Walking creates community all its own

Photo credit: Superior Dome photo by Tom Buchkoe

Photo credit: Superior Dome photo by Tom Buchkoe

by  Larry Chabot

We’re in the Westwood Mall, a longtime favorite of Marquette walkers. Before the stores open, you plan on some healthy walking, half-expecting to be bored.

You parked near the building because few spots are taken that early. Inside, you see a retailer with a stack of pastry boxes pinned under her chin; she says hello while fishing for her store key.

There’s a merchant pulling a suitcase, maybe full of office work. A delivery man stacks papers in a rack, grocery worker Chris Pina is making his daily laps, a job applicant nervously checks her makeup in a tiny mirror, a custodian waters plants, commuters wait for MarqTran buses, a janitor inside a store waves at you

And there’s your walking buddy, already a lap ahead of you. You’ll hear about that.

Distances are easy to figure: three laps to a mile, if you go down every corridor. One veteran has a much longer route: she walks from home, circles the mall several times inside or outside (depending on the weather), and walks back home. Few can keep up with her flying sneakers.

Mall walking brings new friends from among strollers, merchants and mall employees. There’s advance news about stores and sales, window shopping the ever-changing displays, reading about community events on the poster wall and grabbing a Marquette Monthly from the news rack. Best of all, you don’t get wet and your hat never blows off.

Occasionally, there is a truly stunning display, like the large, standing poster that suddenly appeared in an empty store window. A closer look revealed a Mothers Against Drunk Driving display with photos of Michigan residents (including Yoopers) who had been killed by drunk drivers. Photos of newborn babies, high school graduates, newlyweds, senior couples—all dead. The effect was overwhelming.

Nationwide, mall walking is a major exercise regime for people of every age. Many buildings open early for walkers, who find a comfortable climate, benches and bathrooms, clean and flat surfaces, drinking fountains, even coins dropped near vending machines and in the parking lot. Merchants hope the visitors will stay and shop during the early, less busy hours.

Every day, the giant Mall of America in Minnesota welcomes thousands of walkers, as old as 96. They even pick a Walker of the Year. A recent winner was proud to say, “I do all the ins and outs. I don’t cut. Some people don’t do the corners. I go all the way around. That way I get about three and a half miles.” Good for her.

At the Westwood Mall, the three-lap mile is an easy goal. While wives shop, husbands have time for a few circuits, with or without packages. Personal belongings can be stored into fee-lockers for safekeeping. The unwritten rules are: don’t make a mess, don’t be a bother, don’t get in the way, do stop and shop.

Every U.P. town has ideal walking venues; Marquette has dozens, like the Superior Dome, Mattson and Presque Isle parks, Holy Cross and Park cemeteries, the senior center, interior and lakeshore walking paths, almost every street and park, and others known only to the users. A summer favorite is Mattson Park off downtown Marquette, with fresh air, great lake views, boats of all kinds and lots of like-minded company.

For climate-controlled atmosphere and fabulous historical displays, nothing beats Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome, built in 1991 for university sports, trade shows and events that need a lot of space. It’s 14 stories high, seats 8,000 people (but can hold as many as 16,000), is over 500 feet in diameter, and invites walkers to the perimeter loop or the inside track. Opening time is 6 a.m. on weekdays (unless a special event is using the space). People count laps in different ways: in their head, on their fingers, by flipping pennies onto their stacked jackets.

Since 2010, dome walking is free, thanks to the cooperation of NMU, Blue Cross Blue Shield and U.P. Health System; this trio covers the cost of staffing and operating the facility. The number of users has tripled since the subsidy went into effect.

Carl Bammert, associate facilities director at NMU, said 500 people a day walk the dome, where one outer lap equals three-tenths of a mile.

“What’s amazing about it,” said Bammert, “is that it’s not just retirees but also mothers with strollers, NMU students and a lot of business people come during their lunch hours.”

While strolling through the dome, one passes the NMU Sports Hall of Fame, Labor Hall of Fame and dioramas of NMU athletics, Special Olympics, Olympic Education, wildlife and minerals and tributes to prominent U.P. residents (one display has the desk of famed U.P. author John Voelker). Strollers are seen reading the dozens of NMU sports plaques, maybe looking for a relative or neighbor.

The benefits of regular walking are well-known. It’s a key part of any exercise program designed to maintain or restore health. For instance, recovering surgical patients are seen limping along, getting better every day.

Prevention Magazine urges walking to lose weight and “all your nameless worries the easiest way possible.” The magazine quotes an exerciser who practices anger management through walking: “I start walking and in five minutes I’m over it.”

Other experts weigh in on the benefits. Mrs. McGregor’s FIFTYplus magazine claims that “seniors who walk tend to look younger, sleep more soundly, and have fewer visits to the doctor…Walking is safe, cheap, and easy.” They suggest avoiding foot problems by choosing the right shoe, getting the right fit and pulling on the correct socks.

“Walking is a basic human function,” wrote Harvard Health. “But we seem determined to walk as little as possible. We won’t even walk a half mile to the store or a neighbor’s. We have moving walkways, elevators and escalators. If the Segway ‘walking’ machine catches on, walking will suffer another setback.”

Other experts cite such cardiovascular benefits as better cholesterol and blood pressure numbers, and resistance to obesity, diabetes and general stress.

So why not walk? You’ve already come from the car and are standing at the door. “It’s boring,” you say. Not really. In addition to all there is to see, folks check their pedometers, hear music on their ear buds, make cell phone calls, listen to audio books, visit with their colleagues, or—and this is popular—pray.

One of the chief benefits involves making new friends, and one of the saddest is finding a walking friend’s obituary in the newspaper. Often, the only time you saw them was while walking.

It’s not unusual to be greeted on the street by someone you don’t recognize until the person takes off his or her hat.

“Oh, it’s you! I didn’t recognize you without your sneakers….”

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