Walking Toward Peace: Cindy Ross on Veterans Healing in the Outdoors

Cindy Ross is a triple-crowner, writer, and founder of River House PA, a non-profit dedicated to taking veterans outdoors. Her new book, Walking Toward Peace: Veterans Healing on America’s Trails is out now. The author will be participating in a live Q&A at 7 p.m. ET on April 15th.

Anyone who walks in the woods knows what a profound impact nature can have on mental health. Aside from the oxygen, exercise, and beautiful views, there’s a mental workout that comes with hiking. Navigating uneven terrain, adjusting our body temperatures to the weather, and staying aware of changing surroundings puts our brains into a state of hyper-engagement. According to Dr. Michael Merzanich, a leading researcher in brain plasticity, this mental exercise strengthens our brains and has the opposite effect of staying indoors and staring at screens.

This idea, that nature can strengthen and even heal our brains, is the center of Cindy Ross’ work to bring veterans struggling with PTSD outdoors. As a triple-crowner, cyclist, and homesteader, Cindy has seen first hand the positive impact that a life lived outdoors can have on one’s health and happiness. And while she may be an unlikely vehicle for this healing—she doesn’t come from a military family herself—she’s managed to build a strong community of veterans as part of her non-profit River House PA and is releasing her book Walking Toward Peace: Veterans Healing on America’s Trails on April 15. 

Cindy Ross, From Trail Angel to Trail Mom

After hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1979, Cindy moved to a trail town in Pennsylvania where she started feeding and sheltering weary thru-hikers. She ended up marrying one of those hikers and the two set out to create a life around long-distance backpacking, homesteading, and freedom in the outdoors. Thousands of trail miles, and two children later, Cindy and her husband Todd found themselves empty nesters.

Living near the Appalachian Trail in the log cabin where they raised their kids, the two found joy in creating trail magic for hikers. In 2013, a group of thru-hiking veterans stayed with Cindy and Todd, and they created such a bond that Cindy traveled to Maine to hike Mount Katahdin and finish the trail with them. It was then that she knew she wanted to work with veterans and help them have transformational experiences through nature. 

In the years since, Cindy and Todd have partnered with VA hospitals and recreational therapists to take Veterans struggling with PTSD into nature with a focus on hiking and backpacking. “The natural world is a wonderful way to heal,” Cindy says. “I just happen to pick walking because it’s what we’ve done most our lives and it’s easy.” She’s formed bonds of trust with many of the veterans she’s worked with, earning the nickname “Trail Mom.” “I love being a mother,” she says, “but my kids have their lives. So it wasn’t hard to care about these guys at all.”

Backpacker Radio Episode 90: Cindy Ross.

Forging Connections, Sharing Stories

In 2013, US Army Ranger Zach Adamson took his own life after returning from a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. After four years serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Zach found peace on the trail, but the transition back home proved difficult.

Zach wrote in his journal, “I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I’m upset and depressed. I loved being on the trail, but I came back home thinking I could pick up where I left off, and I was obviously wrong. I don’t know what I want to do or where I want to go. What makes me happy is excitement, adrenaline, new places, new adventures. Do I live the life that I feel has been an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; or live with family in Ohio, go on weekend trips close by, have a house, get a girl, do what’s ‘normal’? I don’t know.”

US Army Rangers Sean Reilly and Travis Johnston on Mcafee Knob for Zach Adamson’s memorial hike. Photo courtesy of Cindy Ross.

At the funeral, Zach’s best friend and fellow Army Ranger Travis Johnston met Zach’s trail family. “I wondered who all these fuckin’ trail hiking hippies were that came to remember Zach… I thought, ‘They don’t know my brother.’ But they were such happy people and something about them spoke to me through my depression, and I thought, ‘I want to be happy too.’” Travis decided to hike the Appalachian Trail in Zach’s memory. While on the trail, Travis organized a memorial hike up Mcafee Knob in Virginia for Zach’s family as well as his military and trail friends. It was on this hike that Cindy Ross met Zach’s parents, heard Travis’s own story of healing, and decided that in addition to her work with veterans, she wanted to be a vehicle for telling their stories. 

Walking Toward Peace: Veterans Healing on America’s Trails

Walking Toward Peace is a collection of testimonies from twenty-five veterans who found healing on America’s long trails. Stories of war, friendship, pain, and peace are interspersed with the science behind why nature works such wonders for our mental health.

“That’s what happens to everyone who stays out there long enough,” Cindy says of the immense healing that can happen on a long trail. “They figure out themselves and their lives and they come to this peaceful acceptance of everything and that they deserve to be happy in life. It’s pretty basic and fundamental things, but there are a lot of people who haven’t gifted themselves that in life and seem to need a 2,000 mile hike to say, ‘I deserve that.’”

