Walking for a Change
A Kennedy-Era Challenge to the Country
At Camp David, Bobby Kennedy gets a foot rub from his wife Ethel. "I'm a little stiff," he admitted, "but that's natrual, never having
walked 50 miles before."
Would you attempt to walk 50 miles in a day if dared to do so? Attorney General Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy apparently could not pass up the challenge—especially when it was coming from his older brother, President John F. Kennedy.
On February 9, 1963, the Saturday after the President issued his challenge, Bobby Kennedy recruited four of his aides and set out to walk 50 miles along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath from Great Falls, Md. to Harpers Ferry, WV. Of the five who set out, Bobby Kennedy was the only one to complete the challenge finishing in 17 hours and 50 minutes. It was his first attempt at walking such a distance and he was ill-equipped—walking in loafers—and encountered freezing weather. This accomplishment immediately elevated the level of publicity for the 50-mile walk, while creating a legend. I was just 15 at the time and was among the thousands of Americans who got swept up in the craze.
A Time for a Challenge
In the turbulent yet hopeful 1960s, President John F. Kennedy was seen as new cultural icon. He was a new kind of leader who lived an active life and had a vision of improving the country through his presidency. While JFK faced many personal challenges, he managed to get beyond his problems with courage, grace and sometimes humor.
Just before taking office, Kennedy, a skilled writer and communicator, had an article published in Sports Illustrated’s December 26, 1960 edition titled “The Soft American.” The article laid out an argument for the importance of physical fitness for all Americans.
Physical fitness was just one of his many ambitious goals and part of his vision of the “New Frontier”—his campaign slogan, which he turned into policy initiatives that inspired millions of American to take responsibility for the country’s future. Kennedy realized that new frontiers in automation and increased leisure time would paradoxically create lifestyle changes that could negatively affect the health of the nation. To get the nation moving again he needed to challenge its people to do more.
“The New Frontier is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges,” Kennedy famously said. “It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.”
Becoming a Physically Fit Nation
In a world with new conveniences, like appliances and automobiles that made life easier, Americans began to wonder if our new “modern” society might be weakening our citizens and maybe our resolve. At the same time advances in science and sports were suggesting means of measuring and improving our health.
Kennedy empowered the President’s Council on Youth Fitness—established in the 1950s under President Eisenhower—giving it a budget and staff to provide surveys and statistics, and offer advice to schools and communities. The Council’s fitness initiatives, which quickly changed school gym and recess programs, allowed the nation’s youth to participate in the “New Frontier.” By 1963 the Council’s name had changed to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness to reflect broader fitness objectives and include adults.
Articles on fitness became popular praising the benefits of moderate “natural” exercise and the avoidance of overly strenuous routines. Since many people at this time walked out of convenience and necessity anyway, extending that practice as exercise seemed like a safe way to gain the benefits without the risk.
Call in the Military and Staff
Kennedy had a particular interest in the fitness of the military. In early February, Kennedy uncovered a 1908 Executive Order issued by President Theodore Roosevelt that suggested all Marines should be able to march 50 miles in three days as a basic standard test of physical fitness. Kennedy asked his Marine Commandant General David Shoup to review the order and to design a test to see if current Marine Corps officers were as fit as those of 1908.
Bobby Kennedy jumped at the challenge and proved it could be done, even by a civilian, in one day. The standard to beat quickly became a 50-mile hike performed in less than 20 hours. On February 12, 1963, 34 Marine officers marched all day with packs to prove their mettle.
Within weeks, thousands around the country began to walk. By February 16, the peak of the craze, hiking stories appeared everywhere. Ninety-seven students from Marin County in California did it (97 out of 400 that initially started). A postman in Burlington, North Carolina, did it in 10 hours and
28 minutes. Boy scouts, office workers, students and reporters were among the many that took to walking.
Here was a challenge that appeared daunting and yet surprisingly doable. The fear that many would harm themselves by attempting this crazy feat passed. In fact, it seemed the average active person, young and old, could confirm their fitness—and maybe even patriotism —by walking, even if they never quite achieved 50 miles.
The Finishing Line
After a spontaneous and blazing start, the 50-mile hike fad that was sweeping the nation gradually cooled but remained alive into the summer of 1963. Other serious concerns grabbed the nation’s attention as racial tensions led to the March on Washington that summer. But, it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 that quickly changed the country’s temperament, as the 50-mile hike movement disappeared as quickly as it had appeared 10 months earlier.
Why Did We Walk?
Thousands had marched 50 miles, more or less, with little or no preparation and through bitter cold with blisters and aching feet. Their motivation? Perhaps it was to believe that by hiking 50 miles in one day, they could reassure themselves that they were participating in the New Frontier with their effort. Or, maybe, as with so many young people willing to take the challenge, they were just out for an innocent adventure or to test their limits.
Walking 50 Miles Today
There are still lasting monuments to the accidental walking craze. Some events have continued in the fun and spirit of the original walks. More than 20 “Kennedy Marches” still take place in Europe in countries such as Netherlands, Ireland and Germany each year. These countries have a long history of community walking and military marching. Annual walks are community events that bring citizens together to share the memories, pleasures and sometimes pain of a good long walk together.
Today’s American walker will find it difficult to find a good walking path that can take you a distance of 50 miles without man-made obstacles. Communities have been built around the automobile with roads and shops inhospitable to the adventurous walker. On the bright side of the road, there are trail projects underway such as the East Coast Greenway, which aims to create a nearly 3,000-mile pedestrian path that connects communities and local trails from Maine to Key West.
As a 15-year old attempting to match JFK’s 50-mile challenge in 1963, I never imagined that almost 50 years later I would be running a long distance non-profit organization called FreeWalkers.org, dedicated to encouraging the act of walking for everyone. Our group of over 2,000 members now aims to offer a variety of walking information and events, including a yearly reprise of that famous walk that Robert F. Kennedy took in 1963.
Today, walking is an accepted form of exercise and walking groups can be found in almost every community. Options for places to walk are growing and becoming more popular too, from the Appalachian Trail to the High Line in New York City. While walking can be encouraged by planning and providing the best walking environment, there is still no substitute for providing the motivation to walk. Whether it’s walking for health, exploration, challenge or friendship we can all use inspiration from our leaders to make walking a life-long journey for all to enjoy.
Paul Kiczek is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.