The walkers wore Nikes and flip-flops instead of hiking boots and scarfed french fries and Froot Loops, not trail mix. And instead of arming themselves with backpacks and bug spray for their 4.5-mile walk, many of the estimated 35,000 people who participated in yesterday's 27th annual Chesapeake Bay Bridge Walk brought along bags of Oreos, cell phones and camcorders.
The once-a-year opportunity to promenade the eastbound span of the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge is more of an outing than an athletic event, an opportunity to take a two-hour urban hike on three lanes of blacktop suspended 186 feet in the air.
"We're going to summit today," Mike Jarriel of Stevensville declared, glancing up at the arc of the bridge and picking up the handle of the rickety wooden wagon in which he was towing his 4-year-old son. Jarriel, a weekend hiker participating in the walk for the third time, laughed at the prospect of so low a summit. He trudged on.
The bridge was thick with strollers and the occasional wheelchair or scooter. Discontented with the ease of the walk, 9-year-old Alisha Schultz of Yorktown, Va., skipped across the bridge using a pink, purple and orange jump rope. "She doesn't want to just walk," said her mother, Melanie Cellinesi. "She had to do something harder."
Lured by the pleasant 60-degree temperatures and sunny skies, not to mention the permission to do something not usually allowed, walkers took their time. Some stopped to snap photographs in front of "No Stopping" signs on the bridge. Others paused to inspect jellyfish in the water or glimpse a swan nesting on the grassy median.
Hagerstown lawyer Michael Schaefer brought along his binoculars to keep tabs on the sailboats in the bay and the people who milled about on the bridge. "Look at that," he marveled. "It's just a sea of people."
The first bridge walk was held in 1975 when a Towson Boy Scout leader asked Gov. Marvin Mandel if he and his troop could walk along the eastbound bridge, which was then closed for repairs, according to Kerry E. Brandt, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority. That first year, 20,000 people participated.
Since then, the walk across the bridge between Sandy Point and Stevensville has grown in popularity. "Each year people come earlier and earlier," Brandt said.
Kim Garr and her 15-year-old daughter Brittany were surprised to discover a one-hour wait for the shuttle bus to the bridge when they arrived at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis at 8 a.m. "I knew to expect a crowd, but nothing like this," said Garr, an office manager who lives in Upper Marlboro.
Participation in the walk was lower than the expected 40,000 to 60,000 people, a drop organizers attributed to the possibility that some people who participated in last year's walk in 90-degree heat stayed away from this year's event.
At Sandy Point State Park, the staging area for the 3,000-person Bay Bridge Run yesterday morning, flush toilet facilities were shut down in the afternoon after a sewage leak estimated at 50 gallons was discovered. Park visitors were advised to use portable toilets on hand for the bridge walk. Department of Natural Resources spokesman John Surrick said none of the spill reached the bay. A repair crew was expected this morning.
Traffic was backed up two miles eastbound and 4.2 miles westbound when authorities opened the eastbound span of the bridge at 4:30 p.m. at the walk's conclusion. Aside from two fender benders and two disabled vehicles on the westbound span of the bridge, which was carrying traffic in both directions during the walk, no accidents were reported.
The bridge may have belonged to the walkers for most of the day, but as he looked out over the cars and buses making their way across the westbound span of the bridge, Ocean City chef Adam Sanders knew that he would have to pay the price for his walking eventually.
"Here we are waving at the traffic on the other side, knowing that we're going to be joining them in an hour," he said. Then he sighed and resumed walking.