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Are you ready for what's coming?
The 50-mile march as response to 'Hard Times'
I can’t predict the future, but I do subscribe to a Google Alert for the term "California earthquake," and there's been a lot of rumbling lately.
Born just two months before the Loma Prieta earthquake, I’ve lived my whole life in anticipation of the “Big One.”
My parents recall rushing outside with my sister, forgetting me inside. After the ground settled down, they came back in to find me fast asleep in my crib. We all laugh about it today, but I still live in the uneasy shadow of that formative event (hence the Google Alert).
If a 6.9 magnitude earthquake collapses freeways like the upper deck of the Bay Bridge (pictured above), it’s worth envisioning what an 8.5 might do.
However, a constant fear of disaster can manifest as neurosis – even when it’s justified. My aim in raising the alarm about our collective unpreparedness for a natural or manmade disaster is not to stoke fear or instill shame. Rather, I seek to impress upon some small number of men who feel that it is their responsibility to be ready for the looming risks. Preparation – not paranoia – is indeed the only healthy response to the headlines we read and omens we see.
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When you hear of war and rumors of war... fear not...!
... These things must happen, but woe to him who is asleep on his own day of reckoning!
Upon entering the Oval Office in 1961, President John F. Kennedy knew better than anyone just how close we were to the brink of nuclear war. But instead of worrying about the bomb, he warned about the weakening of our national physical vitality – especially among our youth – in a Sports Illustrated article titled “The Soft American.” He publicly lamented the sight of “chubby, fat-looking children,” content to sit on the sidelines as spectators to sports, while only a few participated actively in the modern version of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life.” Kennedy even borrowed from Roosevelt’s 1908 executive order No. 989, which instituted a 50-mile march requirement for junior officers in the Marine Corps:
“Line officers of the Marine Corps in the grade of captain or lieutenant will be required to walk fifty miles, this distance to be divided into three days, actual marching time, including rests, twenty hours.”
While Roosevelt’s version required marchers to finish in three days – wearing full military gear – Kennedy’s challenge jettisoned the pack and compressed the challenge into a single day. Although neither Roosevelt nor Kennedy actually did the march themselves, they inspired thousands to take up the challenge and walk. And walk, and walk and walk… And then walk some more.
Tucker Carlson now appears to be taking up the mantle of both Roosevelt and JFK in calling for a revival of the manly virtues, and warning about the perils of physical weakness. Kennedy’s influence on his new special, “The End of Men” is paramount. The vacuum of leadership is both cause and consequence of our lack of “vig’ah.”
Where have all of the men gone?
Most people past a certain age remember the JFK Presidential Fitness Challenge, but the Kennedy March – a much more strenuous test of overall fitness – has fallen by the wayside. While it was reasonable 60 years ago to suggest that the average man should be able to walk 50 miles in a single day, today it sounds preposterous.
But is it really so unrealistic?
My original motivation to revive the 50-mile march was about pushing my physical limits as far as possible, while also becoming the first person to walk all three bridges encircling the San Francisco Bay in a single day. The challenge began on the same rebuilt span of the Bay Bridge that had collapsed some 30 years prior. Since becoming a person of faith, I no longer dread the “Big One” – nor any other worldly disaster – but I still liked the idea of using the opportunity as a form of exposure therapy for whatever subconscious fears might have still lingered from my brief abandonment during the Loma Prieta quake.
This initial "solo" attempt failed, not because I ran out of steam, but because the guards overseeing the third and final span – the Golden Gate Bridge – had closed it to walkers for suicide prevention reasons. Here again, I was confronted with a reminder of the societal risk-aversion that makes vigorous living nearly impossible, and paradoxically leads men to greater feelings of alienation and despair. It’s rarely reported that men commit suicide at 3-4x the rate of women, in part because we’re taught from a young age that men are the victimizers – not the victims – of society. Masculinity is something dangerous and toxic, or at the very least, boorish and embarrassing. But in pathologizing masculinity, we’ve created an even more dangerous vacuum of weakness and chaos.
