Walking, Endurance Activism, and the 1986 Great Peace March

By Dain TePoel

At any given moment, someone is attempting to cross the United States on foot. Likely, that person is not alone. In fact, the website USA Crossers lists 279 individuals who have accomplished the feat of a transcontinental walk or run from the U.S. east coast to west coast, or vice versa, between 1909 and 2012. The site also identifies several others currently at various points of their respective journeys across the U.S. Mainland. A Google search of “people who have walked across the United States” directs one to a Wikipedia page that recognizes 20 such individuals and provides dozens of verifiable references to books, articles, websites, and blogs about some of their walks.

These two websites do not provide scholars or even the curious with a comprehensive or exhaustive list of transcontinental walkers, nor do they consider continental walkers outside of a U.S. context. Certainly thousands more have attempted the trek on their own volition, or as parts of groups. But many (most?) individuals and groups walk across the country without much notice, attention, or fanfare. Two questions of these mostly untold and understudied histories seem pressing: Who are these people? And why do they interrupt their lives for a period of several months to walk, and in several cases run, cycle, and/or climb, the 3,000 miles-plus distance from one “side” of the United States to the other?

In addition to exploring these kinds of questions, in my dissertation I suggest that transcontinental walks represent sites of physical culture offering significant opportunities to analyze the interconnections between physical activity, sport, endurance (e.g., physical, mental, spiritual), and the human body’s role in performative dissent and participatory democracy actions. Specifically, my dissertation examines as case studies the 1986 Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament (GPM) and 2014 Great March for Climate Action (GMCA). This post is a partial attempt to situate and justify the study of what I call “endurance activists” in the contexts of sport history and sport studies. 

On March 23, 1986, philosophy professor Gary Stahl filed a report for the Washington Post from a campsite high in the California desert with the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament (GPM). He and several hundred others had just completed a 19 mile walk, enduring sandstorms and hours of pounding rain. This group of men, women, and children between 10 months and 78 years old had set out from Los Angeles a few weeks before in order to “focus attention on the urgent need to eliminate nuclear weapons from the world.” With numb toes in soggy socks, blisters covering soft-soaked skin, and fingers too cold to maneuver coat buttons, Stahl reflected, “I am occasionally terrified to think that we have 37 weeks to go, walking 15 miles a day, six days a week” until we reach Washington D.C.

GPM route

Chicago Tribune, August 5, 1986, D1.

In his dispatch, Stahl agonizingly detailed the elements leading to his physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Days began with a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call and search for socks that slid under his sleeping pad. Marchers served one another breakfast in lines formed under the darkness-piercing light of a kitchen trailer. The whims of weather and idiosyncrasies of equipment complicated even the simplest of logistics. Keeping warm (or cool), fed, rested and even somewhat clean took up the entirety of a typical day. Odd times in between were filled with task force, outreach, and group facilitation meetings. Despite dogged exertion, constant discomfort, and ceaseless negotiation, Stahl claimed the working professionals, college kids, young families, poets, carpenters, teachers, children and seniors who made up the march walked with an overarching common purpose: the opportunity to speak with people face to face about the dire threat nuclear weapons pose to peace, justice, and survival, an opportunity that their act of physical endurance had afforded them.

walking GPM

Photo by Dan Coogan.

I argue that these transcontinental walks are legitimate and relevant forms of physical culture that intentionally test human limits of mental and physical exertion. Though walking is a relatively accessible form of physical activity in comparison to running, swimming, biking, or climbing, 3,000 mile-long walks have received scant attention from scholars of sport and physical culture, perhaps because walking is perceived as ordinary and these individuals and groups emphasize solidarity over competition (though not an exhaustive list, exceptions on endurance and/or walking broadly conceived include Endurance Running; the 2012 Journal of Sport History forum; works by Mary Louise Adams; Adam BergSamantha King; Martin PolleyJaime Schultz; and Dahn Shaulis. Some popular histories of transcontinental walks include those written by Wayne CurtisGeorge Hart; and Linda Hunt). A focus on walking, however, widens the scope of research to include those who might otherwise be excluded from mainstream athletics and sports based on structural barriers and cultural ideologies across categories of race, class, gender, sexualities, age, and ability.