When asked what she hopes veterans will be able to take from her book, Cindy references the PTSD and suicidal thoughts that many vets have upon coming back to their civilian lives. “Just try going into the natural world,” she says. “Just go walk in the natural world and see how you feel.”

Can Thru-hiking Bring Peace? A Combat Veteran’s Advice for Veterans.

Galvanized by Zach Adamson’s tragic story, Cindy emphasizes the importance of creating a lifestyle that incorporates nature and the freedom that comes with long-distance backpacking into post-trail life. As she says, “Returning home is the most difficult part of long-distance hiking; You have grown outside the puzzle and your piece no longer fits.”

Inspiration for post-trail life abounds in Walking Toward Peace as each veteran has a unique story and a different strategy for creating a self-determined life after coming home. For some, like Tom Gathman—known in the backpacking community as The Real Hiking Viking—that means spending as much time as possible outdoors and creating a community and career around backpacking. “I could be happy anywhere as long as I’ve got my pack with me,” Tom says.

For others, like Ilene Henderson, it’s renovating vintage RVs with her mother and working as a seasonal park ranger. “My hike through life continues,” Ilene says. “And when I reach a double blaze in the trail, I take the turn and head in a new direction.”

Spreading Joy, Sharing Pain

cindy ross river house

Cindy Ross with a group of participants in a River House PA program. Photo courtesy of Cindy Ross.

While working on Walking Toward Peace, Cindy Ross has grown close to all of the veterans featured. Their joys are her joys and their pain is hers as well. “Once you start caring about these veterans,” Cindy says “then you’re part of their lives and you have to go through the pain with them.” And while it’s taken an emotional toll, she finds the success stories of new lives started and emotional gains all worth it.

Walking Toward Peace: Veterans Healing on America’s Trails is available for purchase from Mountaineers Books. Register here for a live stream and Q&A with author Cindy Ross to celebrate the launch on April 15 at 7 p.m. Eastern Time. 

Check out Walking Toward Peace: Veterans Healing on Americ’s Trails

A Path Forward for Vets

Walking Toward Peace features a small sample of veterans who have found healing in nature. Countless organizations, VA hospitals, and recreational therapists are seeing the benefits of turning to the natural world for healing. As featured in Walking Toward Peace, below are a few organizations that work to take veterans outdoors:

National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)
NOLS is the leader in wilderness education, providing awe-inspiring, transformative experiences. Students can use the Post-9/11 GI Bill for non-degree programs. These offerings are gateways to new careers, exploration, and personal growth.

Outdoor Buddies
This nonprofit offers a variety of outdoor Colorado-based programs for mobility-disabled individuals, veterans, and youth. 

Outward Bound
Backpacking, mountaineering, climbing, canoeing, sailing, kayaking, whitewater rafting, and dog sledding. Outward Bound for Veterans helps returning service members and recent veterans readjust to life at home through powerful wilderness courses that draw on the healing benefits of teamwork and challenge through the use of the natural world

Team River Runner
This organization provides all veterans and their families an opportunity to find health, healing, community purpose, and new challenges through adventure and adaptive paddle sports.

Warrior Expeditions
Warrior Hike, Warrior Bike, and Warrior Paddle help veterans transition from their wartime experiences through long-distance outdoor expeditions.

If you or someone you know is a veteran in crisis, call the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1. 

Featured image via Mountaineers Books. Illustration by Bryce Ross Gladfelter.

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Comments 5

  • Avatar
    Cindy Ross : Apr 15th

    Tina, You did an amazing job capturing the true essence of this book, and sharing the story of these brave veterans. I am hugely grateful to you for helping to spread the word that walking in nature heals, and the vets thank you too!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Tina Mullen : Apr 15th

      Thanks so much Cindy! It was an honor to work on this with you.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    pearwood : Apr 15th

    Beautiful. Thank you says this old Army UH-1H jockey.
    Steve / pearwood
    AT NOBO 2022

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Shannon : Apr 22nd

    Wonderful review, this sounds like an amazing book, I love that the trail can be so healing for those who have been through and done so much for us. I’m really looking forward to reading it! I recently listened to Cindy on “Backpacker Radio” and really enjoyed her interview. I’ll have to check out more of her other stuff, I admire her philosophy and approach towards nature and the outdoors.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Bob Milie : Apr 28th

    The book did an excellent job of capturing the difficulties our service members face, and capturing that this is not a new issue. Service related mental trauma has been an issue since armies formed. To bring the matter forefront while not only an issue, but, a way to assist is great.
    Furthermore, the book highlights not only how magical the hikers are, but the trails them selves.
    Well done, and thank you!
    Bobby

    Reply

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