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Walking 50 Miles: Tucson 1963

on Wed, 01/16/2013 - 22:36

Jim Magner, author of A Haunting Beauty: Vietnam Through the Eyes of an Artist (, relives his 1963 experience walking 50 miles in Arizona during the 50-mile Hike craze. HIs  journey, told in 5 parts follows:

 Part One, the stage is set.

It was a Friday night in early February, 1963. My buddies Gene and Richard, and I, along with a couple of other guys who walked the dogs between races at “Greyhound Park,” drove to a canyon 20 miles northeast of Tucson in my 55 Ford convertible.  It was late, but we didn’t have classes the next morning—at least some of us were still fulltime students. A few girls we knew said they would meet us there, but as usual, didn’t show up.

We had brought three six packs and made a fire—the canyon was cold by Tucson standards and we didn’t have coats.  We drank a few Millers and talked bravado talk and laughed a lot. We lined up the cans on a wall of a stone bridge and threw rocks. We had a foot race down the road, with Richard, as usual, giving us a head start and passing us at about 30 yards with a beer in his hand, singing something by the Four Seasons.

At 2:00 we cruised down the winding narrow road, over the stone bridges made in the 30’s by the CCC. With the top down, pure rock and roll reverberated off the Sabino Canyon walls.  Saguaros, the tall cactus with arms that you see in every Western, glowed in the moonlight.  Shadows from the cottonwood trees that grew along the stream made dark patterns on the road.

The music stopped and the DJ told everyone who was listening to be at a certain corner in downtown Tucson at 5:00, and he meant “AM.” It was the Kennedy Challenge 50 mile walk—from Tucson to Benson. The station was sponsoring it.  There would be a truck with water, but you were expected to bring your own food. It was to be a two-day walk, sleeping in the desert, so you could put your sleeping bag on the truck.

I said, “Hey, why don’t we do that?” They said, “What?” “Walk the 50 miles.” “Are you crazy, that starts in three hours.” “So that makes it easy…we’re already up.” “That’s a long way man.” “Hey, it’s just walking. We do that every night…so now we just keep going.” “Yeah, okay man, I’ll be there.”  “Yeah, me too.”

Part Two, the reasons.

Beyond the fact that we often did stupid things without much thought, there was the Kennedy magic. Jack was my inspiration to go to college when he announced his candidacy in the Spring of 1960.  I was a HS senior and had headbutted my way through my entire academic years—I was suspended twice that year—but suddenly caught his vision for the future.  He was elected when I was freshman at the University of Arizona, and I would often skip class to listen to his news conferences on radio. And Bobby. Bobby was the ultimate tough guy.  A challenge to America from the Terrific Two meant something…especially if we, the country, were to “…move forward with vigor.” (Kennedy said “viga” and we loved it.) I was now in my junior year, an art major, but also in “advanced” ROTC, on my way to an army commission.  The challenge was aimed originally at the military, so I took it in a personal way.

And how hard could it be? I had walked around Tucson and climbed in the Catalina mountains most of my life, and was walking around the dog track, about three miles, five nights a week. Also, I often ran on the U of A track in my combat boots, getting ready for ROTC summer camp. I had never walked more than four or five miles straight at any one time, but even if that had occurred to me, I would have dismissed it.  Heck, it was just walking.

Part Three, the start.

I dropped the guys off at their houses to get their stuff. We would meet in the big empty field near the radio station that became the parking lot.  I stopped at home and made a couple of baloney sandwiches and put on my army boots. I didn’t need water, the sponsors would have it, and I didn’t have a sleeping bag—I often slept in my clothes in the desert.

By 4:30, a mob had gathered at the station. It seemed like half of Tucson was milling about in the dark. They were a jovial bunch of all ages and genders, and some carried signs saying “Benson or Bust.” Most of these people looked like they had not done much serious walking.  Or thinking.  Some wore old sneakers—Keds mostly—and a surprising number of young girls were wearing short shorts and shower thongs. In hindsight I think they were there only because of the super-cool DJ who would be there in person.

Actually it was a disorganized mess. They moved the starting point a couple of times, once having something to do with the police and traffic.  At least once for no apparent reason.  I could make out the DJ, standing on a flatbed truck with a microphone that didn’t work well and emitted feedback screeches that hurt from a half block away.  I ran into a high school friend, Tom, but Richard and Gene didn’t show up.  I think they had lied to me.

Finally, the mob began to ooze in the general direction of the Benson Highway.  Bobbing bodies in the dark. It was apparent that some were already pulling out before we even got to the highway. After a few miles, a group of faster walkers, mostly young guys, percolated to the front. We would stop every mile or so to let the horde and the truck catch up, but soon got tired of that and just kept walking. When the sun came up, there were about thirty people in the pack, but after another ten miles, it was half that size. Some decided to stop and wait for the truck, but most, including Tom, dropped out because of blisters.  I was carrying my brown bag with the sandwiches in my upturned hand, but some had backpacks…or no food at all.  At first we walked in the middle of the highway past the ugly sprawl of cheap motels, drive-in theaters and bars.  As the lead group got smaller and traffic picked up, we walked along the trash-littered shoulder.  We finally cleared the scraggly outskirts of town, facing the blinding morning sun and the desert.

