Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin

Editor: W. Patrick Tandy

April, 2004

 

Putting Her Best Foot Forward

By Patrick Tandy

“You know another town that this reminds me of?” Rosemary McDermott asks as we walk the footpath that rounds Fort McHenry in South Baltimore. “Milwaukee. Old town. They have all of these breweries, and you can get the best sandwiches and beer at the bars there. And the people just come up and they’ll talk to you.”

She pauses for a moment, relishing the flavors, sights and sounds of another place before returning to the damp, gray chill of the morning at hand. “Boy,” she laughs, “in three minutes we learned that man’s whole life!”

And indeed, we did. We had been about halfway round the fort – the first checkpoint on the Baltimore Walking Club’s (BWC) 10km Fort McHenry Walk – when we encountered the man, an elderly gent whose work-a-day garb at once embodied both Baltimore’s past and present, walking in the opposite direction. The scene was ripe for conversation.

“You’re taking your daily walk?” McDermott inquired.

“Yeah,” the man replied. “I’ve got eleven-hundred-and-sixty-eight miles.”

“Are you volksmarching?” she asked.

“Huh?”

“Are you on the volksmarch?”

“No,” the man said, “I’m just doing this for the hell of it, just to see if I can kill myself or not. See, I’ve got 25 percent blood flow, and I get dizzy when I run” – he slid his ball cap to the back of his head and settled on his heels – “Then I always sleep on this eye here, and it’s always bloodshot…”

From there his conversation ventured down a thousand different roads, from cholesterol to childhood to falling out of a moving car at the age of four months.

“My mother caught me by my foot,” he explained. “My father just told me before he died in ’98. But I can feel back here” – he rubbed the back of his head – “feels like I must have hit. It’s bashed.”

“Your poor mother!” McDermott exclaimed. “I feel sorry for you, but your poor mom!”

“She might have pushed me out of the car!” the man laughed, and McDermott and I laughed along with him. For us, the old man was one more reason to keep walking, though certainly not for any form of fear. No. And in fact, as we continued on our way, past the Key Monument – topped by a 22-foot bronze statue of Orpheus, the Greek god of song – past the gates at the fort’s entrance, our walk scarcely begun, I found myself fancying the good talk and good times of a volksmarch around McDermott’s Milwaukee…

“They said the sun might come out, and if it does we’re going to get into the mid-70s; if [not], it’s going to stay in the 60s,” notes McDermott, a trial attorney based in Thurmont, Maryland, as she peruses the photocopied map that BWC provides for the Fort McHenry Walk. The other side of the paper contains detailed directions.

“By the way,” she adds, making note of the temperature, “this is the ideal walking weather because you don’t get really hot and it’s also not too cold” – the perfect conditions for a little walk through the history of a pastime that traces its origins back to post-war Germany.

“Following [World War II], the German people were poor and depressed and living with post-war defeat,” McDermott explains. “Their [civic] leaders began these walks between towns to raise the people’s morale, and the people turned out in large numbers. If they completed the walk, they received a little trinket [such as a medal or patch]. Our servicemen liked the concept and brought it back to the States. You know, we worry so much here in America right now about obesity. Boy, if you walked 10 kilometers every week…I do that whenever we’re stressed out at work – just walk. And it could be any time of the day…just take a 15- or 20-minute walk.”

O'ER THE RAMPARTS WE WALKED:
Rosemary McDermott on the grounds of
Fort McHenry

Today, the volksmarch – or “people’s walk” – enjoys worldwide popularity with people of all ages. Volkssport organizations exist on nearly every level of society, from the local Baltimore Walking Club (www.baltimorewalkingclub.org) to the International Volkssport Federation (www.ivv.org).

“You can do it at your will,” McDermott says, accounting for the non-competitive sport’s popularity. “You walk as slow or as fast as you want.”

The Fort McHenry Walk is an example of what those-in-the-know term a “year-round event,” a prescribed, unsupervised walk that anyone can take at any time. “Sometimes they have organized volksmarches where a whole crowd will do it together, and that’s a lot of fun,” McDermott adds. “It’s sort of like a carnival atmosphere.”

As for how she got involved herself, McDermott traces her own steps back to one of the aforementioned servicemen.

“It was years ago,” she explains. “I dated a fellow [who had] been stationed in Germany, and he told me about it; I had never heard of it. He was one of the ones who helped organize it in Germany – for the troops, not for the German people, but then he loved it so much he [went] with the German people.”

