TRAVERSE CITY — "A vigorous five-mile walk will do more good for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than all the medicine and psychology in the world."
-- Cardiologist Paul Dudley White
On a dark, early fall morning, Doug Hillock pulled into the parking lot of Hickory Hills Meadows. The headlights on his truck lit up the yellow iron gate that blocks off a dirt road. Suddenly Hillock saw a bobcat bound away, just as fast as its presence registered on his brain.
A 70-year-old hairdresser, Hillock rises every morning at 6 a.m. without fail to walk with his chocolate Lab dog, Gus, in Hickory Hills Meadows. He lists the animals he's seen in his decades of walking: two bears, multiple hawks and skunks, a coyote trying to break into a trash can. Then he walks again at night. All this keeps Hillock at a trim 145 pounds, but most of all it keeps him happy — not to mention what it does for Gus, who is approaching the 11-year mark.
"I don't go to gyms, I don't do a lot of modern exercises. I think walking lets me be who I want to be, and I'll continue as long as I can," he said. "Gus used to bound in front of me, and now I have to wait for him to catch up. I see our life together is changing, and we'll work it until we can't work it anymore."
Hot-footing it in the cold
Fall is the time of reckoning for northern Michiganders. Most folks turn up the furnace, settle in with the remote, and wait it out. But all that hunkering can give people the blues.
Laura Slaughter, a licensed social worker, said she notices that her clients' moods begin to darken as early as September.
"People say to me, 'I don't know why I feel bad because I love the fall,' but they know what's coming," Slaughter said. "It's just sort of that oncoming dread of the winter months. I truly do have people who have a change in medication in the fall."
She recommends they resist the urge to hunker down.
"Go outside, enjoy the natural sun, exercise, do anything that gets your endorphins going," she said.
Studies show that only about 20 percent of Americans exercise frequently and long enough to gain a benefit, said Lisa Franseen, a Traverse City-based clinical psychologist specializing in sport psychology.
"People who are most successful are those who don't push themselves too hard, and make it convenient for themselves," she said. "There have been studies showing that getting outdoors, walking in nature and getting fresh air on a daily basis do more to help you with the winter blues than medication, especially for mild and moderate depression. And it's free."
Walking with a friend adds a social aspect to your life that makes you even happier, she said.
Live long enough in Traverse City, and you'll begin to recognize the regular walkers. They're the people who don't hunch and grimace as they hustle to their heated car — people like Ben Hansen, 57, who walks just about everywhere.
He concedes that winter is a natural time to curl up, become introspective and stay warm. But too much huddling and reflecting isn't good for you, he said.
"Nothing is better than going for a walk in the coldest, wettest, grossest weather imaginable," he said. "And then you get to your favorite café, and drink a hot cocoa or hot chili. But you can't really appreciate that if you're indoors all the time, in a warm, climate-controlled room."
Leigh Gallagher, a 28-year-old Traverse City teacher, said that walking "returns life to a pace that feels human and manageable. I'm able to return to the speed at which people should be moving, the way time should be passing."
She rarely uses a car and won't live in a place where it's impossible to get by without one.
"I tried it in Detroit, and it's a huge reason I'll never live there again," she said.
Still, her most magical walking moment was in Detroit when she saw a hawk fly out of the battered architecture of the Michigan Central Depot.
On Thursday afternoon, Gallagher was walking some three miles to a shoe repair store in Greilickville. She needed to get her boots fixed — a nice pair of black boots that she found boxed up on a sidewalk in the trendy Mission District of San Francisco where she once lived.
She likes to walk, she said, because she sees more. She views her walks as an exploration.
On this walk, she was admiring the immense cross sculpture in front of the Traverse Bay Methodist Church on Bay Street.
"There's so much you miss when you're driving," Gallagher said. "The awareness of your surroundings and things literally too small to see from a car. "
Sue Garthe, 92, has walked every morning at 6 a.m. since she can remember. She remembers walking to school in Leelanau County as a kid during the winter — 5½ miles each way.
But last winter, she slipped on ice downtown, broke her ankle and spent the next three months recuperating. Now she's back at it, walking a mile every morning in the dark.
"That's my life, honey," Garthe said. "The fresh air. It can be so cold, but it's so refreshing. I don't have one bit of pain."