Springfield hiking guru sets new goal to help Missouri veterans

Friday, June 27, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD — The cuts and bruises from his fall on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail have finally healed.

The March accident dashed the plans of Springfield hiking guru Robert Crampton to backpack the 2,180-mile eastern U.S. trail with fellow military veterans. But Crampton now has his sights set on a new goal much closer to home.

He plans to lead a group of veterans on a 261-mile trek of Missouri's Ozark Trail in October.

The 10 veterans he'll take on the monthlong backpacking trip are wrestling with various effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Crampton firmly believes that a long hike in the woods can alleviate some of those symptoms and help veterans step back into productive civilian life.

He has formed a hiking group, General Pershing's Pathfinders, to help those vets "walk off their war."

"I picked the Ozark Trail since it's right here in Missouri, and it's a good place to start General Pershing's Pathfinder hikes," Crampton said. "The Ozark Trail is not as strenuous or as long as the Appalachian Trail, that's for sure. And there's not the elevation changes here that you'll find on the Appalachian."

He and the veterans who sign up will begin their hike at the trail head near Cuba, walking and camping all the way to West Plains.

"We're going to go about 10 miles a day, and stop once a week at towns along the way where the local American Legions and VFWs will have a meal for us," Crampton said. "We'll all have our own equipment — backpack, cooking gear, a tent, a change of clothes, sleeping bag, two pairs of socks and our food — about 30 pounds."

Three veterans have signed on so far. Crampton said he thinks the eventual group of 10 participants will range in age from 29 to 60.

Crampton, well known in the Springfield area because of his passion for building public hiking trails, said he'll encourage the veterans to start training for the four-week hike by walking several times a week with a backpack filled with the weight they'll carry on the trail.

A Springfield psychologist plans to join the group at some point, hiking with them and perhaps spending a night or two with the veterans.

"I like the outdoors — it's very therapeutic in building self-esteem," said Dr. Michael Murrell. "Robert has a similar idea — that trail building and hiking are wonderful ways to relieve physical tension. I believe that if you can change the way you think you will change the way you feel. When I'm with this group it will be a bit of a workshop in the wild."

An Eagle Scout and former medic with the Army Reserve, Murrell said he won't be able to spend a month hiking with the group, but he believes they will enjoy some significant emotional benefits when they complete their trek.

"Robert is a very high-energy guy, despite his age," Murrell said.

Crampton, who describes himself as "Chief Trail Hugger," already has logged more than 600 miles doing training hikes at Lake Springfield Park on the trail he helped build. At the age of 84, Crampton said he has no reservation tackling the Ozark Trail. He'll be 85 by the time he finishes.

Ahead of the big hike in October, Crampton has invited area veterans and their families to join him on monthly hikes at local trails.

"We'll plan to hike three to six miles, and on future hikes we'll go down to Busiek (state forest) where the trails are longer," he said.

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