Walking off the War

“I have two doctors, my left leg and my right. When body and mind are out of gear (and those twin parts of me live at such close quarters that the one always catches melancholy from the other) I know that I have only to call in my doctors and I shall be well again.” –George Macaulay Trevelyan, “Walking,” 1913

The top of Mount Katahdin, Jun 14, 2014 -- By Austin Bryant

The top of Mount Katahdin, Jun 14, 2014 — By Austin Bryant

In 1948, Earl Shaffer, a veteran of the war in the Pacific, became the first person to hike the entire length of the approximately 2,200-mile long Appalachian Trail — from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to the trail’s northern end at Katahdin, Maine. Born in 1918, Shaffer was raised in rural York County, Pennsylvania; a mere 20 miles from the Appalachian Trail.

Map of the Appalachian Trail, hand-drawn by Benton MacKaye.

Map of the Appalachian Trail, hand-drawn by Benton MacKaye.

As a young man, Shaffer hiked portions of the trail with his close friend, Walter Winemiller. After deciding to enlist in the military in 1941, Shaffer and Winemiller made a pact that they would hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail once the war was over.

Unfortunately, Winemiller was killed during the battle for Iwo Jima. Shaffer came home a different man.


Shaffer in the Pacific during World War II.

One little known fact about the generation of men that fought “the Good War” is that many of them — like combat veterans before and since — found it incredibly difficult to readjust to life at home.

“Peace,” Maureen Daly wrote in the Ladies’ Home Journal in May 1947, “It’s a problem.”

Once the Second World War ended, most people were anxious to “get back to normal,” but many veterans found that normal seemed to be in short supply. Many veterans, in fact, had “dreamed of home and longed for it, day and night, for years. And now…there’s something wrong: He’s changed…or it’s changed…or else it hasn’t, when it seems to him it should have changed.”

It wasn’t long before some veterans became disillusioned and bitter. A veteran of the war in the Pacific realized after the fact that he had “lost three years out of [his] life, playing catch up in school, catch up economically, catch up.” His old friends, he discovered, had graduated from college. Two were doctors; all had careers. “I was so bitter,” he later recalled, “you wouldn’t recognize me.” At the separation center, he was advised that his wartime experience as an infantry sergeant qualified him to be a “Maine hunting guide.” Instead, he became “a drunk and a wild man…. I had no direction, no ambition,” he recalled. “I was just overwhelmed with bitterness and full of hate and envy.”

By 1947, Shaffer had worked a series of dead-end jobs and was likely feeling the same disillusionment and bitterness other veterans felt. That same year, Shaffer saw a magazine article stating that no one had ever hiked the Appalachian Trail straight-through. Not long after that, he set out on the trail, reaching the end in 124 days with primitive gear and without modern conveniences (he didn’t even have a stove or a tent).

His grand journey rightfully served as a memorial for his lost friend and fellow soldiers.

Shaffer at the end of the Appalachian Trail, Mount Katahdin, Maine.

Shaffer at the end of the Appalachian Trail, Mount Katahdin, Maine.

Walking is a highly effective way to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety because it is soothing and engenders positive emotional states. In fact, a brisk 20- to 30-minute walk can have the same calming effect as a mild tranquilizer, and walking daily for a half-hour has been shown to quickly relieve major depression.

Longer journeys, like the one Shaffer completed, can separate you from the distractions of everyday life and can lead to profound transformations and feelings of purification.

Perhaps that’s why Sean Gobin, a post-9/11 veteran with three combat deployments under his belt, decided to follow in Shaffer’s footsteps in 2012.

Gobin, who has since founded The Warrior Hike Program, has said that before modern transportation, armies would take months to march home from war. That time spent marching inadvertently provided the opportunity for soldiers to decompress and to come to terms with their wartime experiences before returning home.

“Now, after the age of modern-day transportation, we find ourselves coming back and forth from the battlefield in a matter of 72 hours,” Gobin told a reporter recently. “So for all three of my combat deployments, I was home in three days. And that makes for a really difficult transition for a lot of service members. And I think that’s evident with today’s current stats, with over 20 percent of our vets coming home with post-traumatic stress disorder and the suicide rates in 2012, which were 22 per day.”

Even before Shaffer, veterans have used long-distance walking to make sense of life after war. According to historian Dixon Wecter, following the Civil War, long-distance walking events were all the craze: There was, for example, a “Bostonian” who walked “forty miles a day in April 1865, carrying the Stars and Stripes to Washington to celebrate the fall of Richmond;” a mania for marathon athletes in Michigan in the summer of 1865; and in New Orleans in September that year, the attempt of one Mr. Harris “to walk for 100 consecutive hours without rest.”

