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46er re-enacts postman’s 50-mile ‘JFK Challenge’ walk, in reverse

Hiker begins 19-hour journey after major storm knocks out power

May 11, 2018
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor (aflynn@lakeplacidnews.com) , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - When 55-year-old David Fitz-Gerald stepped out of the sliding glass doors of the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Plattsburgh shortly after midnight Saturday, May 5, there was stiff wind, a few sprinkles and one flash of lightning in the distance. The storms had passed, but his 50-mile walk had just begun.

Fitz-Gerald put on his best walking sneakers, navy blue pants, a ski hat, gloves and three layers of shirts, including a red Adirondack 46er long-sleeve shirt and a yellow, reflective safety vest. With a safety-light equipped backpack full of supplies, food and drink, a flashlight in one hand and a Fitbit to count his steps, he stepped onto the wet pavement. He wasn't sure how long it would take him to walk to the village of Lake Placid. He only knew he had to try.

Following state Route 3 under the street lights to the Military Turnpike, Fitz-Gerald walked south to Route 22 before reaching the village of Peru about 9 miles from the hotel.

Article Photos

David Fitz-Gerald nears Lake Placid on state Route 86 Saturday, May 5 during his 50-mile walk from Plattsburgh.
(Photo provided)

"By the time I made it to Peru, the skies had cleared, and the moon, just a couple days past full was pleasant company," he said.

Fitz-Gerald was oblivious to what he would see - and not see - in the coming hours. During his five-hour nap Friday night, thunderous storms and heavy winds whipped through the region, knocking down countless trees and cutting off power, phone and internet service to thousands of customers. A 60-year-old woman even died after being pinned down by a tree while camping in the Pharaoh Lakes Wilderness near Ticonderoga.

"There was a police car parked in the middle of the road, with its blinkers on along the Military Turnpike, to warn motorists of a downed power line, which a larger vehicle would have hit. ... I almost walked into it. So it was a good thing he was sitting there," he said. "I stopped for a moment to talk with the officer, and he told me about the widespread power outage."

Most of the towns Fitz-Gerald passed through during the night were completely dark. He heard a lot of generators and saw RVs being used in yards. Twigs and branches littered the roadways, trees were down and chain saws buzzed in the distance.

After Peru, Fitz-Gerald reached the village of Keeseville about 6 miles down the road and then took Route 9N to Clintonville and AuSable Forks. He said this 11-mile section, which follows the AuSable River, looked the worst after the storm.

"One particularly big tree had fallen down across the power lines, but somehow that power line hadn't appeared to snap," he said. "By the time I reached Jay, and Wilmington, it was a very nice, sunny spring day otherwise, and I actually got a little too much sun."

Jay was a 6-mile walk from AuSable Forks. Then he took state Route 86 to Wilmington, another 5 miles. By noon, it was warm enough to shed his gloves and a shirt layer and swap out his ski hat for a navy blue ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) Association ball cap. About halfway through, Fitz-Gerald didn't need his backpack anymore; his wife LaRena and son Kolton were in a car, ferrying food and drinks to him for the second half of the trip. That was helpful since there were no stores open for rest or provisions.

"I particularly appreciated the Stewart's vanilla milkshake that they had to go to Lake Placid to get for me and bring back to Wilmington because of the power being out," he said. "So that was a sweet treat along the way."

Then it was time to walk through the toughest portion of the trip - through the Wilmington Notch. That's when his safety vest came in handy.

"I did not want to get hit by a car, and that's a tough road to walk," he said. "It's amazing how fast the cars go through the Notch."

It was about 13 more miles to Main Street, Lake Placid. Although Fitz-Gerald's final destination was the Bookstore Plus, he actually reached his goal before arriving there around 7 p.m.

"In all honesty, I ended the moment the Fitbit said 50 miles," he said. "When I measured it out, it was 50 miles to the Bookstore Plus, but you know I had to go back and forth across the street so many times, that's how I got a lot of the 50 miles, dodging traffic."

At the end of his 19-hour walk, Fitz-Gerald was met at the bookstore by his wife, son and aunt, Patti Fitz-Gerald, and members of the Wilmington Historical Society. Through a Crowdrise campaign, Fitz-Gerald had raised $345 to benefit the group. His goal is $1,000.

