“I decided what I wanted to be: hiker trash.”
That’s John Orosz, 2019 Appalachian Trail hiker and Army veteran speaking about his transitory phase of life between soldier and civilian.
Orosz is medically retired from the Army, leaving the service as a captain after having served for nine years as an artillery officer with two combat deployments to Afghanistan. He is the recipient of the Purple Heart and earned the Ranger Tab after graduating from the Army’s physically and mentally grueling 61-day leadership course.
No stranger to outdoor challenges, he is currently on the approximate 2,190-mile hike through 14 states. “Thru-hiking” is the term given to those completing a trail point-to-point continuously in a calendar year. That equates to roughly five to seven months of climbing, pacing and living life out of a backpack. Yearly, only 25% are reported to successfully complete a thru-hike, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and take an average of six consecutive months. Orosz is becoming that 25%.
“I have the amazing opportunity to unpack my life struggles, military and non-military,” Orosz said. Every step he takes is one towards building a new life and finding himself as a person. He says being on the trail is a way to extend time in order to allow decisions to come naturally, not rushing the next phase.
“It is a strange rhythm that you find yourself in. Your world revolves around hiking, getting on the trail and hiking again.”
Along with hiking comes a new close set of friends, too.
“Everyone says the best thing about the trail are the people you meet, and it’s true.”
Much like in the Army, one can spend every waking moment for days or weeks alongside their trail family. Together, the hikers experience many moments of joy, relief and fulfillment, and ultimately form an incredibly strong bond.
For instance, when tragedy struck the Appalachian Trail earlier in the year when a hiker passed away, the trail community was never far away. Orosz recalls the entire trail community — from hikers to trail volunteers — coming together in solitude to console each other. No stranger to loss after his time in Afghanistan, he says the act surprised him.
“It was a feeling I hadn’t had since the coming together of a unit after losing a soldier.”
Another form of bonding people experience while hiking is the nicknames bestowed to one another, known as trail names. In Orosz’s case, his moniker — John the Baptist — is the result of wading into and submerging himself in the French Broad River, in addition to the parallel between the Jewish prophet and Christian saint that he, too, will return to civilization after a period of solitude with a renewed purpose in life. Orosz says embracing a new name is part of embracing the process itself.
Orosz further says the trail is about fellowship with others and living with minimal possessions. “You learn to improvise or rely on your fellow hikers,” he said. Hikers bond through shared experiences and struggles. He even calls the trail his own “six month group therapy session.”
Many veterans have been known to use hiking as a Complementary and Alternative Medicine whether used to treat PTSD or help people, like Orsoz, understand what life after the military looks like. In fact, several nonprofits over the years, like Warrior Expeditions, have provided scholarships to veterans that support the thru-hiking experience.
Leaving the military can be a terrifying thought for a soldier, especially for those like Orosz who have spent many years in the community. His story, though, outlines an option for others in finding a new purpose in life after the military.
In January, Orosz is set to embark on a new path studying Recreational Therapy at Metropolitan State University in Denver, Colorado. His time on the trail will lend itself to helping others heal for years to come.
“I often meet people for the first time who say, ‘Oh you’re [John the Baptist], we’ve heard about you!’” he said.Read comments