Hansen: Enlightenment, one step at a time

You see them on the side of the road in color-coordinated outfits. They strut, shimmy and pedal their way with attitude.

They are the Mad Exercisers (ME), those mildly annoying do-gooders who make you want to rush home and eat a pint of Haagen-Dazs out of defiance.

Normal people have already failed at their New Year's resolutions. The MEs don't need no stinking resolutions. They are living the dream.

Meet Laurie Johnsen.

If you have ever driven Laguna Canyon or El Toro roads in the afternoon, you have seen Johnsen. The striking, silver-haired 53-year-old likes to walk six to eight miles every day — not just for the exercise but for an assortment of other benefits.

"What you will find is not only do you lose weight and inches and get fit, but your mind — it's almost like a light goes on," she said. "It's the most amazing thing to feel this good."

Johnsen has been walking in and around the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park area for more than three years after getting some medical news from her doctor. So she made changes.

"You take life for granted and you think every day is going to be like the next," she said. "I found that simplifying things in my own life, it created a change. I don't think I will ever give up. It has been too powerful a message for me."

With her quick, warm smile and positive demeanor, it's easy to fall prey to Johnsen's workout wiles.

Healthy eating, healthy living, lower stress, better sleep, happier relationships — it's like a Sunday morning infomercial.

But is it real?

"One lady, she was fairly overweight but she stopped one day and she said, 'You know, I don't know you, but I just wanted to introduce myself. I have been watching you walk for so long and you inspired me … I have started walking and working out and I've lost five pounds,'" Johnsen said. "And I was really happy for her because I could see that she probably wants to exercise and take care of herself but maybe she needed a partner or someone to get her going."

Johnsen has inspired other people as well.

"One woman was fighting cancer and she stopped me and she said, 'I started walking to get more in touch with how this diagnosis has affected my life. And the walking — that I started doing because I saw you doing it — it's changed my life.' "

These types of testimonials are compelling but some people may remain suspicious and resist such dramatic, cloying tugs at the heartstrings. They need subtlety, cold logic and an intellectual challenge.

They need someone to tell them why their life is misguided.

"One of the things that I have observed, which I find absolutely fascinating, is it's OK to slow down and enjoy life from a non-car perspective," Johnsen said. "Everyone is in such a rush to get nowhere.

"At one point in my life, I had what most people in California have, which is a very good life — all the materialistic things. But what I found when I got older, I started embracing more of the simple things in life; the things that are important to me now have changed dramatically from even 10 or five years ago."

We maximize, we organize, we text while driving.

We drift blindly into the lanes of life where we have no business.

And when outcomes don't favor us, we shake our fists at the wind, placing blame on those in front of us, like the bicyclists, believing we deserve more of the road.

We smirk at the joggers and walkers sweating and bouncing in headbands and white shoes, believing we look better than them.

But then our day comes; we have a heart attack in our early 40s, or we experience some final straw where we lose our grip on the things we've built.

"It's OK to take a different path and seek out things from a more thoughtful level," Johnsen said. "It's not all about work. It's not all about the consumer society. It's the more simple things, giving back and talking to people on the street."

Taking it to the street, knowing your neighborhood, knowing yourself.

All this just by walking around the block.

I want in.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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