Rob Weisberg, a local hero, mental health advocate, and community volunteer, decided to hike the Appalachian Trail as a therapeutic endeavor these past few months. After suffering from PTSD and suicidal thoughts, he broke himself down, and built himself back up stronger through the power of physical and mental exercise, community support, and nature.
The Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is a national scenic hike extending from northern Georgia all the way to Maine. The trail passes through fourteen states and is a total of 2,180 miles.
“Each year, thousands of hikers attempt a thru-hike; only about one in four makes it all the way,” says the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “Completing the entire 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail in one trip is a mammoth undertaking.”
Weisberg began the trail in Georgia and hiked northbound.
Rob is a local hero. As a volunteer firefighter in Commack, Rob used his experience to lend aid during the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center. He was in the city for his day job in accounting when the attack occurred. He knew he needed to do everything he could to help his fellow New Yorkers, so he went to the fire house across the street from the Twin Towers and volunteered for one of the most dangerous tasks in our history.
What Rob witnessed and experienced changed his life forever. Racked with survivors’ guilt and suffering with PTSD, Rob struggled to find normalcy after the attack. His symptoms set in almost immediately.
“For me, 9/11 wasn’t just that day,” Weisberg explains to The Messenger. The day immediately following, Rob experienced a loud crash that made him jump. “That was my first confirmed moment of ‘Alright, this isn’t good.’ 9/11 wasn’t a day for me, it was an event.” Rob participated in the rescue recovery for months following. He felt as though everyday had something new in store for him. “It was always one thing after another, after another.”
Rob was an Eagle Scout growing up and has always loved nature and camping. He has thought about hiking the A.T. since he was a kid. Rob always had the ability to connect with nature, allowing him to be happy while outdoors. His friends have even told him while out in nature, “we never see that smile anywhere else.”
“With my PTSD and everything, it went from being something that I wanted to do, to something I needed to do.” Rob was severely struggling with his mental health and suicidal thoughts prior to his trip. “I just figured, let’s give this a shot. If anything’s going to work this would be it.” Instead of going out for just a weekend or week trip, Rob planned a nearly six-month hike through the country beginning March 11, 2023.
For a trip like this, preparation can make or break a hiker, however it is also impossible to plan everything perfectly. Rob planned his days based off of terrain, weather conditions, and shelter.
“People don’t realize the logistics is just as much work and just as hard as the actual hiking,” says Rob. Throughout each part of the trail, it is up to the hiker to decide how much they can accomplish in the hours of daylight they have. Experts recommend averaging twelve miles per day, according to explore.com, and if a hiker comes up short, they’ll need to make it up another day.
Hikers struggle to find water in areas of the trail. As Rob hit Pennsylvania, he encountered many droughts, making his water supply dwindle and difficult to replenish naturally, even after detailed planning of water sources.
Throughout the trail, there is also limited cell service. In order to plan how to get to each place of shelter from the trail, Rob would have to time his hike and ensure there is a road crossing to be picked up and shuttled to his temporary residence. “If I can’t reach out to anybody, we’d be hitching rides,” explains Rob. “This was my first time hitchhiking ever in my life. There were times, like down south where it’s still considered acceptable, you put your thumb out and they’ll pick you up. That was the funny thing about it, you know, it’s just a normal practice down there.”
Preparing physically and mentally is just as important as planning out the logistics. “You’ll want to quit a few times a day,” Phil Baily, an REI Outdoor School Instructor told Explore. “But if you tell yourself that you’re just doing the trail for the experience, going as far as you need to get what you need out of it, each day seems a little more significant.”
Rob set out on his journey with a few things in mind to accomplish. Mental health’s negative stigma can make it difficult to talk about. As Rob told The Messenger in a previous interview, “When it comes to mental health, [people feel like] they can’t talk about it. There is such negativity around it. The brain controls everything and it’s the one thing you can’t talk about.” Rob is dedicated to breaking this stigma, making people feel comfortable opening up and seeking help.
He used this goal as motivation to be more candid about his experience. Rob’s Facebook page, Rob Weisberg Appalachian Trail Hike is practically a personal diary filled with his thoughts, feelings, and struggles. Through social media, he quickly became an inspiration to others.
On his Facebook, he posted:
“I have been asked so many times, what am I personally looking to get out of hiking the trail?
I have been thinking about this question for a long time. For such a difficult question, the answer is actually pretty simple. I just want to be happy.
