words: Jack Riordan for Beard Bros. Media
photos: Amaya Images / @lioness_710
On an absolutely glorious January morning in the foothills of San Diego County at the aptly named Blue Sky Reserve, a stranger makes his way through the parking lot seeking out a group called Veterans Walk & Talk.
Ironically, it’s a spattering of camouflage that gives away their position.
Spotting my Beard Bros. t-shirt, the group welcomes me and I am introduced to men and women as varied in age, race, and walks of life as this nation of ours.
The group begins to swell in numbers, including several dogs who, with permission, all got pets from me.
I’m there to meet Colin Wells, a U.S. Army veteran and the founder of Veterans Walk & Talk but he had yet to arrive. Not knowing what to expect, it was a pleasant surprise to see so many people gathering around us near the trailhead.
It was clear that many of them knew one another already; be it from previous excursions with Colin or by way of their involvement in other veterans’ social groups like Weed For Warriors. But just as they welcomed me with open arms, so they did with everyone who walked up.
A red pickup pulled up and a beard as fiery as my own popped out the driver side window and asked us all, “You guys like to smoke weed?” With a grin, Colin cruised away to find parking.
With Wells at the lead, watching the second nature with which some of these men and women shouldered their packs was a subtle reminder of the company I was set to hike with that day. I would soon learn firsthand about the real weight that some of them carry every day.
The hike begins with a rallying of the group at a small concrete amphitheater.
With the warm sun and a soft breeze behind him, and a squad of injured but eager vets before him, Colin is happy on this day, but his days were not always so bright.
MAKING A MANIAC
Colin’s childhood was very much like a 90’s sitcom. . . literally.
His mother performed at, and eventually directed, the iconic Groundlings Theater in the heart of Los Angeles, a premiere sketch comedy and improv club boasting such famous alumni as Melissa McCarthy, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Phil Hartman, Pat Morita, Lisa Kudrow, Cheri Oteri and so many more.
Colin was at the theater at least three days a week in his formative years which goes a long way toward explaining his fine-tuned sense of humor.
His mom, Deanna, racked up writing credits for nostalgic hits like Animaniacs and Tiny Toon Adventures, as well as the 1995 feature film Casper, featuring the first all-CGI lead character in U.S. film history. Even young Colin was tapped to do some voice work for Animaniacs.
He vividly remembers this time in his life for obvious reasons, but the one that stands out the most in his memory is that it was then, in his early adolescent years as the son of a single mom, that they finally had some money.
Money doesn’t solve everything, however, particularly not loneliness – a feeling that Colin knew all too well growing up.
Like many SoCal teens, Colin took an interest in snowboarding and at the age of 18 he had an incident on the mountain that left him with a badly injured leg.
Laid up at home, in pain, Colin got his first taste of opiates.
Looking back now, he says, “I think some people are more predisposed to liking opiates, especially people who feel the weight of the world.”
Colin has always felt that weight, a result he concedes is likely due to being the son of a struggling single mom. “You’re trying to read her all the time, to try to see what she needs. . . to see the next step.”
Opiates immediately gave Colin a sense of relief, not only from the pain in his injured leg, but from that constant weight and worry that he had been carrying for so long.
You can quite literally fast forward his story for eight years after that first prescribed Vicodin.
Eight years of addiction, pain, and suffering for Colin and anyone who got caught in his dark storm at that time.
Colin’s savvy way of speaking, learned by watching the best actors in Hollywood hone the same skill, helped him con doc after doc into supporting his destructive path of addiction that quickly devolved into OxyContin and Fentanyl abuse as well.
Colin and those who loved him knew he had a problem and in L.A. fashion, he even spent a year in therapy with Dr. Drew of radio and television fame, to no avail.
Colin was plummeting toward his 26th birthday.
“I DIDN’T REALLY KNOW WHAT WAS GOING ON. . . I HAD A GUN”
It’s now November of 2017.
There’s no telling how Colin would have reacted then had you told him that just one year later he would be in basic training for the U.S. Army because, quite frankly, he was admittedly out of his mind.
Looped on a heavy dose of Xanax bars, Colin found himself searching for answers in the spinning cylinder of a .45 Long Colt Revolver, a hand cannon by anyone’s standards loaded with one lonely round.
Through the haze of the drugs, Colin fortunately survived that dark, dark night but it marked a new low for a man already at the end of his rope.
The next year was more of the same. “Floating around, doing nothing,” as Colin puts it.
That drift took Colin from a poker tourney in Laughlin, Nevada down to Bullhead City, Arizona where he found himself staring at his reflection in the glass door of the local military recruitment office.
At 26 years old and no light at the end of the tunnel, he figured he had nothing to lose and that it would either help him and he’d get through it to a better life, or he would die trying. Colin told the recruiter that he wanted to “Shoot guns and kick doors in” and the next thing he knew he was assigned to the Infantry in the U.S. Army.
Mind you, he’s still hocked up on a toxic blend of the most dangerous and addictive pharmaceutical drugs known to mankind when he lands at Ft. Benning for boot camp but, he says laughingly, it’s really the perfect place to detox.
