‘A bear walked over my makeshift den. I saw a man cut off a boar’s head with a knife.’: Veteran backpacks across America to escape PTSD, details amazing journey

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Disclaimer: This story contains mentions of PTSD and suicidal ideation that may be triggering to others.

“After finishing my service as an infantryman in the United States Army, I purchased a brand-new car and drove across the country from Ft. Lewis, Washington back to my home state of Tennessee. I then used the rest of the money I’d saved during my last year in the military to open a recording studio in the town of Humboldt. Since I was living in the back of the studio, the woman I was dating thought it would be a good idea for us to get a house together. The only drawback was the house we decided on was too far for a daily commute, so I sold all of my equipment from the studio and used the money to furnish our new home. Although I would no longer be able to offer recording, I hoped my customers would still use my mixing and mastering services, which I could continue to provide remotely. However, giving up the recording aspect of my business led to the loss of most of my customers.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

To try and make ends meet, I began applying for whatever work I could find in the area. After about a month of only finding enough odd jobs to just get by, my girlfriend left and I could no longer afford to pay for the house on my own. I then sold everything I’d just put into the house and began living out of my car. After a few months of living out of my car and still unable to find any full-time work, I decided to visit my parents in the town of Greenfield. They had no idea I’d lost the studio and was living out of my car, and I wanted to keep it this way. When they asked why I was there, I told them I’d just taken a few days off work to relax. However, the real reason I was there, besides visiting, was to get a shower and do my laundry. I stayed the night with them, did my laundry the next day while they were gone, and decided to stay one more night before continuing my search for work.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

During the second night of staying with my parents, a tornado came through and tossed a tree onto their house and my car. I then stayed with them for about two months, helping to clean up all the damages. Since I had recently switched my car insurance to liability, I was at a total loss and had my car scrapped for five hundred dollars. Since I knew I’d have to walk up to twenty miles one way each day if I wanted any luck at finding a job, I decided to use the money to buy a backpack and some other camping gear. After spending a few weeks hiking between towns and not having much luck at finding any work, I soon realized all the walking and sleeping under the stars seemed to be helping with my PTSD.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

One night, as I was walking along the train tracks and making my way for another town, I had the idea to walk across America. I figured taking six months to myself would be great for my mind and body, and I also felt like maybe I’d have better luck at finding a job once I returned. After spending nearly all of what little money I had on the equipment I’d need, I used the rest to purchase a train ticket for Washington, D.C., and then made my way to Delaware to start my cross-country trek. As I was making my way across America for the first time, it seems now I was just testing the waters. I was focused more on speed rather than taking the time to enjoy myself and to capture any meaningful experiences. This in itself turned out to be my first lesson from my travels, as I had gained almost nothing from it and wondered why I had even done it.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

Although I did run into a lot of nice people, such as the couple from Kansas who invited me to their house for two nights and even brought me to the zoo. I was also able to get used to camping in strange places, being alone, and I taught myself to ignore what other people thought of me. I figured out the best gear to carry, and my physical fitness was almost on par with what it had been when I was in the Army. Since my first trip across the country left me wanting more, I purchased a bike and began pedaling my way for Florida. After nearly succumbing to several heat strokes, I quickly made it to Pensacola and met up with an old friend who had moved there a few years back. The idea of living there with her got brought up shortly after I’d made it, but she ended up getting hit by a car the next night as we were walking back to her house from the beach.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

Although she was alive, she was badly injured and was taken back to Tennessee to undergo physical therapy. I then spent a few weeks being a beach bum while I waited for the weather to cool off. As I was waiting for the time to be right to leave Florida, I came up with the idea of making it to Alaska and even had hopes of living there once I made it. I began to wonder how I was going to keep myself motivated to make it this far, so I decided to search for a charity organization I could be a part of. It didn’t take long for me to come across a group called ‘Shot At Life.’ They were helping to provide vaccines to children in developing countries, and all I would have to do is put their app on my phone so they could track my miles.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

After leaving Florida and making my way north, I quickly realized doing it for a charity was what I was missing from the first time I’d crossed America. Not only did helping others keep me motivated, but it also gave me a feeling of self-worth I hadn’t felt since the Army. This increase in self-worth helped to curb my depression and anxiety, and even gave me a boost in confidence, which led to me being more open to people and experiences. Making my way from Florida to Alaska sure offered a lot, in terms of experiences. For example, I was shot at while making my way through Kentucky after accidentally coming across a meth house. I had crushed a nerve in my hand due to poor bike fitting and had to trick my brain into correcting the problem by using a mirror. All of my things got soaking wet when it was supposed to drop to fifteen degrees that night, but, thankfully, I was invited to stay at a motel after asking to use their dryer.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

I watched a man cut off a boar’s head with a huge knife, which he gave to me after saying, ‘You might need this.’ I ended up being interviewed by several newspaper reporters and radio stations. A bear nearly walked over my makeshift den as I was sleeping on the side of a mountain. I stayed with a family of traveling cyclists in Arizona, who were like a mix between Amish and hippies. I got caught in a sandstorm as I was making my way into Utah and just a few days later, I was caught in a blizzard. The list goes on and on! Before reaching Nevada, I sold my bike so I could continue the rest of my journey on foot and had switched from helping with Shot At Life to The Wounded Warriors Project. Not that I wasn’t satisfied with what Shot At Life was doing, I just thought it would be nice to mix my miles up between a few different charities, instead of only donating them all to one. Going from a twenty-mile-per-hour pace down to about four took some getting used to, but I quickly fell in love with it.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

