Attempt at 50-Miles in the Summer of '63
Originally Written December 9, 2008
I've been searching my mind for exactly why four of us hiked from Roselle to Netcong, New Jersey (nearly 50 miles) when we were 15 years old. It was a heady time in America when a dynamic young president, JFK, challenged everyone (see The 50-Mile Hike Phenomenon). And, it seemed at that time that we, as individuals and as a nation, could meet those challenges. Of course, there's also a certain invincible attitude that comes with being a young teenage male that probably accounted for much of our reasoning.
We set out by ourselves early one hot hazy mid-summer morning following an easy route of well traveled roads, before the age of superhighways and at the end of a time where it was perfectly all right to hitch-hike - if all else failed. All we had to do was walk, and walk, and walk some more. The walking (or hiking, if you prefer) fad started in February of that year with newspapers reporting stories of many hikers, including young Boy Scouts that had accomplished the feat of walking 50 miles in less than 15 hours. I don't remember having much doubt in my mind that we could do it too.
This was a national walking fad, but it generated local rivalries, honoring the courage of their communities. More often than not, the heroes were teenagers, or at least those that had time on their hands and the lack of experience to understand how difficult this could be. Walking, as we grew up, was a common part of life. Sure, we looked for a ride when we could, but not having one usually did not stop us from walking, or taking a bus, or a train, if we needed to. It might be hard today to appreciate this "freedom" of movement at the time. I don't ever remember feeling afraid about getting to someplace on my own, whichever way was best. Even mass transit seemed to make sense because it was built around a vibrant community. It was easy to catch and took you to places you needed to go. Alas, as time moved on suburbs expanded to exurbs and mass transportation became irrelevant for too many.
Our destination was Cranberry Lake, in the Netcong, lake area of Sussex County. John Murphy's family, had a summer house at the lake and we were going to walk there and spend the next day enjoying the cool lake in the middle of a hot summer. I recall walking in sneakers back then. (maybe U.S. Keds or Converse?; I can't be certain). But I have a distinct memory of Tom Killian walking in leather dress shoes, probably bought at Moe Levy's down in the Port section of Elizabeth. We had no idea of proper equipment. At best, we might have had a couple of small scout back packs to carry a few sandwiches and canteens of water which we took turns carrying. I'd like to believe we carried at least one transistor radio with us for entertainment. And, it was probably tuned in to "Cousin Brucie" or someone else on WABC on the AM dial. The technology and the popularity of FM had not reached the mass (teenage) audience in 1963.
As far as clothing, we were probably dressed in short sleeve shirts, Levis or Wrangler jeans (the best bought at an Manning's Army & Navy store on Broad St. in Elizabeth) and an extra sweater or jacket each. There were two main branches of style for the times - "hood" (aka "greaser"), which favored, black shoes, black jeans or pegged pants, and muscle shirts (sort of post-James Dean) and "collegiate" sporting something like chinos and polo or madras shirts. There was split among our group of friends. Some, like me, evolved from semi-hood to collegiate at about this age as we each tried to find our own identity.
Walking with others always presents an opportunity to talk. But, it's not like we had not been hanging out all summer and for years together that we didn't run out of things to talk about. There was always sports, school and summer vacation stories, and the latest and most difficult topic - girls. But, just like in any long exciting trip, you start out energetic and optimistic and by half-way you're singing "100 bottles of beer on the wall", followed by a stone silence and a steady cadence -only interrupted by someone pointing out some freakish dead animal or kicking the rock down the road in front of you. In other words, we slowly but surely developed walking boredom. Time slowed down and the hike became a challenge of the mind more than that of the body.
There was an incident about half-way in the trip somewhere near Morristown where my best friend, Stan Wlosek, or maybe Jim Haleck, felt sick and we needed to stop. My guess is that he was probably dehydrated, but I'm not sure anyone knew a thing back then about proper hydration. He had to call back for home and get someone to pick him up. But, we continued on our trek with one less hiker and an uneasy feeling that if one of us went down already, who would be next? This was getting to look like more hardship than we ever imagined.
