If you’ve traveled the mean streets of Beaumont Village at dawn, you may have seen them.
In the winter, they’re easy to spot. Optic-yellow vests, decked out with flashing lights from the Bike Gallery, cut a swath through the morning gloom. In the summer they’re harder to see, but you can still hear them coming, chatting happily over the din of the morning birds.
They’re the Ladies Who Walk. They’ve been treading the same 3.5-mile route, rain or shine, sleet or snow, (no ice or extreme wind), every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning for 30 years. Maybe more.
The group doesn’t have an official moniker. Some call them the Walking Ladies. Others call them the Ladies Who Know Everything.
They start at 6:15 a.m. Their route includes a series of hills and the three sets of public stairs that cut through the massive blocks that bolster the Alameda Ridge. The route is plotted along a path that passes the homes of four walkers. Most of the walkers meet at one spot and others join along the way. The long-standing route and regular time make it easy for stragglers and late-sleepers to rendezvous with the pack as they progress through the neighborhood. By 7:40 a.m. they’re back home and ready to proceed with the routines of the day.
The women have been friends for many years, but their fitness regimen has added an element of reliability and familiarity to their relationship that nurtures and fortifies enduring bonds.
“They’re all great women, so for me it’s been terrific,” said Karen LaCrosse, one of the group’s founding members. “If it weren’t for the walking group, I wouldn’t have met any of them. They’ve enriched my life in so many ways.”
LaCrosse and Anne Kelly Feeney, the group’s nominal leader, began walking together in the early 1980s. They met, as young mothers, on LaCrosse’s doorstep, when Feeney was canvassing for a campaign that neither can now remember. With children the same age, their families grew close and they vacation together every summer.
They’re both retired now. LaCrosse was once the business manager for the Madeleine Parish in Irvington. Feeney was an auditor for Multnomah County and served as director of the Loaves and Fishes program in Hollywood.
Feeney had met a group of walkers while visiting in Sacramento, and copied their model for the group that she and LaCrosse began. Some members have come and gone over the years, but the core of the group has been walking together for at least 20 years.
“Some of us met when our children were toddlers,” said Feeney. “Now we have grandchildren who are older than our children were then.”
Four of the walkers are still working. Ann Labray is a psychologist in private practice. Carol Turner is a facilitator and organization development consultant. Karyl Whelan is the charitable campaign manager for the City of Portland. Isabelle Zifcak is the owner of Mt. Tabor Realty in Southeast Portland. The “newest” member of the group, Judy Thodos, used to manage her husband’s architecture firm and was a broker at Paulsen Investment. (Her daughter, Jackie, owned the Bagel Land bakery in the neighborhood for many years.)
The women walk together three times a week. Every week. If it’s a holiday, they start a little later. At 7:15 a.m.
“The size of the group is partly about safety, but it’s also about accountability,” said Feeney. “It gives you some incentive to get out of bed. You know that there will always be someone out there to walk with you.”
There have been scrapes over the years. Both Zifcak and Whelan fell and broke wrists (Whelan twice) when they had gotten a late start and were hightailing to catch up.
The women are not fans of poorly-maintained sidewalks or overgrown shrubbery. They’ve been known, on occasion, to bring along a pair of garden shears to improve landscaping or remove an errant twig that could take out an eye.
The women are advocates for safety and encourage a commitment to visibility for fellow walkers. The flashing lights aren’t just for show. They’ve consulted a walking coach, Judy Heller, to improve their gait and stride and have modified their route over the years, based on her advice.
The walkers and their families enjoy travel. Between the seven of them, they’ve been all over the globe.
“The days you really don’t want to miss are the days when someone is coming home from a trip,” said Whelan. “Those days the stories are especially good.”
On a recent Wednesday, Turner had photos to pass around. She and her husband had returned from three weeks in Malawi, building Habitat for Humanity housing for orphans and vulnerable children.
“One of the real joys of the group is the sharing of stories,” said Thodos.
“Sharing stories while you walk lends itself to the longer version,” added LaCrosse. “You tend to share more details then you would when you just meet someone in passing.”
“I have to admit that many a morning on my way to work, I experience a smug, little smile, said LaBray. “While others are just getting going with their day, I’ve already had 90 minutes of stimulating conversation, very special friendship and a credible round of exercise. It’s a fabulous way to start the day!”
“We live in the highest-voting zip code in Oregon,” added Turner. “We go over all the local elections. State, city, school board. We all have our opinions.”
As they’ve grown older together and raised their families together, the women have developed something of a reputation for knowing just about everything that there is to know.
When Zifcak was helping to plan her daughter Sophie’s wedding some years ago, she found herself frequently referring back to one bit of wisdom or another imparted by the walkers over the years.
“Mom,” said her exasperated daughter, according to Zifcak. “The Walking Ladies don’t know everything.”
But, what if, just maybe, they do?
For more information, or to start your own walking group (that might last for thirty years) visit www.oregonwalks.org.