Veterans hiking the Continental Divide Trail to “walk off the war” stop in Breckenridge
July 16, 2014
THE WARRIOR HIKE
In 1948, Earl Shaffer said he was going to “walk off the war” to work out the sights, sounds and losses of World War II. Four months later, he became the first person to hike the whole Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.
Inspired by that story, former Marine Corp Captain Sean Gobin hiked the Appalacian Trail in 2012 and founded Warrior Hike in 2013 with 14 veterans hiking the 2,185-mile Appalacian Trail.
While hiking for about six months, veterans can decompress from wartime experiences while learning to use the outdoors as therapy, and they experience the camaraderie of other veterans who understand the challenges of transitioning from military service to civilian life.
The program provides combat veterans with equipment and supplies; coordinates trail town support in the forms of transportation, food, and lodging with veteran organizations and community groups located along the trail; and assists veterans find employment through the program’s partners and sponsors.
This year the program expanded to sponsor another 14 hikers on the AT as well as six on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail and six on the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail.
To learn more about Warrior Hike, apply to hike with the program in 2015 or donate to the organization through its nonprofit partner Operation Military Embrace, visit warriorhike.com. To contact Warrior Hike’s founder and executive director Sean Gobin, email email@example.com.
Shawn Murphy was angry. He saw humans as negative, greedy and self-centered. For most of his adult life, he hated the world.
"It got to the point where I was probably going to blow my brains out," said the 48-year-old Army veteran. "I couldn't stand myself anymore."
Then, in 2012, he started hiking.
He developed a deeper connection with nature, awakened a new sense of spirituality and found good in humanity through the kindness of strangers helping him walk for months.
"The way I view the world has completely changed," he said.
Murphy is one of two veterans who stopped Sunday, July 13, in Breckenridge during their thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail sponsored by the Warrior Hike "Walk Off the War" program.
The program, in its second year, helps fund six-month, long-distance hikes for combat veterans and connects them with other veterans along the way. Retired Vietnam Army veteran John Ebright served as the hikers' local contact in Breckenridge and shared war stories with the two men.
The Summit Daily News caught up with Murphy and the other hiker, Rob Voorhis, at the Bivouac hostel and hotel and talked to them about what they've learned and experienced during their last three months of walking the trail.
LOSING THE BADITUDE
Originally from Ohio, Murphy joined the military 30 years ago and worked in undercover military police operations through the mid-1990s. He said he doesn't like to talk about his military experiences or even his personal life, though he talks openly about how hiking has changed him.
A former Mormon, he lost his faith in God two years into his service, he said, disgusted by what he saw humans doing to each other.
Then two years ago, he completed a thru-hike of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, and he grew to understand that he could no longer blame other people for the jobs he lost and struggles he faced.
"I got on the trail and realized it really is me," he said. "My attitude sucked. I had aggressive behavior."
Since then, every cent he makes doing temporary jobs goes toward hiking. He loves having his watch off and being out of cell phone service, he said, and he plans to hike all the National Scenic Trails.
Off trail, he is lucky to sleep about two hours at night, he said. "When I'm on the trail, I'm so relaxed. I sleep like a baby."
Rob Voorhis, 29, grew up in New York and joined the Marine Corps in 2005 at age 20. He served five years providing intelligence to combat forces during three tours in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia.
Afterward he worked for a couple years with the Defense Intelligence Agency in Virginia. Then, tired of the desk job, he decided to do a thru-hike, found Warrior Hike and was chosen to hike the CDT.
"I didn't even know what it was," he said, of the trail that is much less popular with thru-hikers. About 4,500 people registered this year to hike the entire AT, while just 139 did the same for the CDT, he added, and his longest hike before this was 17 days.
Voorhis said he wanted to do the hike to have a fun adventure and push his limits more so than to deal with combat-related issues. He doesn't think he was affected much by his military years, but he said hiking helps anyone, not just veterans, to reflect.
"It gives you an opportunity to untangle things in your head," he said.
In the last three months, he has faced fears including close-calls with lightning and falling 200 feet down steep terrain. He struggled most to stay positive, he said, during a few days of hiking alone and sick while he piled on miles in a rush to catch up after falling behind.
"It's all a mental thing," he said. "The physical will take care of itself. You'll get in shape."
Murphy said though his body can hike 35 miles day after day, he hasn't been spared from physical troubles. He lost 25 pounds in three weeks, partly normal weight loss from hiking and partly the effects of a bout of sickness caused by Giardia bacteria.
VET TO VET
At first, Murphy was uncomfortable socializing with the veterans and other people Warrior Hike connected the hikers with. At a ceremony in New Mexico, people were honoring the hikers and clapping and Murphy said he tried to leave the building.
Since then, he said he has come to appreciate the connections he's made along the way and the support fellow veterans have shown.
"The idea of vets helping other vets is great," Murphy said. "Hooking up with these vet groups is amazing."
Vietnam veterans have been especially generous, he said, "because they don't want us to go through what they went through."
Though individual veterans and local groups have bent over backwards for the hikers, Murphy said, he wishes the U.S. government would do more to help and he expressed his outrage at grim unemployment statistics for veterans.
Both men said they loved the landscapes of Colorado.
Voorhis said he especially loved the mountains after walking flat stretches in other states where "everything looked exactly the same for 200 miles" and it "felt like you were walking in place."
Murphy said he wants to return to hike the Colorado Trail and revisit the San Juan Mountains.
"I'm learning Colorado is an absolutely beautiful state," Murphy said. "Colorado is awesome."
Though he is saddened by the amount of litter and human waste he finds near trailheads and popular summits, Murphy said he was glad to find well-maintained trails and more people hiking in Colorado than anywhere else he had been so far.
A NATURAL CURE
While hiking, Murphy has seen moose, bears and elk herds with calves and he described sharing a sacred moment with a hummingbird. At the top of mountains, he said he stops to savor the views.
"You don't do anything. You just sit there in the here and the now … and time becomes irrelevant," he said. Then when he starts hiking again, "there's this internal peace that stays with you."
Murphy said thru-hiking has helped him work on his anger issues and learn who he really is. He said those who want to change will find their cure on the trail.
"Nature has nothing against us. She loves us. She'll heal us if we let her," he said.
He loves sleeping under the stars and waking up to deer munching 10 feet from his face, he said, and wants to hike until the day he dies.
"It's amazing the beauty this country holds and so few of us actually experience it," Murphy said. "There's no drug, no substance in the world, that can do this for you. I mean this is pure heaven and bliss."