The 89-year-old ‘Walking Man’ of Seattle’s South Lake Union closes in on 20,000 miles through a changing city

March 11, 2021
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The air is cold, the sun just stretching out of bed when Bill Hoppin steps through the swoosh of the automatic doors at the Mirabella retirement high-rise, looks down the street toward Lake Union, and begins mile 19,048.

Like the scent of snow in the air, Hoppin can smell the 20,000-mile mark — a goal he has been working toward, one mile, one hour, one cup of hot chocolate at a time, for a decade.

Hoppin, 89, started walking and tracking his mileage in February 2011 after his son, Steve, gave him a GPS watch. He started keeping meticulous notes on loose-leaf notebook paper and realized, not long ago, that he was about to hit a milestone.

If the average mile equals 2,000 steps, then Hoppin has walked 40 million steps not just through Seattle, but through his wife Bonnie’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease and 2014 death, and then through his memories, and his grief. He walked through the changing city, where buildings were turned to rubble from which skyscrapers rose, and empty streets have been filled with young workers, and businesses, and light.

“I think walking cleanses things that may have gone wrong for me during the day, or the week,” he said one recent morning, headed down Fairview Avenue as the sun came up. “I get tangled up in the mess of the day and then say, ‘Look up, look around and learn.’

“In the process, I lose my worries — and some of them are big,” he continued. “The loss of my wife was a terrific thing. She was extremely capable and extremely intelligent. I think walking helped me through that.”

The walks weren’t very long at first. Two or three miles at a stretch, just some time to take in something other than what his wife of 55 years was going through. The Alzheimer’s was what doctors called “rapid onset,” and what Hoppin called cruel. It happened so fast. Bonnie had been a financial planner, worked with developmentally disabled kids and volunteered at the Henry Art Gallery.

After his wife died, Hoppin found himself out for hours. The mileage started to add up. He outfitted himself with Asics running shoes and a hat with a headlamp, a good jacket and a reflective orange vest for safety.

Then the pandemic hit, and Hoppin wasn’t able to leave his ninth-floor apartment at the Mirabella. So he started to walk around the two-bedroom apartment. Three miles an hour for three hours, nine miles a day.

When the Mirabella lifted its limits on access in and out of the building, Hoppin took the elevator down to the lobby, walked past the front desk, out the doors and headed out into the South Lake Union neighborhood. He walked through the glimmering forest of high-rise office and apartment buildings; through the old Troy Laundry building, its brick facade the only hint of its history; past the Amazon Go store, brightly lit but empty; and down to the lake, where the breeze buffeted him along the path.

So did his memories of time in the Army, then moving out west to do forest work. He managed a law office for most of his career, and then started the Grand Central Wine Merchant in Pioneer Square, connecting small vineyards with local wine enthusiasts.

On this morning, he is accompanied by his sweetheart, Jean Rolfe, who lost her husband within two months of Bill losing his wife. The two women were friends, which adds an extra level of comfort.

Months after their losses, friends brought them together over drinks, hoping to ignite a romantic spark. A few months later, Jean got tired of waiting and called Bill.

“When are you going to ask me out?” she asked. They went for Indian food down the street. That was six years ago.

“People always want to know if he’s been walking,” Jean said of being attached to the Walking Man of Mirabella. “We go so early that people aren’t awake by the time we’re gone. But the staff knows. The people in the cafe know.”

Most mornings, she joins him at 7:15 a.m. and walks with him; or she meets him at the Electric Boat Company along Westlake at 9:15 a.m. — after he has done a loop around Lake Union — and they walk back together.

Along the way, they talk about everything: their families, what Jean read in the paper, politics, what is happening in the city. Bill just finished “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” by Mitch Albom, so there was much to share there.

“And sometimes, we don’t talk at all, which is really fun,” Bill said, then paused. “That’s not how I meant to say that.”

Along the way, he has learned which traffic lights are slow, and has found things, too. A flashing red light, a beeper. A pair of glasses. Things that fell off bikes, or people.

Sixty-five years ago, when he was in the Army, he ran all the time, and skied. Then he took up golfing and had a three handicap. But over time, he had to give each of those things up, for reasons of health, and pride. (“My hip said, ‘Hey, just a minute. … The balance wasn’t there.’”)

And now he is down to walking.

But he does that with some seriousness, switching between two pairs of sneakers, and in cold weather, donning some Patagonia shoes for that. All of them purchased down the street at REI. He walks there, too.

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