• Zach Paone

In Their ShoesJournal of an Adventure Quester

It’s Saturday, June 11th, half past noon, and today I am competing in Adventure Quest. It’s easy to have a good feeling about today. Not only will I be having fun with some friends on my team, but the weather is gorgeous. It’s warm, but not too hot; a perfect day, really for a walk in the brilliant late Spring sunshine. As I pull into the Millyard I see some things I recognize, like the trail entrance through Mine Falls Park, but as I pull into the parking lot, it occurs to me that even though I’ve read about Stepping Stones many times on Facebook, I’ve never actually seen it in person. It’s not hard to find–volunteers wearing blue pins on their shirts move busily up and down the steps, and there is a tent propped up outside to greet Questers.

At the registration table, my eye is drawn to a young mother and her adorable baby girl. The volunteer behind the table is trying to get my attention, but honestly I’m distracted by those little eyes, so full of wonder and opportunity. Mom kisses baby three times on the head and tells me to have fun on the Quest. Later, I will learn that the mother is one of the youth attending Stepping Stones. Despite hard circumstances, it is obvious that the little girl is loved not just by mom, but by the community of people who stand behind her at the drop-in center.

I find my team and they are all just as excited as I am. We get our Adventure Quest passport and our team pin. I laugh when I see it, having forgotten the hilarious name my partner came up with. My friend from work has the first clue in her hand in a sealed envelope and I get to wear the racing bib with our team number. After they explain the rules, the race starts and we are off. We walk briskly as she tears open the first clue, and it only takes us a minute to realize that it will lead us several blocks downtown. With a water bottle and granola bar for each of us in our bags, we leave Stepping Stones behind and set off on the Quest.

The hike to location number one feels longer than it looks on a map, perhap due to the anticipation of what our very first Adventure Quest challenge might look like. We’d received hints through weekly emails, but we all expected that was only the tip of the iceberg. Winding through two cross-streets, waiting at the cross-walk we share our theories. “They’ll make us name all fifty states, for sure,” my partner says. “What about that card stacking challenge? Do you think that will be it, or will there be more?” I wonder. By the time we find ourselves within spitting distance of our first stop, we are already tired…and a decent way through our water bottles. “How many of these challenges do we have to do?” my co-worker asks with exasperation as we walk in.

Thankfully, the challenge at stop number one is so fun and creative that we soon forget all about the long trek. My friend makes such a fool of herself, dropping the popsicle stick three times and needing to start over. Sure, it’s a race so we want her to be more efficient, but we get lost in giggles after every blunder. The volunteers keep cheering us on and when they offer to take our picture as a team, we freeze in silly poses–crooked chins and bunny ears. At last, we complete the challenge and earn our stamp and our next clue. When we open it, we all know the location it points to right away–but we are all in denial. “No…it must be somewhere else…right?” The next location is easily half-way back the way we just came!

So. Much. Walking!

But…it gets better. Not only do we have a blast with each challenge, but locations three four and five are all relatively close to one another. At Rage Cage, our team comes very close to losing a stamp. No matter how many times we try, we just can’t get that last ball in the cup. But the young man who holds the timer keeps rooting for us and even persuades one of the Stepping Stones staff to dance away our frustration. It works–he’s a terrible dancer, so we feel more comfortable missing so many throws! With less than two minutes to spare, we complete the challenge, and as we get our stamp, I overhear the Stepping Stones staff member asking if the youth with the timer would mind staying a little longer if the event runs over. I still cannot believe what he says next: “You guys have done so much for me. When Kathy told me to be here at 11 a.m. today, I told her I’d come at 10:15. And I did. I’ll do anything for you guys, because I know you always will stick your neck out for me.” It is very fulfilling to see this, the reciprocal nature of generosity. It’s why we’re here, why they are, too.

Entering hour two of the challenge, long after our granola bars were eaten and our water bottles recycled, our lucky streak with nearby locales ends. When we realize how far our sixth clue will take us, I say, “By the time this whole thing is over, how many miles will we have walked?” And is it just me or has it become significantly hotter since the start of the race? Before we leave for the next, distant location, I turn to the pair of volunteers that ran the last challenge and ask if they have any water. “No. I’m sorry,” the older volunteer says.

“That’s okay,” I say. “It’s just a long walk to the next stop and I’m starting to get thirsty.”

That’s when the other volunteer, a teenager, looks at the clue in my hand and says, “Oh, that’s not too far. I walk twice that distance every day to get to work.”

That’s when it hits me. This teen volunteer is one of the homeless youth at Stepping Stones. The small discomfort I have today is struggle every day. And, yet, still they volunteer time on their day off. There they stand, smiling and giving me a pep talk. Me! A person who drove her own car to this event…

Of all the fun things I experienced on Adventure Quest, the most memorable was realizing that I had actually been tracing the footprints of those less fortunate than me. It is one thing to support homeless youth by registering for the event, and something else entirely to walk in their shoes. From that moment on, I did not complain about the walking or the water. And in the end, it only served to remind me of the joy of that finish line. The little baby was still awake and smiling, starry-eyed and eager to be part of the world around her. Past the finish line, the aroma of freshly grilled cook-out fare beckoned me. The refreshment of that first sip of water, the relief of my first bite of a burger made me appreciate what it must feel like for the youth with nowhere else to go to find safe harbor at Stepping Stones. As we ate, my team hugged and laughed at the image of ourselves, bunny-eared and cross-eyed projected under the pavilion where a slideshow of the day played. We didn’t win the Quest, but we all went home satisfied with how we spent our time that day. I left with my heart as full as my stomach, grateful for what I have, wiser about those without.


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