Coming in Ugly

Iwo Pic 2

Pain is Discipline.  Camp Pendleton.  Photo by the author.

“The Road March is the crucible in which the soul is refined. Pulling a trigger is easy. Humping the load over the distance is where you find out who will be on the ambush site to pull the trigger with you.  The Road March defines you.  Never quit.  Come in ugly if you have to, but come in.”  

–from Leadership and Training for the Fight, by MSG Paul Howe.

In the Marine Corps, it’s called humping.  The word fits because it isn’t hiking.  Hiking is fun.  Hiking is for exercise and fresh air and enjoying nature.  Humping is hard work.  Humping is a deathmatch.  It’s you against gravity.  It’s you against the earth.  It’s you against pain.  It’s you against time and distance and unbearable weight.  It’s you against pride, and that’s the thing:  it’s you against yourself, the hardest work of all.

Humping conjures up memories, mostly bad, of notorious firebreaks with names like Iron Mike, The Reaper, and Sheepshit, the hills of Camp Pendleton, where generations of young Marines have been broken, have fallen out of humps and been swallowed up by the “shame train,” or “the loser cruiser,” those dark and forbidding trucks that follow along behind every road march like wolves behind the caribou, looking for the sick and the weak and the old.

Only, falling out of a hump is worse than dying.  Falling out of a hump brings a jacket of shame and humiliation.  Falling out means weakness.  Mental weakness.  It means something is wrong with you.  Breaking your ankle and being flagged by a Corpsman is understandable–though I’ve seen Marines finish humps with broken ankles–but quitting because your brain has gone to jello is unacceptable.

Humps come in all sizes.  There are short humps and long humps, workup humps and conditioning humps.  They are all humps.  Once, there was a 100 mile hump, which I was doomed to participate in, and 100 miles of workup humps before the actual 100 miles of the Official 100 Mile Hump.  The official hump began somewhere near Hemet.  I can’t remember precisely where.  It was a cow pasture.  There were some trees.  I remember it was cold and the water in my canteens was frozen on the first morning.  By noon it was blazing hot and we were powering through some National Forest, the jokes all told, the laughter dead, the back gates of Pendleton a mental mirage, leaving only miles of personal suffering in the offing.

Road March.jpeg

“It’s twenty-five marches to Narbo, It’s forty-five more up the Rhone, And the end may be death in the heather, Or life on an Emperor’s throne.”  Kipling 

I can’t be entirely certain why the horrors of humping–though they are precisely necessary and serve their purpose perfectly, have revisited me lately.  It might well be my recent foray into Facebook, where I have reconnected with many of those with whom I suffered countless numbers of humping horrors.  It might be that.  It might be that I sometimes wonder what happened to all of that energy and mental toughness.  I think I had both of those things then.

It might be because I have been thinking a lot about what leadership looks like lately–given the strange somnambulant paralysis that seems to have overcome those who are supposed to be preserving, protecting, and defending our nation.  And that’s as true on the local level as it is on the national level.  It leaves many of us just scratching our heads, thinking that something is strangely, and inarticulately, wrong.

Retired Army MSG Paul Howe, in his excellent book “Leadership and Training for the Fight,” talks at length on the benefits of the road march for developing leaders.  Says he:

  • It allows you to challenge your soul.
  • It teaches you the importance of teamwork.
  • It provides a mirror reflecting who you are.
  • It exposes all good and bad in yourself.
  • There’s no way to hide on a road march.
  • It strengthens trust in your leaders.
  • It toughens you mentally.
  • It beats complaining right out of you.
  • It orients you to authority.
  • It makes you think about others.
  • It matures you.
  • It makes you more objective.
  • It provides a frame of reference for suffering.

By the end of the Official 100 Mile Hump my feet had been warped from useful appendages into searing patties of burger.  The entire bottom of my left foot was an enormous blister, and the bottom of my right foot was an unrecognizable scramble of blood, benzoin, strips of flesh congealed with wadded moleskin, and remnants of sock.

I can remember the last halt we enjoyed before clunking through Fallbrook and into the back gates of Pendleton–which still left several miles, but at least we were inside the gates–and crawling on my hands and knees to refill my canteens.  I wasn’t alone.  We crawled around in the bush, a company of us, eyeballing each other like lunatics, our feet throbbing as if someone had pounded nails into them.  But there was never a thought about falling out, about quitting.  The quitters were long gone, trucked away so that their shame wouldn’t infect the survivors.

