Geishas, Boy Scouts, and My First-Ever Hike
It’s time I tell you about one of the most formative experiences of my life. It was my first hike as a Boy Scout. If it’s any indication as to how my experience with scouting would eventually turn out, the boy who talked my twin brother and me into joining Troop 227 quit two weeks later. I remember being dumbfounded when I heard the news. This was after he had painted visions of grandeur on our daily bus ride home from school. According to Justin, Boy Scouts was the answer to all my problems. Popularity? Solved. My wilderness survival skills would be the talk of 6th grade. Girls? Girls dig a guy in uniform, right? And there would be plenty of uniforms to be worn. So what did we do? We did what any other 12-year-old pubescent moron would do. We joined. What’s so amazing about this hasty decision is how quickly I had forgotten how much I hated my short time as a Cub Scout. If it’s not already obvious, Cub Scouts is what happens before Boy Scouts. It’s like the really bad opening act before a concert. I remember the constant memorization of oaths and tokens. The badges, patches, and ranks. I hated Cub Scouts. All of it. And I remember begging my mom to let me quit. To this day, Cub Scouts is the only thing she’s ever let me quit. When I made the decision to join Boy Scouts, there was no going back.
As the weekend of our first hike drew near, Troop 227 was bustling with activity as we prepared for the 14-mile trek into the heart of Oak Mountain State Park. Leading us was our ex-military scout masters. Not only did I not respond well to authority at the time (I still don’t), I always felt like we were being forced to role-play in one of their ex-military fantasies. To them, everything was a mission. Even supplying us with gatorade on hot campouts required four wheelers and walkie-talkies. It was too much organization and authority for my taste. The ring leader of the bunch was Cliff. Cliff and I clashed from the start. He was constantly enforcing the cap rule, which meant we had to wear our Boy Scout caps at all times. Keep in mind that this was 1999. I turned 12 that year and had recently discovered two important things: women and hair gel. And in order to get one, you had to have the other. So why would I mess up my hair, all for some dumb cap? Especially in the (unlikely) event that I met a girl on this segregated mission to Mars. On several occasions, Cliff kept the entire troop at attention until I complied with the cap rule. My all-time record was 15 minutes. Then there was Kenny. One of the only things I remember about Kenny is that he had the coolest station wagon. Ever. It was a 1970's model with woodgrain paneling and a rear-facing third-row bench. To this day, it’s the only station wagon I’ve ever ridden in. And I always called the bench seat so I could look at the cars as they zoomed past us on the freeway. Last but not least, there was Allen. Allen had served in Vietnam, but he didn’t talk about it much. And we didn’t ask. But his survival skills would prove invaluable to me on my first hike.
Aside from our leaders and the more seasoned scouts in the troop, my brother and I no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Exhibit A is the fact that our backpacks ended up weighing 10 pounds more than everyone else’s, including our leaders’. In case you’re wondering, we were packing roughly 35 pounds of pop-tarts (brown sugar and cinnamon), capri-suns, fruit rollups, and something that resembled a sleeping bag. For 14 miles. In other words, we weren’t prepared. On top of that, I thought a cheap pair of boots from Walmart would last me until we reached the end of our hike. Ty, on the other hand, had somehow lost his cheap boots from Walmart. The day before we left, he had found an old pair of my mom’s cowboy boots in the garage and decided they would do. Not only were they not suitable for hiking, they were several sizes too small. And that’s when everything about this hike took a turn for the worse. When my mom asked if we needed a new pair of boots for the hike, we hesitated, and then insisted that we were fine. The next morning, we left for Oak Mountain State Park.
We’d been hiking for a full day and had covered roughly seven miles before reaching our first camping spot. It was time to set up our tents and cook dinner. I wanted to jump off a nearby bluff and die, but decided it would be best to help the guys with gathering fire wood and other necessary chores. Besides, who would carry my body out of the wilderness? We were assigned tent buddies, so naturally Ty and I didn’t end up together. That’s why I didn’t see the blisters on his feet until the next morning.
