Photo: Earl Shaffer at the northern end of the Appalachian Trail, Mount Katahdin, Maine. Photographer by an unknown hiker. Courtesy of the Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
Origin: Earl Shaffer “Walks off the War”
Around 1:30 pm on August 5, 1948, a weary Earl V. Shaffer reached the summit of Mount Katahdin. Someone took his photo by the sign, he talked with several others on the summit, and he made his way back down. His outing looked pretty similar to that of thousands of hikers who had reached the rocky pinnacle before him. Shaffer, however, had just walked the entire length of the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail. And records show he was the first person to do so since the long trail was completed in 1937.
Shaffer had started his hike 123 days previously at the base of Mount Oglethorpe, which served as the southern terminus of the AT until 1958. He travelled alone, walking around 17 miles a day. Shaffer packed light. He nixed a tent when he realized his poncho could double as a shelter. He mended his clothes, and cooked cornbread in a pan over an open fire. Shaffer made it over the rocks, roots, and rubble in just one pair of Russell Moccasin Company “Birdshooter” boots. He resoled them twice, and they were in tatters by the end.
Despite Shaffer’s militancy for packing light, another heaviness weighed on his shoulders. Shaffer’s impetus for his unprecedented journey was to “walk the war out of my system.” The 29-year-old had served as a radar equipment technician in the South Pacific for four years during World War II. He saw the vestiges of war everywhere across the bucolic trail. In his “little black book,” a six-ring notebook he used as a diary, Shaffer perfunctorily makes note of military memorials, encountering fellow vets, and clouds resembling military carriers. He writes about a farmer’s son who “was psycho from [the] army” and a mother grouse who exploded from the underbrush like “an A-bomb.”
Twice, Shaffer mentions his childhood friend, Walter Winemiller, who passed away in the Battle of Iwo Jima. They had planned on hiking the trail together.
64 Years Later: Veteran Sean Gobin Thru-Hikes the AT
Thru-hiking has exploded in popularity since Shaffer’s inaugural walk. About 20,000 people have completed the AT. Yet the tradition of “walking off the war” continues. Sixty-four years after Shaffer embarked on his 2,000 mile quest, marine veteran Sean Gobin did the same. Like Shaffer, Gobin had dreamed of thru-hiking the AT long before serving three deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a kid, Gobin and his family spent summer vacations traveling around the country in an RV.
“I remember visiting Shenandoah National Park and noticing this trail that went all the way from Georgia to Maine,” Gobin recalls. “I was fascinated that people actually hiked the whole thing. I always wanted to do it.”
On his last day in the Marine Corps, Gobin drove out the back gate of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and beelined 500 miles due west to Springer Valley, Georgia. He started his thru-hike the next day.
“It was this really personal, cathartic experience.”
Gobin set out from Springer Mountain simply hoping to defy a statistic. He knew nothing about Shaffer, nature therapy, or even thru-hiking. But Gobin did know that of those who attempt to thru-hike the AT, only about 20 percent make it all the way.
“As a Marine,” Gobin says, “You’re like, ‘okay challenge accepted.’”
Gobin wanted an extreme physical challenge. He got that — and an experience that shifted the trajectory of his life. The first month on the trail was a “complete mess.” Gobin made all of your typical beginner thru-hiker mistakes, and gave himself a slew of overuse injuries. But he was a fast learner, and by the time the shin splints, knee strains, blisters, and lost toenails recovered, Gobin had figured thru-hiking out.
“Once I figured everything out, it was really this incredible experience where I was able to focus outwardly and really appreciate the trail, nature, and the serenity of it all,” Gobin says.
Gobin settled into the rhythm of hiking eight to 12 hours a day. Immersed in nature and with nothing to distract him, he started processing his past, and planning for the future.
“Your brain really has nothing to do but start to focus on your life experiences and what you’ve gone through,” Gobin says. “You come to terms with it, and then start focusing on the future and what you want to do with your life; what’s really important to you. It was this really personal, cathartic experience.”
By the time Gobin finished the trail, he realized he had gone through an incredibly therapeutic, life-changing journey. He felt called to provide fellow vets with a similar experience — many needed it.
The early 2010s marked the height of the Veterans Association struggling to deal with an onslaught of vets coming home with mental health issues. Since 2001, over three million vets have returned home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many never transition from their experiences. In fact, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that over 15 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“The VA was prescribing a lot of medications, and some of the side effects are even worse than the effects of post-traumatic stress,” Gobin says.
To make matters worse, many vets would come home and give up the daily structure of working out and keeping up with military standards of fitness. Their physical health faded with their mental health. Gobin knew thru-hiking could help with both.