Few sport scholars have critically interrogated the relationship between bodily endurance and oppositional activism. Academic inquiries tend to privilege the combination of activism and athleticism stemming from within collegiateprofessional or elite sport, whereby athletes utilize their platform to fight oppression or an injustice, such as racial inequality or sexism. Additional scholarship highlights resistance to sport mega-events, such as the Olympics (and here) or Super Bowl. These studies, though critical and reflexive, reproduce the dominance and centrality of mass-spectator sport.

As an alternative focus to the acts of resistance produced through, against, and within mainstream sport, I investigate transcontinental walks in relation to broader historical contexts, power relations, technologies, social identities, and subcultures.

Long-distance walks, hikes and marches operate as mechanisms of physical expression intentionally designed to generate attention and circulate as newsworthy events. Suffrage hikes in 1912 and 1913 provide an historical example of what Jaime Schultz refers to as “physical activism.” Schultz contends that this particular group of white, middle to upper-class women explicitly positioned their bodies in the public sphere to “spectacularize suffrage” and in the process “stake a symbolic claim on the polity.” In response to her call for further consideration of the ways the body operates as the “most fundamental and perhaps most underestimated possibility for enacting change,” I develop the concept of “endurance activism” as a form of physical activity that connects non-violent political action with extraordinary examples of human strength, stamina, pain, persistence, risk, and resilience.

Endurance activists such as these marchers strive to attract national media coverage, gain mass appeal, and fuel a widespread, groundswell of support. Their literal and figurative embodiment of an overall “movement” is designed to pressure political leaders and other influential figures to act for positive change. While my research (interviews, archives, autobiographies, newspapers and periodicals, blogs, websites, social media, etc.) is far from “complete,” I provisionally suggest that sustained engagement in the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual task of walking 15-25 miles/day for 8-9 months can become entwined with alternative ways of living and an enduring commitment to work for social, political, and cultural change long after the march’s conclusion.

When attempted as part of an overarching social movement, the oddity of walking across the country should not necessarily be perceived as an obscure, eccentric act, but a strategy marked with clear purpose and intent. Schultz maintains that walkers embody physical expressions of endurance “through motion, form, and appearance, in the occupation and navigation of space, by engagement and interaction, as ideological manifestations” of socio-political causes. In other words, the embodiment of endurance articulates marchers’ activist work with their desired social change. Performing the extraordinary “spectacularizes” their bodies and cause while seizing a media platform, however temporarily and problematically. Their aims and ends are not reducible to processes of consumption and commodification, however, or to interpretation solely as publicity stunts. As Schultz argues, public demonstrations give participants a sense of pride, power, and solidarity as part of larger, longer, engaged struggles to stamp out a particular social injustice.

suff hikes

Getty Images

The quality and quantity of media coverage generated by transcontinental walks are constantly negotiated, exploited, and contested by the marchers, by the people they encounter, and by observers in the media. The media coverage generated by transcontinental walks addresses cultural studies’ concerns with how meanings and narratives are negotiated and contested. As part of my  research, I conducted a ProQuest search of the “Great Peace March” in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune between January 1 and December 31, 1986, resulting in roughly 250 articles, photographs, features, and reports. I scrutinize national press coverage of the march through Todd Gitlin’s application of media framing analysis to oppositional social movements.

