The Walk-in Life: Beauty and peace make the hassle worth it

When Susy Roberts steps outside in the morning, it takes her about eight minutes to reach her car.

When Susy Roberts steps outside in the morning, it takes her about eight minutes to reach her car.

Sometimes she gets rained on the entire way. Other times she pushes heavy items in a wheelbarrow in front of her. And every now and then, she forgets her keys, forcing her to make the long trek all over again.

But Roberts and her husband Don, who live in a waterfront walk-in home on Bates Walk, say they wouldn’t live anywhere else.

“A lot of times people think it’s whacky. How could you park so far from your house?” she said. “But it’s beautiful. For us, it’s perfect.”

Indeed, hundreds of Vashon residents have chosen the same lifestyle as the Roberts. The island is ringed by at least 10 walk-in communities, neighborhoods with houses accessibly only by foot, often with one shared parking lot.

The islanders who walk along narrow bulkheads or down wooded trails and steep staircases to reach their homes say it’s not easy, especially when lugging bags of groceries, carrying tots or moving furniture. But they also say the stunning waterfront views, the peace and quiet and the sense of community found in many walk-in neighborhoods make the trek worth it.

“Sure, you get tired of being sopping wet when you go in and out of the house,” said Sue Weston, who lives in a walk-in at Sylvan Beach. “On the other hand, there is privacy, and there’s a feeling of neighbors who care about neighbors.”

Weston’s ancestors moved to Sylvan Beach in 1907, and their home, like many in walk-in communities on Vashon, stayed in the family.

Weston, who is retired, moved back to the house about a decade ago to care for her ailing mother and decided to stay. She now spends her days enjoying the peace that comes with living on the edge of an expansive body of water.

“I just love to sit and look out at the water and watch the day start,” she said. “There are certain things, such as watching the fog lift and the mountains be revealed and the sun shining on the far side. It’s beautiful.”

The Sylvan Beach neighborhood that Weston describes also seems to channel a more peaceful existence. Neighbors help each other move large items. They keep an eye on one another’s homes. And every year on the Fourth of July, they hold a big picnic, with games such as egg tosses and baseball on the beach. When part of the boardwalk outside Weston’s home recently broke from crashing waves, someone quietly fixed it without being asked.

“We’re a tight-knit community. We take care of each other,” she said.

As for the long walk down the bulkhead to her home, Weston said it gets harder as she gets older, but she simply takes her time and takes full advantage of her wheelbarrow.

“You basically plan to (add) an extra 10 or 12 minutes to the time it takes you get someplace,” she said. “I love it, but it’s not for everybody.”

Life in a walk-in wasn’t for Bill and LeAnn Brown, who a few years ago moved away from their home on Bunker Trail.

The neighborhood, a string of homes at the bottom of a steep bank on the north end, is well-known for the long, winding staircase and narrow, circuitous trail that many joke is not for the faint of heart.

The 113 steps to the Brown’s house became problematic when Bill, who heads a popular local rock band, had to lug equipment back and forth. It became even more of a hassle when their teenage son took up drumming and had to schlep his equipment as well.

LeAnn Brown said they enjoyed a tranquil life on Bunker Trail, but with aging friends and family who also found the walk there difficult, the Browns eventually made the hard decision to move.

“As our parents or friends were getting older, it was a concern they were going to fall on that trail,” she said.

So far, however, the trail hasn’t gotten to Tim McCarthy, a high school teacher who moved to Bunker Trail part-time two years ago. When McCarthy was looking for a home on Vashon, he fell in love with the setting at Bunker Trail, as well as the discounted prices of these hard-to-access homes.

“When I first saw them, I thought, ‘These are wonderful,’” he said. “Everything changes and you’re kind of in a different world.”

It’s a world where the water view extends for 40 miles, McCarthy says, and where just the other day he saw a gray whale in front of his house.

“It feels like you’re on vacation every time you go down there,” he said.

McCarthy purchased large sacks to carry items down the steep trail, and now the only thing that really gets to him is hauling wood.

“That’s the hardest for me,” he said. “After I carry wood, the next day my shoulders hurt.”

Most walk-in neighborhoods on Vashon date back to the Mosquito Fleet era, when islanders got around by boat rather than by car. Walk-ins like Bates Walk and Sylvan Beach, as well as others such as Summerhurst, Klahanie and Magnolia, were either stops on the Mosquito Fleet’s route or had docks where passing boats could be flagged down. Many of them were self-sufficient, with their own schools, stores and post offices.

With the introduction of the car to Vashon, the waterfront communities were eventually connected by roads to the rest of the island, but at many of them a historic feel remains.

Walking along the bulkhead at Bates Walk last week, the Roberts passed one small cabin after another, mismatched homes that seem to herald another time. A few looked freshly renovated with manicured front lawns; others looked like they belonged on a movie set — charming, weathered cabins with nautical themes, beachfront fireplaces and dinghies or kayaks just outside the front door.

The couple, who have lived on Bates Walk for eight years, easily ticked off the names of their neighbors who rent or own each house.

“Everyone knows each other, most definitely,” Susy said. “We all like each other and work together on different projects.”

They truly worked together in 2006, when a large storm knocked out power to Bates Walk for eight days, and Bates Road, the paved road that leads from the community’s parking lot to Wax Orchard Road, was a non-navigable sheet of ice.

Neighbors took turns cooking meals and inviting everyone over, Susy said. The get-togethers turned into lantern-lit parties.

“We had dinners and breakfasts together for days,” Susy said. “I think most everybody down here would say it was a good memory. We just had a lot of fun.”