Army Vet Bikes Washington (DC) to Washington (State)

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The first veterans of the Great American Rail-Trail embark on their shared odyssey from Washington, DC on May 26. From left to right: Jay Waters, Paul Cook, Joseph De La Garza, Allison Garrigus, Alan Garrigus.

Alexandria, VA – As he neared retirement after serving his country for 30 years, Army veteran Jay Waters wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail for a real change of pace. While planning, he discovered Warrior Expeditions, a non-profit organization that helps veterans sometimes struggle to adapt to civilian life through the therapeutic effects of long-distance hiking.

Warrior expeditions was inspired by Earl Shaffer, who wanted to “quit the war” after returning from WWII. Four months later, he became the first person to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Shaffer’s ragged boots and journal are on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Fast forward to 2012, when Army veteran Sean Gobin returned home after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also sought refuge in hiking the Appalachian Trail and knew he wanted to share the opportunity with other veterans. He founded Warrior Expeditions, which grew to include boating and biking tours in addition to hiking.

Pass the first test: hearing

When Alexandrian Jay Waters applied for a trip with Warrior Expeditions, he was one of 400 veterans vying for one of 40 spots. Faced with this kind of competition, he knew he needed to stand out. “I thought, well, maybe I won’t be selected, but they will remember me. Jay was perched next to a skeleton for his hearing. “I said I didn’t want to sit on the couch for the rest of my life having regrets and ending up like this guy and then I cut to the skeleton,” he said with a laugh.

Congressman Don Beyer wishes Jay the best of luck as he begins his May 26 trip to Washington, DC.

He definitely stood out. In 2019, Jay was hired on an Arizona Trail hiking expedition. It was picked again in 2020 (postponed to 2021) when Gobin launched a cycling expedition along the Great American Rail-Trail, a 3,700-mile journey through 12 states from Washington, DC, to La Push in the Washington State.

Jay was one of five experienced hikers Gobin selected for the first bike ride. They were veterans who could rise to the challenge, serve as ambassadors to showcase the excellent work being done and potentially recruit new veteran candidates.

Jay’s wife, Anna, supported him all the way. “I’m glad he can do these things while he’s in good physical shape,” she said. “After being home together for a year and a half during the pandemic, I felt good to be separated for a while.”

A new adventure

And so, Jay Waters said yes to a whole new challenge and embarked on the cross country bike journey. Warrior Expeditions equips hikers and cyclists with some of the top rated gear, clothing and supplies available in the outdoor retail industry. That’s pretty much all they need for the trip at no cost to the veteran, including an app with maps and points of interest selected along the way, such as the VFW or American Legion rooms, the churches and community resources.

Jay Waters made a point of visiting VFW theaters along the way, such as Post 2470 in Ottawa, IL.

Still, it’s a far cry from the daily routine in the military, where you usually know what’s going to happen and you don’t have anything to plan for. “When hiking or biking, you’re on your own,” Jay said. “You have to plan how long you have to ride each day. How many kilometers will I travel? Where should I stop for lunch and dinner? Should I find a coffee or eat what I have on hand? Where am I going to sleep tonight? All this freedom and decision making can be overwhelming, ”he added.

The human bond

What wasn’t overwhelming, especially for Jay Waters, was the human connection. This friendly, affable guy who doesn’t know any strangers turned out to be a natural fit for the role of Ambassador. And he fell in love with the small American town he met on his trip. The Rails to Trails route winds along old railroads, away from major highways, mainly in smaller towns.

“I was there,” he said, “walking into a small town VFW or American Legion room, dressed in this weird bike outfit. The locals were like, who the hell is this guy? The reaction would change after he told them that he was a life member of Station 24 in Alexandria, Va., And that he would like to have a coke or a beer. “I love you or hate you, they will remember you,” he laughs.

From Washington, DC, to La Push, Washington. On September 8, Jay reached the Pacific Ocean and got on his bike in the sea. Mission accomplished!

In most cases, the connection led to a warm welcome, and conversations ensued where Jay would describe the Warrior Expedition program. Then came the offer of space for his tent in someone’s backyard. “They would follow along with, hey, why don’t you come in?” You can stay on the couch. Better yet, here is our guest room. What do you want for breakfast? “Jay said.” And then we would become lifelong friends. “

Invariably Jay offered the same farewell thoughts to his hosts: “Oh, by the way, would you do it again? However, you might not have such an interesting rider as I do.

Jay has spent time with people from all economic, social, cultural and religious backgrounds. Whether it was drinking wine and dining in fancy restaurants or sharing simple meals made with lettuce and beans from the garden, Jay was touched that people were generously giving the best they could. could give.

(All photos courtesy of Jay Waters)

The Good, the Bad and the Dangerous The route taken by Warrior Expeditions is part of an ambitious Rails to Trails Conservancy, whose vision is to connect the nation through the vast and numerous trail networks that already exist. The Great American Rail-Trail is one of the projects. It is about 55 percent complete. As Jay described it, the route he took had it all: “the good, the bad and the dangerous”.

The 55 percent complete is very good, with paved and quiet cycle paths. The remaining 45 percent ranged from unpaved trails to busy interstate highways with no shoulders and lots of high-speed traffic. The tunnels and bridges turned out to be appallingly tight. Connecting all the quieter trails will take time, but that’s the goal of Rails to Trails Conservancy.

Great American Rail-Trail runners are warmly welcomed by Indiana veterans.

Jay’s expedition ended after 3,829.6 miles over 106 days when he cycled through the Pacific Ocean in La Push, Washington. A wave may have knocked him over, but he happily picked up his bike and pumped it over his head. Mission accomplished!

Looking forward

Jay and Anna are both happy he’s back home, and Jay remembers what an amazing experience it was. They look forward to assisting both Veterans and Program Administrators on future Warrior Expeditions.

Anna Waters flew west to join Jay for part of the way. They’re on the Hiawatha Trail here on the Idaho-Montana border.

“What made the trip so cool was meeting everyone,” Jay said. “You get a glimpse into their lives, and they were all so different. It is a mutual act of faith for them to open their home and for me, or other veterans of this journey, to enter their home. This is the key to the success of this program and my main takeaway: I have restored good faith in the American people. For more information on this fantastic program, visit www.warriorexpeditions.org.

ICYMI: I remember it like it was yesterday… September 11, 2001


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