As the day went on we took more frequent breaks at the side of the road. The two main roads we traveled were the old Route 24, half of which today has been replaced by a highway, and Route 206. Route 24 was an old well traveled road that intentionally went east to west through the center of every town from Elizabeth to Hackettstown. This was slow going by car, but more like slow motion by foot. I had many memories traveling this road with my family as we often headed from our home in Roselle to Walker Lake in Pennsylvania several times a year, mostly for day trips. It was a small lake resort community, with overly optimistic plans for growth, where we had a small undeveloped lot. It became the means to get to know the NJ and PA hinterlands, and a mecca for a young adventurer.
Fortunately, the day was long and light stayed with us for most of the journey. It was probably around Chester, where the famous Larison's Turkey Farm once stood majestically on a hill as a beacon for hungry travelers, that we turned off Route 24 and headed north on Route 206. We began to realize that the sun was slowly going down and our pace had slowed. Where Route 24 had a feeling of being in the comfort of a town, Route 206 was mostly shoulder of the road, highway hoofing. We were at the stage where we lost our ability to appreciate anything new along this last long stretch. The objective was as business-like as the road we traveled. Get this done as soon as possible. We were fresh out of enjoyment. This was a serious test of our wills.
Our hike ended, as I recall, late that night around 10:00 p.m. with a collective agreement that we had traveled as far as we needed or wanted. The only glory that awaited us was the bright neon lights on the Pink Elephant Lounge where we sat our tired butts and waited as one of us called home, signaling that we were okay, but exhausted and finished with this adventure. Next, we needed to get word to the Murphy's to please pick us up asap. We were about 10 miles short of our 50 mile destination having walked for about 14 hours. But, the feeling among us was not of failure but of resignation and satisfaction that we had given it a great effort and still ended up walking far more than any of us had ever done.
We arrived late at the vacation house, totally exhausted. There was food and a welcome place to spread out on available cots and floor space. Mostly, we just needed some well deserved rest. We all slept until late the next morning and awoke refreshed and with a feeling of accomplishment. But, mostly, we enjoyed the day swimming in the lake and talking about our experience. John had two sisters, Jean and Irene, both easy on the eyes and fun to be around. At this awkward age, I was quickly falling for both but had not a clue as to where this could go. Our time was limited anyway, but a flash summer romance was at least conjured up in my mind. Our adventure ended later that day as a friend's parents delivered us back home that evening.
At 15, you are not thinking clearly about why you have taken on a monumental challenge. It's probably more important that at least three of your closest friends have decided to do it too, for whatever reasons. I can't recall that the objective of our hike was to prove that we were physically fit as Kennedy had posited to his Marines. Maybe Kennedy's influence just gave us another reason or excuse to try it. Fads were popular. JFK was a cool leader that was greatly admired, so why not follow his lead? A certain freedom existed to explore and enjoy life. The world seemed a more innocent place that summer. That would quickly change later that year as a series of national tragedies soon followed. In fact, as carefree and as open to change as we were that summer, the world around us was coming unhinged with civil rights and ideological battles.
Today, a walk of ten or even twenty miles would be extraordinary for the average person, especially without preparation. You can imagine the warnings: consult your physician, maintain proper hydration, fuel up on the best nutrition, take so many rest breaks, be sure to properly train first, use special clothing, and of course, wear proper footwear. Could we even spare the time and trouble today to take a 50 mile walk? Surely, we are wiser today about fitness and physical challenges. But, would our wisdom, and our busy lives, make trying such a challenge even more difficult to do today than it was 45 years ago?
Walking 50 miles may seem like a bizarre feat today. There are plenty of other extreme challenges that are more difficult. It's not usually an aerobic feat. It doesn't even require much training or equipment. You can even argue it's hardly proof of physical fitness. However, beside the benefit of the physical exercise, there was a unique and personally satisfying feeling it provided to a large and wide group of participants of all ages and sizes. This was not a sport to enjoy on television but one that much of the community could participate in. If nothing else, walking became a favorite topic,associated with the practice of maintaining good health.
I'd like to think that distance walking doesn't require the trappings of a charity event or even the measurement of performance, to make such an event possible and relevant today. Maybe 50 miles is too much to expect for the average person. But we know that the original walks in 1963, spurred other 50 mile (80 kilometer) "Kennedy Marches" in the Netherlands and other countries. Many are still active today and growing.
I'd like to imagine that a large portions of the public would still walk for long distances under the right circumstances. Maybe that takes the example of a leader or peer pressure, or at least a belief that there something pleasurable or physically beneficial from their efforts. Maybe its time to re-discover the joy (and pain) of a good old-fashioned 50-mile hike again?