Part Four, the long road.

The desert was clean and the air had the scent of mesquite blossoms opening to the wet morning warmth. It was quiet except for the sound of feet on the sandy road and the clear calls of Mourning Doves. It was the high Sonoran desert that I grew up in and loved. The highway east of Tucson is mainly flat and straight, but is hilly in places, a kind of gentle roll that doesn’t slow your pace or put pressure on your toes. The walk was good.  Soon we were far beyond, and out of sight of, the main group. I didn’t notice how small the lead pack was getting until two brothers said their feet were too sore. They crossed the four-lane and began hitchhiking back toward town.

The sun was high in the sky by this time. The temperature had risen from the 40s into the 60s. I had worn a long sleeve heavy shirt over a T shirt and didn’t need it now. I was going to throw it to the side, to retrieve later, but figured I might need it when it got dark.  That’s when we saw this lone figure running toward us. I recognized him. He was a tall blond kid from Sweden who was on the U of A track team. He heard about the challenge and decided to run from Benson to Tucson. He talked while he was running loops around us; he didn’t want to stop. The next weekend he ran to Phoenix, about 110 miles.

US 86, now I-10, heads southeast around the Rincon Mountains. There was snow on top of Wrong Peak, which looked like an old man.  It’s named “Wrong” because it is only the second highest peak in the Rincons, at around 8000 feet. The road roughly parallels the Southern Pacific Railroad line, and long freights would wind their way past us. This was also the old Butterfield Mail route from El Paso to Los Angeles until it was forced it to close down because of Apache raids during the Civil War.

Wagon trains hauling freight had used the route long before Butterfield, and continued on afterwards. It was one of the main supply lines to Tucson.  I knew an old man, Nino Cochise, who claimed to be the grandson of the famous Cochise, chief of the Chiricahua Apaches, and the son of Taza, (Tahzay) who caught pneumonia in DC meeting with the Great White Father and is buried in Congressional Cemetery.  Nino, over 90, told me many stories about the characters he had known personally …Geronimo, Naiche, Tom Jeffords, Al Sieber, Mickey Free, the Apache Kid… these were very tough guys—legends.  We were walking through history.

We were down to five, and then four, and then around noon, maybe half way, it came down to two of us. The other guy, an airman from Davis Monthan Air Force Base, was getting off work, a mechanic, when he heard the call on the radio. He was wearing his street clothes and street shoes. He just came by to see the crowd and started walking with us. He had no food or water. He was from a small town in Wyoming and walked a lot. 

Part Five, the hard part.

After another hour or so, we stopped to eat the two sandwiches I was still carrying in front of me in my upturned hand like a gift to the gods. They were dry and we had nothing to drink, but we got them down. It was cool, but this was the desert and the humidity was around 20%.  We sat there for a half hour talking about whether we should go on or not. Actually we thought we were about ten miles farther than we were. There were no signs. If we knew that, we may not have continued. When we finally got up, I was stiff all over and it took me at least a half-mile to get back into the groove.

It got dark and we were still in the middle of nowhere. He became disheartened and wanted to quit, but I talked him into going on. Later, I wanted to quit and he convinced me to keep moving. “Besides,” he said, “what the hell are we going to do out here? Nobody knows we even exist, and the radio guys won’t be this far until tomorrow sometime.” I said, “Yep, we don’t have much choice, do we?”

The toughest thing was when we were passed by a car. It would be going about 60 mph and we would watch the taillights on the straight flat road for minutes …minutes that seemed like hours. It was like the road to eternity…a Twilight Zone episode where there was no Benson and we were condemned to walk by the side of the road in the pitch dark forever.

We finally found ourselves at the top of a hill, looking down on the lights of the little cow town in the San Pedro River valley. It was still four to five miles away, but there it was, the terminus. The adrenalin started to pump and the airman, I forget his name, said, “Let’s jog in.”  I was locked into a pace and I couldn’t slow down or speed up. I sure didn’t feel like jogging. He said, “I’m goin’,” and started running down the hill.  I never saw him again. I got to Benson around 18 hours after we started, but I cared nothing about the time.

I went in the first truck stop and made the big mistake. I was very dehydrated, but instead of drinking water, I got a big orange soda at the counter and drank it down. And another and another….  They had cheap rooms for truckers and I rented one but I couldn’t sleep. My joints were stiff, my feet hurt, and I had a headache. I didn’t take my boots off because I was afraid my feet would swell and I wouldn’t be able to get them back on. I limped out in the morning, and got a ride with a semi to Tucson. We saw the radio station’s flat bed truck about halfway, with just a few people around it.  I called Tom from a gas station and he picked me up. I sat in a hot tub for the rest of the day. My feet swelled, and my toenails turned black and fell off…but I had met the challenge.