Hiking the Arizona Trail has become a healing journey for army veteran Colonel Michael Buckley. Col. Buckley’s life-changing journey began with the Warrior Expeditions’ “Walk Off the War” program. He also wanted to prove there are alternatives to healing from post traumatic stress disorder that soldiers could experience when they return from the war.
Walk Off the War”is also a motto coined in 1948 by Earl Shaffer and has since benefitted many veterans and prompted the group to start organizing expeditions in 2013.
The Arizona Trail is one of the most challenging 800 miles of hiking because of its unpredictable terrain, rapidly changing weather conditions and encounters with wildlife. The southern end of the trail starts on the Mexican border and its northern end is the Utah border. The trail runs in a nearly straight line up the middle of the state. The primitive trail covers seven mountain ranges with 100,000 feet in elevation reached once completed. Buckley finished his grueling adventure in 57 days.
“You find out things about yourself,” said Buckley. “You have two choices and the other stuff goes away. I call it reduction of choice. You walk or you don’t, you move or you don’t. You can’t lie to yourself and you have to be confident. Mistakes are not good things to have out on the trail.”
When asked what was the most beautiful site he was unable to name just one.
“I’ll give you three: Manning Camp near Mount Lemon, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and Four Peaks. I can tell you the worst too. It was the Mazatzal Mountain range. The [Mazatzal] beat me up pretty bad because it had slick rocks and was super steep; my ankle swelled up. The heat was also brutal. Water was as far as 35 miles away in some places. The Kaibab weather was kind of ‘iffy’ too, I had a race with a storm and I lost a mile from the Utah border.”
Buckley adds that it seemed the wildlife was welcoming him to the trail at various points along the way and weren’t afraid of his presence.
“I’ll tell you what’s weird is the giant Sonoran centipede.”
But the most memorable times on the trail were times he usually spent alone. Signs of life came from the “Trail Angels” whose gestures of kindness helped keep Buckley’s spirit going.
“Near Gooseberry Lake there was a series of boxes,” he said. “You sign in and out, and I open up this box and there was almond dark chocolate biscotti and Gatorade. I love almond dark chocolate biscotti. Once somebody had put tequila in a box and it had a note that said have a drink on me.
“Another time I am walking towards a gate and there is a yellow duck on the gate. Which is weird because whenever I went on combat patrols, there was always a yellow rubber duck on the desk when I got back. I found out there was soldier who had a box of those things and was messing with the colonels. After a while, the duck and me had a relationship, like a good luck thing. The lady who put it on the gate had no idea. It had a note on it that said ‘Hi Mike’ - it nearly brought a tear to my eye.”
Buckley laughs when he revealed his trail name, Bloody Feet.
“I had new shoes for about 100 miles that weren’t broken in. I had lost skin off the bottom of my feet.”
He went back to his old, broken-in pair of red and brown hiking shoes that saved him from having to delay his journey.
Colonel Buckley shared a part of his history in the army during the interview with the Chronicle at the celebratory dinner held by the Page branch of Veteran’s of Foreign Wars Post:
“I was in the army 32 years; deployed six times. Three were combat [deployments]. I did tours in Balkan, Iraq and Afghanistan; I was also an EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) Officer and sent home eight dead and 14 wounded. I was a colonel for two years. I retired as a colonel but I was a private many years ago and what I have learned is that being Colonel and two dollars can get you a cup of coffee.”
Before the Army Buckley grew up in Utah and now resides in New York with his two sons and wife in a place he describes as Mark Twain on steroids. He was hurt during his last tour and then became ill in the hospital so retiring was the next logical step.
He also revealed his decision to challenge himself to the Arizona Trail was rooted in a more grounded transition back into society that he’d found necessary after reading several books by Sebastian Junger, specifically a book titled “Tribe”.
Part of Buckley’s revelation to transition appropriately started with the theory in Junger’s book about soldiers in the past wars had at least 30 to 45 days on a boat to decompress from combat before reaching home.
In the present day transport is much faster and shock sets in immediately or later when being home is no longer surreal. Buckley also believes that psychotropic drugs at the Veterans Administration hospitals are prescribed too generously and are only numbing symptoms of shock and PTSD with little success in a healthy transition.
Once he’d seen enough soldiers struggle with the counseling, medication and the suicide ideation that can be a side effect of some medications, Buckley knew he had to try the Trail.
But his beliefs were also personal with the loss of a friend and soldier, Staff Sergeant Zachary Hargrove who took his own life in May 2012 and was buried in Arlington Cemetery. “There is a lot of evidence in literature of the beneficial, therapeutic effects of nature to help [symptoms] of PTSD. That’s the whole concept vs. what the VA will do to you: shoving pills down the throat. I have a whole host of issues with that because I had a young soldier commit suicide and I got very angry when I found out about what was going on.” Buckley said. “I spent an entire year researching alternatives to PTSD and suicide prevention when I was at the University of Syracuse. I am going to do something with this [hike]. I am going to write an article and see if I could get it published. I am going to talk about therapy and what this [hike] was and what it means. You get a lot of questions, and clarity comes as you walk.”
Buckley added his journey included walking for those who are now in bionics and cannot participate in a hike of this magnitude.
“All that time with soldiers made me understand what was important,” he said. “The military is tribal and you have a sense of family. When you leave the military you lose that. This trail gave me some of that back and this, right here, is a tribe and the common thing within the VFW,” He said, pointing to the people at the table: VFW Post Commander for Page, Jim Hall; Chaplain Jenna Denkacau; Quarter Master Darrel Moore; and family of the post officers, Lenna Moore, Stacey Hall and Thomas Hall.
The Warrior Expedition honors the concept of reconnection with self and reconnection to the land to encourage the transition back into society.
They are a non-profit organization that provides an opportunity for veterans to face this challenge with the efforts of supporters on and off the trail.
For more information on their approach to healing or to donate, visit the website at: www.warriorexpeditions.org/donate.
“I finished the trail on Wednesday at 5:59 pm. It was 57 days, 803 miles in my 57th year. This has been good for me I am not sure where to go from here but it was 57 of the most powerful days of my life.” Buckley noted. “You walk to find peace and the trail will get you there. It did it to me. Its just you and the trail.”