What do impossibly short shorts, hiking boots, and veterans have to do with each other? Well, if you are part of the community, you know. That is the preferred dress code for the Irreverent Warriors (IW) Silkies Hikes. These hikes are hard to put into words. Even for someone who makes a living using her words.
I signed up for the Virginia Beach IW hike after seeing a friend complete one in Tennessee. It looked like something I could do with a Navy friend of mine to get me outdoors and maybe make some connections. The night before the event, I began to panic. I am not exactly what you would call athletic. I’ve done a few half marathons, but it is always just a brisk walk where I could walk and talk with my sister for a couple hours. I certainly am not a hiker. There are bugs and dirt and you get sweaty. And the idea of wearing short shorts over my strong thighs seemed like a recipe for heat rash. I started to wonder if I should just call it off. Even with my friend coming along, I was terrified of being around people I didn’t know in an environment that was not exactly normal for me.
When I pulled up to the parking area, my panic did not go away. While I’m very perky and can be chatty in the right situations, the area was filled with people who were all happy to talk to strangers and no one looked quite as lost as I felt. I even had the first aid fairy (yes, she had glitter and fairy wings!) come up to me to take a picture for her and it was as though I forgot how to use a camera. I felt like a complete idiot. And the newbie bracelet that I was wearing seemed like a neon sign that I didn’t belong with everyone else. It wasn’t until we took off and started the walk that I felt like I could breathe a little. I could hide in the group and not be noticed if I wanted. There were certainly enough people for me to just blend in. But that isn’t how these things work.
See, if you have the newbie bracelet on, a veteran hiker will come talk to you. They will walk beside you and ask questions. They will start with the basics, where are you from, what branch did you serve in, are you still in, etc. Then they will dig deeper. Why are you hiking? Is there someone that you’re doing this for? Is it your mental health that made you want to come out? These questions may seem very personal, but when you remember that the participants are all either active duty or veterans, they don’t come across that way. All the sudden I felt safe. I knew that the people I was surrounded by were ones who had been where I had been. They had worn the boots, the uniform, the silly pt shorts. They understood that no one seems to come out of service without some sort of mental health questions. And they would listen without judgement when hard topics came up.
By mid-day my friend had to bow out and was leaving me alone. I wasn’t going to have him as a crutch for the rest of the hike. And I was ok with that. Because at that point I was happy to talk to strangers (some more strange than others!) and get to know their stories. I spent half of the return hike talking to a female Sailor that was looking to get into the fish and wildlife sector of the civilian world when she gets out. When we stopped at the obstacle course and rope climb area, she won the women’s pull-up challenge and was quick to get to the top of the rope. She was a great hike partner and for the time we chatted, she made me glad that I didn’t bow out at lunch with my friend.
On the last leg of the hike I met another female Sailor. We started talking because of the need for hand sanitizer. Both of us were well prepared for anything that could come up on the hike. Her more than me as it wasn’t her first hike and she was in the nurse corps. Talking with her, the conversation was easy. It did center a lot on mental health, service members we have lost, and even the struggles we have ourselves. This woman who I hadn’t known at 9am was now listening as I shared about my anxiety and my fears about everyday life. And it didn’t seem strange! It was as though she was put there for me.
It would be easy to say that IW hikes are a bonding experience for veterans and active duty members. But that doesn’t cover the whole experience. It is a day of conversations that turn strangers into friends. It pushes people outside of their comfort zone and into a place where they don’t have to be afraid to say they are struggling. And it shows the community where the hikes take place a little glimpse of the silly side of service members. Because, come on, it’s hard to take us too seriously when everyone has on mini shorts!