I signed up my Boy Scout son for the hiking merit badge. It’s one of the merit badges required for Eagle rank. Because of my son’s autism, I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to complete all the Eagle requirements, but this checks off one that I was confident he could complete.
Hiking is actually an option – Scouts have the choice of completing swimming, cycling, or hiking as one of their Eagle-required merit badges. Far more Scouts complete the swimming merit badge, which is the second-most popular merit badge, behind only first aid. Swimming is taught at all summer camps, but it entails some tricky steps such as rescue techniques that I didn’t feel my son could complete.
Not that hiking is, well, a walk in the park. It entails five 10-mile hikes and is capped by a 20-mile hike. In my 10 years as an adult volunteer in Boy Scouts – or in any capacity in my life for that matter -- I have never hiked 20 miles in one day.
Not many Scouts have. It’s in the bottom half of merit badges as far as completions each year. In fact, of the 2 million-plus merit badges awarded annually, fewer than 8,000, about one-third of 1 percent, are for hiking.
My son has done some hefty hikes when he was younger and his ability progressed from one hike to another. Physically, I knew he was up to it. Could he do it emotionally, I wondered. Among his symptoms of autism is poor communication skills. Even at 17 he speaks in 2- or 3-word blurts. “Want bagel.” “Mommy look.” That sort of thing. Or repeating lines from his favorite Disney movies or computer games. Would he be able to tell me if something was wrong halfway through a long hike? And with a communication and comprehension gap, we never know if he understands long-term ramifications of here-and-now events. Like if you eat your sandwich now, you won’t have it in 2 hours when you really are hungry.
But those are the sort of issues we learn in the outdoors. They are the reason Boy Scouts uses the outdoors as its classroom. It’s where young men can practice leadership, set priorities, take care of themselves and their companions in the heat and the cold, and understand the difference between a necessity and a nice-to-have.
And for a young man like my son, it’s a concentrated social activity. At other social events, he gets little attention from his age peers because of his communication challenges. It’s too difficult for typical kids to draw speech out of him, so they don’t engage him. But on a hike, the group is alone together for hours on the trail. Most of our hikes had been on remote trails in nearby parks and forests. Daniel still didn’t talk much, but he did a lot of listening and made attempts to initiate conversation, and after several hikes, started approaching his hiking crew mates at other troop events.
We completed five 10-milers from May through September. We hiked two sections of an interesting foot and bridal path called the Bull Run-Occoquan Trail, which runs along the Occoquan River between Fairfax and Prince William counties in Northern Virginia. We hiked two sections of Prince William National Forest. Finally, we hiked the Manassas National Battlefield, combining individual trails for the first and second battles of Manassas in one day to make a 10-mile loop. Each hike had its own stamp of local history and nature. We saw heron, snakes, frogs, and trees gnawed by beavers. We walked in the footsteps of Civil War soldiers. We practiced using maps and compasses. We talked about terrain features such as watersheds and shoals. We thought about how we could be considerate of our fellow hikers as well as the wildlife who are letting us hike through their habitats.
For the 20-miler, we chose a more civilized setting, the paved Mount Vernon Trail, which starts at George Washington’s famous residence fronting the Potomac River. We decided on hiking 10 miles north, stopping for lunch, then retracing our steps. It would be a long day, so simplicity, rest rooms, and water fountains won out in the planning for our group of eight Scouts and five parents.
We set out on Columbus Day in foggy, but mild, weather. We started off in jackets, but pealed them off fairly early as we watched the fog lift off of the Potomac to reveal a bright sky.
Not long down the trail, one of our scouts had a hotspot – a sore spot that would quickly turn into a blister without treatment with moleskin. The scouts at the front of our line hadn’t been looking over their shoulder and were a couple hundred yards ahead of the back end. I was finally able to shout them down to take a rest stop, where we had a little discussion on the point person’s responsibility to see and hear the end of the line. You hike as a team.
The trail has mile markers so it was easy to track progress … if you noticed the brown, ankle-high, markers, which I didn’t.
At one point, I heard my son say, “killing me.”
“What did you say?”
“My feet are killing me,” he repeated. He was quoting one of the elephants in The Jungle Book who was objecting to their constant marching. Again, our crew stopped, I asked my son to point to where it hurt, and he pointed to a small broken blister on his instep. I patched him up, and not long after we started hiking again, he said, “My feet feel better.” It was a little surprising, and reassuring, to hear him monitor and describe his condition.
We made a longer stop at Jones Point Park, an expanse of green along the Potomac that includes a 19th century lighthouse and the southern point of the original District of Columbia that reached into Virginia. Our halfway objective (and lunch stop) was Alexandria. It was quite a difference coming off a partially wooded, partially suburban trail and into apartment buildings and storefronts.
Our trail took us under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which proved to be a much more interesting spot than any of us expected. The 3-year-old bridge, of course, is massive, and underneath is a large public park with picnic tables, basketball hoops, and interesting walkways. Coming out on the other side, we crossed through a tony Old Town neighborhood to a little park on the river where we stopped for lunch. Starting back, we made good time initially, but eventually the pace slowed and more feet required maintenance. Our line started stretching out again. Bringing up the rear, I kept telling the Scouts, “it’s easier to keep up than catch up.”
At about 16 miles, my son ran out of gas. I gave him my trekking poles, but he became too dependent on them, leaning heavily on them like they were going to propel him. Meanwhile, our group was dissipating. One group when ahead looking for a rest room. Another group of speedier hikers left us in their dust. My son was sore and tired, and it was just him and me now, none of his buddies around to give him encouragement. I thought this last leg was going to ruin his day.
But out of the blue, unprompted, he said, “Good time hiking.”
Wow. Despite the tired legs and blisters and being stuck hiking just with his dad, he was still enjoying it. As we took in the river views, we counted down the mile markers to Mile 0 at the parking lot where his fellow hikers were waiting to exchange congratulations.
A long day. Many more steps than words. But that’s what we were out there for.