It was supposed to be 14 miles, the trail markers said, and the guys who’d walked it before in the early spring heat claimed it was everything you’d imagine it would be. Best I can recall, they were right.
I was about 8 years old, tagging along with the troop of Boy Scouts for which my dad served as Assistant Scout Master. The Scouts were working on merit badges for Hiking and Orienteering. Too young to join yet, I was just along for the trip. I had been wearing my hiking boots since I received them for Christmas, but at that time I thought it was a long walk if I had to trek 150 yards to the mailbox twice so, though I’d tied the boots on quite a few times, they weren’t exactly broken in. This would have been around 1979, when hiking boots were still made in two styles—bias ply and radial—and reflected the same in weight, comfort, and flexibility—or lack thereof.
It was April and Troop 80 of the Boy Scouts of America was spending spring break at Shiloh National Military Park, 15 miles northeast of Corinth. We were camping out for the sake of induced suffering, and making a 14-mile hike to amplify the same.
Our group would have numbered around 15, counting my dad, my elementary school principal, and another adult conscript along in a supervisory capacity—a service I never appreciated until recently and still can’t fully comprehend. At the time I guess I assumed it was a blast for them to each round up their own kid plus 10 other puberty-addled miscreants from the community, pack the entire set from “M.A.S.H.” into boxes, drive us all to the backside of nowhere, unpack, set up camp in the rain, torture a Coleman stove into a state of combustion and spend several consecutive days filtering ashes and gravel from their coffee with their teeth, but they did it, if not without complaint, then at least with a willing heart.
As charges, we the supervised, looked more like extras from “The Rat Patrol” or “Black Sheep Squadron” than future pillars of the community. Our uniform dress code fell somewhere in the realm of extreme casual. Cutoffs. Tobacco-company caps. One guy had an “I’m With Stupid” T-shirt. We didn’t look much like the Scouts on the front of the handbook.
On the trail, we each shambled along with an army surplus canteen strapped to our side. After the first half-mile, the variously-depleted containers flopped and sloshed like a platoon of janitors on commode plunger duty. After the first mile-and-a-half, the 10 stoutest relatives of the little man who turns the light off in the refrigerator had gathered in my boots, where they were using my toenails for sledgehammer practice.
One backpack, which rotated along with the point man, contained PB&J sandwiches and granola bars for the group. By mealtime the sandwiches, which were manufactured assembly-line-style in camp then stuffed back into the original bread sack for transport, were always squashed into weird shapes courtesy of the one or more carriers who’d flopped down at a rest stop and used the backpack as a pillow.
Outdoor humorist, Patrick F. McManus, once termed camping “a fine and pleasant misery” in his book by the same name, and no term has ever been so apt. Unlike other experiences in which the fun is remembered and difficulties are forgotten, the best memories of camping and hiking center on happily remembering the struggles. It’s strange, but those are also the memories that make us nostalgic for more.
Food half-raw, half-blackened? Mosquitoes the size of turkeys? Skunks that make themselves at home? Firewood that can’t be ignited? Tent material that can’t be extinguished? Fantastic. Just give me a minute to lace up my radials. I think they’re almost broken in.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Production for Mossy Oak in West Point.