Exploring Vashon at walking speed

A few years back, I went out for a walk. The walk lasted nearly four months and covered something like 1,400 miles. This was in England.

Now, two knee operations and some 20 pounds of belly fat later, I’ve started training for another long walk. The woman lately known as my wife thinks this is folly. Actually, her exact words are somewhat more colorful than that, but inappropriate for a family newspaper.

Naturally, I am sensible about training for such an enterprise: I threw various heavy bits of camping equipment into my backpack, along with a 20-pound box of kitty litter. I also carry a five-pound bottle of ibuprofen, which I like to call “I-be-hurtin.” I think of them as old man M&Ms. Munch a bunch and keep going.

Backpack design has improved enormously since my Boy Scout days. Actually, back then I think we used mule teams. The key improvement is internal frame packs with well-padded hip harnesses that take the weight off your shoulders. This is a brilliant innovation, except for one thing: The hip harness buckle in front is not actually visible to me. I’m guessing backpack designers are young and flat-bellied. Or very cruel.

So my short-term training objective is hideously, embarrassingly simple: to be able one day to see my buckle.

Since I know how to train safely, I set out the first day with modest plans: 10 miles.

You might think this somewhat ambitious for a mostly sedentary older novelist with a heavy pack and bum knees. And you’d be right. It nearly killed me. When I limped up to the Burton coffee stand the next morning, my friend Bad Michael suggested I go back and finish the job. What a pal. But because I was at risk of locking up in a full-body spasm from the previous day’s exertions, that’s what I did … and have been doing, weather permitting, ever since.

Walking is a terrific way to discover the mysteries of Vashon. When you move at hobbling speed as I do, you have time to make all sorts of discoveries. For example, one of the first things I discovered is that this Island is diabolically hilly; it is riddled with brutal, breath-snatching gullies and hills. How’d I miss that?

Another thing I discovered is that, unlike England, there are very few quaint 17th century stone-built country pubs on Vashon. In fact, none. My current theory is this is because there is no stone on the Island from which to build them, only clay and glacial rubble. As a consequence one must carry one’s own hydration system. And it’s water, not ale. This is deeply disappointing: Why would one keep going, if not in anticipation of a welcoming pub just over the next hill?

Here’s something else you discover if you keep your eyes peeled: There are dozens of old, dead automobiles moldering away in fields and forests all over the Island. They’re the kind of cars you might have seen in a movie featuring Al Capone. But they’re camouflaged by decades of accumulated moss. You can be working your way halfway across the back seat of one of them before you realize this is not simply a particularly dense and narrow bit of Island undergrowth.

Another thing is that when you walk along our Island roads, you meet people. People I know, seeing the big backpack, say, “So, she’s thrown you out already, has she?” Strangers are kinder: Their inevitable greeting, so typical of the Northwest, is: “What are you training for?” I like the fact that they assume I have something significant and muscular in the offing, something I am “training for.”

After pounding the pavement awhile, I discovered that our Island is laced with peaceful and bosky off-road equestrian trails. “Equestrian,” as you know, is a fancy, four-syllable word for large, steam-snorting quadrupeds upon which humans sit pretending that they, not the horse, are getting the exercise. Unfortunately, the best and most scenic of these trails are on that portion of our Island — which is to say, what, half? — owned by Tom Stewart’s Misty Isle Farms. Let me tell you, this is a lot of acreage. Walking around its perimeter, admiring those miles of brown horse fences, all you can think about is what a relief it is you weren’t Stewart’s fence-post digger.

Only riders are welcome on these paths. There are large, beautifully crafted, multi-colored signs at every edge of Misty Isles’ property that make this abundantly clear. No doubt this has something to do with insurance liability, rather than, say, hostility to human interlopers.

Which brings me back to England. There are 10s of thousands of miles of jealously protected public footpaths, bridal paths and green lanes in Britain. They crisscross private land (because all land in England is essentially private), but, because the paths pre-date roads or cars or unfriendly landowners, they are protected for respectful public use.

The Island’s parks people and the land trust have spent years acquiring and protecting land for public use. This is terrific. But I would like to suggest a different strategy altogether: an English model. Identify and guarantee access to certain specified and mapped rights of way across private wooded land, such that a walker, or even a rider, might move across this Island’s open spaces unchallenged, so long as they care for the route they’ve been permitted to follow.

Meanwhile, if you should happen to see a ridiculously tall fellow trudging along the highway with an enormous royal blue backpack on his shoulders, please remember I’m in training and don’t offer me a lift.

A beer, maybe.

But not a lift.

— Will North is a Vashon novelist. His next novel is set on the island.

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