Thousands Hop on Board For One 'Amazing' Walk

Dale Pierson and his girlfriend's son Ronnie Elliott, 12, of Delaware, stop to check out the view on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. They were among an estimated 20,000 people who participated in the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Walk.
Dale Pierson and his girlfriend's son Ronnie Elliott, 12, of Delaware, stop to check out the view on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. They were among an estimated 20,000 people who participated in the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Walk. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006

As the Volvo Ocean Race made its glamorous departure from Annapolis yesterday, so too did city buses carrying thousands of people to the Bay Bridge Walk, a day on the Chesapeake a cheapskate could love.

One dollar -- which bought a wooden token to keep as a souvenir -- granted bus passage to the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, where people of all descriptions bounded onto the asphalt for the 4.3-mile trek back west. Was it pointless, lining up for a half-hour bus trip from parking lots to the other side of the span, only to walk for an hour and a half back to the starting point?

Not for the 20,000 people the Maryland Transit Administration said participated -- including Laura Schneider and Russ Fair, a pair of grocery chain executives from Anne Arundel County who traveled hand-in-hand most of the way.

"It sways, particularly on a windy day," Fair said of the bridge.

"It's amazing," Schneider added.

Schneider, 39, did the Bay Bridge Walk about 10 years ago. It was more consistent then, a 30-year-old tradition that was called off only in high winds. But then came the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and later sightings of what police thought were terrorists casing the bridge.

Since then, between the wind and worries about its expense and terrorism, the walk has been held only in 2004 and this year. The event, which costs about $400,000, has attracted as many as 60,000 participants.

As walkers spewed from the buses, Schneider glanced at the sea of bobbing humans pouring like lemmings toward the water. "I think it's kind of cool just to see the heads of all the people -- whoa, watch it!"

Whew. At what other event would one nearly step on roadkill?

At the start of the span, water vendors, T-shirt hawkers and campaign volunteers plastering walkers with bumper stickers touting Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's Senate candidacy made for a gantlet of distraction.

"Once you get through this, it'll be worth it," Schneider said. "The views are really pretty."

Beyond the bridge rail, a light chop glittered emerald below a clear sky as a pair of sailboats glided past. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., wind at his back, posed for a photo with a baby who appeared more comfortable than he did.

Schneider hurried up for her turn. "I saw you leaving Annapolis this morning" in a massive motorcade, she said.

"Not too subtle, huh," he replied.

The crowd fanned out: a man in a shirt that read "Women want me. Fish fear me." Two women in vibrant sweat suits and long braids, laughing so long and loud that people around them laughed, too. Several people in wheelchairs; a cop on a Segway; and many, many children asking, "How much longer?"

Even without cars, the Bay Bridge inspires commuter-style thinking. "This is actually no different than driving -- you get people going slow in the left lane," Schneider said, stutter-stepping behind a stalled family in the fast lane. A few minutes later, stuck behind a disabled stroller, she noted, "This is like an airport. People just stop, right in the middle."

At 8 a.m. the couple left their house for the bus stop to the Navy stadium, a trip that took nearly twice as long as the usual 20 minutes. They waited several minutes in line, then rode the bus 25 minutes to the starting point.

By high noon, they stood at the center of the bridge, swaying, and it seemed it was worth the wait.

"You feel that?" Fair, 57, asked Schneider.

"I feel it! You feel it?"

"Yeah."

It seemed like only minutes later that a cheer of "woooo hoooo" marked the end of the span. "Victory cigarette!" a man shouted.

A woman handed Schneider a certificate that read: "From the 186-foot-high bridge deck, the Chesapeake Bay is showcased in its beauty and splendor as one of Maryland's most precious natural resources."

"Cute," Schneider said. Then, "Oh. We're in line," which they were, for the bus back.


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