“Everyone there is dying. . . sick from the food and the lack of sleep and everything, so I just fit right in,” he jokes. “When you’re withdrawing and you just lay there and wallow in it, it makes it so much worse. But if you’re forced to get up and go do push-ups you just get through it and about two weeks into it I started getting better, getting stronger.”
In 2009, then-President Obama ordered the continuation of a ‘Surge’ strategy in the war in Afghanistan, sending fresh waves of U.S. troops into the war torn nation to repel advances by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters looking to recapture their former strongholds in the region.
Despite a torn ACL suffered in basic training which Colin kept secret from the brass, he was assigned to 4th Battalion-23rd Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division and his unit was called up as a part of ‘The Surge’ and deployed to the front lines.
Colin heaps praise on his fellow soldiers that he served alongside as together they played an integral role in the hotly contested Battle of Marjah, as a part of Operation Moshtarak in 2009/2010.
Being older than many of his brothers in arms, Colin saw the situation in Afghanistan, and the world in general, a bit deeper than most. He found it hard to reconcile much of what he saw go down over there with his own moral compass. At the end of each day, though, he found that he wasn’t marching for a mission but for the soldiers by his side.
The fear stands out in his memory as well.
For his first four months in combat, Colin remembers being in an almost constant state of it.
Then one day, like a light switch, it just turned off.
“I don’t think that I’ve been scared since,” says Colin, adding, “It made me feel numb but the work I am doing now has brought me back into the fold in a lot of ways.”
HEADING HOME. . . LESS
After 12 months in the combat theater, Colin was sent home from Afghanistan in July of 2010.
Still active duty, Colin’s knee injury from basic was exposed and despite near perfect PT scores military docs forced him to undergo an unwanted knee surgery. Colin found himself recovering in a sea of new faces after his old unit was scattered by the military following their difficult deployment.
At the time, the Army was imposing mandatory early retirement on select soldiers and Colin was abruptly forced back into civilian life a full month before his scheduled discharge date.
The sense of loneliness that defined much of his childhood had been cured by the brotherhood he found in the Army, but now that same institution had stripped those relationships and support system from him and Colin suffered.
“I was lost beyond lost,” he recounts.
He was still on crutches and now, thanks to the mandated surgery and doctor’s orders, he was back on pills.
“I still talk to guys I was deployed with who were 18 at the time and they are just totally lost,” says Colin, “They have no place for them in the world.”
Back in LA in 2012, Colin was being haunted by the PTSD inflicted by his violent experience overseas.
His wife at the time could not deal with his mood swings and one day she just dropped him off at the VA hospital and told him she’d had enough, was getting a divorce, and that he was on his own. . . again.
For weeks, Colin bounced from one shelter to the next, slipping down an all-too familiar path of addiction along the way.
Facing an unsustainable heroin habit, Colin checked himself back into the Combat Trauma Treatment Center at the West Los Angeles VA for an eight month stay.
Released back onto the streets and alienated from everyone important in his life, Colin found refuge sleeping under the stars in the mountains skirting Santa Monica and this is when he truly discovered the healing power of cannabis.
An acquaintance convinced Colin to consume a home brewed tea that he said was laced with opium, knowing that buzzword would peak Colin’s curiosity. Instead, it was a CBD/THC tincture infused tea and the mellow, rejuvenating experience appealed immediately.
He soon moved on to smoking cannabis flower, scrounging up every nickel he could in order to get his hands on high priced but highly effective dispensary buds.
Before he knew it, Colin had absolutely no use for the pharmaceuticals that had plagued his entire adult life and his newfound love of cannabis led him out of his shell of social anxiety and back into a world that was suddenly a little brighter, a little warmer.
“I started putting the work in and cannabis was always there,” says Colin, “It got me off the drugs and away from the pain.”
With his knee and this back feeling better thanks to the anti-inflammatory properties of his healthy new habit, and his head cleared from the pharmaceutical fog, Colin rediscovered his passion for hiking.
“I WAS REALLY FINDING MYSELF AGAIN”
Between 2003-2007, the BBC aired an oddball British sketch comedy show named The Mighty Boosh.
Eight years after it went off the air, Colin had discovered it and the obscure program had him hooked. During Season 1, Episode 3, one character named Bob interacts with another with the simple line of, “Ah, Moon, walk and talk with me.”
This line stuck with Colin to the point where he would recite it to his service dog, Biscuit, on their own walks and hikes.
An idea was born.
In early 2016, using the power of social media, Colin decided to start announcing in advance when and where he planned to hike for the week with an open invitation for other vets to join him to literally walk and talk about the issues that maybe only a fellow vet could relate to and empathize with.
At first, nobody showed up so Colin switched his tactics a bit.
He began mentioning cannabis use in his hiking posts and announcements and interest took root.
That was around the time that the Beard Bros. met Colin for the first time. Bill and Jeff saw what Colin was up to, and through their ongoing outreach with veterans in the cannabis community they hit Colin up to offer a donation.