Was the 50-mile challenge worth doing? Other than helping the Wilmington Historical Society, Fitz-Gerald said Tuesday, May 8 that he was still processing the experience, adding, "I know looking back, I'll be glad I did." Yet one thing was clear.

"I would never do it again," he said.

Fitz-Gerald works as an accountant in Proctor, Vermont. He is the chief financial officer at Carris Reels, a company that manufactures plywood reels, plastic reels and spools, wood reels and packaging for the wire and cable industry. His mother, Carolyn Schultz Fitz-Gerald, grew up in Wilmington, and his grandparents operated the Paleface Ski Center and Dude Ranch on Route 86 on the Jay/Wilmington line. That's his local connection, other than being an Adirondack 46er, climbing the 46 tallest peaks in the Adirondack Park. For an accountant, he tries to keep active, walking 10,000 steps a day, yet the 112,000 steps from Plattsburgh to Lake Placid was a little too much.

"I don't think I would have made it much beyond the halfway point if it wasn't for my son Kolton saying, 'I know you can do it' and 'You've got this!'" he said.

By Tuesday, Fitz-Gerald could finally walk normal again, going up and down stairs without holding on to the railings.

"Some of the 46 hikes left me in the same condition, so I know how this goes," he said.

For his next walk, Fitz-Gerald plans to hike to the summit of Whiteface Mountain from the Lake Placid side on July 27, the anniversary of his 46er completion.

As for the reason he walked 50 miles in the first place, that's another story.

"There's some things you're just so compelled to do that you kind of have to do it," he said. "I think that's the best way to describe it."

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A 46er's inspiration

On Monday, Feb. 18, 1963 - nine months and one day after David Fitz-Gerald was born - Lake Placid postman Dennis "Denny" Miller took his own 50-mile journey, from the Olympic Village to Plattsburgh. This was the inspiration for Fitz-Gerald's May 5 walk. Only, he didn't want to walk through the dangerous Wilmington Notch at night; that's why he did it in reverse.

John F. Kennedy, a fellow Navy man, was president in February 1963. Miller, 31, had served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and was carrying mail on a walking route for the Lake Placid Post Office.

At the time, the U.S. was in the midst of a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Paul and Paula had the No. 1 hit on the music charts with "Hey Paula." And the U.S. Postal Service had just raised the rate for a first-class stamp from 4 to 5 cents.

This was also the time for Kennedy to issue challenges.

In July 1962, during the Girl Scouts 50th anniversary Senior Roundup at Button Bay State Park, Vermont, he challenged 8,500 girls to develop their individual qualities in preparation for playing useful roles in their communities and in the world. And on Sept. 12, 1962 at the Rice University football stadium, he challenged the nation to reach the moon by the end of the century.

"But why, some say, the moon?" Kennedy said. "Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? ... We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

The inspiration for Miller's 50-mile walk began as a joke. He was talking to his friends about President Kennedy's most recent challenge - that U.S. Marines be physically fit enough to march 50 miles in a day. In a Feb. 5, 1963 press release, the White House explained that Kennedy had learned about President Theodore Roosevelt's executive order in 1908. Roosevelt mandated that line officers of the Marine Corps in the grade of captain or lieutenant be required to walk 50 miles in three days, with actual marching time, including rests, being 20 hours.

"In battle, time is essential and ground may have to be covered on the run," Roosevelt wrote in Executive Order 989. "If these officers are not equal to the average physical strength of their companies the men will be held back, resulting in unnecessary loss of life and probably defeat."

Kennedy stepped up that challenge, asking 20 Marines to take on the 50-mile march at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, which they did on Tuesday, Feb. 12. Marine Lt. Donald Bernath finished in 11 hours and 44 minutes on snowless roads. The president's brother walked from Great Falls, Maryland to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, three days before, completing the 50 miles in 17 hours.

After learning about the president's challenge, Miller said he would walk from Lake Placid to Plattsburgh if someone would put up $100 to make it worth his while.

"Denny figures the postal delivery routes, which range up to 14 miles, give him all the training he needs," reported the Lake Placid News on Feb. 14, 1963.

