Walking Bogota, Colombia

With one more step retracing my younger self, I arrive in Bogotá. Eight million people strong, over a mile and a half high, at the foot of the most impressive mountains any city can boast, this place should intimidate anyone. Buses racing back and forth, mild adherence to sidewalk safety, a reputation for violence. For the last six and a half years, I have lived in a lazy fishing village on the mild coast of California. Bogota, Colombia? I should be terrified of this place.

I really should be. During the time I lived here in the late ’70’s, US Ambassador Diego Asencio was kidnapped and held for 61 days. Fellow Peace Corps volunteer Richard Starr had been kidnapped before I arrived, held for three years and released during my stay. At times, buses I rode stopped unannounced on the side of highways, let out all the passengers, with drivers stating that a transportation strike had been called. Fifty-odd Colombians and me, often in the dark, struck out over fields, walking miles in a direction I vaguely remembered as being toward home.

Back then, I lived in a northern barrio of Bogotá where the terrorist group M-19 had roots. When soldiers were sent to search for terrorist group members, women from the neighborhood would stand at street corners and wave people safely away from where the soldiers were patrolling. The US Embassy was barricaded downtown and I lived on the outside of its safety net.

But I simply was never afraid. This was a city that may have had political issues and over-reaching violence, but I never saw it, and to this day acknowledge my luck. Regular people lived regular lives, and I felt no threat and no personal animosity aimed at me. I bought my bread from the German bakery, I rode to work on buses – usually with no problem, I went to language school in a beautiful tree-covered neighborhood. Maybe there was a Bogotá with a different world-wide reputation. But there was also my Bogotá: long streets to walk, buses whose routine I needed to learn, spectacular cloud-filled skies, sidewalk food stalls, regular people.

And I am back for the first time in 40 years. We had stayed at the Tundama Hotel on our first night in Bogotá in June of 1978, my husband and I and over 100 other new Peace Corps volunteers. In a strange wave of sentimentality,  we had tried to find the hotel online to reserve a room and really re-live that experience. But, the Tundama is gone, and without an address, we may never know the reason why.

We stay at the Tequendama Hotel, a classic downtown business hotel where we can venture north, where we had lived, and south, where we had worked. I hope to visit other places for which I have no address. How far will my faulty memory take me?

It’s an interesting way to travel – striking out to see those idiosyncratic places that aren’t on anyone else’s list of tourist sites. We walk south on Carrera 6 and – without intending – find the old theater where we used to buy fresh-roasted potato chips to eat during the movie. It still stands there, in the middle of a city-block of buildings, but is wrapped with no-trespassing tape, and no movies are advertised. We turn toward the steep mountainside roads and walk through Parque Nacional, which is exactly as I remember it – a wild forest in the middle of an urban tangle.

From there, we step onto Carrera 7, catch a bus and visit Unicentro – the shopping center where we used to meet friends. We walk most of the long way from Unicentro to our old neighborhood. We recognize the overpasses, the view east to the mountains, and some older buildings. We catch a bus back downtown and find Avenida Caracas. We walk and walk and walk following the bus routes and past the graffitied buildings, trying and failing to find one of the children’s centers where we had worked.

But we do find a city that has built beautiful new neighborhoods and has added an impressive transportation system. We stop along Carrera 7 in an unfamiliar restaurant and eat familiar arepas and ajiaco.

Bogotá gives us a visit that helps me recall the glorious beauty of the region, the pride of the people.

But as for my personal memories – something just isn’t quite right. Maybe I can blame it on the altitude sickness that rocks me on this trip. At 8,600 feet, I feel dizzy, head-achey and muddle-minded. My own recollections seem from someone else’s life.

Who was that young woman who lived in such a challenging place? If I had had a daughter, I would have been immersed with anxiety at the thought of her experiencing the life I lived here. But it was me living in this unusual place, and I was then and still am quite normal and usual. Even in the challenge of the late 1970’s, I felt my life was routine, unremarkable.

The whole experience of going back reminds me that life, always, is just one small step at a time wherever you are.

Once again, Bogotá gives me a gift of extraordinary beauty and ordinary life.

