Walking off the War

by David Chrisinger

“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

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.

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.

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.

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. Before the advent of 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.