Kennedy foresaw this, and his predictions of physical and concomitant cultural decay are now coming to pass. A generation of “soft Americans” raised an even softer generation – my own – which is now raising the most sheltered and soft generation of all. We locked kids out of school for a virus that had a roughly one-in-a-million chance of killing them, and long before that, we watered down physical education until it became the butt of jokes now known as P.E.
Adults haven’t fared any better. Aside from ubiquitous but dispiriting box gyms and a few walking trails, the landscape is mostly devoid of any architecture or equipment to engage the population in vigorous exercise.
At the same time, men of all ages lack opportunities for meaningful physical work. The result is widespread apathy, obesity, and sedentary spiritual malaise.
Even in California, which used to be known for its robust physical culture, it is rare to spot a genuine beach body in the masses of unhealthy people. Yoga pants, vegan pastries, green smoothies, and avocado toast are popular health status symbols, but these only worsen the epidemic by giving people the false sense that they are "doing something" as the decline accelerates. And speaking of avocado toast, is there a better metaphor for the decline of our national vigor than the advent of brunch culture? The habituation – nay, ritualization – of a boozy late-Sunday morning feast speaks volumes about where the culture stands both physically and spiritually.
So it was in the days of Noah– people were eating and drinking…
Before the Great Flood, if scripture and ancient historians are to be trusted, the inhabitants of the earth seem to have been having a grand old time. There was plenty of leisure time, and strong wine on tap. But as Kennedy noted in his S.I. article, leisure can be a double-edged sword:
“Of course, modern advances and increasing leisure can add greatly to the comfort and enjoyment of life. But they must not be confused with indolence, with, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, 'slothful-ease,' with an increasing deterioration of our physical strength. For the strength of our youth and the fitness of our adults are among our most important assets, and this growing decline is a matter of urgent concern to thoughtful Americans.” – President John F. Kennedy, The Soft American
We’re all now familiar with the meme about weak men creating hard times, which in turn give rise to strong men, who go on to create good times, which lead to weak men – and so it has been “since the days of Noah”:
In the modern age, the hard times of WWII led the Greatest Generation to rise to the occasion of fighting fascist movements in Europe. We then had a post-war period in which strong men in the government and military cooperated with the private sector to create the good times that, in turn, led to the rise of weak men.
We can locate a more recent cycle in the hard times of the 1970s, leading to the strong (read: disciplined) men of the 1980s like Paul Volcker, who combatted inflation with painful interest rate hikes until the good times of the Great Moderation bred a new crop of weak men in the 1990s and oughts – persisting up through the present day.
Thus, the rhyme of history seems poised to inscribe the latest refrain of hard times once again. Wars and rumors of war abound, yet the absence of conscription makes it easy to forget that guns are blazing and pipelines exploding on the other side of the Atlantic. While Teddy Roosevelt used his bully pulpit to expand the U.S.’s imperial ambitions abroad, the lessons from the disastrous wars of the 20th century dictate a different outlet for the strenuous life. We need not take up arms to fight the malaise wrought by decades of ‘slothful ease.’ My answer to sedentary mediocrity is the “50-Mile Reset” – a period of preparation followed by a long, hard march.
Doing hard things predisposes us to take action – keep moving! – and to habituate the patterns and disciplines that lend themselves to doing other hard and worthwhile things. We don't need to wait for the next pandemic, war, or natural disaster to conform our minds and bodies to the likes of the strong men who can restore good times.
Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear!
After my initial failure to cross the Golden Gate and make it to the promised land, I made plans in early 2020 to host a group version of the 50-mile march. This time I checked what time the bridge closed, and started earlier enough to get there with time to spare.
I had no idea that this first organized 50-mile march would turn into an unintentional act of protest. Before the lockdowns of April, I had lined up several partners – including the San Francisco Bay Trail – to publicize the event. All of my partners pulled out, however, once it became clear that even a small cadre, marching outdoors, would constitute a violation of the Bay Area’s strict county orders.
We did it anyway, finishing in 16 hours, and sprinting the last 200 meters, per the original 50-mile marching order issued by Teddy Roosevelt to all active-duty military officers. Thus, the unofficial theme for that first year's 50-mile march was resistance against the apparent blunderings of public health officials.
