by Cliff and Nancy Hill
This past Labor Day your reporters represented The Rockford Squire by participating in, for the eighth time in a row, the annual Labor Day Mackinac Bridge walk.
The bridge walk tradition began in 1958 when then Governor G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams led thousands of participants across the five-mile bridge that spans the Straits of Mackinac connecting the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of the state of Michigan. In doing so, Gov. Williams began a tradition of successive governors leading this unique annual event.
At exactly 7 a.m. every Labor Day morning, participants numbering anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 begin to trek southbound across the bridge from the start in St. Ignace to the finish in Mackinaw City. They traverse the span on two lanes of the four-lane bridge that are reserved, this day only, specifically for walkers. This is the only time that the bridge is open to pedestrian traffic.
Scary? You bet! But after the first crossing, many euphoric walkers resolve to make it an annual event. Be it singles, couples, families or members of a group, that first crossing leads to a tradition that is repeated year after year.
So it was for us. We relish in the sense of community and achievement that one feels in walking this unique bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world, with proud Michiganders and visitors from all over the world.
Being in the first wave over the bridge has its advantages, but in order to do so we had to awake in our Cheboygan motel at the terrible hour of 4 a.m., UGH. After a quick shower and a light breakfast with only a scant cup of coffee—no port-a-potties on the bridge—we drove a short 15 miles to Mackinaw City to a secret parking place. We then hoofed it a half mile to the school bus staging area where buses were waiting in line to transport walkers northbound over the bridge to St. Ignace where the walk begins.
The transporting of walkers is a huge undertaking in and of itself, but after 53 years the Bridge Authority has it down to a science. This year they had 122 school buses from surrounding school districts shuttling participants continually from 7 to 11 a.m.
Arriving at the staging area in St. Ignace at 6:10 a.m., we, like everyone else, headed straight to about four-dozen port-a-potties standing at the ready. It’s a sight to behold with dozens of people standing in line before each “privy.” In the pre-dawn darkness, we then worked our way to the front of an already gathered crowd of hundreds waiting behind a barricade for the start of the 2010 bridge walk.
At 6:50 a.m. Governor Jennifer Granholm arrived and took to a small stage to welcome and thank all in attendance. This was to be Granholm’s eighth and last act of leading the annual Labor Day Bridge Walk and she seemed to relish the moment.
Asking the crowd how many were there for the first time, Granholm found hundreds raising their hands. She then continued in five-year increments asking how many had made multiple crossings. The five- and 10-year intervals found hundreds raising their hands also. But beginning at 15 years and progressing at 20, 25 and 30 years found fewer and fewer people raising their hands. At 35 years there were a scant few and at 40 and 45 there were even less. At 50 years one person raised her hand. As luck would have it, she was standing right next to us. The governor was incredulous. She asked the woman’s name and, “Just how many crossings have you made?”
Sally Ruxton of Cheboygan, a young lady in her 70s (she preferred not to divulge her age), replied, “This will be my 51st crossing!” With that she took off her jacket and revealed a specially made pink t-shirt announcing, “SALLY’S 51st BRIDGE WALK” on the back.
The ever-gracious and convivial Michigan Governor Granholm, an unabashedly enthusiastic promoter of all things Michigan, could not pass up the moment and sought to reward the significant achievement of this amazing woman.
With a twinkle in her eye the “Guv” proclaimed, “What the heck, this is my last year in office and being governor I can do anything I want. So, NO TAXES for you for a year!” The crowd loved it and broke into spontaneous applause even though they knew Granholm was only kidding.
In the few minutes before the start of the walk, we learned from Ruxton that she had missed the first walk because she didn’t even know about it and the second because she had just had her first child. But in1959 she crossed for the first time and resolved to repeat each and every year as long as the good Lord was willing.
This year we had brought along a Squire t-shirt, hoping to present it to Governor Granholm, but it seemed more fitting then and there to present it to Ruxton herself. There she was, surrounded by news media, holding a Rockford Squire t-shirt.
The walk then commenced with Governor Granholm leading off with 300 elite Michigan runners who had qualified to accompany her in what is known as the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness Jog. Indeed in her eight years in office, Granholm has run the distance save for one year, 2009, when she walked after recent surgery. Previous governors have always led by walking the entire distance. Granholm, an ardent runner and perhaps the most physically fit governor Michigan has ever had, turned the tables and has run the distance since her first year in office. In 2008 she established a record, that possibly may never be broken by a subsequent governor, by running across the Mackinac Bridge in 35 minutes, 27 seconds.
As for ourselves, no slouches when it comes to walking, we crossed the bridge in 1 hour, 11 minutes, and 48 seconds. At the finish line, along with the 42,000 who participated this day, we received numbered Bridge Walk Certificates that are awarded to all who complete the walk each and every year.
We spotted Governor Granholm adjacent to the finish area. It seemed as though she was reluctant to leave, perhaps savoring her last Mackinac Bridge Walk as governor of the state of Michigan. We worked our way in her direction, where she graciously autographed our Bridge Walk Certificates, thanking us for our participation.
For anyone who has yet to participate in this unique annual Michigan tradition, you might want to add it to your “bucket list.” We wouldn’t miss it for the world and it’s already on our calendar for next year.
If you want to learn more about what’s to see and do during the Labor Day festivities in Mackinaw City, let the Squire know. We’d be glad to do a follow-up article.
If you agree with the Squire that Ruxton’s 51 consecutive Mackinac Labor Day Bridge Walks are a human achievement to the Nth degree, why not send her a card or note of congratulations. This little lady from Cheboygan, MI would surely love the attention.
Mail to our news partner as follows: Sally Ruxton c/o Cheboygan Daily Tribune, 308 N. Main St., Cheboygan, MI 49721. (By the way, The Daily Tribune published since 1875 is almost as old as your original hometown newspaper, The Rockford Squire published since 1871!)