Walking Toward Peace: Veterans Healing on America’s Trails

Jim Schmid reviews Cindy Ross' new book "Walking Toward Peace: Veterans Healing on America’s Trails"

by Jim Schmid

Everyone has a story, but not everyone is a storyteller. We in the trails community are fortunate to have Cindy Ross who has been sharing her trail and off-trail stories with us for the past forty years. From long distance hiker to mother to trail angel to story teller and now healer Cindy has quite a story to tell. In her newest book Walking Toward Peace: Veterans Healing on American’s Trails Cindy shares stories from veterans who’ve experienced the powerful healing that can come from spending time in nature.

Each chapter can be read on its own. This is a book that bares out the adage—start with the end in mind. I suggest starting with the last chapter (17 - River House PA Veterans) to learn how Cindy got involved with helping veterans and what this endeavor means to her. In 2013 near her house in Pennsylvania Cindy met a group of veterans thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. They created such a bond that she hiked Mount Katahdin to finish their thru-hike with them. The next year started her nonprofit River House PA. The goal of her nonprofit is to build trust by demonstrating that she and her volunteers care about these veterans and have a sincere desire to help and to show them that nature is a place to heal. She sponsors nature-based outings for veterans with a focus on hiking and backpacking. She partners with local VA hospitals and recreation therapists to bring van loads of veterans out to experience nature. In addition to spending time in nature with veterans she wanted to tell their stories. In her book she shares their stories of creating lifestyles that incorporate nature and especially spending time on trails as a way to deal with issues that may have resulted from their military experiences.

After learning about Cindy and her nonprofit I suggest reading Chapter 1 - Earl Shaffer. It’s fitting that Cindy would start her book with Earl, an Army veteran of World War II and a icon in the long-distance-hiking community. In 1948 he was the first person to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (AT) in one stretch. He called himself “The Crazy One” and his hike the “Long Cruise.” The war in the Pacific had left him confused and depressed—for him this hike was a way to “walk off the war.” At that time, terms like “shell shock” and “battle fatigue” were used to label the trauma returning veterans were experiencing. Cindy states that it wasn’t until 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association named the mental condition as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Cindy mentions Earl’s biography, A Grip on the Mane of Life, written by David Donaldson in 2015. I took a little time away from her book to read Earl’s biography. I love when a book can lead you to another book.

My wife Sandra and I attended our first Trail Days festival in Damascus, VA in 1999. I had read Earl’s 1948 hike memoir, Walking with Spring, which was published by the Appalachian Trail Conference in 1982, and wanted to meet him. He was there to give a talk about his 50th anniversary thru-hike of the AT which he had just completed in 1998. The school house auditorium was packed the night he talked. His opening remarks still stick with me when he said “what have you done to my Trail.” He went on to talk about the changes to the Trail since his first hike in 1948. That night I learned the term PUDS (Pointless Ups and Downs). In 50 years the Trail has been rerouted many times and many of the reroutes take you deeper into the forest up and over many mountains and away from small communities that lie along the Trail. Some hikers refer to the AT as the “long green tunnel.” In his first hike Earl enjoyed the countless meetings with locals who feed him, gave him a bed for the night, and provided conversation and company. Hikers call it “Trail Magic.” He had strong opinions about the AT and felt comfortable expressing them. You could feel the love he had for the Trail as he talked. After his talk Sandra and I had the opportunity to sit outside with him. He was gracious and signed a copy of his memoir for me. I enjoyed our brief talk. That may be the night my wife Sandra caught the AT bug. That same weekend Sandra bought a copy of Cindy’s first book A Woman’s Journey where in a journal-style account with ink-and-charcoal drawings Cindy shares her hike on the Appalachian Trail that she undertook in the late 1970s. Her book was also published in 1982, the same year as Earl’s. Twenty years after her hike she inspired my wife with her writing and illustrations. Sandra thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2001.

Purchase the Book

Cindy ends her chapter on Earl with these words “After his journey on the Appalachian Trail, Earl went on to build, maintain, and relocate the trail; construct shelters; organize trail clubs; and share advice with new and fellow hikers. Hiking the trail gave Earl his life back, and in turn he devoted his life to the trail.” I would say a life well lived.

From here I’d suggest reading about each veteran. Each chapter has an illustrated portrait of the featured veteran. These drawings are by Cindy’s son Bryce Ross Gladfelter. In each chapter as well as the veteran’s story she presents current research and perspectives of professional therapists and she also provides information on organizations devoted to healing veterans in the outdoors. She discusses “Ecotherapy,” which is recognized as a helpful therapy for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She also mentions the benefits of “Forest Bathing.” I visited our local library and checked out six books on forest bathing. I was surprised to find so many. I would sit outside to read. We have a creek and woods in our backyard. I figured I might as well get the benefit of nature while doing all this reading. I even took my shoes off to experience a little “earthing.”

While reading about the veterans and their experiences on trails I got to thinking about how those trails got there. These are pathways into nature that are providing a place for them to heal. How did the trails get there? While reading I took a break to go get the mail. I received an envelope from American Trails and in it was a sticker that said “Trails Save Nature… and People, Too.” What a simple profound statement from an organization that since 1988 has been a collective voice for a diverse coalition of enthusiasts, professionals, advocates, land managers, conservationists, and friends of the outdoors and livable cities promoting quality trails and greenways. What we are finding is that anyone (builder or user) may discover the powerful comfort and healing that can be found in the outdoors. Those of us who work in the woods know what a profound impact nature can have. Cindy and many of us have seen first hand the positive impact that a life lived outdoors can have on one’s health and happiness. I want to say thank you to each and everyone of you. For you are doing much more than building paths through the woods, you are building and saving lives. I spent my career building trails and now in my retirement I get to enjoy them. Pretty neat benefit.

In her epilogue, Cindy provides updates on some of the veterans who she has written about. A “where are they today” look at how ecotherapy has helped them find peace in nature while always walking toward peace. If you do jump around in your reading be sure to not miss any. There’s lots of good stuff in the author’s notes.

In the summer 2018 American Trails magazine I reviewed Cindy’s book The World is Our Classroom: How One Family Used Nature and Travel to Shape an Extraordinary Education. In this book Cindy shares her years in educating her two children in the natural world by getting them outdoors. It was a pleasure to read her current book and learn of her journey through life. In fact I’ve read all of her books and I’ve just ordered her first book to read it again. How lucky we are that she loves to share.

About the Author

During his career Jim Schmid served as South Carolina’s first State Trails Coordinator as well as working for the US Forest Service as a Trails Manager in AZ, ID, and FL and also had the pleasure of managing the Florida National Scenic Trail. Jim is a collector at heart. Check out his collection of trail quotes, terms, acronyms, sayings and more at jimstrailresources.wordpress.com. In addition to updating his website and writing book reviews for American Trails Jim enjoys traveling around the country riding rail-trails and mtn bike trails.

Contact: [email protected]

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