Trail of 32
Trail of 32
by Paul Rega
Paul Rega's Trail of 32 is based on actual events from the author's life.
Paul states," I had just turned 15 years old in August of 1972. I was on a trip with my Boy Scout Troop where we rode our bicycles from our hometown of Wood Dale, Illinois to Jacksonville Florida. At the time it was a historic trip and hailed as the longest bike hike in Boy Scout history. There were no helmets then, and all we were armed with in addition to our new Sears Free Spirit ten-speed bicycles, were our unique set of values we had learned as children during the early 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. When we completed our trip on August 20, it was an irreplaceable moment of time. The fact that we successfully completed our trip of nearly 1,400 miles was a euphoric feeling like no other I have since experienced. The trip is the subject of a new novel Trail of 32."
The astonishing true story of a group of thirty-two boys and leaders who accomplished an amazing feat in 1972, when they rode their bicycles from Wood Dale, Illinois to Jacksonville, Florida.
It was a simpler time - a common sense two-pedal world with realistic adventures, and everyday heroes. In the summer of 1972, an innocence was lost when twenty-six young boys in a small rural town set out to accomplish something bigger than themselves. Their journey of nearly 1,400 miles would take them through eight states, crossing over the Great Smoky Mountains. It was a tremendous achievement - one that would be hailed as the longest organized bike hike in the history of Scouting.
Shutting down my recruiting business even for a few days of vacation was always a difficult task for me. Owning a small company for nearly 23 years was grueling enough. It was late October and the fall season was fast approaching. There was usually a day or two during this time of the year, when the weather would cooperate and I would be able to get away to fish.
Indian summer had not yet arrived and I began to think it would never come, but the weatherman miraculously changed his forecast at the last minute to a sunny, 75°F day. I would have to act quickly, as I was sure another day like the one predicted would not come again until next year. It would be perfect fishing weather and I was determined to go and try to rejuvenate my work torn mind and body.
I was particularly excited about the prospect of a fishing trip this year, as I had missed my annual outing to the river the year before. Earlier in the week, when the unpredictable Midwestern weather didn’t seem to be cooperating, I started to think about what other options I might have to get away on a fishing trip before another harsh winter set in. I began to have visions of my previous trips in the warm gulf waters of the Florida Keys. I had taken a trip in February 2002, in an attempt to cope with a difficult family situation, and avoid a burnout from the rigors of my business. My dream had always been to be in Florida, sitting on a beach somewhere in the Keys, writing a book.
The Keys had always been a place for me to go where I could gather my thoughts and connect with my father, who had passed away a number of years ago. I decided to take the trip alone and reflect on my life’s future. This was unusual for me, as I have a large family of four boys and we would normally travel together. This year however, had been much different from the past and some time alone was exactly what I needed to save my sanity, and potentially my marriage.
We had lost our only daughter in the summer of August 1998, in a tragic car accident and our family was never quite the same. Jenny was not my wife’s biological child and she did not live with us at the time of her accident. My wife did not understand the pain and extreme level of emotion I was feeling. It was having a negative impact on my ability to function or even run my company.
I was determined to enjoy myself on my vacation while writing my book and trying to relax in the warmth of the Keys. I decided to explore an expansive white sandy beach in a beautiful state park called Bahia Honda. The warm clear blue ocean waters and sound of the gentle surf began to calm my soul. This incredible park is located on Bahia Honda Key, approximately eight miles south of the town of Marathon and Key Vaca. To get to the park via automobile, you need to cross an enormous bridge that spans nearly seven miles into the ocean, before coming to rest on another small island and piece of the Keys. If you’re heading south toward Key West, the “Seven Mile” bridge, as it is called, is situated between the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west.
The Keys are literally comprised of hundreds of tiny islands, the largest of which are connected by several man-made bridges and are primarily made up of coral deposits. As a result, very few natural beaches are present in this part of Florida. A much older bridge, that was originally built in 1912, as an overseas railway by industrialist Henry Flagler, runs parallel with the newer more modern bridge. Large sections of the original bridge were destroyed by a massive hurricane that killed hundreds of people on Labor Day in 1935.
I fished for the first time in the Florida Keys on that trip, somewhat ironic since my father had owned a townhouse for many years in Marathon on Key Vaca. I didn’t catch many fish despite having an excellent guide, but I came to admire the beauty and serenity of the backcountry. The pristine blue waters and the thousands of exotic birds that often congregate in the shallows of the Keys were magical. I had dreamed of going to Africa for many years, and as I sped across the crystal blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico and parts of the Everglades in my 16-foot skiff, piloted by Captain Charlie Owens; I was in Africa that day.
