By Jerry Harpt
Karen, Jerry Debruin, Lori and Terry Zimmerman and I had already passed the second of the mighty towers of the Mackinac Bridge and were working our way, among the throngs of people, downhill in the direction of Mackinaw City. “Oh my!” I thought. I was looking at an elderly woman. She was walking the bridge between her two daughters, holding onto their arms for family support. She would be walking well over five miles.
I hurried in front of them and asked, “May I take your photo?”
“Of course,” they answered, smiling. They were three of 40,000 hikers who were smiling.
I focused the camera and noticed that they had stopped. “You can keep walking so you don’t get run over.”
“Sure,” they answered.
I took their photo, thanked them, and watched them slowly move with the flowing stream of foot traffic, in the direction of the finish line.
There are way more than two mighty towers that rise to epic heights during the five-mile-plus walk across the Mackinac Bridge each Labor Day. They were everywhere this past Sept. 5, and I was privileged to see human nature challenge itself and win in so many ways.
If a person took the time to assess all the many highlights he has had in his life, he’d have a lot. The bridge walk could certainly be one of the top 10 for me. The highlight started as soon as we got off the shuttle and joined the throngs of people, in a grass field, headed in the direction of the bridge. We could already feel the adrenalin.
Our first stop was to join the long lines waiting at the portable latrines that held court within the sound of vehicular traffic making its way toward the bridge. There are no latrines on the bridge. For a little comic relief when nerves started to build before the event, a man was momentarily standing in the doorway of an open toilet, talking on his cell phone.
Once our potty-stop ended, we followed the flow of people through the remainder of the field and across the major highway where highway signs at the bridge approach announced, “Open,” on various lanes. Traffic was stopped by National Guard members. Once we crossed that avenue of cement, we fell into a massive line that pointed into the direction of the approach that would start taking us over the bridge, at least a half mile away. It was sunny, the temperature was 75 degrees, and there was a light breeze. Who could possibly have engineered this perfect day? To top that off, the guy in front of us had a Packer helmet on with six-point antlers sticking out of it. I asked him what the “G” was for. He answered, “God.”
Movement was slow at first until we reached the bridge and began the same walk that Michigan’s Governor Snyder did an hour earlier, at 7:00 a.m. We now found ourselves part of a, “Celebration of Human Spirit,” that was bursting out of its boundaries. People have tried to explain what it is like to come to the edge of the Grand Canyon but can never come up with an appropriate description. When I caught my first glimpse of the bridge’s mighty cement towers that rise high above the Straits of Mackinac, I, like at the Grand Canyon, couldn’t do my feelings justice. “How can I explain this? Isn’t this the same bridge that can handle 1,000 cars a minute during the busy season?”
The celebration began without prompting, engendered by what lies in the hearts of those who were lucky enough to make the decision to commit to this walk. The first bridge walk, in 1958, had 68 takers, but now we were over 40,000. Yet all one, as we worked our way south, along two lanes of traffic, toward those 552-foot twin towers that were beckoning us, so high and so far off. Those same towers travel down 250 feet of water to the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, and then burrow another 210 feet into the firmament. Today’s cost for the building of the 1,024,500-ton bridge would be about $2.17 billion dollars. It took 3 ½ years to complete the construction of the bridge and five workers were killed during the building. In 1998, 41 years after its completion, 100 million cars had already crossed the bridge.
There were more than just those two mighty towers that day. Other towers came in the form of older men with canes who limped toward their goal, not even thinking that it might hurt more than those who didn’t need canes. They came from the few who chose to swim the 4 ¾ miles of choppy water. They also came from an older woman who was walking behind her walker, pushing it slower than other walkers, but working toward the same goal. They came from another beautiful human who was pushing his loved one in a wheel chair. They came from parents who took their little toddlers with them and patiently let them do what little kids do, wander. They came from a dad who pushed his little girl in a stroller, and the tower also came from that little girl, trusting her dad so lovingly. They came from a group of people who all had the same T-shirts. They were involved in an unusual family-reunion walk. They came from the many National Guard men and women who assisted, 100 feet apart of each other, all along the bridge. They came from an old timer, who was being pushed by his daughter in a wheel chair. When the moment would arise, he would have his daughter stop. He would then get out of the wheel chair and walk with his cane for awhile. When he tired, he got back in the wheel chair and his daughter started pushing him again.
At the beginning of the 5-mile parade, another little girl, so full of energy, was dancing as the initial steps of the bridge walk started to settle in. By the time she reached the top of the bridge, she was walking. Not long after that, her dad was carrying her on his shoulders and they finished the walk that way.
A good friend of mine, Bob Steinike, told me that when he once approached the bridge in his car, he laid down on the floor until the driver got him to the other side. I thought of him when I was walking on the grates at the top of the bridge. At that point, if you could stand it, you were looking through the grates, to the surface of the water, 200 feet below. Bob would have loved that view.
Ironically, a 5-mile walk (then add the approaches to the approaches) often seems like a big deal. On the bridge, however, there is so much adrenalin flowing that few people seem to get tired. Instead, they are chatting about Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and the boats out on the water. They knew that swimmers were making the crossing as well. They were also waving at people in the north bound lanes that were waving back from buses, cars, and the back of trucks. They were even waving to three men who peered down at them from a walkway at the top of one of the towers.
An hour after the walk, though, reality set in. Many were still standing in long lines waiting to get to a shuttle bus that would take them back to the start, an experience all its own. Many were laying in the grass, or on picnic tables. Some had their backs on the grass with their feet hanging over the curbing and into the street.
Many of us wished the two-hour walk wasn’t almost over as we moved toward the Mackinaw City side of the bridge. We could see Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse now, as well as Fort Michilimackinac. Music was blaring over a loudspeaker somewhere. Then, reluctantly, we crossed under the finish line and received our certificates. Karen’s read, “This is to Certify that Karen Harpt, #13,540, walked across the World’s Greatest Bridge. September 5, 2016.” Her Fit-Bit registered nine miles at the end of the day.
We still felt the effects of the Great Bridge Walk two days later, but we also continued to feel the glow of the experience. Hey, we celebrated with the human spirit of at least 40,000 others on two lanes of traffic that rose to 200 feet above the turbulent Straights of Mackinac. Not a bad way to feel tired.