Media frames are the largely unacknowledged, but persistent, patterns of interpretation, presentation, emphasis and exclusion that journalists, reporters, and media use to organize discourse. Gitlin suggests that dominant media’s ideological selections, omissions, emphases and tones are “central to the continuation of the established order.” In short, mainstream press coverage usually deviates from the at times counter-cultural, transformative meanings and narratives activists hope to provoke and circulate. The use of frames is unavoidable and necessary, however, for media institutions to process large amounts of information. Therefore, an analytical approach to coverage of the Great Peace March asks how frames are used in various contexts and why? What patterns do media frames share in covering events in different places and times? What difference might the frames make for various readers, audiences, stakeholders, and the marchers themselves? Considering which events and gestures were labeled newsworthy, and identifying major themes and tones of coverage might provide an understanding of how mainstream media responded to this particular version of anti-nuclear radicalism.

Mainstream press accounts of the Great Peace March portrayed endurance activists with tones of derision, pity, trivialization, novelty, and curiosity. In what follows, I briefly summarize the press’s overarching frame of marginalization through the following practices: labels associated with the marchers; subtle trivialization and mockery of the March’s political goals; presentation of the march as a curiosity and human interest story; and admiration of the physical act of crossing the country on foot positioned next to critiques of its political goals.

Newspaper accounts repeatedly refer to the marchers as born-again hippies and peaceniks. For example, a Chicago Tribune article from March 16, 1986, announced “Die-hard Peaceniks Plan New March.” Paul Galloway wrote on August 5, 1986, that the “Great Peace March revives the fervid feel of the ’60s.” Categorizing hundreds of marchers in labels specifically geared to resonate with counter-cultural identities from the 1960s and 1970s can be read as an attempt to situate the walkers as washed-up veterans of a cultural movement whose time had not only passed, but failed. In another Tribune article from August 1986, former marine Rick Mueller claimed the marchers “are a bunch of wimps. We’re out there defending people and you don’t feel appreciated.” Mueller’s co-worker questioned the marchers stating “anyone in their right mind would be against nuclear holocaust…disarmament is a good idea, but it’s not feasible.”

Critics often delegitimized the marchers’ goal for disarmament as weak when positioned against President Reagan’s notion of American strength.  Marchers were seen as taking a soft approach in contrast to Reagan’s foreign philosophy of “peace through strength” which presumes that peace depends on a strong military. In an address to the nation on national security given just days before the start of the Peace March, Reagan employed references to figures of strong, white, masculinity in his defense of the policy. He claimed that “peace does not exist of its own will. It depends on us, on our courage to build it and guard it and pass it on to future generations . . . To those who think strength provokes conflict, Will Rogers had his own answer. He said of the world heavyweight champion of his day: ‘I’ve never seen anyone insult Jack Dempsey’ . . . Strength is the most persuasive argument we have.” The bodies of marchers were often constructed in stark contrast to the figure of a heavyweight boxer such as Dempsey, or the hard bodies which dominated the 1980s in representations such as Rocky and Rambo.

The Peace Marchers’ deep commitment to non-violence and nuclear arms reductions was admonished in Reagan’s position that such “slackening now would invite the very dangers America must avoid.” Press accounts and oppositional voices quoted in articles that aligned with Reagan’s conservatism critiqued the bodies of marchers as inferior with their long-hair, beards, red bandanas, torn t-shirts and raggedy pants. Near the march’s conclusion in November, 1986, John Maclean of the Tribune described the marchers as “faded flower children, long-time activists, modern hippies committed to subsistence living [they carry all their earthly goods with them on two-wheeled carts], New Zealand grandmothers against nuclear weapons, retired clergy, young families, Vietnam veterans, gays of both genders, a few punks and four Buddhist monks who bang drums every step of the way.” The identification of marchers as inclusive of gays, lesbians, punks, women, children, and the elderly could serve to label the group as marginal in comparison with the white, heteronormative men in control of the government and military.

reagan peace through strength

Getty Images. President Ronald Reagan addresses U.S. troops at Camp Liberty Bell in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, Nov. 13, 1983.