As I sat on the beach trying to relax on a cheap lounge chair I had bought at Wal-Mart for ten dollars, I felt the warm white sand between my toes and a gentle breeze start to caress my face. I soaked up an abundance of sun and began to visualize leaving my business and writing full-time. I was on a special mission during that trip, as I was trying to prove to myself that I could write and relax at the same time. I was anxious to try my hand at backcountry fishing. Both writing and fishing have always been passions of mine, and unless I scheduled time to do either one of them, often constraints due to my business and family life seemed to get in the way. That particular trip to Florida had special significance and meaning for me, and I was sure it would be one I would remember for the rest of my life.
A Midwestern fishing trip, like the one I was beginning to plan for, nearly always eluded me. This year however was somehow different and no matter what, I was determined to go. The previous destination for my trip was the Vermilion River in a beautiful part of South Central Illinois. It’s a rather unusual river as it flows north on its journey to meet up with the Illinois River, a feat shared with only a few others in the world. The Vermilion is a very old river as its many twists and turns are evidence of the time-spent cutting through its rocky and sandstone banks. The area boasts many miles of beautiful and untamed sections of whitewater rapids and pristine wooded shoreline, dotted with massive boulders deposited by the great Ice Age. Wildlife is abundant, while any real industry is rare, and not a single house can be seen for many miles at a stretch.
As a young boy, my father would take me canoeing and fishing at the river and we would often camp along its lush wooded banks. He loved the area so much that he would later purchase a small farm on the river above the dam near Streator, Illinois. He used it as a refuge to get away from the demands of his own business. My trips to the Vermilion during later years of my life were often bitter sweet after my father’s passing in June of 1997. My memories of him and our many times together, either fishing or canoeing the river, lay heavy on my mind. My personal trips to the river as an adult were a time and opportunity for me to reflect on my own life and the challenges that lay ahead of me on my own journey.
An area of the river where I planned on fishing during this trip had a very special meaning to me. It was rife with a vivid memory of a near tragedy. My father and I had been canoeing the river many years ago, when I was only nine years old. The river seemed rather high for that time of the year and the water was moving at a very fast pace. I was wearing a bulky, oversized lifejacket my father had purchased from a Navy supply store. I think he thought the bigger the better, but I remember not being able to move or even paddle very well. He had added an extra level of security by tying a half-inch piece of rope around my back and securing it with a large square knot in the front of the jacket.
The military issued lifejacket was very constricting, but I was sure it would hold me up in the water and probably one other person should I fall into the raging rapids. It had only been my second time down the river and I could sense some concern on my father’s face. He was desperately trying to keep our canoe afloat as we dodged numerous rocks and submerged boulders. I recall his anguish as he commented that the river was a lot higher than he had originally thought and the current was moving faster than he could ever remember.
My father was an expert canoeist and former Boy Scout, having canoed numerous rivers across the country including the Vermilion and several others in Illinois. For whatever reason, he decided to run a rapid on the far left side of the river in an area known as the Rock Garden. I think he wanted me to experience the thrill of running a real rapid. Strewn across entire sections of this part of the river are numerous jagged rocks and massive boulders, some partially exposed. When the water is higher than normal, the Rock Garden can be rather treacherous and deadly, as many a canoeist both novice and experienced, have discovered over the years.
My father had purchased a Voyageur canoe that had fallen off a delivery truck and was severely damaged. He was able to buy it for a reasonable price and learned how to repair it with fiberglass. The canoe was maroon in color, and the bow and stern of the boat rose up and curved at the top resembling an Indian birch bark canoe. It was unlike any canoe I had ever seen. Its extra wide body and keel were well suited for whitewater and almost never tipped. Over the years, the canoe would take on a new dimension and weight, as we would need to repair it after several bouts with the Vermilion. The canoe became so heavy due to all its repairs that it would take four men just to carry it to the launch site near Englehaupt’s property.
On a previous trip with my father, Mr. Englehaupt, who lived in one of the few homes on the banks of the Vermilion warned us that if you’re not familiar with this river or are a novice canoeist, this section can be very dangerous during times of high water. He was right, and we were just about to run this part of the river and try to navigate through some of its most treacherous rapids! I began to feel my heart beat faster as we got nearer to the Rock Garden. I could see and hear the water swirling and crashing violently against the rocks. My father yelled to me, “Get down on your knees, Paul, stay low and paddle!” Because I was in the front of the canoe, I saw a massive amount of whitewater and a five to six foot drop off. We were heading straight into the center of this incredible whirlpool of swirling water.