It all happened so fast. We awoke after a horrible nights sleep and began packing everything up for the next leg of our journey. It didn’t take me long to realize that Ty was missing. After calling out for him, I thought I heard someone crying in one of the tents. I went to the nearest one and found Ty sitting inside, holding his blistered feet in his hands, weeping.
“I can’t go on, Tad. I can’t wear these boots anymore. I just can’t. They’re too small,” he cried. I asked if he could walk. “Maybe,” he replied.
At that moment, I didn’t know what to do. We still had seven miles to hike and I couldn’t just leave him in the middle of Oak Mountain State Park. Besides, he looked so pitiful sitting there, crying. So I made the dumbest decision of my then 12 years of existence: I offered him my Walmart boots in exchange for his purple suede cowboy boots that were two sizes too small.
Of course he accepted my offer immediately. After trading shoes, Ty hobbled off into the distance with newfound energy, joining the rest of the group. After taking two steps in his boots, I realized that I was in trouble. Big trouble. One hour and 100 feet later, I began to cry. Not only was I carrying 35 pounds of junk food, but my feet were screaming for relief. In just one hour, huge blisters had already formed on my ankles and heals. As a result of the pain, I began to lag behind the rest of the group as each step became more and more difficult. There was absolutely no way I could finish the hike. Just when I had begun to accept the thought of dying in the woods, Allen walked up behind me.
“What the hell’s wrong with you, boy?” he asked gruffly.
Startled, I turned around to see him standing there, arms crossed. “It’s my shoes, sir. They’re too small. I don’t think I can finish the hike,” I cried.
“Give ’em here,” he demanded.
I hesitated for a second, came to the realization that I had no other option, and handed him my purple suede cowboy boots that were two sizes too small. Without hesitation, he took out a knife from his pocket, opened it, and began cutting on my boots.
“Wait. What are you…,” I began to ask.
“Quiet, boy,” he said in the same gruff, monotone voice.
After he had finished cutting on them, he threw them on the ground.
“Try ’em on,” he insisted.
I looked down at the boots. He had cut out the fronts of them along with small sections in the back to give my ankles some relief. One at a time, I slipped my blistered feet into the retrofitted boots. I took a few steps in them, my socked feet curling over the fronts, nearly touching the ground. Although they looked funny, I felt immediate relief from the blisters. Looking down, I was reminded of the high heels my mom use to wear. The kind with one toe hanging out from a small opening in the front. Years later, I would make another association: the boots resembled the platform shoes worn by Geishas in the film Memoirs of a Geisha.
“How’s them work?” Allen asked.
“I think they’ll do,” I replied rather hesitantly.
To this day, I have no idea how I made it out of Oak Mountain State Park alive. Ty would later jerk the retrofitted boots off my feet at the next camping spot and give my Walmart boots back to me. Apparently, going from shoes that are too small to shoes that fit just right is just as painful. I finished that hike wearing the same boots from Walmart in which I had begun.
Despite the fact that I left Oak Mountain State Park in the same shoes, I wasn’t the same person. Something inside me had changed for the better. Not only would I never hike again without decent hiking boots, but I would never look at a seemingly impossible situation the same way again. On that impossible day in the woods, Allen didn’t just show me how to destroy a perfectly good pair of purple suede cowboy boots that just so happened to be two sizes too small. He showed me how to improvise. How to compensate. Most importantly, he showed me how to think in terms of what was possible, not of what was impossible.
Nearing Kenny’s station wagon, I called the rear-facing bench seat. As we merged onto the freeway that would take us home, my seat buddy gave me one of the headphones connected to his Sony Walkman.
“Dude!” he exclaimed. “You’ve got hear this song.”
The song playing was “All Star” by a new group called Smash Mouth. I had never heard of them, but I loved the song. As we shared headphones, I curled up in the seat, resting my blistered feet on the plastic paneling in front of me as the cars zoomed by us. It was 1999, and every mintue we drove up the freeway back home brought us closer to a new millennium. The rest of my life was before me or, in that rear-facing seat, behind me.