I guess what I’m getting too, ultimately, is that we have absolutely no idea who we are electing anymore.  When the First Marines finally marched into Camp Horno, singing the hymn, the hump complete, we had a fair estimation of who we were.  We had sized ourselves and we had learned our weakest points, as individuals and as a team, and we set about to fix the problems.  But who are these people seducing us for our vote?  What do we really know about them?

I’d like to find out.  I’d like to saddle up and go on a road march with the candidates.  I’d like to haul them up old Iron Mike at a Fleet Marine pace and see how they perform wearing boots made by the lowest bidder, a pack that cuts into their shoulders and numbs their hands, and a rifle that just won’t get out of the way.  I’d like to see how they carry that tremendous load of hubris up to the top.  I’d like to get that window into their soul, out there, on some dusty firebreak in the heat of summer, where there is no place to hide.

I’d like to see if they come in ugly, or if they come in at all.







  1. I love this



    1. Thank you my friend.



  2. Hell, you can find out quite a lot about a public official with just an invitation to do a little friendly sparring 😉
    Seriously — people NEED to be tested and to test themselves. How can you lead if you’ve never been tested, if you’ve never had to set aside your own discomfort (physical and psychic) and simply get the job done, no matter what?
    The Republican frontrunner thinks his rich-boy military prep school experience is equivalent (or greater) to military service and proclaimed that battling STDs was his own personal Vietnam. The Democratic frontrunner “was under sniper fire” in Bosnia, except she wasn’t. The only test Hillary Clinton ever had to endure was the embarrassment of sticking with her tomcat husband to retain her proximity to power, which proximity is her ONLY qualification for office.
    Yeah, saddle ’em up for a march. The best thing that could happen is that the whole field falls out — permanently — and we start from scratch.



    1. Yes. I’m for starting from scratch. Increasingly, I’m for your “crash and reset,” even with a full understanding of what that means. The nuclear spectre hangs over that idea, sadly discouraging it, because I think it is a necessary and historical cleansing ritual. Now, we just have to keep figuring out ways to keep the water running, even though the pipes are ruined. So I guess, in a way, our entire life is now Flint, Michigan. I think one of the reasons that “Game of Thrones” speaks to so many people, is because they have the ability to imagine what it might be like to have local government and a local identity–good, bad, indifferent–still local. But we have built a gigantic and ever-growing pyramid of power in our lovely nation, and those of us on the bottom look with increasing skepticism and growing animosity towards those at the top, who conjure ridiculous imagery– STD’s and imagined sniper fire–to cling to their absolute powers, and are supported by a vastly uneducated and woefully uninterested populace. Two fears: I won’t live long enough to see it, or I won’t be young enough to contribute to the effort, of dumping these derelicts and douchebags who are destroying everything.



  3. Wow… the GoT theory hits home. Yes, I think you’re onto something there. I’ve been thinking about your two fears, and I think we’re looking at this wrong. We are in the right time. We ARE seeing it. It’s happening. We’re riding the “crash.” And we ARE contributing to the effort. We’re laying the groundwork for the “reset.”
    There’s a tribe out here in the mountains and the deserts still singing the old songs. There’s a fire glowing in a painted cave and the flame’s still burning strong. We’re conjuring spirits of a world you’ll never know; palavering with ghosts and chasing buffalo…
    More on this…



    1. …indeed. There it is. Chasing buffalo. The Figure 8 will be there Friday, representing, in what has now become ritual. And you are right, of course. And the recourse to some kind of religious or ideological fundamentalism is failure perfectly realized (The War of Art). It IS important to embrace the present…but timing seems to have been an issue in my life to this point…I WANT to be relevant for the “reset” as well as the “crash”. That’s my wheelhouse. I’m okay with riding the crash…in my lifetime it has been nothing BUT crash. It’s all poetry, William Stafford…”I thought hard for us all…”



  4. Blah blah blah May 3, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    i despise them both.



    1. That’s the starting point. Cleaving the onion reveals many more layers of trouble. The foundation is rotting out from under us. Rapidly. Cops know this better than anyone. They go through more doors, and see what is happening in people’s houses. It’s terrifying, and far worse than what bubbles to the surface for public consumption. Glock Glock Glock Glock. Glock.



  5. adventuresfantastic May 3, 2016 at 7:09 pm

    You guys are depressing me. Mainly because I’m convinced you’re right. Our choices are a nut with two boobs or a boob with two nuts. When it really hits the fan, I’m heading your way. I want to be where the sane people are.



    1. American Redoubt. We have room. Come quickly. We’ll meet you halfway and provide safe passage.



  6. Humping it! Grinding it out! Delivering the goods!

    Yes Craig ( and to all of the above ).