From Colin’s perspective, he says he was blown away. His interaction with our crew was his first real taste of the cannabis community and he was shocked that a couple of dudes who had never met him would be willing to help him and his cause.
This encounter really sparked a deeper interest and pursuit for knowledge about the plant for Colin and Veterans Walk & Talk was born with the goal of giving vets a place to feel that they can safely discuss the benefits and uses of cannabis, along with whatever other issues they are dealing with, in the compassionate company of other vets.
Colin’s consistency with his hiking schedule – every Thursday and Sunday, every week – along with grassroots word of mouth in the cannabis community led to a rise in the roster at each event.
“I kept showing up,” says Colin, “I’d announce the hikes and I’d keep showing up.”
NOW TO FIND PURPOSE
About a year into his weekly hiking schedule with Veterans Walk & Talk, Colin was invited to an event called the Veterans Cannabis Ball. At this event he met so many like-minded vets who shared his passion for cannabis and were interested in his venture with the hikes, but one man in particular stood out to Colin.
Jericho is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and he had gotten himself dressed up and made his way to the Ball that evening from the local veterans’ shelter. This genuinely impressed Colin who knew firsthand the effort it would take to do such a thing from such a compromised financial and emotional position.
This woke Colin up to the fact that a specific subsection of veterans that he was intimately familiar with were being underserved and that he might be able to do something about it in his own way.
He began picking Jericho up from the shelter on hike days and taking him along. He told his new friend to spread the word at the shelter and that he would take as many vets along for the ride and the walk as he could cram into his car.
Before long, popularity rose to the point where he had to schedule hikes at the nearby Elysian Park so that they could all walk to the trail from the shelter together.
Colin says that this outreach changed his life in the most positive way possible, giving him a direction.
With his moral compass recalibrated, Colin and his squad of homeless and shelter vets linked up with Shirley Raines from @Beauty2theStreetz who spends time on Skid Row in downtown LA giving homeless ladies there free haircuts, manicures, and more.
Now not only were Colin and his crew able to be of service – a very important aspect of many vets’ lives – but they were able to provide support for others that they never thought was out there for them. Saturday after Saturday they would feed 300-400 homeless folks while feeding their own desire to help others in need.
Since then Veterans Walk & Talk has grown in popularity and has expanded their reach in the process.
They now do three hikes per month on Sundays along with two homeless outreach days each month. Aside from the original founding chapter in L.A., there are active chapters in Orange County, the High Desert, in Las Vegas, and a newly forming chapter in West Virginia.
They are fueled by a vast network of advocacy minded cannabis companies as well as outdoor gear providers and donations from good people like you.
Colin has his sights set on a long-term goal of placing an operational cannabis farm in all four corners of the country where fellow vets can come, stay, and learn how to cultivate and appreciate the cannabis plant and all that it can do to help them heal as it has helped him.
But, for now, they hike.
Which brings us back to Blue Sky last month where over two dozen heads turned up for the first official event of 2019.
As with most vets groups, various forms of disabilities and scars – physical and mental – can be found in the ranks of Veterans Walk & Talk so the hikes are generally pretty easy to navigate and limited in their overall distance.
Colin is certainly in charge of the hike, but he leads from within the ranks; walking, talking, listening.
I walk that day with three veterans who accept me as a brother even though I have never served in the military.
I walk, I talk, I listen.
One of them used to work for the VA. He gives the other two sage advice from his own firsthand experience on how to properly navigate the often convoluted system at the Department of Veterans Affairs so that they can properly take advantage of the care and support that they earned with their service.
Another is my age and grew up just 20 minutes away. We lament on California’s current “mids-life crisis” and reminisce on legendary old school San Diego strains like Bullrider, Hawg’s Breath, and the ever elusive P-91.
The third in our group marches in his combat boots with a tiny emotional support dog who answered to a variety of names including Bark Choy who will literally give you a little hug if he senses your mood slipping. You know I petted him.
About a mile from the trailhead, the full group reconvened for a proper sesh where jars upon jars of high grade cannabis were passed around as we all reviewed several strains generously donated by a talented cultivator.
On a busy trail in the middle of San Diego suburbia, many random hikers passed by curiously sniffing the air as they approached. Maybe it was the mix of camo and combat boots, or maybe it was the overwhelmingly positive vibe surrounding our group but we got no complaints or harassment during our extended rest.
This eclectic mix of vets who have been through the battles – literally and figuratively – and made it out the other side, walking talking and listening to their peers who may still be bogged down in that struggle was heartwarming to say the least. As Colin aptly puts it, “It’s the culmination of every cannabis activist that has come before us.”
“We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing because what we’re doing works and the San Diego hike was proof positive of that.”
FIND YOUR TRIBE AGAIN
Consistency, Colin says, is everything.
Showing up. . . it’s everything.
However, he warns his fellow vets not to overextend themselves, not to set themselves up for failure. Instead, he recommends starting small with your personal goals and taking it all one step at a time.
If you want to take those steps in the company of your fellow vets who have blazed the trail before you, be sure to follow @veteranswalkandtalk on Instagram and visit their website at www.veteranswalkandtalk.com
We’ll see you on the trail!