My PTSD has negatively impacted SO MANY aspects of my life. Controlling chronic anger is exhausting. As I mentioned in prior posts, my anger has negatively impacted so many relationships. Just being happy will have such a positive impact on my relationships with my family.
My PTSD has also made me feel like I have been in a state of mourning for over 20 years. I would feel guilty if I was enjoying myself. I just could not get past that day. How could I be happy when so many people were hurting?
Being happy is an inalienable right for any living creature on this planet. I didn’t do anything that should have caused me to give that right up. It’s time to open the curtains and let the sun shine on my face without feeling guilty.”
Rob ultimately wanted to reach one person, “to help them not head down the trail I was headed and do something irreversible.” On the hike, Rob met two people who thanked him for his openness regarding mental illness. First, it was a young man who confided in Rob while hiking. “He told me, ‘Go find your number two’,” Which, he then did in a Vietnam Veteran who has been struggling but found comfort in Rob’s journey.
Towns located on the A.T deeply respect the thru hikers who come by to seek shelter and nourishment.
“People would see us walking through their towns with our packs. They would be like ‘Can we take a picture with you? Do you need anything? Do you need a ride somewhere to pick up supplies? People were offering stuff left and right.” Rob felt the kindness and respect these locals had towards the hiking community.
In the beginning, Rob went out on the hike by himself. However, during his journey, he met other hikers and formed relationships with strangers that he met from all over the country. While in southern Virginia, Rob met a few hikers who invited him to hike with them, however Rob had things he wanted to work on personally. “I said ‘listen, I need to clear my head, I need alone time, so if you’re cool with me hiking by myself during the day and then we’d meet up at night, that would be great.” Rob was able to find companionship while still being able to work on his mental health.
Rob smiles ear to ear while telling his story of being in Unionville, New York. He and eight other hiking buddies were looking for a place to sleep as a storm was rolling in. “This one guy was like ‘you guys looking for a place to stay?’ We said ‘Yeah, do you have a barn or something we can sleep in?’ He goes, ‘Well I have a barn, but just sleep in my house.’ So, he took in nine hikers that night.” The same man bought all nine hikers’ dinner that evening as well.
While hiking the trail, people can burn between 4,000 to 6,000 calories a day and constantly need to replenish, making any type of food a necessity. The kindness of strangers throughout the hike often involved homemade cooking and goodies for the road.
“A lot of places were like that, asking ‘What can we do to help you guys be successful and safe?’”
Rob recalls Shenandoah National Park as his favorite section of the hike. He enjoyed its beauty, roadside areas, and blackberry milkshakes.
As a lover of animals, Rob was able to interact with plenty along the A.T. Witnessing deer, bears, racoons, porcupines, and snakes. One night in a lean-to, a raccoon tried to share his shelter with him.
“I was sleeping and all the sudden I felt something grabbing my leg. I thought it was a bear, so I was kicking and screaming, then I grabbed my phone and put the flashlight on, and it was a raccoon.”
Rob hit the halfway point of the trail on June 20, at 1,100 miles. He posted on Facebook in celebration:
“I know the worst is yet to come, but every day I am getting stronger physically and mentally! By the way, there is a tradition on the trail to do a half-gallon ice cream challenge at a general store at the trail’s midpoint. Needless to say, I crushed it in about 24 minutes. One hiker puked. Rookie!”
The hardest area of the hike for Rob was up in New England, as the terrain is very rocky and steep. However, the mental challenge of the hike may have proved the toughest for others. “There are people who bagged it just because they couldn’t take the rain. Well, it is what it is. I take my scouts hiking and I would tell them, ‘Do you want to be cold and wet, or do you want to be cold, wet and miserable?’ Because you’re going to be cold and wet, how do you handle it?”
Due to an injury, Rob had to leave the hike early. He made it most of the way, hiking a total of 1,852.5 miles. “I was out for five and a half months to process a lot of junk in my head and put a lot of those feelings behind me.”
Rob tells The Messenger that he believes he accomplished the biggest goals he set out for himself while on this adventure. The biggest one: being happy.
“When I started my hike, I was hoping to get my life to be the way it was before 9/11 and my PTSD. I learned I can’t go back. However, the trail has helped me to manage it better. I am looking forward to getting home to my family. I am sure they will see how the trail has changed me for the better!”