From Veteran to Vargo to Viking
by Tom Gathman a.k.a. “The Real Hiking Viking”
I served my country honorably for four years. Two combat tours to Iraq, one spent operating in a Scout Sniper Platoon performing surveillance and target acquisition. I am, and always will be, a United States Marine. We consider ourselves to be warriors, not soldiers–the finest fighting force the world has ever seen. But my active duty service came to an end in 2010. What is someone like me suppose to do after operating at such a high level like that?
Before reporting to Paris Island for boot camp in March of 2006, I had plenty of misplaced energy, more than most kids growing up in my small town of Lewisburg, Pa. School almost never kept my attention unless, of course, it was sports related. I had too much energy to be sitting in a classroom and paying attention to seemingly boring things that I was not interested in. Even after attending college for a few years after high school, I still never really felt like I belonged there. So I joined the Marines in hopes of putting my energy to good use. I was smart enough, strong enough, and I believed I had the drive and determination to make a difference in that world. Turns out, I was right. The Marine Corps gave me every tool I needed to be successful during my time in the service and beyond. I learned discipline, patience, and (when necessary) maturity. I like to consider myself an adult, but not necessarily a “grown-up”.
But now what? I decided it was time for me to move on from the Marines after 4 years of serving my country. I felt an inner desire to learn more and to see more of the world. I decided it would be wise for me to take advantage of the GI Bill and go back to school. I enrolled in my hometown’s Bucknell University. I figured it would be a nice way to get an education while being able to be closer to my family after years of being away. Not only that, but it would be a safe way to figure out the next chapter in my life. I did well in my classes but still wasn’t giving forth the total effort that I felt school merited. It was that feeling you get inside when you know you aren’t giving it your all and just going through the motions because you think you’re supposed to. Well, I’ve learned over the years that if I am not invested in something whole-heartedly, I should either step it up or move on from it.
Fortunately for me, while attending Bucknell, I happened to get a part-time job working for Vargo in their former downtown retail store. While far from what I eventually wanted to do, it was during this job that I would have an experience that would change my life as I knew it.
After about nine months, Brian Vargo asked me if I had any interest in joining him to work the Vargo vendor booth at Trail Days in Damascus, Virginia. The popular hiker festival (practically legendary in the long-distance hiking world), which literally straddles the Appalachian Trail (AT), is a three-day long celebration of the Appalachian Trail and long-distance hiking with thousands of hikers, new and old from all over, especially the hikers on the AT themselves that particular year, descending upon the small backwoods town of Damascus. I was intrigued. It sounded like fun and I told Brian that he could count me in, for sure. I’m not usually one to pass up an opportunity to cut loose.
I arrived Friday evening in the middle of a torrential downpour but somehow the rain didn’t seem to dampen any of the spirits of the folks in town. Even at dinner in the Blue Blaze Café, the place was abuzz with life and merriment. It was packed to the rafters with people of all types that the AT brought together. On top of the flowing beer and pizza, I couldn’t help but notice that there was something different about them.
The next day I awoke in the front passenger seat of my vehicle since I didn’t want to set my tent up in the pouring rain (a skill I would later learn to do well). As Brian was preparing the booth, I rolled out of my car (literally) to help before the people started rolling in. All day hikers from everywhere were coming up and asking about Vargo gear. In meeting them I couldn’t help but be enamored with the idea that some of these people walked here from Georgia, with just their pack on their back, AND THAT THEY WERE ON THEIR WAY TO MAINE!! The idea of this slowly started to consume me over the rest of the day. I was having such an amazing time interacting with these people. Everyone was so nice. It was practically an infection, and one that I was enjoying. By the end of the day I was sitting around a bon fire in “Tent City” with the idea of hiking the AT myself starting to ferment like the beer we were drinking.
After closing up shop on Sunday, I packed my car and made the long drive back to Lewisburg where I would do an unbelievable amount of thinking. Before I even left the state of Virginia I decided that I was going to hike the AT the next year in 2013. I called my dad to let him know that I would be taking a leave of absence from my academic endeavors to pursue a thru-hike of the AT. He and the rest of my family were nothing but supportive from day one. Not that that would have stopped me, but having support from your loved ones can really mean all the difference in the world. I am a son to two, brother to three, uncle to nine, and a friend to many. I had support across the board. And with their support, over the course of the next year, I prepared mentally and physically for hiking the 2,185.9 miles (if you wanna get technical) from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine.
