A Second Chance
The further north he hiked, the landscape of the Appalachian Trail transformed with yellows, reds, and golds. The wind changed direction and the temperatures grew cooler. By foot, the full trip took six months to complete. He had seven days remaining of the 2,189-mile expedition. Jason McMillan was no longer the same guy who stepped onto the trail that first day. He’d gone through four pairs of shoes, three sets of hiking poles, and two backpacks. But the personal trek to “walk off the war” was working.
The group of veterans started off at fourteen members, but by the time a journalist met them at Smarts Mountain in New Hampshire, they were down to nine. The reporter, Lewis, had on a backpack, entirely for show – he wasn’t traveling very far with them. He faced the cameraman, “I’m here with a group of hikers taking part in a ‘Warrior Walk’, organized by a non-profit veteran’s group, Warrior Expeditions. They’ve agreed to let me follow along for a short while today and tell their stories.”
He turned from the camera, “All right, everyone, thank you. We’ll get started and just walk and talk. Does that sound good?”
Murmured approval came from the group. Jason pulled on his pack and walked on, not interested in being interviewed. He spent most of his time hiking alone in front of the group. The camaraderie of other veterans who understood what he’d been through was comforting, but he set off on this adventure for the healing. The mere act of walking all day, seven days a week, left little time to do anything except contemplate. And in those moments of quiet exhaustion, confront all those demons that built up in a war zone.
The others in the group talked about their reasons for coming out on a six-month hike. It’s a huge commitment and many are in a real shitty place to resort to this to decompress. Some of his fellow hikers have a spouse and children waiting on them, but not Jason. Which was for the best, because he’d make a terrible partner. Thoughts about home crept into his consciousness multiple times over the last few weeks, recalling how he’d left three years ago after screwing everything up.
“Tell me a little about yourself,” Lewis said coming up next to him.
“I’m Jason. I was an Army Interior Electrician. Served four tours of duty in Iraq.” Aware of the cameraman behind them, he tried to pretend it wasn’t there.
“And your experience on the AT?”
“It’s been a wide range of experiences; some days are better than others. There’s an entire transformation walking through the woods like this. All we do is walk, then we go bed, get up the next morning, and repeat. I’ve learned to live in the here and now. You can’t focus on Maine, ’cause for the longest time, the end has been too far away. So you’re focused on setting short-term goals.”
“Do you feel that this has helped you?”
“Sure. In war, you build up walls. That’s a necessity. And afterward, it takes time to process. Especially when you’re injured. Being out here, I’ve been able to decompress and reset. And at the stops along the way, we meet the nicest people, and it’s helped to restore my faith in humanity.”
“Were you injured?”
“All I’ll say, was that our armored vehicle ran over an IED.” He didn’t want to give away more than that to a stranger. These words and stories would live online for the rest of time. He’d spent months coming to terms with his survivors’ guilt, the fallout from his injuries, and the mess he made when he returned home.
Lewis did not have time to press on, before Bobby started talking. “The wilderness has healing effects,” he said. “We’ve seen beautiful things – plants, trees, clouds, the sky. And we’re all hiking together, but in solitude, reflecting on our lives.”
Heather nodded. “This process is about tearing down emotional walls.”
“We’re all the same sleeping on the ground with sore feet, and you make friends with everyone you meet. We’re all on an even playing field out here,” Jason said.
After pitching their tents and starting the campfire, they gathered around with their food, Bobby sat next to him on the canvas blanket. His name did not do him justice. The six-foot-five marine was about the most physically intimidating man Jason had ever met. He imagined that the other marines called him “tank,” “the executioner,” or “that dude you don’t fuck with.”
“Are you going to have any family at Mount Katahdin?” Bobby asked.
“Nah.” There wouldn’t be anyone waiting at the finish line.
“It’s difficult to get to Maine from Tennessee.”
“Well, it’s more like I didn’t tell them…”
Bobby leveled a look at him. “You took off without telling your family?”
“When you put it that way…”
His friend had a knack for remaining silent until you filled the space.
“Wasn’t talking to them that much before I left.” And he still hadn’t forgiven himself for what he did to his sister, Autumn.
“Were they not supportive?”
Jason shook his head. “They were great, even when I didn’t deserve it…not after what I did.” With his head injury, he’d lost chunks of memory from around that time. But from the sporadic flashes of memory that happened, it did not bring him any comfort. The more he pieced together, the worse it became.
The fire danced and crackled in the pit in front of them. They gazed at the fire in silence.
“Do you still think you don’t deserve their support?”
He shrugged, “I know I do, in my head. But emotionally…”
“Might be hard for you to believe, but all of us deserve support. And if you’re lucky enough to get that from your family, then you’re more blessed than many. Call them at the next town and let them know what you’re doing.”
They worried about him, and he appreciated Bobby for not attempting to guilt him with that. Maybe he’d fly home after this and not have them travel all the way to Maine just to yell at him. He faced the fact it was time to stop running from home and the people who knew what happened to him. “What about you?”
“Yeah, my parents said they’d be there.”
“Divorced,” he said, stretching out on the blanket. “She decided I was too hard to live with after I came back.”
“That sucks. If I’d been married, she’d have left my ass too.” Jason stood, nodded to Bobby, and climbed into his tent. He sat on the sleeping bag and pulled his shoes off, his feet screaming as he wiggled his toes and stretched out his body. He should climb on into the bag, laying across the top of it and getting comfortable would come back to bite him.
Jason sat up and pulled the journal out of his pack instead. It wasn’t until he prepared to go on the hike of the AT that he started journaling. His therapist back in Nashville suggested it when he told her his plans. At first, he’d only kept notes on the hike itself, the things he’d seen, and the experience of a long-distance trek. His daily entries still contained that, but they’d grown more personal. The things he remembered, he’d write as soon as he could, just in case he forgot a second time. Jason paged to the prior entry and read: Become a good enough man to have a relationship. Still not there. On the next page, he made notes about the journalist, and his talk with Bobby. At the bottom he wrote: Call mom and Autumn no matter how much it sucks. Grow up. With heavy eyelids, he packed up his journal then slid into the sleeping bag. The pure physical exhaustion of the hike helped break down those emotional walls.
He’d been working on putting himself back together, and reconnecting with his family was the final piece.