    I remember my father telling me about his brother-in-law and my Uncle being a driver for an Army General
    overseas In WW II. The General on many occasions would run alongside the jeep. When my Uncle asked him why he ran all the time the General told him that there was an incident when he was out on a march in the field he physically gave out and a lower ranked
    sargeant had to carry him the rest of the way in. He told my uncle ” That will never happen again “.

    Yes, we have alot of Chicken Hawks today willing to spend blood other than their own.

    Regarding so much of what we see and hear today is no secret:

    ” It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

    — Joseph Heller, Catch-22

    I can feel it and see it too!



    1. We used to have Generals like that. Not sure we do anymore. Hackworth wrote about Battalion Commanders in Vietnam, always flying around over the battlefield, issuing orders with no real understanding of the situation below them. It drove him batshit. And all good commanders get off their horses to walk with the troops. And of course you bring up Catch-22. One of the best things ever written about leadership. Well done. Thanks, Saddletramp!



  7. Agreed Craig!

    Besides the obvious, another reason for Alexander The Great’s prowess was that he was always out ahead of his men. He slept among them. There was nothing he ever expected from them that he would not do himself. We can question the morality of it all day long.
    He sheared the Gordian Knot. Witnessed one of his generals set himself on fire succumbing to his choice of bravery. Not advocating this necessarily, but this is what putting it all on the line is.
    The question remains are we [ or our leaders ] taking or defending freedom.

    ” A tomb now suffices him for whom the world was not enough.”

    Epitaph of Alexander the Great

    Abraham Lincoln is one of my greatest heroes.
    Tolstoy said of Lincoln that he was a giant among men. One giant to another. I doubt another like him
    arrives anytime soon.

    We can always hope. The bad have a way of bringing out the hidden good among us. Like cowboys not seen from the road, but they are there!



  8. Chrisitne DeForest May 7, 2016 at 8:32 am

    I imagine that the load of hubris would weigh them down the first mile. Well told Craiger, I remember phone calls after humps. Especially about the feet. Much easier to let the horse do the walking now.



  9. Coming in ugly ( and the long way around )…


    I thought this would fit up with your latest piece here.

    I took another trip to Yuba City to visit my Dad. I’m here now. I decided to go to Vegas for a photographer’s only session at The Las Vegas Neon Museum and the Neon Boneyard. Six of us had the place to ourselves. On my way up I broke off from I-15 at Baker and made my way up to Pahrump, NV and then down to Vegas. The Neon Boneyard was my only interest. The next morning I headed up U.S. 95 with a short excursion over into Death Valley and then back to 95. Next stop Goldfield, NV and the tie-in to your theme. Goldfield was the site of the longest sanctioned boxing bout in history. Gans vs Nelson.
    The fight went 42 rounds. Jack London was in attendance as well as Theodore Roosevelt’s son Kermit. The year was 1906.

    Goldfield is strewn with relics of this era. Tougher than hell characters. A no holds barred era. Head frames for hauling the ore remain intact. A fitting tribute to the toughness of the time.

    It was starting to rain and I was told of golfball sixe hail hitting Tonopah the previous day. Strange weather patterns have hit the area in the last five years I was told by a local. I headed north to Tonopah and arrivex in the drizzle. Took some quick shots of the Mizpah Hotel and her grand neon sign and the Tonopah Liquor Co. Bldg across the street. This was early afternoon. The rain started to pour along with sleet. Then Mizpah’s neon turned triggered by the sudden darkness. I took some shots from inside my car and headed to the last gas station on the edge of town. Wind and rain blowing like a bandit. Fueld up and headed north past a sign that read NO SERVICES NEXT 100 MILES…
    In that next 100 miles I dodged tumbleweeds and went through rain soaked winds and dust storms too.
    Wide open country with 20 mile views. The long way around. Craig, your post speaks of the sand under the skin toughness and endurance that 1906 took for granted and most have long forgot…

    — ST
    Yuba City, CA



  10. Coming in ugly but coming in…

    Return trip from Yuba City by way of Auburn, CA around Lake Tahoe through Carson City with a stop at Fort Churchill and then at Buckland Station with a commerative plaque of THE LONGEST RIDE…

    Others that dug it out such as Snowshoe Thompson or the Tonopah miner ” Big Bill ” Murphy who went down into that mine one more time…

    Undefeated, Miyamoto Musashi put down his sword and retreated to write his great treatise THE BOOK OF FIVE RINGS … There are various accounts as to where. Some say a cave while others say on a mountain.

    ” Seek nothing outside of yourself … ”

    — Miyamoto Musashi



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Jack Donovan

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