One of my favorite scenes in my very favorite Indiana Jones movie—Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade—involves seagulls, Sean Connery, and a medieval history lesson.
Faced with a German warplane lining up to riddle Indiana Jones and his father with bullets, Connery—playing Indy’s dad—runs toward a flock of seagulls on the beach and spooks them with his umbrella, frightening them to take flight. Birds and plane collide, the plane crashes on a cliff nearby, and the day is saved for our heroes.
Connery cheerfully explains his impromptu line of defense by citing the 8th century Frankish ruler Charlemagne, whose conquests laid the foundations for modern France and Germany. “Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the skies…” he intones.
While the jury is still out on whether the “Father of Europe” actually said those exact words thirteen centuries ago…I think of them from time to time when I’m trying to fit a little exercise in my life. The idea of putting my surroundings to work has a lot of pull to it.
When it comes to fitness, I like to walk more than anything else. More than biking, more than swimming, more than (eek!) working out on a stationary piece of exercise equipment. I’ve long passed the age when running held any attraction for my knees.
I ought to digress here for just a moment to explain that I don’t take walking lightly, or think of it as a “slacker” exercise. In fact I wake up most mornings grateful that I can do it at all. I’m coming up on twenty years since I took a bad fall off a tall horse and was carried out of the riding arena on a backboard, with the words “you have a broken back” at the tail end of the X-rays and medical evaluation at the hospital. A friend who was watching the accident unfold thought, from where she sat, that she saw my head hit the fence as I plummeted downward. Luckily, she was wrong.
And then, a few years ago, I developed some serial health problems that took the notion of walking for exercise right out of my vocabulary. It’s good to be back in the routine.
If I can walk outdoors, so much the better. There are a lot of reasons I love where I work—the people, the lovely Art Deco gem of a building, the camaraderie at the office—but a major draw is the fact that the building is only four or five blocks from the shore of Lake Michigan and the harbor. And so nearly every lunch hour when the weather permits will find me walking along the lake.
There are two directions to pick from. One takes me past the boat slips and out on the breakwater, all the way to the bright red lighthouse at its end point.
By the time I’ve reached the lighthouse, I’m surrounded by water on three sides. Sometimes the waves crash high enough against the rocks that you’d better be ready to step quickly out of the way before you’re drenched.
I remember taking a walk out there one fine day as a fog was rolling in. By the time I’d gotten half way to the point, both the lighthouse and the shore had disappeared. I was completely enveloped in a shroud of grey mist, with just the sounds of the birds and the waves to keep me company. It was gloriously solitary…and a little eerie.
Usually my trips to the lighthouse have plenty of company. As I stride further into the lake, I pass or get passed by joggers, tourists, couples with children, fishermen and the occasional brace of golden retrievers. There are ducks and geese a’plenty, gulls and terns, cormorants quietly arising from the water like submarine periscopes…and even the occasional bald eagle soaring across the harbor in search of a meal.
If I walk north along the lakefront instead, my path takes me on a sidewalk set above the sandy beach. The trees offer lush shade in the summer, and are gloriously ablaze in fall.
The wind is incessant, and the waves flash blue and silver and white, churning to froth against the concrete piers staggered along the waterfront.
From time to time I abandon the sidewalk and dash down staircases with painted blue railings to reach the beach to take pictures of driftwood or flowers (in summer) and ice formations (in winter!)
Walking by the lake in winter poses its own set of challenges. By the time I’ve finished layering up against the cold, I look like the Stay-Puft marshmallow man from the movie “Ghostbusters.” Down coat, hooded sweat shirt, muffler, earmuffs, lug-soled boots, I’m quite the sight.
But at some point, I know that it will just be too darned cold…or the sidewalks by the beach too snow-covered and icy…for me to keep this up. And so I’ll need a Plan B.
Plan B, before this year, meant moseying over to the Sheriff’s Department next door and climbing aboard an exercise bike old enough to qualify as an antique. The system worked pretty well for the first dozen years or so…and then a few months ago, the tiny exercise room I’d had to myself got abruptly “repurposed” and the few pieces of equipment within sold off. I was clearly going to find another way to get out from behind my desk when the weather got bad.
Despite the fact we’ve had mostly a mild winter, there was a stretch of a few days when the wind and cold combined for a searing wind chill of about twenty below zero. There wasn’t anything on earth that could have gotten me to leave the building at lunch that Monday unless the place was on fire. But after four hours of sitting at a desk, I couldn’t muster sitting down any more.
And so I changed from a dress into the sweats I keep in a gym bag under my desk, and started to walk laps around the lobby and the basement. There are many reasons I really value the fact that my courthouse is so small—it’s just a short distance to the elevator when carrying a box of files; it only takes a few minutes to get from the District Attorney’s office to any of the courtrooms; the Clerk of Courts’ office is practically within arm’s reach if I need to look at a court file.
However…when it comes to walking, you just can’t get up a head of steam! After going back and forth over and over down short corridors, I finally started to think in terms of moving a new direction. And that was UP
All in all, there are five sets of stairs between the basement and the county board room. And so I started to climb!
I started with a spring in my step…and quickly ran out of breath by the third floor. By the time I got to the fifth, I was winded, but pleased that I’d made it. To save time, I took the elevator back to the basement, walked around a little more and then tried the stairs again. This time, when I reached the fifth floor, I was huffing and puffing and gasping for air. I sank on to a bench in an alcove outside the dark entrance to the empty board room, and caught my breath. It took a while. I used my iPhone to check my email. Read the New York Times headlines. Checked in with Facebook. Then I eventually took the elevator back to my office on the first floor, on the theory that my knees were entirely too wobbly to manage another step.
I stopped by a far younger colleague and told her of my new resolve to turn the courthouse stairs into my own fitness challenge. If I didn’t make it back to the office after lunch, I suggested, she might want to send a search party up to the bench in the shadows outside the county boardroom. I’ve started to take note of which floors the defibrillators are stored at in the courthouse.
And so it seems that for most of the rest of the winter, I’ll be channeling my inner Charlemagne to get those stairs to work for me. And I’ll certainly be remembering Sean Connery and a flock of seagulls while I’m doing it.