Hiking the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains of New Hampshire
By Scott Warner
I adjusted my 30 pound back pack, looked up the mountain ahead of me and thought, “What the hell did I get myself into.” Feelings of insecurity, not knowing anyone, and excitement all swirled around in my head. So I did what I needed to do, just take the next step forward. This summer I participated in a four-day mountain adventure, hiking the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The group consisted of five men, all military survivors: three fathers and two adult siblings. The one thing we all had in common starting out on this adventure was grief from losing our loved ones in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
As we started out I wondered what the next four days would be like. Over the last ten years, I found challenging myself physically to be a rewarding experience. I remember starting with running my first 5K, then a 10K, then a half marathon, and now having completing five marathons. I needed something new and exciting. I was burned out on life, feeling isolated, lonely and not able to share what was going on in my head. When I read about this retreat for surviving military male parents and siblings, I thought this is exactly what I need.
I would call what I experienced on this trip “experiential healing.” The adventure itself provided a nonclinical environment in a safe place for men to express their core emotions of joy, anger, fear and sadness. The facilitator of the journey while on the trail or taking a break to rest on some boulders would ask a few leading questions. This provided a foundation for sharing and developing friendships. One of the fathers was a retired military officer. I remember as we were hiking, I shared with him my struggle of not feeling patriotic anymore. I had never shared that before other than with my wife. I thought I was going to get an earful, but instead he offered compassion and understanding which helped me process my inner feelings. I knew from that moment on, I was in a safe place among friends and this was going to be a positive experience.
Over the four days we traversed 20 miles and heights exceeding 6,000 feet. I remember flying with my friend in his Cessna plane at that height and I thought to myself, “Wow…this is crazy cool…hiking at plane level.” Part of the therapeutic process was challenging this group of men to find confidence in ourselves, facing fears, helping each other through the tough parts of the journey and forging through to experience new friendships and working as a team: depending on each other to make it through each day. I call this the power of people!
The power of people is critical on our daily lives. Life can be cruel, hard, unfair and lonely. Since the loss of my son, I have experienced many of those feelings. I have been blessed with numerous opportunities to meet many broken souls who need the touch of another life to give them hope for just that day. It is an interesting dynamic being a surviving military family member. For myself, I do not feel like I fit in the civilian world because civilians really do not get what surviving military families have to live with. A civilian can get up and watch the news and learn of a new ISIS take over in Iraq and go on with their day – it’s just another news story. I listen to the same news story and my day is ruined as I learn the area my son died in hoping for freedom in this region was taken over by ISIS. I also do not fit in the military world, because my military son is dead, but I am constantly surrounded by the military world because my son is remembered as a hero and honored as such at many memorials, Veterans Day and Memorial Day. It is a nomad kind of life never feeling like I am really fitting in with either population, civilian or military.
The best part of the experience was not summiting some of the most challenging treks on the Appalachian mountain range, but feeling if just for a few days being “normal.” Being with men who felt like I did and we could talk about it while hiking. We would stand together and look out over the vista feeling a sense of achievement, a sense of awe at nature’s beauty and a new sense of brotherhood. It had been sometime since I took just time for my own healing. Little did I know how refreshed my spirit would feel and I had an experience of a life time. I made a new accomplishment, a new surprise added to my life bucket list, summiting Mount Washington, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River. All it took was a little faith and taking the next step forward on the trail.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains of New Hampshire!