Inspired one recent evening by watching Martin Sheen complete a 500-mile pilgrimage on foot through France and Spain as the lead character in the movie “The Way,” the Red-Headed Girl of My Dreams and I took our young ones out for a long walk in the country the other day.
We imagined we were on Day 1 of a 500-mile hike with no video games, no McDonald’s and no Hilton Garden Inn at the end of our long day’s journey into night. The kids were up for the adventure, especially after they noted that a handful of bite-sized peanut butter cups had been packed along with the turkey sandwiches and tangerines.
We headed westward along Russell Boulevard under chilly, cloudy skies, eventually hooking up with our historic walnut-lined bike path, not sure exactly how all this would play out. Who could guess, but with the initial enthusiasm demonstrated by our contingent, Winters seemed to be a distinct possibility.
Not exactly sure what we’d do if we hit Winters, but there are certainly worse places to be on a Sunday afternoon.
Well, we paused at Cactus Corners to admire and pose for pictures with one succulent that looked exactly like Mickey Mouse, and it was then that our nine-year-old, Molly, learned very quickly why mom and dad warned her not to touch these otherwise friendly plants.
Washing out the fine cactus slivers slowed us to a stop and exhausted half our water supply. Time for lunch, as we noted the sun was considerably lower in the sky than it had been when we started.
Winters suddenly seemed three days away and prudence dictated we get these kids home to a warm bath and a good dinner in preparation for school the next day.
We hadn’t counted on the ladybugs interrupting our plans. You’d think these kids had never seen a ladybug before. Pretty soon we were carrying ladybugs on sticks, ladybugs on rocks, ladybugs on walnut shells, ladybugs with names and families and real-life emotions. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Carlos the Ladybug. And his friends Tweensy, Nina and Lady.
We had apparently befriended the entire ladybug population of Yolo County. Who knew how much a couple dozen ladybugs could slow you down?
Our out and back from Trader Joe’s to Cactus Corners was just over four miles. We covered it in three hours and 15 minutes. We reminded the kids, whose enthusiasm was unbroken, that if we had been on “The Way,” we would still have 496 miles to go.
And that’s when I decided it was time to dig into the deep, dark past and tell them about the “50-mile hike” craze that swept the country when I was in high school.
JFK had apparently come across an executive order written by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908 that talked about how the Marines of his time were expected to march 50 miles in three days, but that some had done it in 20 hours.
JFK, who had long since decided that Americans were too flabby, basically issued a challenge in February of 1963 to see if any of us could walk 50 miles, not in three days, but in 20 hours.
Two weeks after Kennedy’s challenge, my dad drove me and four others far up the Capay Valley and dropped us off when the odometer hit 50 miles. Our goal was to walk back home. It was 5 a.m.
The whole thing seemed so simple to me and my teenage buddies. Just put one foot in front of the other, just like walking to school, and pretty soon we’d be strolling down Anderson Road, headed for our designated finish at the State Market parking lot off Russell. It never crossed anyone’s mind that it couldn’t be done.
In honor of Teddy Roosevelt, my motto was to walk softly and carry a big lunch.
One in our group was a 30-something “adult” whom dad trusted as an adviser and chaperone. Unfortunately, he called it quits at Louie’s Bar in the hamlet of Capay, which was near the halfway mark. So much for adult supervision.
The rest of us, too young to gain entry into Louie’s, kept on going. Leg cramps forced another member of our party to give up the ghost at the 35-mile mark, and the rabbit in our group, who set off on his own after becoming frustrated with our slow pace, hung it up after stopping for something to eat at the Willow Oak Grocery on the far western edge of Woodland.
We were now down to two determined but discouraged souls, too close to quit, but still 12 miles from home. We hit the wall at Brown’s Corner, where Woodland’s Main Street intersects Road 98. The sun had long since departed. We lay flat on our backs in the darkness of the parking lot at Aoki Farms, not sure if we’d ever get up again. And not really caring if we did.
Those final 12 miles took us five hours to complete. As we had promised to do back at 5 a.m., we “sprinted” the final 100 yards to State Market, where the famous Davis photographer of the time, Harry Low, awaited our arrival, camera in hand. It was 12:30 a.m.
Harry had apparently been waiting for some time, wrongly assuming it wouldn’t take us 19 and a half hours to cover the distance.
There would be no hero’s welcome. We were both too sore to go to school on Monday morning.
The Red-Headed Girl of My Dreams, who was unaware of this singular accomplishment when we met many years later, has nevertheless suggested that we ought to recreate this 50-mile hike with family and friends.
I’m certainly game, but if we take the same route past the remnants of Louie’s Bar, I may just drop out at the halfway point.
— Reach Bob Dunning at firstname.lastname@example.org