Friday, July 10, 2009

Walking the Mesabi Trail

We like to walk. We ran and jogged for many years, Marcia having started during high school after her Dad read Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s book on the benefits of aerobic exercise and marked out a one-and-a-half mile route on their farm. Steve also rode his bike many, many miles, and Marcia accompanied him very occasionally for an early morning ride through the MSU campus. Twenty-five years ago we both ran in the Detroit Free Press International Marathon, our only 26.2 mile endeavor. But in Steve’s case, knees and ankles began to complain about running, and his butt and hands said no more biking. He got to the point where the only form of exercise that didn’t leave him crippled half the time was walking. Marcia continued to run almost every morning until we moved from the city to the country in 2006, and she had no street lights anymore. Age takes its toll on everyone eventually.

So now we walk. Corregidor is the near-perfect place for walking: almost no traffic, no air pollution, nice scenery, and lots of change in elevation. It’s never too cold to walk, although it can be too wet. The scenery along the paved main road includes the old barracks ruins, some gun batteries, and glimpses of the ocean.

While we are visiting in the United States we are trying to walk often enough to keep our legs in shape and to burn off some of the calories from all the food that we are being offered. We are trying to avoid regaining the pounds we lost during the past eight months on Corregidor.

We are currently on the Iron Range in the northern Minnesota city of Virginia, staying with Steve’s Mom (Mary Anne) in the home in which she was born. Iron mining has been going on in this region for more than 100 years. Mining and the timber industry were the main reasons why European immigrants settled here. Although the giant white pines are long gone, the mining industry still thrives when the economy is good. The main towns and cities are located along a rich vein of iron ore that continues for over 100 miles. Virginia lies in the middle of what was named the Mesabi Iron Range. The old mine pit is now the city’s water supply.

After mining, the iron ore needed to be transported to the port city of Duluth, so extensive rail systems were constructed in the late 1800’s. It is reminiscent of the 14 or so miles of railroad tracks that were laid on Corregidor in the early 1900’s in order to construct the barracks and gun batteries. Those structures were made with steel from the United States and concrete bought from Japan before the threat of war. Mixed into the concrete was rock mined and crushed on Corregidor. The quarry was at what is now the west entrance to Malinta Tunnel, which would have had to be about 200 feet longer had the rock not been removed. The tunnel, which ultimately housed headquarters and the 1000 bed hospital, stored fuel, and acted as a giant bomb shelter, was originally dug out of the volcanic rock to enable the rail system to reach the tail end of the island, since the roads around Malinta Hill were far too steep.

Earlier this week we took a six mile walk from Gilbert to Virginia along an old railroad bed that has been turned into a biking and hiking trail, and is part of the extensive Mesabi Trail. There were many differences between walking in northern Minnesota and on the tropical island of Corregidor, but there were also a striking number of similarities.

The temperature difference was most obvious. Despite being July, theoretically the hottest month here, temperatures have been falling into the 40’s at night, and even got down to 39 (4 degrees Celsius – brrrr!) a couple of nights ago. The day we walked was pleasantly cool, something we seldom experience on the Rock. The walk is up and down but not as striking as on Corregidor, where your quadriceps muscles can burn on some of the uphill climbs. The reason for this is that the sections of the roads that are the steepest were not intended for trains, but rather for motor vehicles which could handle the steeper inclines. Instead of palm trees and clusters of bamboo or rattan, you see pine, poplar, and maple trees, and areas of ferns, daisies, cattails, and Indian paintbrush. Instead of monkeys you see squirrels scampering and chasing one another. None of the birds are as brilliant as the colorful orioles on Corregidor, but we heard many different species singing as we walked.

The old railroad trails on Corregidor are mostly overgrown, but are often identifiable for two reasons. One is that they are gently sloped flat areas maybe 20 feet wide, which were cut into the sides of steep hills. The other is that you can often still find embedded railroad ties. (The Japanese Army removed virtually all of the rails and sent the steel to Japan to be turned into guns and bullets during their three-year occupation.) Interestingly, we saw original railroad ties lying along the Mesabi Trail, reminding us of Corregidor. There was a length of about 200 yards where the trail was cut through solid rock, leaving 30-foot high rock walls on both sides of the trail. In another section the roadbed had to be raised 100 feet or so to traverse a lake, leaving a steep drop-off on each side. Very unlike Corregidor where you have a steep incline on one side and a steep drop-off on the other.

Walking has been good for us, whether in beautiful, chilly northern Minnesota or historic, hot Corregidor. We’ve slimmed down and Steve’s blood pressure is so low that he sometimes gets light-headed if he stands up quickly. Walking outside beats mall walking, which we used to do in Michigan winters. We look forward to resuming out regular walks on the Rock and invite you to join us some day.

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