The 2015 Warrior Hike group started on the AT March 15 and will spend May hiking through Virginia. Not every thru-hiker — veteran or civilian — makes it all the way. The typical attrition rate is 80 percent, says Gobin. “We’re closer to 50.” But, he says, those who only hike for a month still experience transformation.
— Col. Glenn Pribus, USAF (Ret), and Marilyn Pribus