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Walking Group Gets Its Kicks on Route 66

Many take Volkssport's challenge to hike a 10- kilometer stretch in each of the eight states the historic road crosses.

September 13, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

At 76, Ruth Ellis has been around the block a time or two. In fact, she has logged more than 5,500 miles since 1992 with a group of recreational walkers called the American Volkssport Assn.

Ellis has walked prescribed 10-kilometer routes in each of the 50 states, completing the last one during a whirlwind 48-hour trip from her Orange County home to Alaska. She has done Volkssport walks on each of Hawaii's islands and in each of California's 58 counties but San Benito, south of San Jose. In all, she has strapped on her walking shoes -- and toted inhalers for her emphysema -- at more than 800 Volkssport weekend walks and special events.

So it was no surprise when Ellis and a pal recently took Nat King Cole's sage advice and got hip to a timely traveling tip. They flew to St. Louis, rented a car, backtracked into Illinois and then shot west on Route 66, the nation's legendary route to the West Coast. Along the way, they stopped the car for Volkssport-sanctioned strolls beside the highway dubbed "the Mother Road" by author John Steinbeck.

So far, nearly 500 Volkssporters have taken on the group's Route 66 challenge. The idea is to walk an assigned 10-kilometer stretch of the 66 in each of the eight states it crosses. The prize is a colorful patch, to be added to the pins, stamps and badges awarded at other Volkssport events.

Founded in Germany in 1968, Volkssport -- or "people's sport" -- is highly organized but doggedly noncompetitive. With branches in 35 countries, the group also sponsors skiing and biking get-togethers. But its walks -- "volksmarches," as they are called -- can be a way of life for the zealous.

Some Volkssporters hop into their RVs and make their homes wherever walks are yet to be taken. Mostly retired, they will hit the national parks, the state capitals, selected spots on the trail of Lewis and Clark and Civil War battlefields. Each June, as many as 15,000 Volkssporters converge on the Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota for a walk out upon the Sioux chief's massive, outstretched arm.

Volkssporters are big fans of serendipity.

"How else would I have wound up in a little town in Ohio where they make baskets?" asked Elaine Samus, who met her husband on a volksmarch. "I wouldn't have any other reason to go to a little town in the middle of Ohio."

A resident of Wichita Falls, Texas, Samus organized the self-guided trek down Route 66.

"People have come from all over to do this," she said. "Eighty to 100 have finished the whole thing. Four people from Norway did it all in one fell swoop."

Based in Vancouver, Wash., a business called Walking Adventures International in June offered 23 Volkssporters a guided 17-day bus tour of Route 66, stopping for the requisite walks and assorted side tours.

"It's just another reason to travel," said tour guide Lee Dummer, a retired steel-industry executive. Dummer and his group watched videos of the old "Route 66" TV show and listened to various singers doing their renditions of the song.

They also immersed themselves in roadside history, gaping at attractions like the Blue Whale, an 80-foot-long wood-and-concrete statue built by Hugh S. Davis as an anniversary gift for his wife, Zelta, in Catoosa, Okla.

"The whole route is that kind of thing," Dummer said. "It's a throwback."

At the statue of Andy Payne in Foyil, Okla., the Volkssporters took snapshots of a hero who found glory on Route 66. A Cherokee Indian, the 19-year-old Payne won a cross-country, 84-day footrace in 1928, hobbling off with $25,000 to save the family farm and marry his high school sweetheart. "I owe my success to cornbread," he told reporters.

In Texas, the walkers saw the Cadillac Ranch, an art installation consisting of Cadillac hulks half-buried in the desert. En route to California, they watched "The Grapes of Wrath," the movie version of Steinbeck's saga of California-bound Dust Bowl refugees seeking a better life at the end of the Mother Road.

In California, history hangs lightly over much of the 66 -- at a vintage gas station still open for business, an old cafe still dishing up specials, a sign from an era past that beckons motorists to a "trailer grove." Earning their credits, Volkssporters can stride down sections in Santa Monica, South Pasadena and Claremont.

And if the day's hike takes them down a boulevard of strip malls and sushi places, so be it. For Volkssporters, the walk is everything.

"Some people just need a little pat on the back," said Jackie Wilson, the American Volkssport Assn.'s executive director. "That's what the awards are all about."

At its peak, the group had 525 U.S. chapters. Now it has about 375. The typical member is a woman 65 or older. Younger people aren't signing on, Wilson said.

"We're trying hard but we don't have a huge ad budget," Wilson said. "We're having a hard time getting the word out."

For footloose Ruth Ellis, membership is a lifelong activity.

"I'm hoping to do this as long as I can walk," said Ellis, retired from a human resources job with the Veterans Administration. "I'll do this until I can't anymore. I'm too old to play basketball."

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