The air is cold, the sun is just rising out of bed when Bill Hoppin steps through the swoosh on the automatic doors of the Mirabella skyscraper, looks down the street toward Lake Union, and begins mile 19,048.
Like the smell of snow in the air, Hoppin can smell the 20,000 mile mark – a goal he’s been working towards for a decade, a mile, an hour, a cup of hot chocolate at a time.
89-year-old Hoppin started running and tracking his mileage in February 2011 after his son Steve gave him a GPS watch. He began taking meticulous notes on loose-leaf notebook paper and recently realized that he was on the verge of reaching a milestone.
If the average mile is 2,000 steps, Hoppin walked 40 million steps not only through Seattle, but his wife Bonnie’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease and death in 2014, and then through his memories and grief. He walked through the changing city, where buildings were turned to rubble from which skyscrapers rose and empty streets filled with young workers, shops, and lights.
“I think walking cleans things that might have gone wrong for me during the day or week,” he said one morning, walking down Fairview Avenue as the sun rose. “I get caught up in the chaos of the day and then I say, ‘Look up, look around and study. ‘
“This is where I lose my worries – and some of them are big,” he continued. “Losing my wife was a great thing. She was extremely capable and extremely intelligent. I think walking helped me with this. “
The walks weren’t very long at first. Two or three miles in a row, just some time to absorb something other than what his wife of 55 was going through. Alzheimer’s disease has been described by doctors as “quick onset” and Hoppin as cruel. It happened so quickly. Bonnie had been a financial planner, worked with children with developmental disabilities, and volunteered at the Henry Art Gallery.
After his wife died, Hoppin found himself out for hours. The mileage began to add up. To be on the safe side, he wore Asics running shoes and a hat with a headlight, a good jacket, and a reflective orange vest.
Then the pandemic hit and Hoppin couldn’t leave his apartment on the ninth floor in the Mirabella. So he went through the two bedroom apartment. Three miles an hour for three hours, nine miles a day.
When the Mirabella broke its boundaries on access to and from the building, Hoppin took the elevator to the lobby, past the front desk, out the doors, and headed into the South Lake Union neighborhood. He walked through the shimmering forest of office and apartment buildings; through the old Troy Laundry building, its brick facade is the only clue to its history; past the Amazon Go store, brightly lit but empty; and down to the lake where the breeze drove him on the way.
So are his memories of the time in the army, when he moved west to do forest work. He ran a law firm for most of his career and then founded the Grand Central Wine Merchant in Pioneer Square, which connected small vineyards to local wine lovers.
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 for a drink, hoping to spark a romantic spark. A few months later, Jean, tired of waiting, called Bill.
“When will you ask me?” She asked. They went down the street for Indian food. That was six years ago.
“People always want to know if he ran,” said Jean, because he was tied to Mirabella’s walking man. “We go so early that people aren’t awake when we’re gone. But the staff knows. The people in the café know it. ”
Most mornings she joins him at 7:15 am and walks with him; or she meets him at 9:15 am at the Electric Boat Company along Westlake – after doing a lap around Lake Union – and they go back together.
On the way they talk about everything: their families, what Jean has read in the newspaper, politics, what is happening in the city. Bill has just finished Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet In Heaven, so there was a lot to share there.
“And sometimes we don’t talk at all, which is really fun,” said Bill, then paused. “I didn’t mean to say that.”
On the way he learned which traffic lights are slow and also found things. A flashing red light, a beeper. Glasses. Things that have fallen from bicycles or people.
Sixty-five years ago when he was in the army he was running and skiing all the time. Then he started playing golf and had a handicap of three. But over time, he had to give up each of these things for the sake of health and pride. (“My hip said, ‘Hey, just a minute … the balance wasn’t there.'”)
And now he’s going.
But he does so with some seriousness, switching between two pairs of trainers and putting on some Patagonia shoes in cold weather. Everyone bought down the street from REI. He goes there too.
“I feel so lucky to be healthy, to have a beautiful woman in my life, to have great children, grandchildren and daughters-in-law,” he said. “I don’t think of it as years.”
Hoppin’s son, also known as Bill (he is the seventh), noted that while his father is “old-school Seattle” and has connections and memberships across the city, he has embraced the changes in the city.
“He discovered Seattle with new, fresh eyes,” said Bill Seventh on the phone from Mill Valley, where he works in business development. “I see that in him when I look at neighborhoods in different ways and how things connect. This is a perspective that you only get when walking.
“And he’s watched the city transform,” he continued. “Where a large part of this generation just grumbles, they are much more open and sensitive. “Time goes by, so just keep walking.”
When the elder Bill reached 15,000 miles, his son’s partner, Amy Chramosta, presented him with a crystal award.
“He’s such an inspiration,” said Chramosta, a yoga instructor who lives in Mill Valley. “He has such a youthful spirit that old age will not stop doing what it thinks it is and what it doesn’t.”
There’s no big plan for when it will hit 20,000 miles.
“I don’t think I’ll change,” he said, “I won’t change. I won’t burst into the light I will only buy 21,000. “
At Starbucks on Westlake Avenue and Mercer Street, they barely appear before the baristas greet them by name.
“It’s early!” said a barista named John. “What do you do?”
The order is always the same: a peppermint hot chocolate for Bill, a pistachio chocolate for Jean. And yes, a couple of those mini scones.
They sat on a bench, sipped and ate, and then went back to the Mirabella.
“It changed me a lot,” he said along the way. “I’ve met interesting people, seen interesting things. And something interesting pops up every day. “
One morning he watched the police pull a body from the Montlake Cut.
“I was very touched by the sensitivity,” he said, pausing at the memory. “All of these things make me who I am.”
At some point he hears a chirp and turns to see a man on a bicycle. In the hold at the front of the bike, two toddlers in helmets chat.
“See?” Said Hoppin. “You see something every day. Stay open to it. Keep learning. It keeps you alive.
“It got me anyway.”