On a Saturday in April 1948, a loner poet from Pennsylvania shouldered a rucksack and a weight no scale could measure and embarked on a journey no man had taken before.
Earl Shaffer, 29, walked down a Georgia mountain and kept going, alone with the sound of his breath and the wild things around him, northward for 2,000-plus miles, hoping the Appalachian Trail could help him forget a war mankind hadn’t seen before.
“It straightened me out, more or less,” Shaffer, now deceased, said of his journey in 1998.
Carl “Steve” Clendenning was salvaged on the trail 65 years later, after the war in Iraq tore him up and left him a rusting Marine trying to find his way back to normal in the United States.
“I found what I needed in nature. It’s amazing, and it’s just hard to describe what it truly does for you. You can be pissed off at the world and take a walk into the woods, and five feet into the woods, you’re not pissed off anymore,” Clendenning, 43, said. “Honestly, if I wouldn’t have done the trail, I would have committed suicide or I would still be a raging alcoholic. That’s the truth.”
Clendenning, who hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2013, was one of about 50 veterans and their family members who came together in Schuylkill County on a recent, warm fall weekend, all of them pitching tents or sleeping in bunks beside Indian Run at the New Ringgold Boy Scout Camp beneath Hawk Mountain, just a few miles from the trail.
The gathering was hosted by Cindy Ross and her husband, Todd Gladfelter, a couple who’ve spent most of their lives among the trees under sun and stars, trading baby strollers for llamas as they hiked their children across the country.
“We raised them in the wilderness,” Ross said at the campground. “We knew what it could do for forming people and healing people.”
A thru-hiker typically takes five to seven months to complete the trail from Georgia to Maine. Shaffer, who grew up in York, finished in 124 days, the first person to hike the trail continuously from summit to summit. The Smithsonian was given Shaffer’s trail diary, its sparse entries somehow haunting.
“In very good spirits. thinking of Walter. Weather like yesterday, fair with breeze,” Shaffer wrote while in Maine.
Walter Winemiller was Shaffer’s best friend. As boys, they dreamed of walking the trail together, but World War II changed that. Winemiller died in the invasion of Iwo Jima, and Shaffer spent years setting up radar equipment and airstrips while battling tropical illnesses in the South Pacific with the Army Signal Corps.
Lost and aimless when he returned, Shaffer hit the trail alone.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail is Herculean for everyone, but even more so for veterans struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Ross, a writer, runs a nonprofit retreat, River House in East Brunswick, Schuylkill County, that helps bring vets like Clendenning into nature in smaller increments. Ross first met vets like Clendenning when they stopped at Eckville Shelter, a hikers’ hostel she ran by the trail.
“Every veteran can’t hike 2,000 miles,” Ross said, silver bracelets and bangles halfway up her arm. “We know how to help them.”
Nature-as-therapy is a no-brainer, obvious to just about anyone who gets under a tree canopy or sits beside a stream for a few minutes. Getting outside isn’t so simple as it used to be, though, and even is seen by some as a privilege generally unavailable to the poor.
Advancing technologies such as video games and cell phones play a part in keeping children indoors, but schools cutting outdoor activities and a long history of poor urban design are also contributors, said Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.
“I think it’s fairly well-accepted that nature can have a pretty profound effect on physical health, ability to learn, and creativity,” Louv said from California last week.
Amy Cook, the supervisory recreation therapist at the Lebanon Veterans Administration Hospital, said Ross’ programs help veterans learn outdoor skills, like paddling or cycling, that can make them want to spend even more time in nature.
“She allows our vets to experience the natural world and, through the natural world, find a little bit of peace in themselves,” Cook said.
At the Boy Scout camp, a light rain made all the mossy rocks and footbridges more slippery on a Sunday morning. Clendenning’s little boy, Sean, scurried from one person who tossed him into the air to another, his feet appropriately dirty.
Kayaks were still strapped atop cars after a Saturday on the Little Schuylkill River. In the large pavilion, a fire crackled, and eggs sizzled on a long griddle.
A bluegrass duo played a languid guitar and fiddle tune as Sara Bernhart, 40, sat by the entrance, smoking a cigarette.
“I came out here to relax, deal with my anxiety, and get away from people,” the Berks County resident said. “I don’t really like being around people. Coming out here just helps me get away from it all.”
Bernhart was in the U.S. Army for three years.
“I had a bad experience,” she said. “I was assaulted while I was there.”
All of the vets gathered at the picnic tables in the pavilion were open about the burdens they carry and how just being around others who’ve carried that weight is healing.
“It’s the camaraderie,” said Ed Arneson, 51, of Maryland. “People come together to have something in common. I work in civilian government, and you work and go home and don’t really talk to anyone. This kind of brings you back to your roots.”
Arneson is retired from the Army after 20 years and suffers from PTSD stemming from an incident in Korea. That’s not something he talks about, but he did say he tried to take his own life in 2012.
For a long time, Clenndenning, from West Virginia, didn’t like living, either. He served in Fallujah, sweeping roads for IEDs. He carried pieces of a friend who’d been blown up by an IED and later suffered a traumatic brain injury and hearing loss when one went off beneath him in 2006. He retired in 2013 as a staff sergeant.
“In the last two years, I’ve lost seven I know directly, know personally, who’ve killed themselves from the military,” he said, stroking his long beard. “One of them was just a month ago.”
When Clenndenning reached the trail’s terminus at the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park, he felt he’d unlocked a mystery about the powers of nature, one he’s been preaching to anyone who will listen, just like Earl Shaffer did.
“It gave me a really long time to think about life. Completely changed me,” he said, his boy crashing into his legs. “It works. I swear by it, and that is what I tell everybody, every veteran I come across.”