For veterans, these events were “the channels in which to work off superfluous excitement,” wrote the editor of the Army and Navy Journal in October 1866. “And, meanwhile, the friendly associations recall the camaraderie of the campaign.”

“As in 1865,” Wecter continues, “America rediscovered [at the conclusion of the First World War] the cult of fitness and the outdoor life.”

“Nerves, like springs coiled under tension, were now released and quivering,” he wrote. “Long walks, the spending of physical energy, seemed to give relief.”

Perhaps the Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic was right after all: It is solved by walking.

  12 comments for “Walking off the War

  1. Nicole
    November 3, 2015 at 9:31 pm

    After reading this article I realized that I do like to do a lot of walking and that walking the Appellation Mountains would be a great experience. I just don’t know if I would like to do the whole thing. It would require me to take a lot of time off and walk for a very long time and I don’t think I would be able to walk the whole thing at the moment. I might do it in the future I’m just not sure yet if I will or not.

  2. Benjamin
    November 3, 2015 at 9:33 pm

    This article is very interesting since me and my friend that was in the army wants to hike this trail, the pacific coast trail witch is longer and the continental divide trail that is the longest. there is a web site that talks about all three of these and only about 196 hikers have ever completed all three and been granted the triple crown of hiking award. I agree that walking is a good stress reliever and depression reliever also.

  3. Tony
    November 3, 2015 at 10:58 pm

    I would love to do something like this. Hiking is such a great time. Some friends and I would walk the trails through parts of the black forest in German or we would travel to to the Dolimites in Italy. On one of the mountain tops in Italy we found an old bunker and Machine-gun sights. It was pretty cool.

  4. Danny
    November 4, 2015 at 12:45 am

    I agree that hiking reduces a lot of personal stress. I had the chance to hike Iwo Jima and Mt Fuji it takes a lot of your mind to relax and and think about past generations who had fought in the hardest battles of the pacific. This would be a challenge I would love to do in the oncoming future when I go back to the east coast.

  5. Sam
    November 4, 2015 at 1:09 am

    It’s interesting to think about how quickly we can come back from a foreign country in less than 72hrs, compared to prior generations. I’m sure walking a couple hundred miles really gave someone time to decompress and get their head on as right as possible. There are some units, now, that have a two week long decompression period, on top of their post deployment leave, that that go to in order to help get back into life at home.

  6. Austin
    November 4, 2015 at 3:05 am

    I think with the right gear and allotted time I would enjoy hiking the Appalachian trail. I’ve always enjoyed long walks even as a kid. It really helps decompress and with the right people so many things can be talked about during a long walk to the point where you forget how long you’ve actually been walking. At the same time I don’t know how much decompression will help coming back from an active war zone. Once the realities set in from the real world stress levels will go back up and the same issues will continue.

  7. Cody
    November 4, 2015 at 3:27 am

    I would love to do this sometime before i die. I agree big time about the stress relief. even before i joined the military i used to go walk the woods all the time i don’t know its something about the peace and quiet that allow you to just relax and think about life. sometimes that’s all you need.

  8. Cole Swanson
    November 4, 2015 at 4:18 am

    I honestly didn’t know that walking relieves stress, but it makes sense because it’s the same thing as working out. You release endorphin’s that cause your brain to make happy and positive thoughts. I can see myself doing this because I love working out. It helps me relieve stress, and it helps me look good. Walking would make my legs nice and toned along with getting my mind into happy thoughts.

  9. Shane
    November 4, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    I have always pretty much known that exercise relieves stress. I’ve been athletic most of my life I did spend a lot of time walking I don’t know if a hike that long would do any good, for me personally but I do concur that it probably would help a lot of other combat stressed soldiers.

  10. Brian
    November 4, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    Three days is not much of a turn around. I don’t blame people for wanting to come back right away. They have families and love ones that have waited months for them to return. Hiking would seem like a good stress relieve but knowing your family is safe and you are there with them is even better.

  11. Nick
    November 4, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    This has always been a dream of mine. hopefully I can go on one of my summer breaks or once I finish with school. I had never thought about this being a stress relief for the older generations. I always knew they had to walk back. I even thought about how much it must suck that you are finally out of war, yet you are still months from being home. Thinking about it this way I am actually a little envious that we did not have anything similar. Just thrown back into the daily routine.

  12. Michael
    November 8, 2015 at 11:08 pm

    I also didn’t know that walking relieves stress and that it was a reason they use to do it after the wars. I always figured it was due mostly to the lack of transportation and having no choice. That being said I enjoy hiking but in moderation. I don’t think I could hike the entire trail or that I would even want to attempt it.

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