My time on the Appalachian Trail literally changed my entire world. I wasn’t unhappy before I had hiked the AT, but I definitely felt like I could be happier. And that’s what I found while hiking; happiness. The people, the views, the exercise, the wild life, the freedom, it had everything I’ve always needed. So with that I decided to leave everything else behind. The house, the car, the job, luxury possessions, anything that didn’t contribute to a simple life out of my backpack, I got rid of. I put what little left that meant something to me in storage and locked the door. No more misplaced energy–this is what I wanted. I loved exploring where I hadn’t been and using my feet to propel me through the world. Adventure awaited and I wanted all I could handle and more.
But how was I going to share it? One aspect of my life that has been ever-present is my desire to have social interaction. Whether it is in person or on social media, I really enjoy interactions with people and sharing my life with others. Encouragingly, I received a lot of positive feedback from my friends on Facebook as I shared my AT journey with them. But how would I reach the rest of the world beyond my Facebook friends?
Fortunately, my sister, Laura, helped me find direction in pursuing this new life of mine while being able to share it with others. It was with her that we carved out the means with which I would now be sharing my journey–a blog, Facebook account (beyond personal), Instagram, Twitter…you know all those standard social media platforms that people are using these days. Now all we needed to do was to create the name. What was I going to call it? Who was I? What was the essence of what I wanted to do?
Immediately the wheels began turning and in mere minutes it came to me. I had been growing my hair on both my head and face ever since I set foot on the AT and did not have ANY plans on shaving or trimming it anytime soon. So I quickly realized that whatever I was going to be should be centralized around that. Most people had already begun to associate me with my big, multi-colored beard already. Anybody who had met me during or after my AT hikes had absolutely no concept of the sharp, clean-shaven, and shorthaired Marine from before. I loved the beard and so did others…with the exception of my mother. So the beard, it had to be about the beard. I immediately thought of a Viking. And what better to rhyme with Viking but HIKING!! Now, I don’t officially know if I have Viking blood in me, but I do know this: I am a United States Marine, I am a combat veteran, I am a Warrior, I conquer whatever I set out to do, and by my standards, I am a modern day explorer. The Real Hiking Viking was born.
I aimed to share my unique personality, fun-loving style, and adventurous spirit with anyone who is eager to discover that there is more to this world than just working 9-5. This country and this world have so much beauty in it. I wanted to discover it all for myself and show everyone what they’re missing out on by watching TV in their free time. I wanted people to be so sick of the beauty that I shared that they have no choice but to get off their butts and go see it for themselves. And the hope is that down the road I can find a way in doing all of this to somehow give back to the veteran and trail communities because without either of them I wouldn’t be where I am today.
In 2014, I set out to hike the toughest long distance trail our country has: The Continental Divide Trail, three thousand one hundred miles from Mexico to Canada. It has the tallest mountains in the lower 48 states, the toughest terrain, and the toughest conditions. It is the wildest of the Triple Crown trails. I conquered the CDT in a little over 5 months and had the absolute time of my life. What struck me about this trail was how much I enjoyed that I hiked the majority of it in complete solitude, quite the opposite of the social experiment that is the AT. The guy that thought he needed to be so very social in order to thrive in this world learned that he didn’t need other people after all. I don’t think I’ve ever thought so clearly in all of my life as I did when I was alone in the wilderness. And I learned that I truly have found my place in this world. This trail only confirmed to me that I was destined to explore this world at three miles per hour.
Next up is the Pacific Crest Trail to cap my Triple Crown in three years. After that, who knows? New Zealand, Africa, South America…heck I’ll go hike on the moon if I have to! All I need is a pack on my back and a direction to walk. I haven’t found a single reason to deviate from this path I’m on. So with that, you can count on one thing; that I’ll be…Ever Onward.
To follow conquests of The Real Hiking Viking, including stunning get-you-outta-your-seat photos, visit therealhikingviking.com.
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