Spending time in nature, or “ecotherapy,” is increasingly recognized as a helpful therapy for people suffering from PTSD. It’s a path to recovery that Cindy Ross promotes in her new book, Walking Toward Peace: Veterans Healing on America’s Trails. She profiles former soldiers who suffer from depression, guilt, nightmares, and hypervigilance as a result of their damaging experience in war. Regaining equilibrium in civilian life is yet another battle for these wounded warriors, sweated out on long thru-hikes like the Appalachian Trail. In this excerpt, Travis Johnston, who served as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan, mourns the death by suicide of Zach, a close friend and fellow Ranger. He undertakes a physically and emotionally challenging hike—as a memorial to his friend, and in search of some peace.
The suicide rate for active-duty U.S. military members in 2018 was the highest on record since the U.S. Department of Defense began tracking self-inflicted deaths in 2001. Since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, military suicides have so increased across the board that they have outpaced combat deaths. Special Forces Operations have the highest numbers. “Constant deployments and unrealistic mission expectations” are taking their toll on these elite forces, said top commander Army Gen. Raymond Thomas of Special Operations Command. David Joslin, U.S. Army captain medic and founder of the veteran’s organization Remedy Alpine, which uses adventures in nature to heal wounded veterans, has studied the issue of suicide in the military. “To better understand why Warriors and Veterans appear to so readily contemplate and complete suicide,” Joslin points to three factors that seem to make suicide an acceptable alternative for warriors and veterans:
“First, from the moment we join the military service we are taught that we are expendable, we are merely government property, and our own life is institutionally devalued. Second, as we train and prepare for war, we are taught to accept our own death—we save the final round for ourselves as an alternative to capture, we engage and deploy on missions with no viable outcome other than death “suicide missions.” Third, we are trained to very efficiently and effectively deliver death—the ultimate job of a Warrior is to kill. And in this, human life in general is devalued. In considering these three factors of conditioning, why is anyone surprised that Warriors and Veterans consider suicide as a viable alternative when they are at their darkest and lowest place?”
Travis was certainly in a dark place at Zach’s funeral in Ohio, but something struck him that gave him a bit of hope. “I wondered who all these fuckin’ trail hiking hippies were that came to remember Zach.” A number of thru-hikers from Zach’s journey on the Appalachian Trail the previous year had made the trip to honor Zach. “I thought, ‘They don’t know my brother.’ But they were such happy people and something about them spoke to me through my depression, and I thought, ‘I want to be happy too.’” When seeing Zach’s casket, Travis came to the realization that this could be him real soon too. “Dead or in prison—that was where I was headed and I didn’t want either. At the funeral, I was forced to look at my own life. Zach’s death left a large hole in me, but it also woke me up.” Travis explained that many Rangers experience a slow and steady decline when they get out of the military. “They either crash and burn or something wakes them the fuck up. I knew that I had to move fast or I, too, would probably soon be in a casket.”
Travis decided to plan a thru-hike along the Appalachian Trail culminating with a memorial for Zach at McAfee Knob, elevation 3,197 feet, on Catawba Mountain in Catawba, Virginia. “Before Zach’s death,” he recalled, “I would have never believed I would hike a trail like the AT, nor would I have wanted to. Hiking felt and looked like a waste of time to me.”
When Travis began hiking the AT for Zach in 2014, he took all the meds that the VA prescribed for him—all nine of them. About two months into his hike, his prescriptions ran out and he crashed. He found himself hiking alone, apart from his trail friends, which forced him to look at the demons inside. “It was easy to keep them hidden when I was with other folks. When I found myself alone, I lived in a dangerous place inside my head. I hated hiking by myself. I couldn’t get past certain things.” He grew very depressed. Nightmares returned. He would dream he was in a firefight and did not have his weapon; he’d be jumping out of an airplane and not have his helmet. “It was the closest I came on the trail to saying, ‘Fuck this,’” and calling it quits.
Then Travis had a dream where Zach appeared and spoke to him. They were having a conversation about whether or not Travis should compete the trail. Zach told him, “You need to know what it’s like [to finish].” That dream gave Travis the kick in the butt that he needed. He decided that he could not quit and he must complete the trail. After the dream, every day got consistently and exponentially better. Every step north toward Mount Katahdin brought more healing. The memorial climb had given Travis a mission, and the ceremony offered closure, but it also made clear that this hike was a last-ditch attempt to save himself from going down that same dark road. “On McAfee Knob,” Travis said, “the pain from Zach’s death reverberated through everyone present, and it became clear how much I meant to others. I realized that I was worth saving too. I had a responsibility to not just exist, but to really live and be healthy, too.”
After the memorial climb for Zach, Travis began hiking for himself, to save his own life. Over the miles, the trail provided precious gifts such as a massive amount of time to reflect, for the trail removes distractions. In nature, he could separate and distance himself from his past. He learned that he was not in control of what happened in the war, or the weather on the trail, for example, yet he is in control of his thoughts and his future. Travis began to examine his life, the relationships he had with others, and put thought into a future occupation. He made a plan of what he wanted to fix about himself. A clear-cut symptom of PTSD is feeling out of control, with the inability to achieve goals. Gifting himself the time to walk a long-distance trail was allowing him the space and time to examine these things about himself, however uncomfortable, even painful. As he recalled:
Hiking from Georgia to Maine gave me a new mission and my trail family became my new brotherhood. I learned that being completely isolated is not good for me. I need a family who is experiencing the same hardships and joys as I am, just like in the military. I also learned that I had to be patient and accept this new experience, replace those bad memories with new good ones. War is not normal but being in the woods and hiking the trail felt normal, it felt good, and it wasn’t a masking agent like drugs or alcohol. Looking back now, I had been so close to dying many times. I am 100 percent sure I would have ended up like Zach if I kept on course. When I descended off Mount Katahdin in Maine, I didn’t feel like I had just finished the AT; I felt like I was starting the rest of my life. Anything moving forward was possible.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail was Travis’s launching pad to becoming a healthier person and living a richer, more fulfilling life. He is no longer focused on numbing out feelings or memories, but on facing and working through them. “It was as if I needed some sort of major rocket power, a mass explosion, to help break through gravity and launch me away from earth and my old unhealthy way of living and thinking.” He made a five-year plan to earn the coveted Triple Crown of hiking, walking all three: the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. He began to travel and see the world. He longed to explore everywhere and curiously approached the world, learning about world history, sampling different foods, and meeting fascinating people. He crossed off many countries, continents, and experiences from his bucket list.
World travel emboldened Travis, as he was finally experiencing healthy risk. When encountering strangers, he would ask himself, What would Zach do? Always friendly, warm, and forthcoming, Zach would light up an entire room when he entered. And similarly, Travis extended himself and talked to everyone. He told Zach’s story, said he was traveling in Zach’s memory and hence kept him alive as he spread Zach’s magic around the world. Travis was finally distancing himself from the Rangers and the Ranger culture. He began to cultivate a new identity. He was finding a new purpose, a new normal.
This excerpt from Walking Toward Peace: Veterans Healing on America’s Trails by Cindy Ross (Mountaineers Books, 2021) appears with permission of the author and publisher.
Cindy Ross is the author of six books, including her first, A Woman’s Journey on the Appalachian Trail, which has been in print for nearly 35 years and has become a hiking classic. She is the director of River House PA Healing in Nature, a nonprofit that coordinates with Pennsylvanian-area Veteran Affairs hospitals to take veterans into nature.