At about 7:30 on
Labor Day morning, the governor of Michigan and his entourage, as is customary,
will lead off the annual walk across the Mackinac Bridge. Unlike the start of
the New York Marathon on another great bridge, the Verrazano, this is a
relatively leisurely affair. First there is a walking race for a modest number
of contestants, and then a stroll for the 25,000 or 30,000 who descend upon the
region of the Straits of Mackinac on this day. The real point of the occasion
isn't the race but the unhurried walk. To walk the Mackinac Bridge on a
September morning, regardless of the weather, is an esthetic and gently
athletic experience. Labor Day is the only time of the year when walking across
called the Mighty Mac by its admirers, is itself worthy of special note. It is
either the longest or the third-longest suspension bridge in North America,
depending on the way it's measured. From cable anchor to cable anchor, the
Mackinac is the longest, but its center suspension span is exceeded in length
by those of the Verrazano and the Golden Gate. The entire structure extends
five miles. At its center, the roadbed rises 199 feet above the Straits of
Mackinac. The towers, measured from the surface of the water, are as high as
the Washington Monument, and they are embedded some 210 feet below the surface.
The bridge was built to withstand the buffeting of high winter winds, the pull
of strong current and the crush of thick ice. Dr. David Steinman, the designer,
calculated the possible stress caused by each and made allowances that aren't
likely to be exceeded. Steinman designed some 400 bridges in his career, and
regarded the Mackinac as his greatest achievement. His ambition to build
bridges was formed, he said, when he was selling newspapers around 1893 in the
shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Bridge is at the northernmost tip of the southern peninsula of Michigan, a
large area that, on a map, looks like a mitten. At the southern edge of town,
there is a sign that reads MACKINAW CITY, VILLAGE LIMIT. During the summer it's
a lively community, but in the winter it's like most resort towns, with very
few shops, motels or restaurants remaining open.
Visitors may be
baffled by the variation in the spelling of the bridge, the straits, the nearby
island (all of them spelled Mackinac) and the town (Mackinaw). There is no
variation in pronunciation: All are pronounced Mackinaw.
The Bridge Walk
starts at the northern end of the bridge, near the town of Saint Ignace. At the
other end, in Mackinaw City, 50 to 60 school buses from Mackinaw and the
outlying towns carry people, at 50� apiece, across to the northern end. There
are ample parking areas in the communities at both ends of the bridge. The
deadline for setting out from Saint Ignace is 10 a.m.
The crowd that
walked the bridge on Labor Day of 1980 was predominantly youthful, with blue
jeans and T shirts the usual costume. Vigorous middle age, though, was
represented as well, and there was an impressive scattering of the elderly.
Many of the young couples brought children in strollers, and some of the
hardiest carried infants in arms, a long walk with such a burden. The pace was
reasonable, three or four miles an hour. There were a number of people in
wheelchairs and some on crutches, and there were a good many hikers carrying
walking sticks. Some of the young folks dashed ahead and ran back from time to
time to check on the progress of the more leisurely older walkers.
The route was
lined with amiable MPs, male and female, detailed from nearby Camp Grayling, a
U.S. Army base. These friendly young watchdogs couldn't make themselves sound
convincingly fierce when every now and then they admonished some pedestrian not
to use the narrow catwalk along the edge of the roadway, safe though it
There were a few
conspicuously odd characters, including one grizzled gentleman in a
pseudo-Revolutionary costume, wearing a cocked hat decorated with clusters of
Anderson buttons and carrying a DON'T TREAD ON ME flag, but they were the
exceptions. For most people the reason for coming had nothing to do with
appearances but was the walk itself, high above the infrequent freighters.
In an age when we
have reason to deplore much of man's impact on the planet, there is something
exhilarating about the opportunity to enjoy a human achievement that brings a
new and special dimension to the environment. The Straits of Mackinac were
beautiful long before the bridge was there for automobiles and trucks and
campers to cross and for people to walk on this one day of the year. The
scenery around that part of the Great Lakes is simply spectacular. But the
bridge has added a quality of its own. The faces in the crowd that walked
across that morning were contented ones, lit by the fresh, clean sunshine. In a
sense, these people were crossing from summer into fall, a transition that
would be savored in the cold months ahead. There is no reason to believe it
will be any different this year, and for years long after that.