Monday through Friday, at 7:30 a.m., Elaine Tietz takes her 3-year-old Maltese, Muffin, for a walk. Muffin rides in a stroller. The walk is through Southgate Mall. Tietz is accompanied by upward of 70 other walkers—some young professionals, some new moms, most retirees, many wearing the same maroon sweatshirt as Tietz. The sweatshirt reads, across the chest, MALL WALKER.
Countless titles might seem more fitting in Missoula—Blue Mountain Walker, Rattlesnake Walker, Kim Williams Walker—but not necessarily in the winter, and not when you’re closer to 80 than 18. In the halls of Southgate hours before the stores open, mall walkers transform the Mrs. Field’s-scented, Muzak-infused consumer Mecca into something closer to a neighborhood. They wave at each other as they walk by. They leave their coats on chairs in the Food Court and don’t worry whether they’ll be there an hour later. They meet up for coffee at Caffe Dolce when their laps are done.
At 8:45 on Wednesday, Tietz sits outside Caffe Dolce with Muffin and three friends—81-year-old Ozz Kitzan and his wife, Nellie, and retiree Pat Kidder, who says she got into mall walking after her husband passed away. She says mall walking gets her out of bed. They all say it keeps them moving. “And we always learn something. We don’t gossip,” Tietz says facetiously. “We solve the world’s problems.” As for Muffin: “She has her own fan club. Everybody comes by and loves her up…It’s kind of a family,” Tietz says.
Then she checks the clock and springs to her feet. Because at 9 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, a core group of the Southgate Mall-walking family—the ones with the maroon sweatshirts—meet up in the Southgate Community Room where their official Mallwalker directors, the mother-daughter team of D. Curry and Kit Tritz, are waiting for them. Since 1987, 70-year-old Curry has been organizing the free Mallwalkers group, sponsored by Southgate Mall, Western Montana Clinic and St. Patrick Hospital. Curry, who used to teach wellness classes at UM, says the average age of participants is around 80 (the oldest member is now 101) and that the group has hovered around 40-50 members since inception. “People move in and out…but we have a nucleus that remains constant,” she says. “They come right back. They know that [exercise] is what they have to do to keep mobile.”
Exercise and socialize, that is. In the Community Room, about 40 mall walkers take their seats while Curry plays a pleasing Irish tune called “Whiskey In The Jar” on a boom box. The previous week Tritz had played a different version of the same song for the group, by a different band: Metallica. Tritz puts her hands over her face as she recalls the group’s reaction to that version, and the white-haired crowd erupts into a rowdy discussion of heavy metal. At the front of the room, Curry has a point to make: “It’s a good thing that a group like Metallica would pick up a song like that,” she says above all the voices. “They were attracted to something of our generation…Ladies and gentleman,” she concludes, “we are never too old, and it is never too late, to learn something new.”
Then the group is up and out to the J.C. Penney’s court to get down to the task at hand: 20 minutes of resistance training with elastic dynabands, followed by 30 more minutes of walking and a 10 minute cool-down. On Mondays, weight training takes the place of resistance training, and Friday is joke day, when the group stays in the Community Room for the first 20 minutes sharing the best jokes they’ve come up with that week. Tietz pats her abs as she says you’ve got to do “internal exercises,” too.
From granting use of the Community Room to keeping the mall entrance plowed on snowy mornings, Curry says, Southgate Mall has been enormously helpful in fostering the Mallwalking program. Management has given her a key, too, that enables her to shut off the mall music in the Penney’s court and play her own during exercises. “We learned early, early on that music is an important part of exercise,” she says. “It’s a lot more fun to move when you’re listening to music.”
This morning, country music plays while Curry sings and leads the group through lunges and claps, windshield-wiper hand motions and hip swivels. Meanwhile, mall walkers independent of the group keep filtering past.
Carol Hanson, who retired from Community Medical Center after 39 years, walks by with her aunt, Louise Albert, and mall-walking friend Geri McVaugh. Hanson says the trio is “low on the totem pole” of Southgate’s diehard mall walkers, but she likes mall walking because it gets her off the couch; she had polio as a child, and the mall’s flat surface is easy on her legs. Her aunt, who roped her into mall walking a few years ago, says the exercise keeps her “limbered up” in an environment where she doesn’t have to worry about ice or deal with wind.
Missoula Federal Credit Union employee Shelly Harris and her walking partner, Lisa Whitehouse, stride by and say they mall walk in the winter, but otherwise walk in Greenough Park. They come to the mall a couple times a week and walk for about an hour and a half. They don’t keep track of their laps, but the official Mallwalker’s brochure (available at the mall), says that one lap equals three-fifths of a mile; two laps is one and a fifth; three laps, one and four-fifths; four laps, two and two-fifths.
Cathie Jacobson walks four laps with her mother, Joan Chaussee, and her granddaughter, 5-month-old Xaria. She’s been mall walking for about four years, and has walked at bigger malls in Portland and Las Vegas where you don’t have to do as many laps—but her mom’s been at it in Missoula for more than a dozen years. When the Southgate Grill was still open, Chaussee would have breakfast there after walking. Today, she says her pastor is among the mall walkers she knows, but she opts not to join the official Mallwalkers because, “I don’t like doing a lot of exercises,” she says. “I like to just walk.”
Back at the J.C. Penney court, the Mallwalkers are belting out “Happy Birthday” to a group member named Betty. After their morning’s through, says Curry, “you’ll see two or three tables of our people down there [at Caffe Dolce], playing dominoes and visiting.” Ask her what the greatest appeal is for these folks about mall walking, and she gives a fast answer: “Being together.”
In fact, a lot of these mall walkers have been together since Curry started the group in 1987. “We’ve kind of grown old together,” she says, “and there are many relationships in here, and connections, and that pulls people back. And it also keeps the group cohesive. They’re bonded, and they can laugh and make jokes and say things to each other that some people might be appalled by, but they’re good friends, and they’ve been doing this for so long.”
“It’s a really big network,” adds Tritz.
And whether you’re 18 or 80, we all know what happens in big, social networks: dating. Curry and Tritz say there has been romance in the group. “We had one [man] whose wife died, and it wasn’t long after that that he married one of our other mall walkers,” Curry says. “We like to say that love does bloom at the mall.”