The city of Coronado has seen many noteworthy military personnel come and go over the years, but the life Navy veteran Ben Vaughan discovered post-military has been nothing short of wild.
Though he still keeps in touch with many friends from his time on the island, Vaughan now carries his fond memories of the Crown City far and wide through forests, hills, valleys, and even across glaciers during the daring long-haul hikes for which he is well known.
Vaughan, 53, spent his second Department Head tour with the US Navy stationed in Coronado. After five combat deployments scattered the world over, he eventually decided to retire in the city, knowing the island and its public school system would make the perfect place for his daughter, Jordan, to attend high school, grow, and find opportunities to excel.
After working as a Navy contractor on the island for some years, he decided to try something to which he was almost entirely new – hiking. Most people might get their feet wet with a few days’ backpacking trip; instead, for four and a half months of 2018, Vaughan hiked the 2,193 mile Appalachian Trail. “That adventure changed my outlook on life,” he says. “Nothing but me and everything I needed on my back.”
From there, it was clear Vaughan had been bitten by the hiking bug: in 2019, he tackled the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada (2,653 miles) and the Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Canada (3,100 miles). In 2020, he checked off the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota, Vermont’s Long Trail, and the 800-mile Hayduke Trail, an outdoor adventure spanning various western national parks which he describes as the most challenging outdoor experience he has ever faced. From steep canyons to 30-mile water treks, “If you are looking for a very difficult and remote adventure, I recommend the Hayduke,” he says. In the past four years alone, Vaughan has hiked 10,000 miles of National Scenic Trails. He is recognized as one of the few people to have completed this set of trails; now he hopes his story can inspire other veterans who may be struggling to find direction.
“I struggled with my post-military life. It took me too many years to figure out who I was and what I wanted to be after the military. It is a very common story among vets, but there are many great resources to get help or talk to someone. The most difficult part is recognizing that you need help and asking for it,” says Vaughan. He hopes that Coronado military personnel who see this story know they are not alone and encourages them to step out of their comfort zones. “I found peace through long distance hiking and being in the backcountry – there is something for everyone.”
Though he has found solace in his outdoor adventures, Vaughan acknowledges that there have been scary moments for him in the wilderness. Over the years, he has encountered wild animals like grizzly bears, wolves, and mountain lions, though he says he never felt unsafe around them. More dangerous, he says, is the potential to fall and be injured somewhere difficult to be rescued. He also now knows to hang back from hiking through snowstorms after a blizzard trapped him in the Sierras for 24 hours. “Luckily I made it out,” he says, “but I did suffer severe frostbite on four of my toes, which required me to get off trail for three weeks to recover. Lesson learned.”
Despite this frosty experience, Vaughan now spends winters on the snowy slopes of Colorado. During the season, he works as a ski and snowboarding instructor. A skier since 7 years old and a newer snowboarder, he has reveled in recently reconnecting with old Coronado friends through his work. This winter, he taught both a Master Chief Petty Officer he served with in Coronado as well as the son of an old friend from the island. “I enjoy sharing my passion on the snow with others. It’s a small world!” he says.
But Vaughan’s thirst for new adventures still hasn’t dimmed. Last summer, he was invited to take on yet another new challenge: dog mushing in the remote wilds of Alaska. “I had zero experience with dog mushing, so it was a completely new experience,” he says. “It was quite the adventure living in an extremely remote environment – guests travel by helicopter to our glacier for a once in a lifetime experience. My team worked in extreme weather conditions and relied on each other for everything.” Looking ahead, he says, he is excited to return to the glacier next summer. “No running water and blizzards in July led to some of the best memories I’ve ever made.”
In the end, Vaughan has a few tips for Coronado residents who may want to find new ways to have adventures of their own in a time when staying close to home has become the norm. “If you never get out of your comfort zone, are you really living? Find ways to challenge yourself, even if they’re small,” he says. His favorite quote from author Michael Easter says it all: “Do hard things and the rest of life becomes easier.”
You can follow Vaughan’s adventures at his Instagram page, @hiking_ginger_b, where he says he would love to engage anyone curious with more stories and lessons learned from his 10,000 miles and counting.