Since then, McDermott’s feet have covered some broad and fascinating ground. “Something I like about the volksmarches: you’re always in a good, safe place and it’s interesting,” she says. “My goal is to do all 50 capitals in the United States. You really get to appreciate America visiting the capitals; [they] usually put forth their best foot because they want to sell their state. I’ve done 23 – what I do is get a picture of myself in front of each of the capitals. So, [that makes] 23 pictures of me in front of 23 capitals. I still have a long way to go.”

But a conversation with McDermott suggests that the destination is not nearly as important as the journey itself – that getting there is all the fun. And not unlike our friend at Fort McHenry, she is eager to tell her stories. Indeed, in connecting the dots of her travels, McDermott draws a cultural map of America that delves far beyond the whitewash of our Interstates.

“Every volksmarch you go on, you get a flavor of the culture,” she says. “[For instance], don’t you feel like you know something about Baltimore that you didn’t know [before]? You meet the people. Whenever I go volksmarching, we all get a map just like this, so I’ll walk along and people – like in Richmond, Virginia – they’ll all stop and say, ‘Can we help you?’ When they see a tourist, especially in the capital, they’ll stop and talk with you. You really get to know the culture of that little community – like in Salt Lake City I got to know a lot about the Mormons.”

McDermott’s tales of walking through cities large and small are colorful: the adobe “artist colony” that is Santa Fe, New Mexico; the zoning ordnances that forbid fast-food restaurants in Montpelier, Vermont; the impressive marble war memorial outside the state capital in Charleston, West Virginia; having the volksmarch medals and trinkets that certain serviceman had given her years ago stolen from a hotel room in Savannah, Georgia (they were never recovered). In a country so accustomed to seeing itself and the world at 85 mph, it would seem that the self-set pace of the volksmarch affords people like McDermott a ringside vantage to the whites of the nation’s eyes.

“[One] September, about five of us hopped into a van and we decided to do the capitals up in New England,” she explains. “It was the most beautiful week of the year. Boston’s like Baltimore, in a way: people just come up and chat. So these people came and sat at a table [in a shopping center] with me and we were chatting, and the one lady was telling me she was leaving the next morning. She was [a flight attendant] with American Airlines, and I thought, ‘Isn’t this interesting!’ So she was telling me all about being a flight attendant and [how] she was going to Los Angeles and how exciting it was and how much she enjoyed it.

“Well, we left Boston and went up to [Augusta,] Maine; that was our next capital. And we were up in the mountains; Maine is real wilderness. It was so beautiful, and we just spent the most gorgeous day – the sky was so blue. We came back at two, and that was when we found out that the World Trade Center had fallen down. We didn’t know anything about it. And then we found out that someone had hijacked an American Airlines [flight] in Boston and that they had crashed it.

“It was a one-week trip. Friday morning we went to Concord, New Hampshire, and then Montpelier. Then we went down to Albany. That capital is beautiful – we [got] there about noon, and all of a sudden at noon the whistles blew, and it was the strangest thing. Every door of every office building opened up and streams of people came out, nobody talking, and they all headed to churches. President Bush had asked for a moment of prayer at noon and so many of the people in Albany [had] lost relatives in New York City…It was something like you would see in a science fiction movie. Just streams of people. Nobody talking.

“I don’t know if that flight stewardess that I was talking with was on that American Airlines flight – but it was just like we had almost touched something so sacred. It was such an unusual feeling to know our whole country was grieving, and there we were up in the mountains of Maine, just glorying in the gorgeous day, thinking all [was] right with the world – not having any idea what was going on with our world. It was just such a contrast of everything. And the week…I don’t know if you remember that week; it was the most beautiful blue sky…”

Somewhere beyond our second and final checkpoint – Cross Street Market – McDermott attempts to put the volksmarch into perspective.

“It’s such a stress-reducer,” she says. “Now, I’ll walk today and I’ll get back to the office tomorrow and I’ll be able to write, write, write, write, write. The ideas just flow. In fact, sometimes even during the week, I’ll say to my staff, ‘Let’s shut the office down. We’ll all go take a walk and come back.’ Just a short walk, but it brushes out the old cobwebs. But the volksmarches are my favorite. And there’s something [in doing] the whole 10 kilometers – at the end, you’re going to feel tired, but you’ll feel so accomplished. That’s what happened to the German people…”

“I try to do it at least once a month,” adds McDermott, whose upcoming plans include Tallahassee, Florida, Atlanta, Georgia, Columbia, South Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee. “And look at all the benefits. You’re walking. You’re outside. You’re discovering new things that you never knew before. And if you go with friends, it’s a really good way to develop friendships.”

And as we part each other’s company, having reached our destination, South Baltimore appears different – brighter – having passed that damp, gray chill of morning.

“Hey, look,” she says with a smile, looking toward the sky. “The sun’s starting to come out.”

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: April, 2004

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