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Freestate Happy Wanderers sponsors annual 9/11 memorial walk from Montpelier Mansion

A scorching hot day, with temperatures climbing into the mid-90s and humidity soaring, didn't stop 106 people from participating in the annual 9/11 Memorial Walk at South Laurel's Montpelier Mansion.

Sponsored by the Freestate Happy Wanderers, a walking club that is part of the American Volkssport Association, the 5- or 10-kilometer walk Saturday, Sept. 6 offered the traditional "fun, fitness and fellowship" that is the group's motto.

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But it had a serious aim as well: to honor the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Participants wore badges with the photograph and name of a victim and, at the end the walk through South Laurel's residential streets back to the mansion grounds, they were greeted by signs listing the names of more victims.

"All our walks are kind of special, but this one is a little different because it's dedicated to the people that died on 9/11," said Tom Mosely, 74, vice president of the club. "This one is special every year."

For some, the walk was especially moving. Helen Garamone, 59, came from her home in Alexandria, Va., to make the walk, as she has for the past several years. Her son, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, walked with her last year, and ended up wearing a lanyard with the name and photo of someone he knew personally.

"It was very powerful," she said. Her son could not make it this year, but Garamone said she never misses the memorial walk, and not just because of her veteran son.

"I'm an American citizen, too," she said.

Solemnity aside, Saturday's walk was a typical event for a group of men and women for whom walking is akin to breathing.

Based in the Laurel-Savage area, the Freestate Happy Wanderers club is part of an international association that began in Germany in the 1960s. The German word " volkssport" translates as "people's sport."

The sport has spread around the world and today, according to the American Volkssport Association, there are more than 200 chartered clubs in the United States, including eight in Maryland.

According to its website, the nonprofit AVA is "dedicated to promoting regular physical fitness activity for Americans as an essential component of overall good health."

To that end, clubs organize regular walks and hikes throughout the years, charging a nominal fee.

What sets their sport apart from running and bicycling is that volkssport participants walk at their own pace. There are no winners and no awards for the fastest time, because nobody is timed.

"The big thing is, the walking is not competitive," said Bob Schmick, president of both the Maryland Volkssport Association and the Annapolis club, who attended Saturday's walk in Laurel. "Everybody thinks when you walk you have to walk 500 miles an hour. Not with us."

The Freestate club started in 1984 and has about 300 members, according to longtime member Don Conway, though not all are active. Members come in all sizes and ages, but most of them, club leaders said, are middle-aged or older.

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The club sponsors about six or eight walks each year, but members regularly participate in walks sponsored by other clubs, in Maryland and throughout the nation. That, walkers say, is part of the fun and fellowship.

"You walk with different people, enjoy the company," said Lynne Haffner, a member of the Happy Wanderers since 1994. "We go to walks in different towns and get a little history of the towns. I've seen more of Maryland [on the walks] than I have in my entire life, and I'm a native Washingtonian."

"There's a big social aspect to an event," Schmick said. "Folks come to my club events, they carpool, eat lunch together afterwards. … We walk together someplace every Saturday."

And while the walks are not competitive, the organization sanctions and keeps records of every member's walks, and offers certain goals. Members are honored for participating in walks in all 50 states, for example, and they are awarded various "degrees" for taking part in a certain number of walks held on college campuses.

"It keeps you going," Conway,  a 75-year-old Beltsville resident who has met the 50-state challenge, said of the incentives.

What also keeps volkssporters going is the sport's health and fitness benefits, which they praise lavishly.

When she was diagnosed with diabetes more than 20 years ago, Haffner's doctor told her she needed more exercise. Her cardiologist recommended walking as the best exercise she could do, so she joined the Happy Wanderers.

"I've been going ever since," said the 64-year-old Laurel resident, adding that it has helped control her diabetes.

Club member Bill Brabant, also of Laurel, walked the South Laurel course twice on Saturday, once to map it out and again at the end to take down the signs. A volkssporter for 30 years, Brabant said he has participated in about 2,500 walks.

He credits the many miles he has logged with keeping him going at age 81.

"I probably wouldn't be 81 if it wasn't for all this walking," he said.

For more information on volkssport in Laurel and throughout Maryland, go to mdvolks.org.

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