Warrior Expeditions: a veteran’s perspective on thru-hiking the PCT

By Jonathan B. Grant

Veterans have used nature and hiking to come to terms with their combat experiences since the Revolutionary War, when the primary form of transportation to return home was by foot. The first documented thru-hiker of the Appalachian Trail was Earl Shaffer, who told a friend in 1948 he was going to “walk off the war” — to work out his experiences and losses from World War II.

A happy finisher: the author at the PCT Northern Terminus.

Sean Gobin, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, recognized the therapeutic effects of long-distance hiking when he completed his own thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2012. Sean wanted to give other veterans the same opportunity, so he started the nonprofit Warrior Expeditions in 2013. Warrior Expeditions and its sponsors facilitate combat veterans participating in nature therapy with thru-hikes of the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, Appalachian and five other state scenic trails. In addition to thru-hiking, the organization supports veterans in their paddles down the Mississippi River and a trans-America bike ride.

My journey to thru-hiking the PCT started when I was doing online research about National Scenic Trails and found information about Warrior Expeditions. I was excited about the idea of being able to complete a thru-hike with a group of fellow veterans, so I applied. I honestly didn’t think I’d get accepted because I didn’t feel that I was deserving or traumatized enough from my military service to be chosen. Apparently, I was wrong on both accounts. I was to be a member of the Warrior Expedition 2018 PCT thru-hike team.

At the PCT Southern Terminus: Warrior Expedition PCT 2018 (left to right) Jonathan Grant, Jeremy Herr, Jake Steel, Matt Trip, Mike Morgan, Will Searle.

Three days before starting the PCT, I met five other veterans and Warrior Expedition staff in Laguna, California. Warrior Expedition and its sponsors provided us with top-rated hiking equipment, education on how to use each item and a monthly stipend to purchase supplies along the way. Additionally, Sean shadowed our group for five days to ensure we had everything we needed and were set up for a successful hike. We started hiking April 9 from the Southern Terminus Monument and finished Aug. 22 at the Canadian border. The experience had a profound impact on my life.

I am 48 and a 26-year U.S. Navy veteran who worked nearly 20 years as an active duty Navy SEAL. I’ve deployed to Central and South America, Eastern Europe, Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan. I learned that working as a Navy SEAL and completing a PCT thru-hike have three things in common. First, the movies, documentaries and books don’t even come close to describing what it’s really like. Second, they are both exercises in pain management. Finally, both change your personal perspective on your physical and mental ability to achieve what initially seems unachievable and instills a never-quit-can-do attitude.

A warm welcome in Douglas County, Oregon.

Like many combat veterans, I’ve experienced and witnessed things that I can never forget and will be with me forever. I’ve lost teammates to training accidents, suicide and combat operations. In Iraq, I witnessed a mother and her infant son killed by coalition mortar fire, and during my last deployment to Afghanistan, I had two members of my SEAL Task Unit severely injured by a land mine. I found myself questioning my ability as a leader. Asking myself did this happen because of my failure as a leader and did I do everything I could to prevent this from happening. I found that I was carrying a level of responsibility and guilt that compromised my confidence and ability to sleep. Warrior Expedition staff and other participants in the program understood these challenges, and during my journey on the PCT, I came to terms with my past experiences.

Physical and mental changes were subtle during my journey on the PCT. Initially I realized that I was getting some of the best sleep in my life. Previously I was lucky to sleep for four hours without waking up. I found myself sleeping soundly from sunset to sunrise and waking up rejuvenated and ready for the next day of hiking. Physically, the first six weeks were challenging dealing with blisters and leg, back and shoulder pain, but as I got stronger I felt less pain and the number of miles I hiked increased. I started hiking 15 to 18 miles a day, and when I arrived in Oregon, I was easily doing 30 miles a day. By then I’d lost 43 pounds. The PCT’s amazing scenery provided the perfect backdrop for quiet reflection. I thought a lot about family and how I could be a better father and husband. I reflected on past challenges and realized that I need to focus on the here and now to make positive changes in my life. When I crossed High Sierra mountain passes, where words cannot describe the beauty, I felt a level of calmness and satisfaction that I had never felt before. I carry this with me now, one month after completing my hike.

In the lava near the Three Sisters, Oregon.

I still find it difficult to articulate what I experienced on the PCT and how it has changed my life, but I did meet a gentleman on the trail who broke it down for me into simple terms. I was eating lunch while soaking my feet in a lake when I met a man I refer to as Hippy Santa. He had a white beard and round belly and was wearing a tie-dye T-shirt. He had hiked the Oregon portion of the PCT and was doing a day hike with his teenage grandson. I learned that Hippy Santa was a 62-year-old retiree who lived in Coos Bay, Oregon, about 90 miles from where I grew up in Roseburg. When I told him that I was thru-hiking the PCT after 26 years of military service, he told me that I must be doing a “cleanse” and after that much time in the military I was probably in need of one. Since the only cleanse I was aware of involved high doses of fiber and a toilet, I asked him to explain what he meant. He told me that the PCT gives you a chance to reflect on your past and put it behind you. Once you’re able to do that, it opens your future for greater opportunities. In many ways, he was right. I was using my hike as a reset button as I transitioned from the military to my new life as a civilian. A cleanse. We talked for about 30 minutes before I moved on. I wish I had gotten his name but I will never forget him.

The only thing more amazing than the scenery are the people you get to meet along the trail. I met people from different cultures, countries, religions, sexual orientation, political affiliations, diets and hiking experience. I even met a happy vegan who didn’t criticize me for plowing through a half-pound medium-rare hamburger next to her. All the hikers I had the pleasure of meeting were extremely generous and nonjudgmental and would help anyone who needed it. I was amazed by the trail angels who offered rides, places to stay and supplies to complete strangers with no expectation of anything in return. Warrior Expeditions also established a network of support along the trail consisting of American Legion Posts, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), sponsors and individual supporters. Some of the most memorable moments were the kick-off breakfast at VFW Post 2080 in Campo, American Legion Post 853’s 20thanniversary party in Borrego Springs, a karaoke party at American Legion Post 800 in Idyllwild, a BBQ at American Legion Post 584 in Big Bear. The hospitality and generosity from American Legion Post 221 in Tehachapi, a beautiful cabin stay sponsored by PELICAN and Kevin Murphy in Clareville, the amazing patriots from VFW Post 8036 in Lone Pine and the American Legion Post 568 in Greenville, and the lodging sponsored by MASSIF in Ashland. Additionally, there were amazing individual supporters like the Stillwell Family who provided a much-needed break in Yosemite, the Morse Family who hosted Warrior Hikers at the Burney Mountain Guest Ranch, and finally the Head Family who were a great source of inspiration and helped me navigate around the fire closures in northern Washington.

A Washington tree hug.

My post-hike goals are to attempt to pay forward all the amazing support I received by continuing to promote physical and mental programs for military veterans. I don’t believe my own thru-hiking experiences are unique, and I encourage other PCT hikers to share their own experiences on the PCT and look for ways to continue support and maintenance of the trail.

With the support of Warrior Expeditions, my family and friends, I was given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience the therapy of nature that the PCT offers.


Editor’s note: This story appeared in the winter 2018 edition of the PCT Communicator magazine.

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