Joan Monson enthusiastically welcomes anyone who wants to join her on her daily walk, but the invitation comes with a caveat: “You know that if it’s raining, we’re still going.”
If it’s raining or snowing, she’s still going. In the middle of a polar vortex or the midst of a heat wave, she’s still going. Through injury and heartbreak, she’s still going.
She has walked at least 3 miles every day for more than 20 years.
And she’s still going.
“There’s going to come a day when it’s going to end,” Monson, 74, said of her remarkable streak. “There was a time when I worried about that, but I don’t anymore. I look at it in five-year increments, and it seems far-fetched to me that I’ll make it through another five years.”
She paused before adding: “But it seemed far-fetched to me that I’d make it through the first five years.”
She walked on the day her husband of 51 years died. Her son and daughter urged her to do it, “although I don’t remember a thing about that walk.” She walked while on a mission trip to Guatemala, going around and around inside a courtyard after her hosts warned her that it was too dangerous to venture outside. And she walked in socks after a cracked bone in her ankle prevented her from wearing a shoe.
“It wasn’t really a problem,” she said of the three weeks that she went shoeless — which, by the way, did not involve an injury suffered while walking. “Although I did wear out a lot of socks.”
A retired St. Louis Park elementary school teacher, Monson does most of her walking through her neighborhood in Golden Valley. Doing laps inside a shopping mall doesn’t interest her, and the very suggestion of a treadmill makes her roll her eyes.
“I can’t stand treadmills,” she said. “There’s so much to look at outside.”
And people to meet. “I don’t know most of their names,” she admitted, “but you start recognizing people as you pass their house, and we wave.”
There also are pleasantries to exchange. Someone calls, “Finally, a nice day out!” She agrees, her manners keeping her from saying what she really thinks until later: “It’s been nice all along; they’ve just been inside.”
She dislikes icy sidewalks, but otherwise, she takes the seasons in stride.
“There’s not a day that I wish I weren’t out here,” she said.
Lollie Eidsness of St. Louis Park is one of her frequent walking partners. She doesn’t even try to talk Monson into yielding to the weather.
“Some of those winter days when there’s a 40-below windchill, my husband will say, ‘You’re not going out today, are you?’ ” Eidsness said. “We do it. If I don’t go, she’ll do it, anyway.”
Try to keep up
Monson moves along at a brisk 15-minute-per-mile pace. “It’s not just a stroll,” she insisted.
As she walks, she picks up litter — somehow managing to scoop it up without breaking stride — and stops for money she sees on the ground. So far, she’s found $660 in loose change.
“Yesterday was a good day: I found two quarters and two dimes,” she said. “Whenever I get up to $20, I give it to charity. Sometimes I give it to our church, but I give to other places, too.”
She’s perpetually enthused. Everything she encounters — from a gaggle of geese in a pond to a man mowing his lawn — produces a story.
“His wife grew up with my daughter,” she explained of the mowing man. “He used to ask me what I was doing [frequently walking past his house], but I think he’s gotten used to me.”
The walking streak started on July 1, 1994. And Monson has the records to prove it.
As soon as she finishes her daily walk, she marks it off on a grid she keeps taped to a cabinet in the laundry room. The same grid also tracks her bike rides; although she doesn’t ride every day — and skips the winters — she makes sure that she logs at least 90 miles of biking a month.
“I like to keep records,” she admitted. “I think it’s because teachers have to keep a lot of records.”
Her record-keeping goes far beyond just keeping track of how often she has walked and how much spare change she’s found. She can tell you who baby-sat for her kids in 1971 and how much it cost.
“Baby sitters didn’t get paid much in those days,” she said, pointing to a ledger in which the payments were between $1 and $1.50. Then she spotted an entry for $2.75. “Whoa. We must have been out a long time that night.”
Allowing for the five leap years since she started her streak, as of Monday, she has logged 22,020 miles. That’s the equivalent of walking from New York to Los Angeles — nine times.
She seemed unimpressed by that comparison, saying, “I should think that I would have made it to the moon by now.”
Monson started walking as a self-prescribed therapy. She was battling chronic pain in her hip and shoulder and thought that exercise would help.
And it did — or, at least, she thinks it did.
“The same day I started walking, I also gave up coffee, so I don’t really know which one it was,” she said. “But a lot of people drink coffee and don’t have a problem [with hip pain], so I think it’s the walking.”
Monson insists that while the 20-year-plus streak is important, she’s “not obsessed with it. If I were, that would be all I talked about, and I rarely talk about it. If that was all I talked about, my friends would get sick of it. I’d get sick of it.”
Daughter Tammy Monson isn’t surprised by the depth of her mother’s passion.
“That’s how my mom does everything,” she said.
“When she cooks, she cooks from scratch. She decides one day that she isn’t going to drink coffee, and she hasn’t had a single cup since. She does everything to perfection. And she’s always been that way.”
When Monson walks alone, she listens to the news on the radio. But she prefers to walk with friends, and as she does so, she talks — almost as fast as she walks.
“It’s a chance to catch up,” she said. “I’d rather talk to someone while walking than talk to them on the phone.”
Monson has taken what she describes as “two bad falls.” One injured a wrist, the other broke a bone in her arm.
“I’m lucky that neither of them hurt my legs,” she said. A woman driving by witnessed one of the falls and jumped out to help. “She offered me a ride home, but, of course, I couldn’t take it. I told her, ‘Thanks, but that just isn’t going to happen.’ ”
Another regular walking partner, Alice Tangney, was with her when she took the other fall. A retired school nurse, Tangney knew that Monson likely had broken an arm, but she also knew her friend better than to suggest turning back.
“At that point of the walk, we were closer to her home than we were to finishing the walk,” Tangney said. “I said, ‘Let’s go home.’ But she said, ‘We haven’t done the 3 miles yet.’ So we went the long way home. And I don’t think she slowed down, either. She walked at her usual pace.
“Once she gets her mind set on something, she always does it.”