50-Mile Hikers

memorable hikes | then & now

Summer of '62

What made the year 1962 especially memorable for me was a hike I took with two fellow thirteen-year old school friends. Mind you, this was no ordinary jaunt, and no ordinary event. This was the notorious fifty-mile hike so famously endorsed by President Kennedy and his National Physical Fitness Program (aka Cold War Stress Reducer). Out of the way kissy Hush Puppies, I’m strapping on my Chuck Taylor All Stars for this job.
Traversing the boundaries of seven city limits, and back again over a seventeen hour stretch ended up being less of a hike and more of an extremely long ramble. The route we’d chosen covered both an urban and rural landscape, mostly flat terrain, and the weather over the duration offered to be similarly agreeable. We three had calculated that an evening starting time of ten o’clock would provide us the needed hours to reach our destination by dawn, with an ETA return trip that got us home in plenty of time to catch the final innings of the Giants-Dodgers pennant race on KTVU.
But before we got started that evening there was one small insurance policy to get validated. Tending the door this night at St. Elizabeth’s Friday dances was Father Campion who obediently blessed us with a short prayer in Latin that ended with him conferring the sign of the cross over our bowed heads. With H-Hour fast approaching we at least would be comforted in knowing that the patron saint of walkers, Our Lady of Perpetual Motion (George Carlin’s favorite), would be there if we needed her to kick some ass if trouble made an appearance.
The corner of High Street and East 14th Street in East Oakland was selected as the designated starting point for the long ramble. The date was June 17th and we were more than ready for an adventure of this scale. Having the previous weekend celebrated our grammar school commencement, we had talked about doing something big before summer ended, before the inevitable high school initiation in Fall.
So what could be better than a cross county walk, sanctioned by the Commander-in-Chief himself that also promised immunity from any curfew restrictions. Finally, we three thought, a reprieve from prosecution following all those anxious pre-teen years of dodging the local cops during previous all night street outings. This presidential act had easily cemented our view that God was definitely Catholic, secondly, that he was partisan to Irish heads of state, and lastly, favored the Democratic Party. Were we born at the right time or what!
Every journey begins with a single step, and so we three, John Brennan, Pat Danahy & Greg Kleven, shoved off for our trek heading south out of Oakland towards the town of Niles, 25 miles distant. Our first goal was to reach the San Leandro City limits by midnight. In case we were stopped by police for violating curfew or them just being nosey we each carried a written “letter of permission” from our parents that spelled out the nature of our “hike”. A transistor radio tuned to the top 40 music of KYA and KEWB was brought along so we could cruise the strip in style. And a wristwatch to keep tab of our time and a small backpack for carrying snacks, water, sunglasses and Clearasil were taken as well.
Walking outdoors this June evening and into the wee hours was a surreal experience, but it was nothing we seasoned nocturnal run-abouts couldn’t handle. For us three amigos the night was neither scary, dangerous, intimidating, or frightening. All those childhood bogeymen of the night were sent packing long ago due to years of apprenticeship busy with pre-dawn activities such as paper routes, Altar Boy duties, camping vacations, scouting, backyard fort sleepovers, etc. We figured that the novelty of this walk had the potential for a big enough rush to last us the rest of the summer. That, ladies and gentlemen, was an opportunity we weren’t willing to pass up.
In the distance the downtown lights of San Leandro appeared like a beacon for us to home in on. So bright were they we thought, that we could’ve had sunglasses on and still ended up squinting. The walk had been uneventful up to then except for a carload of girls and guys who stopped and offered us not a ride but an unfinished carton of vanilla ice cream. Not that we were germaphobes or anything, but, you know, cooties and stuff, strangers with melting, half eaten dairy whatever, sort of runs contrary to our upbringing. So we soldiered on.
Somewhere between San Leandro and Hayward the street name changed from E-14th to Mission Boulevard, and would remain such throughout the remainder of our walk. Apparently, we were trodding over the same route the old Franciscan padres and early explorers traveled which was then known as the El Camino Real. The new name paid tribute to Mission San Jose which sat four miles beyond the mouth of Niles Canyon, our eventual turnaround and half way point.
Culturally, things started to noticeably improve as we made our way out of San Leandro. Reaching 150th Avenue we curiously eyed the illuminated screens of the Stadium Auto-Movie and Oakland Drive-In that dominated this suburban skyline. Noted as well were Pring’s Restaurant and the Hayward Strip, two local icons that were the predecessors to Oakland’s sideshows, yet significantly tamer. Because of our late arrival we had missed this weekly phenomenon which wrapped itself up on the curfew hour every Friday. A lot of cars, a lot of girls, a lot of guys burning lots of 25 cent gasoline cruising back and forth around one particular intersection. Years later Hollywood director George Lucas would capture this cultural mating ritual to a tee in his film “American Graffiti”, and wouldn’t you know, it was set in the summer of 1962!
