The simple act of walking into the woods changed Cindy Ross’ life decades ago.
Since she first hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1979, and later moved to a Berks County trail town, Ross and her family have logged thousands of miles together. The miles, she said, work the mind as much as the body.
Ross and her husband, Todd Gladfelter, founded River House, a nonprofit that helps take veterans into nature for healing via hiking, biking, kayaking, and camping. Ross’ latest book, Walking Toward Peace: Veterans Healing on America’s Trails, tells the stories of 25 veterans searching for solace in the outdoors.
“These vets and their stories have the power to change lives,” Ross told The Inquirer recently.
Ross first grew interested in helping veterans in 2013, when a group hiking the AT stayed with her at her home. Later that year, she traveled to Maine to meet them at the trail’s terminus on Mount Katahdin.
“We were used to hosting and helping long-distance hikers,” she said. “We picked these vets up and brought them home, and we sat around the fire and passed around the rain stick telling stories. They sat there and unloaded. They were crying and we were crying.”
One of the first veterans in Ross’ book is Steve Clendenning, a U.S. Marine who served in Iraq and spent several years at the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. In 2017, Clendenning joined Ross at a gathering of veterans at the New Ringgold Boy Scout camp in Schuylkill County and told The Inquirer the AT saved him.
“Honestly, if I wouldn’t have done the trail, I would have committed suicide or I would still be a raging alcoholic. That’s the truth,” he told The Inquirer then.
Long before post-traumatic stress disorder was officially recognized, WWII veteran Earl Shaffer left his York County home and hit the trail, becoming the first person to hike the entire AT in both directions. Shaffer, now deceased, served in the South Pacific and lost a close friend in the invasion of Iwo Jima.
“It straightened me out, more or less,” said Schaffer of his hike decades later.
Ross, who included Shaffer’s story in her book, said she spent several years earning the trust of the veterans she profiled. She hopes the book can bridge gaps between civilians and veterans through a common love of nature, as it did for her and her family.
“It’s not that hard to do what we do but it works,” she said. “I know how I feel after hiking 25,000 miles. Most of us are pretty far from that military mindset, but we can all get so much out of getting into the woods.”