Bill Ruocco, a retired advertising executive, called Miller's bluff and raised the $100 with four sponsors, John Chapple Jr., Fletcher Boyer, Fred Fountain and John Wilkins.

"Well, for something that started out as a joke, I guess we'll have to go through with it," Miller told the Adirondack Daily Enterprise at the time.

While he was walking to Plattsburgh, some thought, he may as well carry some mail. So he carried a letter from Lake Placid Postmaster Ronald MacKenzie inviting Plattsburgh Postmaster Horace Davies to be a member of the Provisional Olympic Organizing Committee. At the time, Lake Placid was bidding on future Winter Olympic Games, with the 1968 Olympics in sight.

So that's what Miller did. As a result, he beat the record set by the Marines, making his trip from the Lake Placid Post Office, starting at 6 a.m., to Plattsburgh in 10 hours and 57 minutes of walking time. With 39 extra minutes of rest, he still bested the Marines.

When the Enterprise asked how he felt the morning after, Miller said, "I feel pretty good except I can't walk very well."

---

Following in Denny Miller's footsteps

David Fitz-Gerald first learned about Denny Miller's 50-mile walk while doing research for his 2017 book, "In the Shadow of a Giant," a historical novel about the Paleface Ski Center and Dude Ranch on state Route 86 between Wilmington and Jay. The ski center was operated by Fitz-Gerald's grandparents. Mr. and Mrs. Boylan Fitz-Gerald, in the 1960s and 1970s.

"As I was clipping all the stories, I stumbled upon this story," he said. "As a hiker, I fell in love with this story. ... It was in the newspaper where I saw that my grandfather had run out and walked with him for a little bit."

Miller's route took him past the Paleface Ski Center and Dude Ranch. And the Fitz-Gerald family was there, with someone filming the postman's journey past the property. David's aunt, Patti Fitz-Gerald, showed him some videos they were converting to digital, "and there was a little blip of a segment of Denny doing his walk by the Paleface business on the Wilmington-Jay line," he said. "Because I had researched it, and that was present in my mind, I was like, 'Oh my goodness, that's him!' I was very enthusiastic to see that. And if I had seen that before I had done the research, I wouldn't have ever connected it."

Miller was walking with a dog, what looks like a foxhound or beagle, and is being followed by a car along the highway. In one clip, Miller is jogging. Fitz-Gerald posted the video clips on the Paleface Ski Center Facebook page, and Miller's wife, Maureen "Micky" Miller, saw it. She soon got in touch, and they've been corresponding ever since. She still lives in Lake Placid.

"It seemed like doing this re-enactment would be a good way of honoring his story and the whole craze from 1963," Fitz-Gerald said. "It would be tough to imagine being a craze today with the challenge from President Kennedy."

Fitz-Gerald's re-enactment wasn't pristine. For one thing, he walked in May, not in February, when snow lined the roadways.

"I actually had decided to do it in February, but my wife suggested that was a really bad idea," he said, "and I have to say, she was right on that count. I'm glad I didn't do that."

Yet, Fitz-Gerald did honor Miller by drinking the same concoction that sustained him on the 1963 journey: grape, pineapple and lemon juice mixed with honey.

"In the spirit of re-enactment, I combined those and carried it," he said. "I'm just calling it hummingbird food."

What ever happened to Miller's $100? He told the Enterprise he had no special plans for it.

"My wife will take it over!" he said.

Miller ended his trip at the 50-mile mark - at a spot where Route 22 overpasses the Adirondack Northway near the Plattsburgh Air Force Base. He jogged the last quarter mile and collapsed into one of the waiting cars, which took him to the Plattsburgh postmaster so he could deliver the letter before a celebratory dinner party at the Hotel Witherall, according to the Enterprise.

"I think I'll have those sneakers bronzed and use them for bookends," Miller told the Press-Republican afterward.

Miller and Fitz-Gerald had similar feelings at the end of their 50-milers. They were glad when it was over.

"Really, I don't advise doing this," Fitz-Gerald said. "I don't know if it was a good idea 55 years ago anymore than it was today."

 
 

 

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