It goes at something between a meander and a hike, for a ways that varies according to the weather and people's mood. There are more people or fewer, depending on work schedules and visits to grandchildren.

"I feel like Magellan when I walk," said Paul Wachholz, a retired military officer who is now writing a book on the voyages of the Portugueses explorer.

"I feel free," said Mary Landergan, as she walked down a suburban Springfield street in her track shoes and lemon golf jacket. "A few years ago, if a woman over 45 was walking in her neighborhood, her friends assumed that her car had broken down," she added. "Or that she should be inside doing her housework but instead was lollying about outside."

Landergan and Wachlolz are almost half the membership of the Wakefield Walking Club, formed when a gymnasium attendant at the Wakefield Recreation Center in Fairfax County realized that there weren't enough activities there for senior citizens.

So three times a week, for the past year, with a month off here and there, somebody from the center has walked with the group along park trails and in the nearby neighborhood.

Jean Clark is the newest member. One recent sunny morning she was huffing and puffing her way up a creekside hill. "I'm not really an exercise-type person," she said, as she stopped for an extra breath at the top.

"I know there are people who run until they're age 90, but I'd be scared to death to try," she said. "I'm going on a crusise in January, and I'm determined to walk my way around every island I visit."

Clark calls herself and "authorized senior citizen," which she defines as "someone who has drawn Social Secruity for a while and who gets into the Wakefield activities at a discount."

"But age does not a Walking Club member make.

"I really enjoy these walks," said Jennifer Gallahan, age 21, the trail supervisor. "I figured they'd be easy going, but I was tired when I first began." Gallahan started leading the group in October.

The members meet in the center's lobby. It's a pretty straightforward adventure: They don't record their distances or measure their heartbeats. They rarely change their terrain. They just walk. And they have a grand time.

Just a few weeks ago, for instance, they met up with a snake. Everyone screeched a bit while Gallahan tried to figure out if it was a baby copperhead.

"It takes about 30 minutes to get rid of the trash in our brains," said Wachholz. "Then we have some good heart-to-heart talks."

Wachholz has assumed the role of the club philosopher. "Walkers are individuals," he asserted. "We don't worry about equipment or sturcture or each other's last names.

"We're pilgrims."

"You tell strangers personal things sometimes," Dora Calhoun agreed. "I don't feel emotionally involved with the group now, but maybe I will. I feel there's a purpose for my being there." "Last year Calhoun made a friend in the club whom she was later able to help through some personal problems.

For her, the club is a social way to start the day. "I've always been a walker, and I was already in shape to walk when I began coming to Wakefield," she said in a soft South Carolina accent. "But I love the park trails and the company."

Even through they don't chart their progress, all the walkers feel that their endurance has improved considerably.

"I started coming after quitting a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit," said Landergan, who's now able to walk six miles. "Now I'm liberated. When I visited my daughter in Ohio, my tire blew out on the highway. Well, I just changed my shoes and headed for the nearest gas station, about two miles away. Me walk two miles a few years ago? Impossible!"