Warrior Expeditions: Walking Off War Together
Almost instantly, puzzle pieces started falling into place. Gobin met an Appalachian Trail Conservancy board member, who introduced Gobin to the history of Earl Shaffer and veterans walking off the war. Gobin was intrigued. Together, Gobin and the ATC started putting together a vet outreach program to help vets transition from their wartime experiences by thru-hiking the trail.
Gobin used his MBA classes at the University of Virginia that winter to put Warrior Expeditions together. He made the website during finals week. Gobin called every outdoor company he could think of. Companies began donating gear. The ATC announced the program, and applications flooded in. Gobin organized a community of supporters all the way up the AT who would take vets in for a meal and a place to sleep every few days up the trail.
“And their eyes — wow, it was like someone turned the lights on.”
That spring, Gobin met his first class of vets in Georgia. He distributed gear, gave an orientation talk about how to thru-hike, and told them what to expect. Gobin shadowed them up the trail for a week, and departed in Hiawassee, GA. Six months later, Gobin met the group at Katahdin. He couldn’t believe the transformation that had occurred along the trail.
“The people I met in Maine were not the same people who started in Georgia,” Gobin says. “Physically, they had lost tons of weight. The pudgy vets who started up the trail no longer had an ounce of body fat. And their eyes — wow, it was like someone turned the lights on.”
By the time Gobin met the group in Maine, the previously depressive, introverted, and sullen vets were beaming, laughing, and talking. Gobin realized he had found his life’s calling. Warrior Expeditions rapidly expanded, organizing thru-hikes for vets on eight different long trails across the country, plus a 3,700-mile cross-country cycling expedition and paddling trip along the 2,320-mile Mississippi River.
A Magical Formula: Building a Routine in Nature as a Team
Gobin says Warrior Expeditions works because of three elements: the therapeutic benefits of living in tune with nature, the structure of purpose and routine, and the social element of traveling together.
Hiking with a heavy pack all day, every day helps burn off anxiety. The physical toll and time in nature alleviates depression. The routine puts hikers on a normal sleep schedule where they’re up with the sun and sleep when the sun sets. Plus, they’re so tired that they actually get a good night’s sleep.
“It’s very structured,” Gobin says. “It strips away all the things in life that are unnecessary. It breaks life down to its most basic elements.”
Traveling along the trail in a group and interacting with community hosts and other hikers on the trail builds connection and a sense of camaraderie.
“All of those things are the magical ingredients that go into what makes it such a transformational experience, both physically and mentally” Gobin says.
These qualitative benefits have been backed up with quantitative data. For the past seven years, Warrior Expeditions has partnered with psychologists Dr. Shauna Joye (an Air Force veteran) and Dr. Zachary Dietrich (a Marine Corps veteran) to research the effects of long-term wilderness experiences on combat veterans. Their results show that participants benefit from significantly lower levels of post traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression after finishing a wilderness program.
A New Nature-Based Life
Back on his first thru-hike in 1948, Earl Shaffer quickly misplaced his maps. Unfortunately for him, smart phones and digital maps did not yet exist. So Shaffer was forced to rely on a compass and instinct to find his way. He recounts getting lost numerous times. Yet Shaffer seems to have found himself along the way. After descending Katahdin, Shaffer shouldered the nickname “The Crazy One” and moved to a cabin in rural Idaville, PA — just five miles off the AT. Surrounded by cats and goats and forgoing running water and refrigeration, Shaffer coexisted with nature on his own terms.
Thru-hiking remained another constant in Shaffer’s life. He went on to hike the entire length of the AT two more times. In 1998 at age 79, he became the oldest person to do so. It took him 173 days.
Shaffer passed away in 2002 at the age of 83. But his legacy lives on through the veterans who embark on the same transformative journey each year. After their expeditions, most vets continue to hike. Some, like Gobin, buy an RV and travel. And some even move to the wilderness and go on to start their own small farms.
“It’s therapeutic for everybody, no matter who you are and what you’re dealing with at the moment. It’s just this incredible transformation all the way around.”
Veterans hold a special place in both the history and meaning of thru-hiking in America. Yet Gobin says that part of a trail’s magic lies in its ability to lighten the lives of anyone.
“The trail is full of all different types of people and demographics and reasons for being out there,” Gobin says. “And it’s therapeutic for everybody, no matter who you are and what you’re dealing with at the moment. It’s just this incredible transformation all the way around.”
Although the pandemic has placed Warrior Expeditions trips on hold, you can get involved by applying to serve as a community host along a trail. You can also contribute with donations. Gobin says they’re always seeking outdoor gear with which to equip vets on their trips. Follow along with Warrior Expeditions on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.