Like many combat veterans, Earl Shaffer returned home from war depressed, alienated, and confused. He’d spent years around some of the nastiest fighting World War II had to offer and lost a lifelong friend at Iwo Jima. Upon returning home, it seemed life in the States had nothing meaningful to offer.
So in 1948, Shaffer set out on an adventure to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, simply telling others that he wanted to “walk the war out of (his) system.” His trek became the first recorded thru-hike, inspiring generations of hikers to undertake what, in Shaffer’s time, many believed an impossible journey.
Going to Nature to Heal: It’s a Timeless Tradition for Veterans of War
You can imagine how much the trail and thru-hiker experience has changed since Shaffer first set foot on this beloved footpath. But the inner world of returning veterans has remained surprisingly consistent across the ages.
This leads me to the central question of this article: If a combat veteran embarks on a thru-hike with the intention to find peace, how can they use their time in nature to successfully overcome the psychological, emotional, and spiritual hurdles in their path to healing?
As a combat veteran that personally embarked on a thru-hike to find clarity and peace, below are the top five lessons from my 2009 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
1. Leave Your Expectations At the Trailhead
It’s easy to romanticize a thru-hike. Everybody does. We assume the hike will be idyllic and fun, but when reality confronts these expectations (as freezing rain, perhaps), reality wins. And if you cling to your expectations and get discouraged because they’re not being met, you’re creating unnecessary resistance within yourself.
Think about it: If everything you perceive is filtered through the cognitive lens of how it’s not meeting your expectations, you are casting a negative light over your entire hike. By not placing expectations on the hike, we get to experience the trail as it is. This way of being—one guided by acceptance—begins to open us up to inner freedom. This freedom is useful in the path toward wholeness.
2. Thru-Hiking Will Not Fix Veterans: Only You Can Fix You
While a thru-hike can set the stage for a personal transformation, it is not the source of the transformation. Your willingness for change and the desire to stop suffering are the fuels that drive this process. A thru-hike simply serves as a container of time and space for you to work on yourself. That being said, a long-distance hike does provide a lot of inner and outer material to work with.
This material can range from euphoria to downright agony and despair. It’s your job to interact with these emotions and experiences in a way that aids you on your path toward wholeness. If you’ve embarked on a thru-hike with the intention of healing, this is the work with which you must engage. There’s no one else on Earth that can do this for you.
3. Get Your Mind Right
There’s a concept in the yogic path called pratyahara. This term translates to “withdrawing your senses from the world.” This may sound lofty, but in practice, much of it involves controlling what you listen to and what you read. The goal is to fill your mind with information and thoughts that align with your desired destination.
If your intention is to find some semblance of peace and healing, consider filling your mind with the teachings and lessons of the traditions that specialize in this very subject.
There are countless books on these topics, and pondering their teachings can be one of the most productive uses of your time on trail as a veteran. While most of these books discuss spirituality, a topic that might seem too foo-foo for many tough-guy military types, it’s important to understand that the world’s greatest leaders and warriors considered the mastery of their mind and spirit as their most powerful asset.
Check out the list of books below. If a book title grabs your attention, that’s the one you should start with.
Books To Help Veterans Get Their Minds Right
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Traumaby Bessel A. van der Kolk
- The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz
- Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One by Dr. Joe Dispenza
- The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph by Ryan Holiday
- Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Dr. Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius M.D.
- Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation by Sharon Salzberg
4. Practice Makes Peace
The trail is a great opportunity to experiment with new ways of being. People you meet along the way have no idea who you’ve been your whole life, so they have no expectations for your behavior. This gives you a lot of freedom to decide how you are going to show up on a daily basis. What do the books you’re reading recommend? Put these teachings into practice. Experiment.
To share an example, I suffered from anxiety after returning home from Iraq. I operated drones and the sustained operational tempo and stress frazzled my nerves, I suppose. At some point, I realized that fear controlled much of my behavior and decisions.
My anxiety was good at showing me what could go wrong, and the fear of failure convinced me to take the safe route in countless situations. There is certainly an evolutionary basis for this, but in the modern world, the consequences of failure aren’t that, um, consequential.
So I decided that I’d try to become fearless. I used my awareness to catch myself as my mind defaulted to fear-based thinking. And then I’d step back and assess whether this fear was baseless or if the consequences of failure even mattered. Most of the time they don’t. This is something I practiced regularly until I felt that I’d found my edge and life had become sufficiently expansive and exciting.
5. Let Your Guard Down & Embrace Trail Culture
The thru-hiking culture is much different than that of the military. The characters on the trail, people you may have looked down on when in uniform, have a lot to teach you. Talk to them. Try to understand the world through their eyes. You may find out that you’re not so different as you may have imagined.
And if you find yourself on a popular trail, you may even find yourself in a tramily of hikers that will feel much like a platoon. The camaraderie and feelings of belonging can go a long way in melting away some of the defenses you’ve picked up while in the service. While it’s common for veterans to isolate because they don’t feel others can relate, community matters.
Find a tribe if you can. You will have plenty of solitude as you hike throughout the day.
Should all Veterans Thru-Hike?
While my hike certainly initiated the process of healing, it took me years to stumble into much of the information I shared above and get to a place that feels good. The above advice is mostly what I wish I’d known then. So if you are a veteran considering a thru-hike with the expectation that your hike may save you in some way, I say go for it. Give it all you got.
The consequences of not attempting something as audacious as a thru-hike may actually be far greater than failing once out there. Hike the trail of your dreams and embrace everything the experience has to offer. Just remember to leave your expectations at the trailhead.
If you’d like to learn more about the author’s thru-hike and journey toward wholeness, pick up your copy of his best-selling thru-hiking memoir today: Waking Up On the Appalachian Trail: A Story of War, Brotherhood, and the Pursuit of Truth