Recreating Robert Kennedy's Fifty Mile Hike Fifty Years After

A few of my fascinations coalesced last weekend and left me with foot blisters. In a few weeks (November 5-7), the Dakota Institute and Bismarck State College will co-host a public humanities symposium on John F. Kennedy. November 22 marks the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination. To get ready I've been reading as many books as I can about the life and achievement of JFK.

A couple of months ago, I cannot remember quite how, I learned that in the course of his reading President Kennedy discovered a 1908 executive order by Theodore Roosevelt instructing officers of the U.S. Marine Corps to undertake a fifty-mile hike. TR was worried that our military officers were becoming soft and (to use his term) "effeminate," so he challenged them to hike fifty miles within twenty hours in no more than three days. To quell the public outcry (that he was a tyrant and a bully), the somewhat portly Rough Rider proceeded to ride his horse more than 100 miles in a single day. Kennedy was concerned about the fitness of the American people in the wake of several lackluster Olympics and of course Sputnik, so he wrote to his Marine Corps commandant David Shoup urging him to make his officers undertake the Roosevelt hike.

Before that could happen, JFK's younger brother, Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Attorney General of the United States, decided on whim one Friday afternoon to walk fifty miles the following morning, Saturday, February 9, 1963. RFK was 37 years old. Their route would take them along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal from Georgetown to Harper's Ferry. The towpath along the canal was covered in places with ice and slush. Kennedy had done no training for the hike and he made no effort to obtain appropriate footwear. He walked the entire distance in his street shoes, and yet he completed the hike in just seventeen hours and fifty minutes. Life magazine followed him along with chase vehicles and a helicopter. When the last of his three companions gave up the hike at mile 36, RFK said, with his characteristic rueful wit, "You're lucky your brother is not the President of the United States!"

So it is now the fiftieth anniversary of the fifty-mile hike of one of my heroes Robert F. Kennedy. I belong to a little men's group that dines together from time to time and occasionally undertakes a mild adventure. Although the other three are among the busiest professionals I know, and infinitely more powerful and important in their communities, we all agreed, more or less at the last moment, to undertake at least part of the hike on Friday the 13th (hmmm) and Saturday the 14th of September. Our route would take us from Dan's Super Value in south Mandan out to Fort Rice on the Rough Rider Trail. We'd camp overnight there, and then stroll back to Mandan. That's 27.5 miles out, 27.5 miles back, or—to adopt a heartbreaking metaphor--two walking marathons on successive days. We positioned cars at staging points along the way so that we wouldn't have to carry much and we could deliver injured bodies to walk-in clinics or carcasses to next of kin.

We set off at 7:30 a.m. Friday looking like four guys who took advantage of the RFK hike to buy new gear. One of our group—I'll call him Larry—bought his first sleeping bag in thirty years. With his antique walking stick and his green felt hat, he looked like a middle-aged member of a Bavarian hiking club. The others—I'll call them Niles and Vern—had daypacks full of power bars and moleskin, and as always they breathed good will and determination. I was sporting a brand new orange Camelbak, a giant Leatherman tool I stole from a Lewis & Clark companion last month, and a Cloverdale Tangy Summer Sausage, even though my friend and adviser Melanie Carvell (the famous triathlete), has the absurd notion that those who wish to be fit should not be eating anything that delicious and self-indulgent on the trail. We all agreed to despise her advice, though she is the fittest and most physically accomplished person we have ever met, and though we feared that she would swoop down on us at mile nine to confiscate the contraband salami.

Things went pretty well for the first mile.

Here are some scattered comments I picked up on the trail, mostly from the Bavarian. "Fort Rice is a really long way from Mandan, wasn't Fort Lincoln more historically important?" "Guys, the Rough Rider trail was established for ATVs. Isn't that the right way to do it?" "Forget Carvell, hand over that @#@XX# summer sausage." "I just remembered my root canal was scheduled for this morning, I'm sooo sorry, gentlemen." "Ask not what you can do for those rotten Kennedys, ask what you can do for yourself." "Hey you—suggester of this hike--does that Leatherman have a gutting device, by any chance?"

Not without some strain to our hips, calves, feet, and the human spirit, we waltzed into the campground at Fort Rice around six p.m. We had staged our camp car there at dawn, at a perfect campsite, assuming that we would be the only campers that night. But while we earned our way to Fort Rice in a manner to win the respect of Thoreau, a couple of loutish fifth wheelers with North Dakota plates simply appropriated our site, and actually dragged a picnic table to their common area with a chain and a pickup. The Bavarian and I were approximately 26 miles behind Vern and Niles in reaching camp. When they asked the desperadoes why they stole our site, we were told, "you have to get here early if you want to hold your place." We overcame our urge to engage in a rumble with the rapscallions, and humbly set up camp as far from their RV generators and television sets as we could.

On Saturday there was a rain-induced diaspora. Two of our group went back to town straight away. Niles and I hiked the first 8.5 miles, but when we could hear slushy sounds in our shoes in the downpour, we drove home. At this point, we were no longer a group, but just four weary and disappointed individuals. I took a very long bath. But my conscience was eating at me. I was not alone.

Here's the amazing end of the story. Without any mutual consultation three of us actually finished up the hike in our scattered neighborhoods. Vern did a full 22.5, and Niles and I each did 14 to get to fifty, all within President Roosevelt's timeline. The fourth member of our group had a genuine work crisis that prevented him from completing the hike at this time, but he did say two things as we all parted company: first, that he fully intends to walk at least 27.5 miles in the course of the remainder of his life; and that Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was right when he said that he who loves law or tangy summer sausage should never watch the making of either.

Autumn in North Dakota is often the most temperate time of the year. You can still hike fifty miles over two or three days. In doing so you would be serving your health and discipline in a lovely way, and paying respect to the man who may have been the greatest Attorney General in American history.