LIMESTONE, Maine — To answer a 50-year-old call to fitness, a small team of people will attempt to walk 50 miles in one day on Saturday, starting in Houlton and ending at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics campus in Limestone.
Educator Larry Berz, Dr. Arthur Selander and 16-year-old MSSM junior Lil Costello of Milo will be in the company of other fitness-minded individuals as they attempt the trek at 4 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 31, beginning at the State Police Barracks in Houlton. They plan to reach the Limestone school by 11 p.m., where the team will be greeted with a festive celebration.
The impetus for the 50-mile trek came last winter, Berz explained, as he listened to a public radio story recounting how Robert “Bobby” Kennedy walked 50 miles to answer the call of President John F. Kennedy, who pushed for new vigor and conditioning in America.
“The exploit created a sensation in the United States, because the first 50-miler wasn’t an athlete, it wasn’t a professional hiker or a jogger,” Berz described.
Robert Kennedy was the President’s brother, and Berz described how the then Attorney General spontaneously took to the walk in penny loafers, urging his staff to accompany him. All of the tired crew gave up at the 35-mile mark — except for Bobby, who finished every one of the trek’s 50 miles.
“I heard this and thought that was sensational, so I wondered — and it wasn’t much wondering — could we do the same thing 50 years later?” Berz asked.
Berz began preparations for the walk in March, hitting the road, the trail or the rail bed to start tacking on miles.
“I’ve walked over 400 miles since I started — that’s like from here to Boston,” he said proudly.
Prior to training for the 50-mile event, the longest hike he’d been on was up Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park 20 years ago. On July 27, Berz set off for a 40-mile walk with five others. Sixteen hours later, only Berz and Costello remained to walk onto the University of Maine at Presque Isle campus, where they received a warm reception. Other spirited members of the walk had bowed out due to physical constraints like chafing and muscle fatigue.
“It was just the two of us, which I was deeply surprised about, but we kept going and by that point I knew I had to finish because I wasn’t going to let Mr. Berz finish by himself, so I kept trekking,” Costello said.
Though she’d been resolute to not let Berz go the journey alone, a new development entered the hike around mile 33 — blisters.
“Every step I took really hurt and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done I think … but I ended up limping to the finish at UMPI with the rest of the team,” she said.
It was the longest hike either of them had ever taken.
“It was a very powerful and personal experience for me; you really find out about your limits, your duration, your ability and your purpose because when you set your eyes on that kind of a target, you can’t rely on conventional reassurances,” Berz explained. “You’re going to be tested, physically and mentally, along the way, and your job is to cope and confront the fear or the pain or the boredom.”
While 50 miles is an extraordinary feat of endurance and will, Berz explained that the team isn’t made up of super athletes who’ve trained for decades.
“We’re ordinary people — students, teachers — we have routines just like everyone else to get through our day to conform to the reality of life here in The County,” he said. “But when you’re on the road like that, [those routines] won’t help you for a second. You have to find a deeper purpose … and I think that’s what President Kennedy was after. It’s a real sense of exploration and adventure.”
In 1960, President-Elect Kennedy wrote an article that was printed in Sports Illustrated dated Dec. 26 called “The Soft American.”
“We are, all of us, as free to direct the activities of our bodies as we are to pursue the objects of our thought. But if we are to retain this freedom, for ourselves and for generations yet to come, then we must also be willing to work for the physical toughness on which the courage and intelligence and skill of man so largely depend,” Kennedy wrote. “All of us must consider our own responsibilities for the physical vigor of our children and to the young men and women of our community. We do not want our children to become a generation of spectators. Rather, we want each of them to be a participant in the vigorous life.”
Though neither Berz nor Costello could have imagined a year ago that they’d set out to walk 50 miles, they didn’t realize how the experience would impact their sense of being.
“Going the 40 miles, I didn’t think I could make it and I knew that a lot of people didn’t think I could make it — which made me want to make it,” Costello said. “I definitely think that it changed me a bit and impacted by life, and I’m really glad I did this, too. It’s a good experience.”
For Berz, answering the call his president made over 50 years ago feels patriotic.
“It’s almost like an American statement,” he explained. “I’m almost 60 years old and I’ve never really felt that way in life.”
This inexplicable need to answer Kennedy’s call, however, has extended far beyond Berz and beyond the core group of walkers. From Caribou, Presque Isle and Limestone, people have asked if they can join the 50-mile trek even to just walk segments of the overall journey. Some even plan to participate in the final leg of the adventure, meeting up with the crew in Fort Fairfield around 8 p.m.
“Let’s not forget, this isn’t just a couple of local people heading out for 50 miles — this has cultural, historical, powerful connections to who we are as Americans,” Berz said. “That’s why I view the hike as part of the American Experience — it links in time and space with a time that no longer exists, but by reliving it, maybe we can rekindle some of these elements that we feel are really necessary for our future.”
The historic connection Berz and Costello have felt with The County takes them back far before Kennedy — back to the pre-automobile days as they’ve already felt every slight incline along the road from Houlton to Presque Isle.
“I definitely realize what it’s like to live back before there were cars, and I have to say those hills aren’t really that fun,” Costello described.
Berz explained that one of the wonderful things about the walking experience is that it’s a way to see The County as it’s unseen through current lifestyles.
“I think we encountered The County the way it was when people’s lives were by foot, by wagon, by animal — a much slower, more relaxed, challenging but different mode of life,” he described. “Every hill, every tree, every home, bird and sound becomes magnified. Suddenly you see little parts of Houlton, or Bridgewater or Mars Hill that you never saw before, literally.”
While Kennedy’s vision and call to fitness can be done anywhere or any time, the greater community is more than welcome to join in on part of the 50-mile trek — granted they’re under their own responsibility, of course. The man who issued the call and the first man to answer it may both be gone, both lives tragically cut short, but their messages are still being heard.
“They’re gone, they never lived to see this day, but we’re here; we’re kind of holding up their torch,” Berz said. “What we’re trying to do is uplift some of the ideas President Kennedy stood for back in his term in office that vanished from the scene, and they’ve been gone 50 years.”