Mainstream press accounts often did not take the march seriously as a political event through mechanisms of trivialization. The use of quotes, or particular words and phrases alone can be enough to belie a respectful tone. Reference to the marchers as “parading,” “strolling,” or “celebrating” in “Sixties-style rallies” under “sunny skies” transmits an antagonism toward the marchers. This vitriol was perhaps best articulated in G.P. Lucchetti’s sarcastic taunt in an opinion published by the Tribune on August 30th. “Why don’t I quit the money-grubbing grind and walk for some glorious goal along with a pack of like-minded happy-go-lucky foragers dedicated to eradicating some pernicious evil in the world while scavenging the wherewithal to maintain that untrammeled, ulcerless style. Peace. man. Ain’t it the life?” Lastly, a technique denoting the “great peace march” in quotes also differentiates the group from other official organizations who are simply referred to by their names, such as the The Heritage Foundation, for example. Placing words such as “great” and “peace” inside quotes situates the March’s claims to worthy and noble activism, and hopes for world harmony, as dubious at best and delusional at worst.

The objectives of my larger project are to consider and assess the impetuses, inclusivity, and efficacy of transcontinental walks for enacting or inspiring structural change, and to identify the relevancy of bodily endurance as a mode of performative dissent. Ultimately, I plan to highlight the potential and limitations of endurance activism for combating intertwined ecological, political, economic, and social crises. In Pink Ribbons, Inc. Samantha King argues that the development of consumer-oriented philanthropic solutions to social problems, and the myriad techniques soliciting corporate and individual donations of time and money, has helped “fashion a far-reaching constriction of public life, of the meaning of citizenship and political action, and notions of responsibility and generosity.” The emergence, popularity, and ubiquity of breast cancer consumerism, she warns, tells “a story about American culture,” namely its individualist orientation towards enacting structural change.

At stake for the Great Peace Marchers, and the other group of transcontinental walkers not discussed here, is the assertion of a revitalized, radical citizenry’s involvement in U.S. politics and democracy. As a result, I seek to place my project in conversation with how forms of physical activity and culture articulate practices and definitions of citizenship.

The ecological crises of climate change, pollution, and species extinction, among others, demand the reconceptualization of citizenship away from its fundamental rootedness in ideas of nation and toward what Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller call the “transterritorial nature of ecosystems and the global division of labor.” The transcontinental walks I foreground link an anti-consumerist, environmentalist ethos with embodied action that engenders collective struggle. In this light, we might interpret endurance activists as practitioners of a green, resistance citizenship that pressures state and corporate bureaucrats to “revolutionize their behavior, policies, and practices.”The significance of endurance activism might not lie solely in its identification of the body as an essential site for enacting change, but also through its efforts to stimulate inclusive, engaged, protracted, and participatory struggles to combat intertwined ecological, political, economic, and social crises.

A focus on transcontinental walkers for sociopolitical change offers one direction sport scholars can take to investigate the under-explored relationship between “ordinary” individuals, walking, activism, and discourses on intersecting identity categories. Following Jules Boykoff, I aim to clarify, but also complicate, the terrain of protest and social change in sport and physical culture. A dialogue that reassesses and recalibrates sport studies’ epistemological and ontological commitments should be productive for scholars increasingly urged to take on more “public” and engaged roles while intervening in and disrupting oppressive and exclusionary practices.

Dain TePoel is a PhD Candidate in American Studies at the University of Iowa. You can email him at dain-tepoel@uiowa.edu or reach out on Twitter @DainTePoel

2 thoughts on “Walking, Endurance Activism, and the 1986 Great Peace March

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

  2. Dain, excelllent abstract of the terrain and political conditions of the GPM.
    Farmers in Nebraska parked tractors on the route with signs “Farms not Arms.”
    Families in small towns all along the route would either join for a while or offer to overnight weary marchers in their homes.
    I even had a root canal performed by a dentist un his self-contained and fully equipped trailer.
    Coincidentally Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev signed a SALT II agreement by year’s end.
    If you have additional photos that I may post on our Facebook Great Peace March page, where I posted your paper, that will be memorable and appreciated by all marchers and those who supported the goal in their deeds and cheers.
    Respectfully Mike Menkes RG35.


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