As Shawn Murphy treks along the precarious Continental Divide Trail, he has lots of things to think about.
Pondering the curvature of a ridgeline, calculating the distance to the next water source, these are the kinds of things that occupy his mind from day to day.
But he also contemplates less tangible themes.
“What it boils down to is you have to want to face your demons and deal with them,” Murphy said. “If you don’t, you’ll never change.”
Murphy is a combat veteran.
Originally from Toledo, Ohio, he joined the U.S. Army in 1984, doing undercover military police operations in Korea in the 1980s.
“Up until 2012, my attitude and everything was plummeting downhill,” Murphy said. “I was having a lot of issues.”
The he read a book called “A Thru-Hiker’s Heart” by Ray Echols.
“It talked about how you could work through your problems while hiking, so it was a last ditch effort for me,” Murphy said.
He decided to hike 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.
It was a formative experience.
“I hiked the trail, I changed quite a bit, and the changes stayed with me,” Murphy said.
It was only later that Murphy saw an ad for Warrior Hike, a program that sponsors veterans who want to “walk off the war.”
On Thursday, July 24, Murphy arrived in Grand Lake, passing on his trek. It’s his first expedition as a part of Warrior Hike.
A vet and a vision
In 2012, Sean Gobin had just returned from Afghanistan, and his heart was set on the Appalachian Trail.
Gobin and a friend decided to make the most of their journey, hiking the AT to raise money for disabled veterans. They raised over $30,000, but Gobin says the hike was an epiphany.
“About 23 days into the hike, I realized that the hike itself was incredibly beneficial and even had more importance than just being a fundraiser,” he said. “That’s when the idea came about.”
With that, Gobin started Warrior Hike, a program that helps give veterans the same opportunity to reflect and heal that Gobin himself had.
The program sponsors groups of hikers on National Scenic Trails like the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Appalachian Trail.
“It turns into a mini support network,” Gobin said. “They really start to have this cohesion just like military units have on deployment, so it’s really interesting to watch them go through the process.”
Finding peace, camaraderie
Murphy is the first of his six-man team to reach Grand Lake.
Injuries and much-needed rest breaks have slowed the rest of his team down, but their persistence is something that inspires Murphy. On the trail, as in life, Murphy and his compatriots look to advance.
“This is the mental attitude of us,” he said. “The idea of going backwards or not finishing, it doesn’t exist. You have to go forward, always forward, never back.”
In Grand Lake, local veterans service officer Duane Dailey arranged a cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park for Murphy.
Daily, a Vietnam veteran, said he sees value in the Warrior Hike program.
“In my dealings as a veteran services officer, I deal with an unbelievable amount of (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder),” said Dailey. “Looking at this first man that came through and listening to him talk about it, it really gets him back in tune with his inner self. It appears to be successful and therapeutic.”
Murphy said he especially enjoys stopping in towns and meeting other veterans.
“It’s just amazing what vets do for other vets,” Murphy said. “I don’t even know how to express my gratitude, you know? It’s overwhelming in a lot of ways.”
Since beginning the Continental Divide Trail, Murphy said he has been engrossed by the natural world.
“A lot of the trail stays with me mentally, and it’s hard to explain,” Murphy said. “It’s not just walking. It’s thinking and seeing. It’s being part of the world that you’re living in.”
His small Casio camera already holds stunning footage of mountain goats and a female moose with her calf, which he recently filmed.
The fact that I’m able to get close is amazing,” he said. “I’ve seen more wildlife probably in Colorado than I have anywhere else on the trail so far.”
After he completes the trail, Murphy hopes to complete the Pacific Northwest and Arizona trails under the banner of Warrior Hike.
And he hopes he’ll continue to heal.
“It wasn’t easy to take a look in myself and say 99.9 percent of the problems in life are me,” Murphy said. “That part sucked, but it had to be done because now that I know what the problems are, I know what I can do to change them.”
He sat silently for a moment, absorbed in reflection, and then his face broke into sheepish grin.
“Now if I hike long enough,” he said, “I might be able to quit smoking cigarettes.”
Hank Shell can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19610.