Shawn Murphy was an angry, cynical man searching for peace.
For most of his life, he had distrusted people and hated the world.
“I saw the world as a negative place. Everybody was evil, everything was out to get me,” said the 48-year-old Auburn man and Army veteran. “All my problems were caused by someone else. I had a poor attitude. … I couldn’t stand myself anymore.”
Murphy struggled to make the transition from military police duty to active civilian life 25 years ago.
He had trouble making friends and keeping jobs.
He had lost his way.
Then, in 2012, he started hiking — and found his salvation.
Hiking America’s rugged backcountry, near and far, proved therapeutic for Murphy. It brought relief, and provided soul-searching answers to the confused and temperamental man.
“After walking a trail in solitude for weeks at a time, you are inside your own mind. You have these hardcore insights,” Murphy explained. “It gives you time to go inside your mind. … You’re stripping away all your façade. You’re seeing yourself for who you truly are.
“I knew I had some issues, and I wanted to solve them,” Murphy said. “And it took me that long to realize that all my problems were actually caused by me, by my poor attitude.”
Murphy’s cross country treks were part of the Warrior Hike, a nonprofit, outdoor therapy program tailored to support veterans leaving military service by thru-hiking America’s National Scenic Trails.
The program helps fund six-month, long-distance hikes throughout the country for veterans. In essence, veterans like Murphy are able to “walk off” the war, developing as they go a better understanding of themselves and others while connecting with nature.
“The process of hiking eight hours a day for six months forces you to think and reflect. No distraction of computers, TVs and cellphones,” said Sean Gobin, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran and executive director of the program, now in its third year. “The group of hikers also turned into a close-knit family. They watched each other process their own experiences and helped each other along the way. They witnessed a change in themselves and each other.”
Murphy says he is a better person for the experience. Thru-hiking has helped him work through his anger issues and learn who he really is. He said those who want to change will find their cure on the trail.
“I am more calm today,” said Murphy, a single man who saves “every penny” from his Auburn warehouse job for the extensive hikes. “The Warrior Hike gives me legitimacy.”
Taking to the trail
In 2012, Murphy solo-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile route that makes its way up the length of California, crossing Oregon and Washington before reaching the Canadian border.
Last summer, Murphy was one of a handful of veterans who hiked the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail between Mexico and Canada, covering as many as 30 miles a day. The trail follows the Continental Divide along the Rocky Mountains and traverses five U.S. states — Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.
Murphy and another veteran will hike the 800-mile Arizona Trail beginning in mid-March at the Mexican border and finishing in mid-May at the Utah border. Auburn VFW Post 1741, seven other Posts and an American Legion Post are supporting the hike. Post 1741 recently donated $300 to the Warrior Hike program on behalf of Murphy, a Post member.
Murphy’s goal is to hike all 11 National Scenic Trails, including the Pacific Northwest Trail.
“It helps me find my place,” he said. “Hiking brings out the best in me … the beauty of it is impressive, the animals and the people, the solitude and the scenery.”
Warrior Hike continues to grow. Gobin said the program processed more than 100 applications last year. He has plans to expand the program’s reach, offering more hikes to more veterans in more states each year.
New this year is Warrior Paddle, a 2,300-mile kayak trip down the Mississippi River, for those veterans who are physically unable to do long-distance hikes. A cross country bicycle trail ride also is in the works.
Gobin has seen how the hikes have changed veterans for the better.
“The hikes help those rekindle the faith they lost,” he said.
To learn more, visit warriorhike.org.