Former army pilot and UMaine grad Michael Keighley left the military this past February…four days later he hit the Appalachian trail.
That soul-searching trek has turned into a tribute to two of his fallen comrades, thanks to Maine’s Summit Project.
For Keighley, hiking the appalachian trail has been a physical and mental journey.
“it seemed like a really great way to transition out of the military,” said Keighley. “I’ve been hiking with another veteran, a Marine Corps first lieutenant, who’s an awesome guy.”
There’s no shortage of veterans along the trail-many of whom know Keighley by his trail name “Archangel.”
“You can share your experiences that you’ve had. I met a guy that was in the same area of Afghanistan as me except he was on the ground. So I mean that dude was probably on my helicopter at some point,” said Keighley.
Those connections got Keighley thinking about two of his fallen comrades–and UMaine classmates.
“My roommate was James Zimmerman, who was a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps. And then one of my other buddies Jay Brainard, who was an army captain,” said Keighley. “I just kept thinking there’s got to be something I can do to help remember them and at the same time help me with a little bit of closure.”
So he reached out to The Summit Project.
Volunteers were happy to deliver Brainard and Zimmerman’s commemorative stones to him in New Hampshire, so he could carry them to the top of Mount Katahdin.
“James’ stone is from his backyard up in Smyrna. Same with Jay’s, except Jay’s came out of Moxie Pond, which I passed by Moxie pond yesterday and took a moment there with Jay’s stone which was a really emotional and special experience,” said Keighley.
Keighley says that while these stones may make his pack a bit heavier, he knows for the families of his fallen comrades, a much greater burden is being lifted.
“Especially on top of some of these peaks, it’s nice to take a moment and think about these guys and think about if they were there with me,” said Keighley.
Keighley is now working his way through the hundred-mile wilderness, the most difficult stretch of the trail, then it’s on to Maine’s highest peak.
“So the 26th is when I’ll be going up Katahdin. I’ll be hiking with some other members from the Summit Project, as well as my parents and James’ parents. It’s going to be a really cool experience,” said Keighley.
But until then it’s about the journey–one on which he believes he’s not alone.
“I haven’t been rained on yet in Maine. And it’s just–it’ll rain and then as soon as I go to get out of the car it clears. And so it’s just little things like that, you know, you just can’t help but wonder if someone else is watching out for you, so it’s really special,” said Keighley.
For more on The Summit Project, visit their website.