There comes a point in every Very Long Walk when you’re faced with a dilemma: You can either keep moving your exhausted feet, or you can just give up. For me, that point arrived at around 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 9.
I’d left my house in South Seattle at 4:22 a.m. with a goal of circling Lake Washington on foot. Unlike the other two times I successfully circumnavigated the lake (traveling more than 50 miles on foot), this time I went north, traveling clockwise. But almost exactly 11 hours later, just south of the brand-new South Bellevue Link light-rail station, I was facing down a sign that my walk could be at its end.
The sign was, quite literally, a sign — a heavily doctored construction sign posted at the mouth of the trail through Mercer Slough. It read “TRAIL CLOSED 6/14/22 7 a.m.”; the words “FOLLOW DETOUR” were covered over in white tape.
I pictured the 4-mile detour that could salvage my trip. Or I could simply turn around, walk a quarter-mile back to the station, hop on a bus to downtown Seattle, and be home in an hour. I could feel the blood rushing through my feet. A thought pinballed around my brain: “It would be so easy to quit right now.”
A brief history of Very Long Walks
I’ve been taking Very Long Walks around the Seattle area for about 15 years, since I decided to forgo the bus trip to from my Capitol Hill apartment to the University District for a weekday matinee. Instead, I walked to the Varsity Theater through the Washington Park Arboretum.
The walk took an hour and a half longer than the bus would’ve, but what I gained was immeasurable: I stopped to admire the shiny red metallic sheen of paperbark cherry trees, I smelled flowers, I took pictures of ducks.
The trek left me tired, hungry and demonstrably happier than when I left the house that morning.
Such walks became a weekly highlight. I walked to, and around, Green Lake and Lake Union. I figured out how to get to West Seattle on foot. City walks appealed to me in a way that mountain hikes, with their endless switchbacks and long car trips before and after, never did. On a city walk, you’re never too far from a bathroom, or a coffee, or a snack, or public transportation that can get you home if you’ve overextended yourself. I could stop in a bookstore, or a Goodwill, for a quick browse whenever I wanted.
In rain and shine, the walks got longer. I learned it was possible to walk to Bellevue, then Redmond. Walking in jeans and Converse sneakers became impractical and even painful, so I bought hiking pants, trail running sneakers and no-chafe underwear. Eventually, I’d get as far north as Everett, as far east as Issaquah and as far south as Tacoma on foot.
At some point I realized it was possible to walk all the way around Lake Washington and I couldn’t shake the idea.
In 2017, I circled the lake in one day, and I was nearly weeping from the pain by the time I finally limped home.
In 2020, I walked around the lake again, and again it left me in a tremendous amount of pain. As I lay face down on the living room floor, writhing in discomfort, I swore I’d never walk the lake again. My wife, laughing, reminded me that I swore the exact same thing the last time I walked around the lake.
In May of this year, I attempted a third circumnavigation of Lake Washington, but I gave up at Bellevue because my hiking sneakers — a pair of Nikes — festooned my feet with blisters the size of silver dollars. I ordered a new pair of my all-time favorite trail runners, the waterproof Brooks Cascadia 16 GTX, and schemed my next attempt.
Circling the Lake
Until I ran into a literal roadblock 33 miles into my July attempt, everything had gone exceptionally well.
I’d plotted a slightly longer, flatter route: Rather than cutting through the Arboretum, I headed straight up 23rd Avenue from the Central District to Husky Stadium, where the Burke-Gilman Trail would rush me northward. Grocery stores supplied most of my snacks, coffees, water and bathroom breaks during the morning: the PCC on East Union, the Metropolitan Market at Sand Point, the Albertsons at Lake Forest Park.
Soon enough, I was rounding the top of the lake at one of my favorite landmarks. The town of Kenmore just completed a multiyear renovation of Log Boom Park with a new playground, a spiffed-up public beach and a boat rental center. The impressive new layout has quickly become a thriving destination for families. It’s also got a good public restroom, which is no small luxury — in my opinion, bathrooms on King County trails are too sparse, stingily parceled out for fast-moving bicyclists, not 3-mile-an-hour pedestrians.
Over the past decade, the Eastside’s trails have vastly improved, but in one harrowing segment of 100th Avenue Northeast between Kenmore and Kirkland, you’re sharing the road with oncoming traffic. I celebrated surviving the sidewalk-free stretch by buying a large Heath Blizzard at one of the region’s last remaining Dairy Queens, in North Kirkland. A couple of hours later, a steak sandwich caused my eyes to literally roll back in my head in pleasure.
One of the benefits of walking for an entire day is that calorie counts are the absolute least of your concerns.
My best piece of advice for people who are undertaking hikes of 20 miles or more is to bring an extra pair of shoes and socks, and change your footwear halfway through to prevent blisters and discomfort. Because the Kirkland area has so many gorgeous parks with views of far-off Seattle — the waterfront boardwalk at Juanita Bay Park, the sweeping lake vistas at Heritage Park — it’s traditionally been my preferred halfway point. But my feet were sending no warning signs that blisters were imminent, so I decided to break my own rule and keep my trusty Brooks on the whole way.
After an uneventful push through downtown Bellevue, I encountered the trail closure at Mercer Slough. The trick with those moments in Very Long Walks where surrender becomes a very real option is to get moving quickly, before your brain tricks itself into giving up. I cut along 112th Avenue Southeast to Southeast 34th Street, then followed the I-90 Trail back to the Cross Kirkland Corridor.
A decade ago, the Lake Washington Loop hewed so close to Interstate 405 that your ears would ache from traffic roar and your skin would gray with grit kicked over the barrier by an endless stream of tires, but the new Eastrail segments between Factoria and Renton are magnificent — tree-lined, quiet, with easy access to some gorgeous lakeside parks, including what I believe to be the most picturesque park in King County, Newcastle Beach Park.
Once I hit Renton’s enormous Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park, everything was easy. I stopped for my only sit-down meal of the day — a head-sized burger and fistfuls of fries at Five Guys at the Renton Landing — and hooked north up Rainier Avenue.
Unlike the other two times I circled Lake Washington, I wasn’t in pain when I arrived home at 9:16 p.m., just as the sky began to darken — there was just one comically large blister on the tip of my right pinkie toe. I easily could have walked for an hour or two more.
I have no idea why this walk didn’t ruin me the way it had in the past. At 103,596 steps — 56.3 miles, according to my pedometer app — it was my longest walk ever. My Apple Watch says I climbed just 12 flights of stairs in elevation the whole day, so perhaps the flatness of the route worked in my favor.
Or maybe, despite the extra pounds I packed on during the pandemic, this decade-and-a-half of Very Long Walks has improved my health. Last month, at my first physical in a few years, I was surprised to learn that my cholesterol, blood pressure and other readings were exceptional for a 46-year-old man.
But if I’m honest, I don’t do Very Long Walks for the health benefits. I do them to chase a magic moment that often arrives sometime around the 30-mile mark, after I’ve listened to all the podcasts in my phone. There’s a point where the volume on everything — the traffic noise, the pink and purple sprays of wildflowers, my nattering thoughts — turns way down, and then goes completely silent.
In those moments, I’m not even myself. I’m just a pair of feet measuring my brief journey through the universe, one step at a time.