A group of veterans derive strength from more than mountains in Wyoming’s backcountry

backpacking veterans wyoming backcountry
Walking the Glacier Trail to high camp.Josh Jespersen

I am parked in a high desert town getting grub and gas to drive into the alpine and over a high mountain pass. My thoughts are convoluted and I am anything but present as I sit in my car staring down the lonely, dusty street. I work around uncertainty while maintaining constant motion across landscapes all the time, but it has never taken my whole life hostage like this ugly pandemic. I’m so lost looking toward the future and trying to find a way to keep my head above water.

Then, my phone rings. I see who is calling, and I already know this is going to be a tough pill to swallow. “Hey J.J., do you have a minute? I need to tell you something.” Reluctantly, I ask, “What’s going on?” In the softening of her voice I can hear the hesitation a person goes through when they don’t want to say something. I can also tell she is locked into a distant stare. “He is in …,” a pause. Then she continues, her voice cracking. “He is in hospice now and they won’t let me see him anymore.”

After I hang up the phone, I let the news sink in and my mind transitions to the past. My dear friend, a man I looked up to as a mentor while I was in the military, and a figure of such strong stature, has entered the final stage of his 16-year battle with cancer. I think back to all the hard lessons he taught me, and how he epitomized the term grit.

I hear a pounding knock in the background of my mind. I am banging on his door in Baghdad to wake him for a mission briefing. I was always amazed he could keep pace with all of us in war, especially knowing he was then four years into this drawn-out battle of his own.

Just two years ago, I got him to sign up for a trip I run every summer with wounded veterans in Wyoming. To my surprise, I did not recognize him as he was pushed toward me in a wheelchair through the Jackson Hole Airport. I realized in that moment after not seeing him for a couple years that the war he waged personally might not have the same outcome as the war we survived together.

veterans horseback riding wyoming backcountry
Stetter Outfitters packing gear into Cowboy Camp.Dustin Kisling

This trip to ride horses into the Fitzpatrick Wilderness and climb Gannett Peak, the highest peak in Wyoming, is how I still serve my fellow veterans. I have been doing this type of work since I got out of the service eight years ago, and I have learned a lot in that time. In these types of experiences, veterans are frequently encouraged to talk about how war affected them.

The injuries I have seen span a scale from visually horrific to completely invisible. For some veterans, missing two legs below the knee barely affects their everyday life. For others, a daily debilitating headache has, at times, crippled their existence. I would come to realize, however, that for each of the veterans, this discussion would pull them out of the present moment and cause them look with unease toward the future — to wonder how they would carry on.

I made a decision when I started putting this trip on by myself to change the topic of these discussions and shift the focus away from each veterans’ own ailments. Instead, we would talk about our friends who did not make it home. We memorialized them by telling their stories. I hold a ceremony each trip the night before summit day while we are camped above the terminal moraines and below the desiccated and dying glaciers of the Wind River Range. 

flag veterans wyoming backcountry storytelling
Author Josh Jesperson telling the story of the flag and the meaning of the names written on it.Ricke Schuler

During these moments, each veteran in turn stands by an American flag that is draped over a boulder and tells everyone a story. The story that may be happy, sad, filled with bravery, or even echoed by rib-breaking laughter. One by one we hear about the last time they drank with a friend who was killed. Each oration is capped by the inscription of the friend’s name onto the flag, joining the other stains of freedom already inscribed in the red, white and blue fabric. This method pulls the veterans out of the present and, instead of pushing them to look toward the future with anticipation, they are able to revive the excitement of reliving the past.

While I was loading my friend out of the wheelchair and into the car for the drive over Togwotee Pass and onto a ranch in Crowheart where we stage for the journey, I understood he would not make it out of the mountains if he rode in due to his condition. I had to leave him at the ranch to be taken care of by the old Army Special Forces guy who owns the spread.

The rest of us would carry on into the wilderness to leave the weight of our everyday lives at the trailhead. In the wilderness we could immerse our headspace between the high peaks, walking up glacially carved valleys along the silty, rushing and bitter cold creeks. During that trip’s ceremony, I shared a story about my friend. I watched as the vets began to understand who that man they saw on oxygen used to be, but I did not write his name down as he still breathed.

veterans backpacking hiking wyoming Gannett Peak
On the summit of Gannett Peak with the flag bearing the names in memory of fallen service members.Dustin Kisling

This summer, as long as COVID-19 releases its grip on society, I plan to take another group of veterans on an escape to ease their pain. An escape to provide long-term healing from what I’m guessing won’t just be past conflicts this time, but also a global pandemic. When I do, I may have to actually write down my friend’s name.

I am not looking to that assumed but inevitable moment with trepidation, however. Instead, I take solace in knowing I will once again be able to tell his story. I will once again be able to make people understand that though these mighty figures may fall, their influence on us will persist and the mountain of strength derived from them will drive us forward during any times in our life spent toiling with uncertainty, no matter what it is that impresses the hardship.

JOSH JESPERSON is the president of Veteran’s Outdoor Advocacy Group, which lobbies for prescribed outdoor therapy for veterans and seeks to train and employ veterans to work in outdoor settings as guides of all forms. Josh is releasing his story/guidebook, Journey Lines, about his own path in the mountains in the fall, and hopes that anyone reading it will become advocates for public land and climate.