I read recently that the Boy Scouts of America will no longer be just boys per se. Whatever the reasons for this inclusive mix of boys, girls and those who are confused about their gender, I will always be grateful for a lesson I learned at age 12. One of the final tasks set before me in my boy scout training was a hike that paralleled the Erie Canal in Pennsylvania. I don’t remember how long the hike was supposed to be. We had a map, we each had a canteen of water, we had hats, boots, and a little bit of food. And that was it. Then we got lost. There was definitely something to be desired in our map reading skills. The 4 of us argued about directions constantly, and while we were supposed to stick together, we finally separated into two pairs, going This way and That way (kind of like the “Boy” Scouts themselves).
I remember it was a hot and very dusty hike, and along the way, things just kept going wrong. We ran out of water and food too soon, and the soles of my boots detached, flapping with every step. Even more embarrassing, though not nearly as uncomfortable, the brim of my garrison cap suddenly just separated and fell off. I wanted to quit, I wanted to call for mommy, I wanted to just stop and sit and lament my lost brim.
Taking stock of my situation –flapping soles, no water or food, lost with a low probability of being found if we just sat there, not knowing how far we had to go or even that we were going the right way, we learned the virtue of the principle “keep putting one foot in front of the other.” By doing that we made it back to camp, flapping soles and missing brims and all. It helped that we could exhort one another. Without being conscious of it, the “one foot at a time” principle became a building block of my life, and in fact saved my life on more than one occasion.
One of those life saving occasions was in Florida, 1973, when I found myself swimming in Ichetucknee springs, unable to get out because of rafts of floating vegetation blocking the shore. You could only get out at one point, where the vegetation was sparse, and I had to swim for hours past the point of exhaustion. But it was either keep putting one arm in front of the other, or drown. Another time was 1979 in Yellowstone Park, during the coldest winter on record. It was 35F below zero and we had to ski 22 miles to find a backcountry cabin. Maybe 22 miles doesn’t sound like a lot, but we had 50 lb packs, had to break trail through deep new snow, had to climb down and then back up the banks of the trail where it was melted by hot springs runoff – – only in Yellowstone – – and finally reaching the cabin, had to dig through 5 feet of snow to find the door. For 8 or so hours, the mantra was “one foot in front of the other.”
Through all of these hard life lessons, I continued to remember how comical it looked when the brim of my hat fell off. Some things just stay with you. Too bad that doesn’t include the Boy Scouts of America continuing to be boys.