Walking was how I originally wanted to do things, anyway. The only reason I ended up with a bike was because someone asked if I’d like to cycle the country with them. However, we parted ways on the first day and I was just kind of stuck with it. Watching the earth move beneath my feet, feeling the weight of my equipment on my back, and being able to study every little thing around me made me feel more connected. I then walked the Loneliest Highway through Nevada, entered California, and made my way to the Pacific coast before following it north. Although I had hopes of walking through Canada, there just wasn’t enough time to make it to Alaska before winter, and I’d have to wait even longer to get my passport. I then took about a month off to work on a plantation and used that money to fly to Alaska, which actually added to the adventure rather than took away from it.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

After spending a couple of months in Alaska and taking my time to explore the wilderness, where I had a near-death experience and was nearly killed by a grizzly bear, I returned to the city of Anchorage and began looking for a job and place to stay. Although I would have settled for anything to get me through the winter, the first snow had fallen before I had any luck. I then used almost all of the money I had saved from working on the plantation and took a plane back to Tennessee. However, I wasn’t finished just yet. Before my plane had even left Alaska, I was already making plans to walk across America again. After making it to Tennessee, I stopped by to visit with an old friend to discuss our plans to walk across America together. Although I decided to do it for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, my friend made it clear he just wanted to accompany me for the experience. I figured it may be enough for him, but by then I was addicted to helping others and couldn’t see myself doing it any other way. We took a bus to Florida and began our walk across the country.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

After hiking for thirty days, covering three hundred miles, my friend decided he’d had enough and left me to complete the rest of my walk alone. Although I knew I would miss his company, being alone was nothing new to me, and I would be able to set my own pace. Unfortunately, as the months went by, the donations finally came to a grinding halt and my body was beginning to break down. As I continued making my way across the country, battling the cold, loneliness, a lack of support, the return of my depression, and the idea of it all being over soon, my walk slowly began to lose its sense of purpose. After making it across the country the third time, I could barely walk and felt as though I had nothing left to offer. I had pushed myself for as long and as hard as I could. As I began inching my way closer to San Francisco, I had the idea to end my life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Thankfully, as I made my way onto the bridge, I was bombarded by police officers before I could go through with it and was escorted to a nearby VA hospital.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

After spending about a month in a psychiatric unit, talking with all the other patients helped me to let go of my troubled past. Once I was released from the hospital, I took a bus to Wyoming and began living and working on a ranch. I ended up getting married to the ranch owner’s daughter, but we got divorced a year later and I made my way back to Tennessee. Since I had lost everything when I left Wyoming, I was right back to where I started. Within a month of being in Tennessee, I began to feel unusually tired and had some pain in my upper right abdomen. Feeling a bit concerned, I finally checked myself into an emergency room where they ordered a PET scan. A few days later, I received the troubling news I had developed a tumor on my liver. Thankfully, I was able to start treatment a few days after, but I had to live in my tent behind the hospital to keep up with all of my appointments.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

To keep myself occupied during treatment, I began working on a book about my travels. Three months later, I received news my cancer was in remission. The same day, I finished up with my book and had it self-published. I then had twenty copies printed and delivered to my parents’ house. They had no idea I’d been back in Tennessee, had cancer, or written a book, but they were happy to hear all of the good news. Although I could still barely walk, I tossed on my backpack, strapped another one with my books across my chest, and began walking between towns to set up book signings. After selling a hundred autographed copies, I knew I’d need to reach a bigger audience if I wanted any chance of selling enough to buy a vehicle. I purchased a bus ticket to San Diego, California, and began walking up the coast, selling autographed copies to people on the streets. By the time I’d reached San Francisco again, I had sold enough copies to purchase myself a vehicle.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

However, I ran into an old homeless blind man I had met during my previous walks and decided to buy him a small RV to live in instead. I then turned to walk back south and continued trying to sell my books to anyone interested. However, my luck had run dry and my sales had plummeted. Once I’d made it to Los Angeles, a woman invited me to stay with her until I could sell enough books to get a vehicle. I continued walking around the city with my backpack for about a year and was finally able to purchase a used SUV for $5,000. Unfortunately, I was scammed into buying something with a bad transmission. I’d just spent all of my money on that SUV, had really lost my motivation, and my knees were in too bad of shape to keep lugging my books everywhere.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

As of now, my goal is to sell enough copies of my book so I can get a decent van to live out of. I then plan on driving around the country, setting up book signings, giving speeches to share the healing powers of hiking and helping others, to use any excess money to help those dealing with homelessness, and spend my time between towns working on my newly discovered passion in photography. Although walking across America may sound like a simple feat, I did so alone and unsupported, which was difficult but opened me up to opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. For food, I did a lot of hunting, trapping, fishing, foraging, dumpster diving, and even had a few kind strangers offer something to eat. I was able to experience first-hand what it was like to live as a homeless man in the United States, which has completely changed my outlook and left me with a longing to help others in that situation.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

I was also able to meet some of the nicest, most caring people this country has to offer. After making it through several tornadoes, blizzards, sand storms, nearly being struck by passing motorists, getting shot at, and nearly killed by a grizzly bear, I can at least say it was all worth it. My book is titled, ‘Walking America: A 10,000 Mile Journey of Self-Healing.’ It is now available on Amazon. For a special deal, you may place an order directly through me here. Autographed copies come with a code to download the audiobook, PDF, and all of the pictures I took during my journey at no additional cost. You may also purchase just the audiobook, PDF, and pictures, or just the PDF and pictures.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

I have also created a Patreon for my photography. Patrons may save any of my images in full-resolution to use for printing or other personal use. Each month, one member is randomly selected to win an autographed print. Since my focus in photography is wildlife and landscapes, 10% is being donated to The Nature Conservancy.”

Courtesy of Jake Sansing
Courtesy of Jake Sansing

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jake Sansing of Whittier, California. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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