For those brave souls who strike out in the spring, with the intent to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, facts of the day-to-day trials and tribulations often replace unrealistic expectations, and many fail. Only 25 percent of all thru-hikers ever make it. Find out what hiking the trail is like through the unique perspective of Ron Zalenski, who has hiked the trail barefoot, in this exclusive Love To Know Camping expert interview.
Facing the Appalachian Trail Facts
Ron Zaleski is a former Marine who, in 1970, was ordered to remain home while five of his friends were shipped to Vietnam, where two were killed. The 21-year-old responded in the rebellious manner he'd become well known for. He refused to wear shoes. Over thirty years later, in this interview, Ron reflects upon the healing power of the Appalachian Trail, as he walked it barefoot. At times, struggling to hold back tears, he describes what it felt like to transform from an angry, self-loathing young man, into a walking hero for the many military families who lose a son or a daughter to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome every year.
A Silent Protest
LTK: Ron, when did you decide to just stop wearing shoes?
RZ: Well, in 1970, I won the draft lottery. When I went in, I had a choice of which branch, so I chose the Marines. It was a passive-aggressive thing to hurt my parents. I had a real bad attitude. There were five guys who were supposed to go with me. When it got to my turn, I ended up staying. In '72, I saw one of the five guys, and he was limping. He told me they had all been shot, and two were dead. I decided that they had fought for my freedom, I can do what I want. So, I'm not wearing any shoes.
LTK: Did you make that decision the moment your friend told you they'd died?
RZ: The thought process happened over a period of time. When I got out, people would say "How come you don't wear shoes?" And I would say, "I don't feel like it, you gotta problem with that?" Then, in 2005, a little kid asked me the same thing. It was like God just hit me alongside the head with a stick. When the kid asked me, and I told him, I realized that up to that point I'd had a hollow memorial, a meaningless penance. So, I decided to finally make amends, and that I'd create awareness for PTSD.
A Life-Changing Walk
LTK: When you started the walk in Millinocket, Maine in 2006, did you hike the whole trail?
RZ: Yes, I did the whole trail, barefoot. Except, I have a compressed disk in my back, so my legs were starting to get numb. I didn't want to get off the trail, because I felt like I would be letting these people down. My son called and said there was someone he wanted me to call. This guy said that he wanted to thank me. I said, "Why do you want to thank me?" And he said, "My son was a five-time, decorated green beret who committed suicide. You give me hope." And, you know, I nearly collapsed on the trail. When I got to Montpelier, I called him again because I felt like I was letting him down. You know, I've been told my whole life that I'm bad, and that I'm no good. So for people to tell me that I give them hope, or that I'm their hero, it was hard for me to accept. When I called, he said, "Don't worry, I know you're gonna finish it. Take care of yourself so that you can do it."
LTK: What was the most difficult part of the trail?
RZ: There were some parts that were like a concrete blend of hard-packed dirt. That was tough. I went through two miles of acorns on hard-packed dirt. That was ridiculous. And the two peaks of Mount Avery, it was like somebody took a sledgehammer and broke up concrete that was etched with acid. Once I just dragged my toe across one and it just shredded the top of it. At another point, they had so much rain, I came across what was supposed to be a stream, but it was a raging river. I got swept down there, lost half of my gear, and I was wet for three days. I'm mean, I'm lucky I didn't get hypothermia.
LTK: And you just kept going?
RZ: I kept on going. The only way you were going to stop me was to shoot me.
Food and Supplies
LTK: Did you bring any cooking gear?
RZ: No, I ate everything cold or raw unless somebody was cooking, and they offered me something or I could use their fire. I'd stop in every town and get food, and eat like a pig. Because you're burning 6000 a day, and carrying 3000 calories.
LTK: Did you ever run out of food?
RZ: Yeah, *laugh*, I rationed myself down pretty low. I didn't filter my water, but I had no problem because I always checked my water when I got it. When I finished at the end, I made a mistake. I told a guy, just get it (water) and I'll drink it. When I drank it, it was really bitter. So, I looked at it and there was mosquito larvae and turds in it. So I'm like, oh man, this is not good. I couldn't keep anything down, and dropped down to 140 pounds in two weeks. At the end, we had a media event. Max Cleveland came, and the father whose son had committed suicide came to it. We did that July 4th.
LTK: That must have been an amazing experience.
RZ: It certainly was. I mean it was a real growth curve for me, and my oldest son did a lot to help me with it. It was a really good thing for both of us.
Lessons From The Trail
LTK: What lessons would you say you learned from the trail?
RZ: I like being on the trail. I just start to find peace , and to find myself, and to lighten up on myself and just accept things. You know, there's a force much greater than me, but I'm also part of that whole force. God's always with me, although I may not always be with him. But I get to hear him when I'm in the woods, because I start to listen.
LTK: What advice would you offer anyone thinking about hiking the whole Appalachian trail?
RZ: I would say, don't be so stuck in the ego that you have to do the trail. You know, you may get the answer you're looking for, and you may find peace, after just a couple of days. And then, you can do it for you. Some guys were like, "Ugh...I just gotta do it." I'm like, you know what? The trail goes beyond here. When you get off the trail, you're still on the trail. This one is just easier to deprivate from mankind. So just walk your walk, and don't beat yourself up. I mean, I'm the poster child for that.
LTK: Has TheLongWalkHome.org seen progress?
RZ: Yes. I was invited to an informal hearing in Congress in Sept of 2006. The Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act has been passed, they've passed an Act for expanded benefits. I just want to ride shotgun on them to make sure they do something. They'll pass a law just to keep people happy, but they won't do anything with it. They've allocated money, so I'm going to ride them like a Shetland Pony to make sure something gets done.
LTK: Has the Iraq war created more urgency?
RZ: Yeah, I'm walking December 1st to December 7th, the length of the Keys, with a billboard. We'll have a talk at Sunset pier. At the Hampton Classic, during a talk, this woman started crying. She gives me her card and says, "I want to help." She's the Vice President of the World Trade Center. She offered me the use of their Park and their building for a media event. And so that's what we're doing on June 6th, 2009. We have IAVA, IAVAW, Rolling Thunder, and I'm working to get the American Legion. What we want is just common sense, because it will give these guys a chance. And, you want to get the paint off while it's still wet. These guys are coming home, and they're still in their fight-or-flight mode. They come home and sleep with a gun under their pillow. They jump up, in the middle of the night, and think they're still in action.
LTK: So there's still a lot of progress to be made?
RZ: Yes, because every soldier that comes home affects 25 to 30 people. We're destroying our own country.
LTK: Ron, thank you so much for taking the time to share your experiences with LovetoKnow Readers.
RZ: Anytime at all, and thank you for the opportunity.
Love To Know Camping would like to thank Ron Zalenski for sharing his firsthand knowledge of Appalachian Trail facts along with information about his personal journey and commitment to supporting the troops with LTK Camping readers. Readers who have been wondering whether or not to tackle the Trail will likely find inspiration in his words.