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All the Way

From War to the A.T.: Finding the Best of Humanity

Compiled by Alyson Browett

In 1948, World War II veteran Earl Shaffer became the first person to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) in one year. His story has inspired thousands to put foot in front of foot on the Trail, and veterans continue to “walk off the war” through hiking.

Below are the stories of several veterans who have hiked all or sections of the A.T., in their own words. Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

The Lifer

Name: Joe Young
Trail Name: Quabbin Trekker
Hometown: Orange, Massachusetts
Service: U.S. Army/National Guard (full-time)
Years of service: 1970-2012
Deployment: Two tours in Iraq
Rank: Sergeant Major
A.T. Experience: Attempted thru-hike in 2014 with Warrior Expeditions, GA-PA

Joe followed in his father’s footsteps as an Army National Guardsman, and both were awarded the Bronze Star. Joe currently is enjoying retirement and volunteering with several organizations that help veterans through mentorship and outdoor recreation. Imagine his voice with a classic New Englander’s accent.

On the A.T. experience:

To me, with the Appalachian Trail, there’s almost something mystical. It’s always drawing you, pulling you back. Sometimes on my day hikes, I cross the A.T. and see the white blaze and want to smack it and say “I’m back” and start heading north. The miles I’ve done on it, what I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, that’s what I think makes the Trail so vibrant.

On breaking down walls:

It was during my first two to three weeks on the Trail, I was hiking alone, coming down off a mountain. There’s this man walking up, wearing a long black jacket and black hat. We exchange niceties. He says, “I’m reverend so-and-so from the little church down in town. I’ve got something for you.” He hands me a bag of candy. Trail magic.

First time, I gotta say, in probably nine to 10 years, I walked away showing all my emotions. I had buried all my emotions from Iraq, and it hit me. That someone took five minutes of their day to give two hoots about me. It happened so many times on the Trail with people who took you into their homes or fed you. That’s one of the things that makes the A.T. so unique.

When you’re in combat, you build up this wall around you, you don’t have time for emotions. You bring that wall home, and you can’t show emotions. But every time you cry or laugh, it’s like there’s somebody on the other side poking a hole in your wall. As I thought about that, the reverend poked a hole through my wall. That happened a lot through my hike, people were able to poke a little hole in my wall. I was able to feel there was hope for humanity.

On doing this interview:

Maybe this will give another veteran a nudge. Maybe it will get them off the couch, reach out, on the Trail, it’s all worth it. There are too many veterans out there who never reach out for help and sadly we lose too many to suicide.

Hiking made me realize I had to do something. It helped me interact with people again. I’m still in touch with a lot of great people from the A.T.

The Couple

Names: Justin and Wella Jay
Trail Names: Hook and Swiss Miss
Hometown: Anchorage, Alaska
Service: U.S. Army

Years of service: Justin: 2012-2016, Wella: 2011-2016
Deployment: Each once to Afghanistan at different time
Rank: Both Captains
A.T. Experience: Completed thru-hike with Warrior Expeditions in 2017

Justin and Wella met while stationed in Alaska in 2013, while both working as Medical Service Officers. They were married at Fontana Dam in October 2016, and thru-hiked together in 2017. They’re both going back to school this year, Justin to receive a master’s degree in disaster planning and Wella to gain a nursing degree. With Wella out of town, Justin spoke with me in the early hours of an Alaska morning.

On Trail Angels:

We both were pretty jaded coming out of the Army. After being in Afghanistan, where there’s war, you don’t have a particularly good perception of your fellow human beings because you’ve seen all these awful things. But you truly get to see the best of humanity on the A.T.

We were hiking through Shenandoah National Park. It was June and a thunderstorm had rolled through, so we were soaking wet when we came into a wayside. Wella struck up a conversation with a random woman. She saw we looked like drowned rats and took pity on us. She offered for us to stay at her and her friend’s campsite, and we were super grateful. So, we’re sitting there eating dinner with chicken, veggies, wine, fine cheese, and we’re thinking “Oh my gosh, what just happened?!” Then we ended up going to her house off the mountain, where we did laundry and took a zero day. We had literally only known these people for a couple of hours!

On the A.T. community:

Meeting people like that restores your faith in humanity. Someone, a stranger, who takes you into your home. This is really the good in people. It’s the one thing we really, truly loved about the A.T. You have this deep, almost instant connection with people associated with the Trail. We still talk to people we interacted with for only 15 minutes. The A.T. breaks down social stigmas and barriers. Everyone is equal on the Trail.

On hiking as a couple:

Some of our friends had very little faith in us, but it really was awesome because we always had a support system in one another. We made sure to have very open and clear communication, and that really helped. Usually if one of us was having a rough time, the other was not. At the end of day, we could say, “Yeah, it really sucked doing the Mahoosuc Notch.” We could commiserate because we made it through together.

Coming home, it helped immensely, because we both knew what it was like to go through that post-Trail process. When a spouse hikes alone, it might be difficult to communicate their experience. My only wish might be that our tent was a little bigger!

The Father

Names: Carl Miller and sons, Zachary and Sebastian
Trail Names: 10 Degree, Powder and Badger (Team Name: Vagabonds)
Hometown: Whitewood, South Dakota
Service: U.S. Army
Years of service: 1988-2012
Deployment: Two tours in Iraq
Rank: First Sergeant
A.T. Experience: Hiked all of Maine in 2014; 1,200 miles beginning at Springer in 2016

Carl and his sons are living in South Dakota on the ranch of a woman they met on the A.T. — they met while taking a break at Black Bear Resort near Hampton, Tenn., when Zachary had an injury. Carl is in school to get his nursing degree, Zachary is finishing his freshman year in high school and Sebastian continues his studies. All long to return to the Trail.

On being a newbie:

In 2014, we all had our first experience with long-distance hiking. I took the kids, then 8 and 10, to Maine because we had some time to kill that summer. I said, “We can go a day or two, until you get tired.” We ended up hiking all of Maine and absolutely fell in love with the A.T.

The hiking was really a shock to us, and the boys fell a lot. Maine is beautiful but slippery, rugged and wet. It’s like someone waters it before you get there every day. Every time they got back up and were ready to go. I hate to admit this, but we also ran out of food on our last day in the 100 Mile Wilderness. It was still a pretty magical day. I’ve seen grown men whine over much less.

On resilience:

As a leader in the Army, you try to keep your men from being in those situations, no food, wet all the time. But I was able to watch my kids in wonder that they would voluntarily put themselves through that and keep doing it. All I was really doing was following them. The experience made me proud as a vet that these two kids were that resilient at that age.

On savoring time together:

This is really why I appreciated our time on the A.T. so much. When the boys were young, I prioritized every second I could with them because my job didn’t allow me to be there all the time. On the A.T., I was able to spend quality time with them, unimpeded by normal day-to-day routine, school, chores. As a single father, that time is precious. It was only us walking place to place, and eating. Each day was a treasure for me having missed so much time when they were younger.

On valuing the natural world:

We are so homesick for the A.T. right now. I have no doubt we’ll all be back on the Trail at some point. They’re very independent boys, and it won’t surprise me if I have to let one go on their own.

But I know when they’re grown and their generation is in office and in charge, my boys will be the ones voting so that we don’t lose these lands. They appreciate all those spaces that are wild, and I know they’ll do their part to keep them that way.

Photography: ©2018 Horizonline Pictures