EAST LYME, Conn. — It will take Marine Corps veteran Steven Lesage of Plainfield about 18 months to hike The American Discovery Trail.
Organized as a system of recreational trails and roads that collectively form a coast-to-coast hiking route, the American Discovery Trail extends 6,800 miles, through 15 different states, from California to Delaware.
While on the trail, Lesage will pass through The Sierra Nevada, the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon, and he’ll go through the deserts of Utah and Nevada. He’ll trek through the Ozarks and Appalachia, hitting a peak elevation point at Colorado’s Argentine Pass of 13,207 feet.
With a start date set for the beginning of March, the 34-year-old expects to hike and traverse mountains covered in several feet of snow — a risky undertaking he said isn't much cause for concern. Instead, his cross-country hike is more than time on the trail or finding internal peace. It's a chance to spread the word of veterans' organizations across the country while also raising awareness about mental health, veteran suicide prevention and post-traumatic stress disorder — causes Lesage said are immensely important to him after he served in the Marines Corps for a decade.
On Sunday, Lesage talked about those issues while surrounded by family and friends, as well as veterans from across the region, at a fundraising event at East Lyme’s Noble Jay Brewing Co. to assist Lesage on his hike.
"This hike, for me, is about helping spread the word about these issues and veterans' organizations. But I also want to encourage people to find something happy for themselves the way hiking has made me feel happy. This is about trying to help others find their way," he said.
In order to do that, Lesage said he will document his hike through videos and social media posts on his Facebook and Instagram pages @RamboHikes, spreading the word about the local veterans' organizations in the states he passes through. Beyond talking about his daily ordeals while on the trail, he will also talk about the issues veterans face in their day-to-day lives, experiences he is all too familiar with.
Joining the Marine Corps in 2002 just weeks after graduating from Plainfield High School, Lesage has been deployed on three six-month tours to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. While on those tours, Lesage, who was a corporal, worked as an electrician, wiring compounds and encampments that he and other American troops resided and worked in. During his last tour, he assisted combat engineers with route clearance, or, in other words, finding and removing roadside bombs to allow for safe transportation.
And even though he said he was not on the front lines while in Iraq, his life, he said, was always in danger as his compounds were constantly bombarded by enemy fire. About the other traumas of his time in Iraq, Lesage left much unsaid.
Once back in the United States, Lesage said adjustment to normal civilian life was another challenge in itself. Finding purpose and fulfillment again felt impossible.
"You go from being trained to kill to making doughnuts," he said. "Going from military life to civilian life is difficult. The camaraderie isn't there anymore. You don't have a purpose."
Spiraling into alcoholism, Lesage said he suffered from PTSD, social anxiety and depression after leaving the Marines. At one point, he was charged with driving under the influence — a wake-up call, he said, that inspired him to get his life back in order. His answer to that? Hiking.
At first, Lesage said he would take day hikes in local state parks. Then, he decided to hike the entire Appalachian Trail in 2016. At that point, Lesage said the most he had ever hiked straight was five or six miles in a single day. He had also never taken an overnight trip.
But the Appalachian Trail left him renewed. He said he has since been calmer and at peace again. He now has a purpose. And most importantly, he has been able to talk to people, opening up honestly about his experiences.
Lesage is not the only veteran to turn to nature to seek comfort and understanding. The numbers of veterans embarking on cross-country treks have grown in recent years, according to a New York Times article written about the subject in 2017. For Deborah McGrath, Connecticut chapter director of Honor and Remember, a national veteran support agency, the number of veterans turning to nature to help cope with traumas endured overseas is increasing.
"This is what they are doing to help themselves," she said while at Sunday's fundraiser. "And when we met Steve, we realized even more just how important it can be to get veterans out and about."
In an effort to help Lesage with his hike, McGrath said her organization has donated thousands of dollars to him. Some of that money was invested in a high-tech GPS tracker that will track, over the internet, where Lesage is in real time. Family and friends and those interested in the hike can know at any time where he is and if he is OK.
"We just want veterans to know about the different support systems that are available to them, and Steve is going to help make that happen through this hike," McGrath said.
There are still many challenges ahead of Lesage, however. One of them is the time of year he is starting his hike. Going against the advice of the American Discovery Trail Society, according to Lesage, he will be hiking in March and April, months where many of the mountain passes he intends to traverse will still be covered in feet of snow.
Lesage will also be hiking to unprecedented elevation levels. The highest elevation he has reached thus far in his life was 6,288 feet while hiking Mount Washington as a child. The hike over the ADT will often take him twice that high.
Mapping his way from California to Delaware will also be another difficulty, he said, as most of the guides and maps made for that ADT only go from east to west. Making the trek easier, Lesage has organized mail drops at several points across the ADT to stock up on supplies. He will also be hiking with a lightweight pack that, when filled with food and water, will weigh just 35 pounds.
If all goes well, however, and if he manages to hike, on average, 15 to 20 miles per day, Lesage expects to finish the hike within 18 months.
And if he does that, Lesage says he'll be the first person in recorded history to have hiked west to east on the ADT. Others, according to the American Discovery Trail Society, have completed the trail in its entirety, but only while hiking from Delaware to California.
But more than that, Lesage said what amazes him most will be the thousands of veterans he hopes to touch by doing this hike.
“This isn’t about me. I don’t want fame and fortune. I want people to know that they can get help and where they can get help. I want people to also find the passion in their lives that sets them into motion. For me, that is hiking, and I’m using that passion to help others now.”