CANTERBURY, N.H. — The Owen family adopted an African proverb as their mantra as they took on one of the longest footpaths in the world, the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
To say the Georgia-to-Maine trail is challenging is an understatement: Of the estimated 3,000 people who try to hike the whole thing at once each year, only 1 in 4 finish, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. And it proved a little too much for the Owen family, who are back home in Canterbury after three months of walking.
But for them, it wasn’t about the number of miles they hiked; it’s that they did it together.
It had been a while since the Owens had time together as a family — the father, Ryan, had been enlisted in the military for the last 18 years, and served three combat tours and a peacekeeping mission in the Middle East and Europe.
His service took its toll: Ryan Owen was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder in the beginning of 2015, just a few months after he almost carried out a plan to kill himself during Thanksgiving 2014. Instead, he checked himself into Concord Hospital; he decided to retire in early 2016, a yearlong process that left the family plenty of time to figure out what was next.
They would soon realize Ryan’s retirement was just the beginning of returning to normal civilian life, said Jeri Lynn Owen, Ryan’s wife.
“People have asked us why we didn’t just take a vacation or go to the beach,” Jeri Lynn said. “But it’s taken three months for us to talk about some of the hardest, most valuable stuff as a family that we needed to process. The war is something the children were brought up with. … It can’t be dealt with in two weeks.”
The family has seen other major struggles, like Jeri Lynn Owen’s breast cancer diagnosis in 2015. And their fight to adopt their daughters Ava and Zoey from the Democratic Republic of Congo through a controversial Florida-based international adoption agency. Their journey was documented in CBS’s 48 Hours news series.
What at first seemed like a regular adoption process soon turned sour, Jeri Lynn said, as she learned that her soon-to-be daughters were infected with chigoe fleas, a parasite that burrows under the skin and can cause serious infections. When the Owens suddenly stopped receiving information about the adoption process, and the adoption agency director told Jeri Lynn to give up on adopting, it seemed hope would be lost.
Instead, Jeri Lynn hired her own attorney and private investigator and hopped a plane to the Congo in January 2013. By June, her girls were coming home.
Being out on the trail presented its own set of challenges. The Owens started in March at Springer Mountain in Georgia, but after taking a break in May for a Veterans Affairs appointment in New York, they decided to split the trail up into sections. They planned to complete the Vermont-Maine section of the trail first, to make sure they didn’t miss Mount Katahdin, which closes in the winter.
Their mission on the trail was singular: to “walk off the war,” derived from a quote by Earl Shaffer, and to heal as a family.
It took Jeri Lynn and Ryan only a few months to know they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.
They’d originally met in the cafeteria of New Tribes Bible Institute, a small college in Jackson, Michigan when Jeri Lynn was dating someone else in 1998. They stayed friends, and when Jeri Lynn moved to Pennsylvania later that year, Ryan, who was living in New Hampshire at the time, reached out.
A month after they started dating, Jeri Lynn joined him in the Granite State, and the two eloped a few months later.
Days after their marriage, Ryan would join the military. His contract was supposed to last four years — but then 9/11 happened.
“They weren’t letting anyone who was supposed to leave the military do so,” Jeri Lynn said. “What we anticipated would be four years turned into a career.”
The impact of Ryan’s service would not become apparent for several years.
“After the military is done with the few service members and their military families that have survived the vicious onslaught of multiple back-to-back (and extended) combat deployments … the service member and the military family are left to find themselves again, and the reality is that many never do,” Ryan wrote on the family’s travel blog, farnotfast.com, on March 16.
Months later, Ryan would reflect on the need to dissociate from the pain and uncertainty caused by having to leave his family over the years. In a May 29 post titled “The Crutch,” he recalls Jeri Lynn driving away in the family’s white sedan, with their oldest son, Taylor, waving goodbye out the window.
“The truth is I left something of myself out there on that sidewalk,” Ryan wrote. “I figured out a way to not feel anymore, and it has been rotting away the inside of me for many years now.”
By Thanksgiving 2014, the family was on the brink of divorce, Jeri Lynn said.
“We’d finally come to a place where we could start dealing with things honestly,” she said. “My husband didn’t want to become one of the 22 veterans who take their lives every day; he didn’t want to become a statistic.”
In July 2015, Jeri Lynn and Ryan renewed their vows under a maple tree in the backyard of their Canterbury home. And two years later – after navigating Jeri Lynn’s breast cancer diagnosis in August 2015 (she is now cancer-free) and Ryan’s retirement — the couple was faced with another challenge: What now?
After a few stops and starts, the family decided to come home for good last week. But Jeri Lynn said not completing the trail does not mean defeat.
It turns out the community on the AT may have been just what the Owen family needed, she said.
“One of my favorite things to watch is seeing my two oldest sons interact with people who haven’t experienced war but have experienced other suffering,” she said. “The majority of people out there are walking something off, like the loss of a child, a parent, a job, a change in family dynamic, something. … They’re trying to reset.”
Their family certainly attracted attention; Jeri Lynn said hikers are often amazed at seeing a family hiking the entire trail together, and remark on how they couldn’t imagine doing the same thing. They wonder, too, how the family fits school into the equation (the Owens home-school their children.)
“They can’t even believe what we’re doing,” she said. “A lot of them say they wouldn’t be able to do this with their family, because they would kill each other.”
After several days of near-constant rain in Vermont, the family decided to come home for a few days on June 2 to recharge. They had high hopes that the stop would be temporary — when they went to pick up the trail again at the Ledyard bridge in Hanover on Wednesday morning, there was not a cloud in the sky or a frown to be seen.
But Jeri Lynn said the mood had changed by the next day. “Our two oldest sons decided they just didn’t want to keep going anymore,” she said. “They were ready for stability.”
So the Owens are home for good this time. Jeri Lynn said she’s glad her children were able to be honest about their feelings, something she wasn’t sure would have been possible before the trip. And while the next steps are still uncertain — such as whether Ryan will pursue employment, or grad school – she said the results of their walk in the woods will be seen in the months to come.
“What comes next is the real work of my husband coming home and integrating back into the community,” she said. “We have to see what life is going to look like.”
She then added: “We have to have the humility to ask ourselves, ‘Did we accomplish what we set out to accomplish?’ I believe the answer is yes.”
Information from: Concord Monitor, http://www.concordmonitor.com