Any activity that begins at dawn is hard for a teenage boy. And when that activity involves a 20 mile hike through the hills on a hot day, you can bet that no one is bouncing with joy at the breakfast table. But once a year we all drag ourselves out of bed early and prepare ourselves (mentally and physically) for the Fages II endurance test.
More than 130 Scouts and Leaders assemble at Camp Herms in El Cerrito to begin the hike – eleven from our Troop. There are no backpacks – only hiking boots, water bottles, snacks, and band aids. After the mandatory safety talk (“Drink lots of water” and “Don’t keep walking if your feet are really bleeding!”) we all start moving out of the camp and down the street. It’ still early. Thick fog covers the ground and we can barely see as we walk silently down the street towards the Wildcat Creek Trailhead. Most are still wearing sweatshirts against the early morning chill.
Our unit was among the last to leave the check-in table and lots of hikers are in front of us; but, we are fast and begin passing slower hikers right away. Spirits are high so early in the day. Everyone is making good time, even on the uphill sections. Then unexpectedly, our passage is blocked by a large and unhappy boy, lying down across the trail, panting and wheezing. A woman stands over him (maybe his mother) fanning his face with a map and offering encouragement. All in all, his chances of finishing appear slim. It’s sobering to see someone go down so early. We have gone less than two miles.
The sun soon burns off the fog and the temperature rises. We hike up the hills and then down and up again, working up a good sweat. Walking along the ridges, the views are impressive, but the first signs of our fatigue are starting to show. Our sweatshirts come off and we begin snacking on candy to increase our energy level. Several hikers are already out of water. Two Scouts slow down to deal with hot spots on their feet (the first sign of a blister) and one of the adults starts to limp. At least the wind coming off San Pablo Reservoir is cool and helps everyone keep walking. We are eight miles into the hike.
We march bravely into the parking area near Inspiration Point, our first pit stop of the race. This is one of the few places where hikers can quit and get a ride back to the cars. Toilets and water are also available, although the water comes from plastic Igloos and is laced with bleach for health reasons. The boys complain about the taste, but we all fill our water bottles anyway. After a short rest, we are back on the trail and struggling up another steep hill. We have walked about ten miles and are looking forward to a rest.
An hour later, we work our way through a poison ivy jungle, past an Order of the Arrow safety check point, down a steep and muddy trail, through a maintenance parking lot and across a busy street to arrive at the Owl Picnic site. Lunch is waiting! We stand in line and load our paper plates with hot dogs, chips, fruit, cookies, and cold drinks. Luckily the only shaded picnic table is vacated just as our first Scout gets his food, so we get to sit under a tree as we wolf down our lunch. (Thank God for the Order of the Arrow, who provided the meal.) After eating, we start feeling a little better, but when we start hiking again, the group is moving slowly because muscles are stiff after sitting around for almost an hour. Someone mumbles there is only eight miles left.
It’s cooler now because we are mostly under the trees and the trail is shaded. Poison oak is abundant but we don’t care anymore. Blisters are popping up and becoming a nuisance. Legs are sore. Adults and Scouts are slowing down. Boys start talking about dinner and what they want to eat at the end of the day. The goal now is just to keep moving at a reasonable pace.
By the late afternoon we are at mile 16, passing Lake Anza on our way to Wildcat Creek. It’s beautiful but no one notices. It’s more important to concentrate on the trail, so you don’t fall down and further damage your body. Someone starts talking about Steven King’s “The Long Walk,” a futuristic story about teenage boys competing in walking contest. Contestants start together and have to keep walking at a minimum speed of least four miles an hour for the entire competition. If they slow down or stop, the boys are pulled aside and shot in the head by the sponsors of the event. It’s all televised. Only the winner, who walks the farthest, is alive at the end – and he is in pretty bad shape. It’s not very uplifting, but it helps pass the time.
At mile 19 there is a bridge. It’s a natural place to stop, rest, and wait for the stragglers in our group. The first hikers in our group arrive to find dozens of Scouts sitting in the shade waiting for leaders to force them back onto the trail for the last mile. We start betting on whether our Scout leader, who is perched precariously on the bridge railing, will fall into the water below. Miraculously, given his history, the boy maintains his perch on the rail, albeit with a lack of gracefulness that precipitates several near disasters and lots of heckling. The final hiker from our unit eventually reaches the bridge and faces the brutal burden of slow hikers everywhere. Those at the end, who need it the most, always have the shortest rest.
Eventually, the rest stop is over and we are walking again. Hot spots have grown into a multitude of blisters and the band aids have moved from pocket to foot, where they now rest uselessly in damp socks after having peeled off the skin they were supposed to protect. The last mile is uphill and we labor relentlessly, afraid to stop in case we can’t start moving again. The adult who was limping in the morning has tied a belt under his knee to provide a modicum of support and help alleviate the constant pain as he struggles bravely up the fire road. Then, without fanfare, it’s over. We walk across the finish line and are greeted by smiling volunteers who get up from their chairs and offer patches and encouragement. “Good job” they chirp relentlessly. More than 20 miles have been traveled since the start of the day.
The Scouts don’t need anyone to tell us them what a good job they did. Their pain dissipates as the cold diet A&W root beer is handed around and they immediately being to congratulate themselves on their accomplishment. Every boy wears the self-satisfied look of someone who knows they have done something special – something their friends at school cannot even comprehend. The adults, on the other hand, are thinking about their sore muscles and aching feet. For them, tomorrow is not going to be a very good day at all.
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