The front of our canoe hit the rapids first and we began to drop off the edge of the waterfall. I heard a loud crash as the bottom of the canoe scrapped hard against the rocks below the surface and the fiberglass began to buckle. Our canoe shook violently from side to side and just as I thought we were about to tip over, my father steadied our canoe and we continued to move swiftly through the rapid. Then, without any warning there was a loud crushing noise followed by an eerie almost deadening sound of what must have been solid rock ripping through the bottom of our canoe. As our small craft came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the raging rapids, it began to shake more violently as waves crashed hard against its sides.
With our canoe on the verge of being eaten alive by the rapids, I heard my father cry out in pain. When I looked back at him, to my horror I saw a steady flow of his fresh blood clearly visible against the gray bottom of our canoe. His left knee had been split open from a jagged rock that that had punctured a section of our boat where he had been kneeling.
We were now being held in place by a large jagged rock in the middle of a churning mass of whitewater. The rock had just ripped a gaping hole in our canoe severely injuring my father. His face was grimacing with what had to be excruciating pain. His massive body and tired arms tried desperately to keep our small canoe afloat. He yelled to me, “Stay low, and don’t panic!” I don’t remember panicking, but I was worried about my dad and wondered how we would manage not to sink and be swept down river in only our lifejackets. Even at nine years old, I was a good swimmer, but questioned my ability to swim with any chance of survival in these types of waters.
As more and more water rushed in from the large rip in the bottom of our canoe, huge whitecaps crashed over the sides completely soaking our bodies in cold river water, threatening to sink us. I could feel our canoe begin to shake violently once again as my father desperately tried to free it from the grips of the rock that had punctured our boat, and ravished his knee. Suddenly, I heard another loud scrapping noise and our boat catapulted forward and was finally free from the grips of the rocks. My father yelled to me, “Bail Paul, bail!” I quickly dropped my paddle into the canoe and began to frantically bail the water out of our nearly swamped boat with a plastic milk container.
Our only hope to survive this incredible mishap was to try and make a quick sharp turn across the river and shoot for the right bank. I could see that the left bank of the river was completely washed out by the high water and there was no sign of dry ground. A massive concrete and steel bridge that spans across the Vermilion at this section of the river has hash marks on its immense columns, indicating the height of water in the river. As we came closer to the bridge, I could see that the river was well past the six-foot marker on the columns, nearly reaching the seven-foot mark. This was an extremely dangerous water level for this river. At an eight-foot level, the Vermilion looks like a branch of the Colorado River.
As we desperately tried to keep our canoe afloat, I thought that if we missed getting out of the river at this point, we might be washed further downstream without much hope of getting out for several miles. I was worried about my father’s knee and his ability to continue paddling. If we were to save ourselves, we would have to safely steer our small canoe around the massive bridge columns, make a sharp right turn and head for the far right bank. Not a very easy task with a boat nearly filled with water and my father’s severe injury. Still kneeling, he tried desperately to stop the profuse bleeding from the gash in his knee by wrapping his drenched shirt around his wound. As he applied pressure, I could see his face grimace in pain. It was a first aid technique I’m sure he must have learned while in the Boy Scouts. It was apparent that he was in agony and was the only one paddling, as I continued my desperate attempts at bailing. With each movement forward, our canoe continued to take on more river water.
As I struggled to bail, mustering every ounce of energy left in my body, I could hear my father groan in pain as I felt our weighted down canoe start to slowly turn toward the right bank with each powerful thrust from his paddle. His last orders to me on the river were, “Stop bailing, Paul, now paddle, paddle hard!” Somehow, through our incredible determination to save our lives, my father and I were able to make it safely to the other side of the river without sinking and being swept down the Vermilion River. It’s a vivid memory of how determination, teamwork and the sheer will to live, which saved our lives that I will never forget.
By Jane Cowart
Mr. Rega presents a delightful memoire of growing up in what may be called a simpler time. The book culminates in a bike trip from Illinois to Florida. As an amateur cyclist, I cannot fully fathom such a trip even in this day of padded shorts and clipless pedals much less in a Boy Scout uniform and clunky shoes and without a cellphone.
Truly the values of the time and the lessons he learned from his family and scouting gave him the determination and character to make such a trip possible. A must read!
About the Author
Paul Rega began his writing career in 1980 while attending Western Illinois University as a staff reporter for the Western Courier. Upon graduating with a degree in biology and journalism, he spent the next thirty years in business having started an executive search firm in 1984.
Paul's passion for writing stayed with him throughout his business life, and he started writing his first book in 1993. He published, How To Find A Job: When There Are No Jobs in December 2011. The book was an instant success, and hit #1 on Amazon's bestseller list for job hunting books in March 2012. He published 12 Steps to Freedom in August 2013 and Trail of 32 in September 2013, The Syndrome in April 2014, and A Two Pedal World Book 1 and Book 2 in May 2014.
Paul lives in a small town along the Gulf Coast of Florida, where he is working on his next book.