Andrew Brennan is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and was commissioned in the United States Army in 2008 as an aviation officer. In 2010 Andrew deployed to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division as a platoon leader and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter pilot. After a year back in civilian clothes, Andrew set out to join the Warrior Hike team for their 2014 Continental Divide Trail excursion.
Andrew entered the experience without expectations, knowing that any preconceptions would surely be shattered once his boots hit the trail.
“You can watch all the documentaries and read the guidebooks, but much like in my old profession where you can’t learn to lead a patrol on the ground or fly a helicopter in Afghanistan by reading a book, the CDT absolutely needs to be experienced firsthand. From the desert flowers you find surviving on top of rocks without any sign of soil, to 35 degree temperatures when you are soaked through from hours of rain, sleet, and hail, the trail needs to be felt on an up close and personal level.”
A common theme has emerged across the accounts of our thru-hiker Veterans: the most terrifying encounters on the trail often transform into favorite moments in retrospect. Andrew’s personal favorite is his grizzly bear story.
“I made a rookie mistake day two in grizzly country. While hiking and camping alone, I kept the clothes that I had eaten and cooked in earlier in the day in my tent next to where I was sleeping – instead of hanging with my food. As I was listening to an audiobook with earbuds in, I heard some noises outside my tent. What followed, would be the most terrifying experience of my life (which is saying something, considering my old line of work). When I removed one of my earbuds, I heard a grizzly bear sniffing in and snorting out and felt vibrations as it aggressively pawed at the ground. The bear was probably 5 to 10 feet from my tent. I was nearly paralyzed with fear...and realized I was prey in nature's food chain at that point. The pawing and sniffing went on for about two minutes. Finally, the bear lost interest. As it wandered away up the trail, I could feel the ground still shaking. Needless to say, I did not sleep well that evening.”
By now, you know that no thru-hike is complete without its share of struggles, but three trips to the emergency room in the first 45 days was more than Andrew bargained for. As he recounts, “between the dog bite in Lordsburg (I hate Blue Heelers now), the blister that resulted in Cellulitis and Lymphangitis in Grants, and the fractured foot south of Ghost Ranch (which I thought was a sprain and then walked 70 miles on), my personal experience on the trail has absolutely lived up to the Warrior Hike class of 2014’s unofficial motto: Never a dull moment on the CDT.” The broken foot and infected blister (which turned septic) sidelined Andrew for 8 weeks and ultimately forced him to stop early. Injuries and dog bites aside, Andrew enjoyed his time on the trail and gained more than he could have hoped for from the 1,300 miles he did complete.
There’s no easy way to summarize the variety of reasons that drive Veterans to the trail, but the need for higher purpose often plays a role. When describing his personal motivations for hiking the CDT, Andrew references a Veteran adage that claims “PTSD is the realization that you will never be as cool as you once were.” And while Andrew acknowledges the gravity of PTSD, he believes there is some truth to that sarcastic statement. At 25 years old, Andrew, like so many other men and women in uniform, found himself wielding a huge amount of responsibility. After leading a squad in enemy held territory or flying a $10 million aircraft with 12 of America’s sons and daughters on-board, how do you transition to a civilian job where you’re supervising folks moving boxes around a warehouse? One thing is clear, it’s not easy.
Andrew put into words why so many Veterans are drawn to our country's long distance trails, explaining it this way:
“Some of us are out here dealing with things in our past; others trying to figure out what to do with our futures. In my estimation, the trail is helping us with both. It gives you the time and space to reflect. There is not a constant stream of information from your phone, the TV, or internet. When we walk the trail, we often have to confront some of the difficult things that society’s pace of life actually allows us to push down and ignore. The time alone on the trail is often more austere than a lot of small combat outposts, especially in the sense that you never really found yourself alone. You always had your buddies, squad mates, platoon sergeant, or wet behind the ears platoon leader around. I think that austerity and reflection time is one of the pillars of the long walk that draw long distance hikers away from cities and onto the trail.”
From his time on the trail, Andrew has a renewed outlook not only for his future, but also for his fellow Americans.
“Every town we have been to along the trail, we have been fortunate enough to have some kind of event with the local VFW post, American Legion chapter, or just with the local community. So many people have been so kind to us along our trek. People opening up their homes, sharing their food, and showing that they genuinely appreciate the sacrifices that we have made in our old line of work. Being an east-coaster, I have found it refreshing to experience that kind of hospitality. I believe it to be a very unique quality of the rural west along the divide; I hope to continue to experience it and pass it along throughout the rest of my journey on the trail and beyond.”
Reflecting on how his time in service prepared him for the trail, Andrew admitted that the military mindset was not always an advantage. On the trail, there’s a delicate balance between mental toughness and stubbornness – the trick is knowing where to draw the line. His conditioned need to accomplish the mission skewed Andrew’s calculation of risk and as a result, he persevered through severe weather and health conditions that would have waylaid most hikers. “I pushed through bad weather on two occasions and found myself up above the tree line in some really bad storms. I also hiked on an infected blister, and as it got infected, my blood turned septic. The emergency room physician told me that if I had come in 36 or 48 hours later I probably would have died.”
In more than one way, the military can be an environment of extremes. As Andrew put it,
“the military mindset is generally one that is very cut and dry, black or white, wrong or right, within or outside of ‘regulations’...success or failure.” But on the trail, Andrew came to the realization that a middle ground exists between these extremes. “Sometimes you can succeed and fail in the same day. You may plan to hike 20 miles in a day and fail at that, but instead run into some trail magic in the form of a bachelor party being held at a remote cabin that invites you to join in the festivities. Meeting awesome generous people is always greater than a few more miles walked in my book.”
As for the future, Andrew has no intention of slowing down. He will begin a much different kind of journey this January as he enters the MBA program at the University of Pittsburgh. While pursuing his degree, Andrew plans to help fellow Veterans in Pittsburgh find employment as part of his fellowship with a nonprofit called The Mission Continues. Also on his agenda, he intends to form a nonprofit through which he will lead the initiative to erect a Global War on Terror memorial on the National Mall in DC. Eventually, he says he will need to find a “real job.” But I’d say that given all Andrew’s done for our country and its Veterans, he already has the realest job around.
Dog bites, blisters and a fractured foot? Three trips to the emergency room in 45 days? The trail Gods weren't kind to Andrew, nonetheless he persevered to trek 1,300 miles. At least Andrew had his favorite Salazon Chocolate bar, 57% Organic Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt & Turbinado Sugar, to help fuel his journey. Give it a try! Take 10% off your Salazon Chocolate order with discount code HIKINGCHOCOLATE.
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