In time, it became increasingly clear that the blunders were not blunders at all. They were part of a broader campaign to bring local and state governments under the jurisdiction of a unified global establishment, using public health departments to enforce pre-determined goals.
The global Great Reset campaign has been the subject of much conspiracy theorizing and dozens of books – both from those promoting it openly, as well as those trying to expose what’s already been stated plainly (yes, Virginia, there is a plot to control the population). The COVID-19 pandemic provided a perfect launchpad for the outsized ambitions of a few second-rate minds with utterly wrongheaded ideas about micromanaging the entire planet. After cowering in our homes for months – or in some extreme cases, years – the population began to slowly emerge back out into the world. We were softer, heavier, paler, and more deficient in just about every element essential to health – from Vitamin D to camaraderie – than JFK could have imagined in his worst nightmares.
Meanwhile, our growing tribe of vigorous outdoor movers group kept on marching to the beat of our own drum in spite of shelter-in-place orders. In resisting joyfully, we continued to attract like-minded people who believed that sunshine and social contact were more conducive to health than isolating ourselves indoors and wearing masks outdoors.
Our small, sparsely attended Meetup group of “Primal Movers” evolved into the thriving Natural Outdoor Workout, which still meets every Saturday at a public park in Berkeley for fitness and fellowship. Throughout the pandemic, we boosted our immunity with shirtless training sessions in public parks draped in caution tape. We laughed at the doomsayers and pitied those who fell under the spell of their messianic fervor. And we marched from dawn to dusk around all three bridges of our beloved Bay.
We marched again the next year under the banner of moving beyond the resentments we had acquired from being told what to do for so long after it had become clear that most of the pandemic protocols had outlived their usefulness. Our tribe was bigger and stronger than the year before, so we walked from Pt. Reyes to San Francisco, reaping the benefits of muscular bonding while having some good potlucks along the way.
What next? The 50-Mile Reset
After some reflection and much procrastination, I decided to give this year's march the theme of The 50-Mile Reset – reclaiming the language of the (not-so) Great Reset in hopes of becoming a sign of contradiction against it.
As I prepare mentally and physically for this year’s trek, I am asking myself and others three questions about our personal and collective transformation:
What's working well in my life? What do I want more of?
What's not working and needs to be jettisoned completely?
What's partially working, but needs modification?
Whether or not you are preparing for a 50-mile march or some other strenuous challenge, taking this kind of inventory can help you reset the patterns that are hindering you from achieving excellence.
As the world has seemed to return to normalcy, we have to guard against complacency. We can no longer draw our identity from the inverse of the scared crowd. We must embody an affirmative statement about who we are, and what we wish to be.
I feel that the Natural Outdoor Workout contains the seeds for a revolution in group fitness, where tribes form around a commitment to shared values, and engage in vigorous and practical movement that actually prepares us to go about the difficult task of saving civilization from hard times.
It’s good to lift heavy things, and there’s nothing wrong with the active gym culture being promoted among right-wing bodybuilders, Tucker, et al. Indeed, we need more of that! Credit is due to Tucker and the many virile men he features in his series. However, man is not meant to be boxed in, but to adventure out. A life of vigor must include feats of endurance in the real world.
It's time to stop making excuses and prepare for the worst (while still hoping for the best).
Our politics suffers not only from the physical weakness of its current standard-bearers but also from the absence of participation from the strong among us. They want us weak and distracted, but we can still choose to become strong and focused.
Over the next ~50 days, we will be preparing our minds and bodies for a trek of epic proportions – from the shores of Santa Cruz, California, 50 miles south, to the shores of Carmel.
In the current year, the length of 50 miles provides an ideal, not a strict requirement. Not everyone from my tribe expects to finish, but we are all aiming at achieving the ideal over a long enough time horizon. And I, for one, intend to finish the full 50 miles in a single day.
In addition to my usual musings, I'll be posting training tips and motivation for those looking to walk farther than they've ever walked before – whether joining our local SF-based tribe on November 19, 2022, or marching in your own habitat.
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