By Zoe Harris
West Seattle resident Suzanne Hartley has a truly radical relationship to walking: walking is her primary means of traveling from place to place. While Suzanne believes walking can solve many of our greatest problems, for her, walking is above all a personal endeavor. She does not walk for community or the environment; neither does she walk to make a statement. Rather, she walks because it enhances her life, and nothing is more sustainable than that. She has become hesitant about sharing her walking-centric lifestyle because people often react defensively, providing reasons for why they themselves do not walk, yet she was candid with me while we chatted at Seattle’s Zeitgeist Coffee.
When I meet Suzanne, she eyes my shoes, determining if I walk; while not the most practical walking shoes, hopefully the scuffed leather and deteriorating soles show her that I do indeed walk. She relays the story of a neighbor, caught for hours on the bus during a rare Seattle snow storm, unable to walk home because of her high heels. Suzanne, however, is always prepared with her footwear, explaining that her body is far more dependable than a car or a bus. Thus, she only buys shoes that she can comfortably walk five miles in. In fact, most of her purchases are made within five miles of her West Seattle home, which has the added benefit of supporting the local economy.
Suzanne’s perspective on walking is distinctly non-American. In her hometown of Cornwall, England, cars were used only when necessary. She recalls her parents asking do we need to take the car? because it was never assumed. Driving was inconvenient in every way: gas and insurance were expensive, traffic and parking were frustrating. Suzanne’s hometown was not particularly walkable, but walking was just what you did; you walked despite the infrastructure. Even today she reflects that walking will only be so easy and does not harbor hopes of great changes in her built environment.
Since moving to the United States, Suzanne has lived all over the country, from the Northeast to the Sunbelt. While living in Tulsa, drivers would pull over when they saw Suzanne walking, mistakenly assuming she had a flat tire. She did eventually receive a driver’s license. She found the test trivial compared to the rigorous process in England, which most first-time applicants fail.
During our interview, Suzanne pulled out the contents of her purse, demonstrating what she calls, her “portable lifestyle.” From a set of pens for on-the-go art to snacks for re-energizing after a long walk, she notes that everything I want is in my bag. People have told her, you walk because you have a simple life, however she feels that she has a simple life because she walks.
Suzanne volunteers with Feet First and regularly attends walks led by Feet First Neighborhood Walking Ambassadors. Visit the Feet First Walks Meetup group, where you can find information about walks scheduled throughout the Central Puget Sound area.