As we ambled towards downtown Hayward in the vicinity of Frenchy’s Restaurant and Night Club, we noticed a large group of what looked like teen males approaching our direction in rather speedy fashion. Were they reacting to rival gang colors they had spotted on our person or had we unwittingly ventured into the wrong place at the wrong time? With little time to react we immediately switched to East Oakland street fighting mode with game face to match, and plodded along towards a fate unknown. Within seconds we were overtaken, and bypassed, by a group of eight college aged kids dressed in sweat clothes on a fifty mile hike of their own, they remarked, during a quick verbal exchange. Luckily, they were spared the eternal wrath of damnation from Our Lady of Perpetual Motion, whose own game face I’m told is a sweet, beguiling smile.
Hours away and dozens of miles up a surface road that snaked through southern Alameda County like a main circuit cable we came upon the entryway to downtown Hayward. What we encountered next reminded me of what Frodo, Sam and Aragon experienced in the Lord of the Rings on seeing the Gates of Argonath. Similarly, travelers on Mission Boulevard heading south cannot help but notice the towering advertising figure of a twenty foot lumberjack statue near the busy A Street intersection. Hopefully, this wannabe Sentinel of Numenor wasn’t acting as a silent warden of a long vanished kingdom, but with any luck was signaling bigger things on the horizon for us.
Two miles south was a cemetery we’d pass which we dutifully acknowledged by whistling, which according to folklore prevented the neighboring harpies from grabbing us. A mile beyond the graveyard we spied the Hayward Motor Movies which was quiet at this hour, and for the next several hours could be more accurately referred to as a drive-out. Further down the road Holiday Bowl beckoned us with their “24-hour open” sign. A memorable pit stop ensued that included a bathroom break, drinking fountain, pinball machines, and a game of bowling that we managed to squeeze in before the road summoned us back again.
Our long ramble till now had witnessed nothing but an unbroken string of business-commercial blocks threading the towns & districts of East Oakland, San Leandro, Ashland, Hayward, and Decoto. That is until we reached the outskirts of Union City when the landscape suddenly opened up before us and spilled out into a rural countryside of sweeping farmlands and fenced pastures. This then we felt was the jackpot at the end of the rainbow, aka the reason for the walk. The quietness was surreal, the traffic non-existent, the glaring lights subdued, and the sidewalks terminated. The contrast was staggering, and an undefined freedom swept over us that was intoxicating. Soak it up me hearties for tomorrow dawns a familiar port.
They say the darkest hour is right before dawn but even so with a cloudless sky and a silvery moon overhead we caught the unmistakable image of something straight out of “Citizen Kane” the movie. Perched high on a hill near the Fremont City border was a spooky, ominous structure that turned out to be the Masonic Home for Widows and Orphans, built in 1898. Crossing the road for a better look we noticed a small, permanent looking shelter of similar age that probably got used as a bus stop or way station. Whatever it was we three took advantage of the available seating in the enclosure and stretched our legs for a respite shortly before the final push ahead.
As we closed in on the southern terminus of our hike the sounds of several crowing roosters could be heard in the distance. Up ahead in the light of dawn the frontier town of Niles was waking up. Close by was Niles Canyon and its soothing waters that drained into the Bay. Here we’d rest, soak tired feet, and transcribe our recent accomplishment onto a railroad trellis nearby. With that done we prepared ourselves for the return trip north.
As we backtracked over Mission Boulevard towards Oakland it didn’t take long before we realized that the return trip was developing into a boring, unadventurous, tedious exercise that didn’t at all bear any semblance to the southern walk. We found that all the fun and novelty of the night walk was gone and the daylight walk was totally unmysterious by default. Quite the conundrum. Under protest of sleepy eyes and tired doggies we plugged along the best we could, most of it under sheer will power. Late in the afternoon a familiar skyline came into view, none too soon either.
Word of our walk had spread like wildfire, and eventually reached the ear of the principal of our high school. During the opening student body assembly of the new fall term Greg Kleven and myself were asked to stand and be recognized, followed immediately by thundering applause. The third member of our party, Pat Danahy, had transferred to a school in Santa Barbara and would receive news of his kudos by first class mail.
Oh yea, one more thing before I forget. There was a special award created just for this particular hike. It was called the Amos Alonzo Stagg Medal. Though it has been 47 years since the 50 miler I have to confess that nothing was more fun to qualify for than that obscure and humble little trinket during the summer of 1962.

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Comment by Paul Kiczek on December 13, 2009 at 2:37pm
John, this is a terrific story about your 50-mile hike experience. I just loved the references to your Chuck Taylor (converse) sneakers, commercial landmarks, gangs of kids, and Our Lady of Perpetual Motion - from the beloved late, great George Carlin. It was fascinating to me that your experience in California at that time seemed so close to mine here in New Jersey. The same sort of places are the fragments left of that time. I even met up with a couple guys who had done the hike with me and we talked about the same things. Most of all, I guess it represented the spirit of youth at that time which we all had a lot of. Thanks for sharing this with us.

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