When I was almost 15, in 1961, I took a 50 mile hike for JFK’s fitness promotion. It wasn’t the plan, but I ended up walking by myself. All my friends, who were also going to go “for the President, and for our country”, found some good reason at the last minute to drop out. I was a good athlete, and this was a challenge, so I went anyway. My dad helped plan the route for us, and I think I didn’t even tell my parents when I learned no one else was going. They might have tried to stop me.
I left the area near Metropolitan Stadium (now the Mall of America) where I grew up, and walked out old Cedar, crossing over in Lakeville to come home down the bed of 35W being built that year. Half way out, I can’t tell you how bad I wanted to use my emergency dime and call for a ride, but that wasn’t even an option. I had set out to beat the Marine who was in all the promotion hype, doing the hike, with full pack and uniform, in 8 and 1/2 hours. It took me 13 and 1/2 hours, but I finished, and I was proud — not ready to do it again, but proud.
I remained an inveterate, normal walker, as my family always had been, and when I turned 50, I did almost reproduce the 50 mile hike as a promotion for Paul Wellstone’s second campaign for Senate. Then, last August, when I turned 61, I duplicated the hike with 11 extra miles and a leisurely two days to do it. I figured, “It’s a lot longer, and I’m a lot older, so let’s not be crazy”. Most wonderfully, my almost 15-year-old, athlete grandson, Tyler, elected on his own to go with. That in itself is a profound story, kept out of the official “hype”, still up at www.iam.mn/61
At 6:10 a.m. we got on the 61 bus downtown by the light rail, because that connects up to the site of the 1961 start at Metropolitan Stadium where the Twins started playing in 61, the year Roger Maris beat Babe Ruth’s record by hitting 61 homers. We took the 61 bus to Highway 61 in St. Paul and started walking north, veering off onto Highway 8 into Lindstrom for a 6:10 p.m. ceremony of support at the Veteran’s Memorial. My grandfather and uncle, both veterans, are buried in Lindstrom, as is my father, who died at age 61. We walked to promote better health care for all, cleaner environment and air, as well as genuine support for returning soldiers and for a time when no one or substantially fewer people around the world need to experience war. Tyler walked, literally, in his father’s shoes because his dad, tragically, died too young, and they wore the same size. Also, though it may have been more important for me (I was an army medic 1970-72), we walked for Tyler’s great uncle whose name is on the Vietnam Wall.
The next morning at 6:10 a.m. we left Taylors Falls (a hybrid car, approaching 61 m.p.g. got us from Lindstrom to Taylors Falls) and crossed over the bridge to Wisconsin Highway 35, to commemorate the 1961 hike down the unfinished 35W. At Osceola we crossed again over the bridge to Minnesota and ended up crossing the Minneapolis Lake Street Peace Bridge for a 6:10 p.m. ceremony at Midtown Market to financially support the new bridge at the Peace Garden by Lake Harriet.
I may not have another 46 years to just quietly walk to work or walk to the bus to maintain office space on whichever form of mass transit I happen to be writing on. I was at the first Earth Day in 1970, and I sometimes tell people that’s the reason that shortly after that, I got my University diploma and draft notice in the same day’s mail. Back then you had to be a raging environmentalist and all other manner of “nut case” to think this way, but what’s mostly wonderful now is that more and more the business community is getting behind the idea of walking and biking because traffic congestion and rising health care costs are wreaking havoc on the flow of commerce, so important to all of us.
I can’t afford to keep this a secret any longer. I’m coming out as a walker. May 12-18 is WALK AND BIKE TO WORK WEEK, and you can read more about it at www.bikewalkweek.org May 14 is NATIONAL WALK TO WORK DAY, and I’m going public. I’m getting up early and walking 9 miles to Bancroft school to do two assembly programs where I’ll tell stories about walking and other environmental issues, and then play walking songs on pieces of trash I picked up on the 61 Mile Hike. Even I can’t walk that far to work every day, but none of us need to get in a car every time we need to get anywhere at all. Please join me in walking and biking more, and also at the Saturday, May 17 BANCROFT GREEN FESTIVAL at Bancroft school, 1315 E. 38th St. in South Minneapolis.
Larry Johnson walks and writes from many places, beginning in Minneapolis. He and Elaine Wynne also tell stories and teach story-telling as the Key of See Storytellers.