 

 

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Walking Back Home – Pasto, Colombia

 

 

It had been our plan for forty years to someday, somehow return to a place we had called home. The city is off most travelers’ maps. It’s never been on any magazine’s list of desired places to visit. And it’s so far off the North American travel radar that I wondered if even we, having known and loved this place years ago, could find our way back.

Of course, it is possible to go. There are paved roads passing through, and airlines fly to a near-by airport. Wikipedia says 500,000 people live there now. Five hundred thousand? How did that happen, I ask myself? I remember a very small city with a Colonial-style town center and unpaved streets running up toward the hills that circle the town. I remember the isolation, the unpredictable roads and the difficulty of getting there. I remember the Trans-America Highway, which runs past the town, being closed twice a day for the parade of cows going to and coming back from the grassy pastures along the sides of the Galeras Volcano.

Could we tolerate the travel that it takes to get back to our old home? The roads can be dangerous. I had ventured out many times by bus and remembered well the steep drop-offs and the hair-pin turns. Though I never experienced anything of the sort, travelers are now advised against nighttime journeys in this region because of robberies and kidnappings. Since moving away, I had laughed at seeing the regional airport on one infamous list: most hair-raising airplane landings. It was time to find out how far we were from our younger selves, who had reveled in this place so long ago.

Pasto, Colombia. Could I take a walk back home?

I start at Bogotá’s airport, with an eager pacing stride back and forth while waiting to board the flight. It is 766 km (476 miles) from Bogotá to Pasto; air travel is the best way to cover the distance. And yes, when we land, both my husband and I recognise how close to the drop-off edge of the run-way we come.

Many of the turns in the road on the long ride from the airport are familiar. The most significant, just before we get into town, appears ahead and I feel like I am 24 years old again. I know this spot.

But then we take the turn, and a huge city reveals multi-storied, cemented, squared-off apartment complexes littering the hillsides. Suddenly I am lost, and I wonder how on earth things have changed this much. I have been gone a long time.

The taxi leaves us off in the historic middle of town. This part of Pasto, I know. I take my rolling suitcase in hand, heave it over the familiar cobbled roadway and walk up to our residencia. The colonial facade is exactly the style I remember, sitting along a street that is exactly the same as I walked forty years before. I push open the double wooden door and am welcomed into an open interior courtyard. This is the Pasto I recall. We leave off our travel gear and head to the streets.

The annual Blacks and Whites Carnival (Carnaval de Negros y Blancos) is taking place all around us. I walk into the streets with hundreds of other Pastusos and am enveloped with a sudsing of white foam. Yesterday, black oil paint would have been streaked onto my face by the fingers of friendly strangers. Today, salsa music blasts from boom boxes on the open trunks of cars parked on the side streets and everyone – EVERYONE – holds spray containers of white foam, randomly dousing each other with the wet white powder. No one gets angry at this overly-intrusive act of joyful aggression. I walk among the crowd and begin to relive my past.

Down the street, I see a familiar corner, and head that direction. It’s funny how significant the simple things in life are in restrospect. I walk up to the super-market where we shopped so long ago. Not the central park monument or the large governmental buildings, but the place where I bought my bread draws my attention. It has the same concrete steps, the same railing, the same street sign. But the store has a different name: ‘Sarin’s‘, as I remember, is now ‘Exito‘.

On the sidewalk, I buy bottled water from a woman who might be the daughter of the flower salesperson from forty years ago. I walk farther along the street, trying to escape the crowds, and come to the corner where I used to turn on my way home.

Along the way, I recognise the two-story wooden building with the garage-like doors. I remember the two-toned colonial home that was on the street before my own. But as I walk to where I thought I used to live, things seem to have changed. We didn’t have addresses back then, but before we left for Colombia this time, I thought I had found my old home on Googlemaps. But suddenly, it isn’t where I thought it had been. Maybe I should walk to the next block.

But the next block isn’t familiar either.

I retreat to the town center, where only the names of the stores have changed. Here, I can view the town as I remember it from the safety of the residencia‘s tiny balcony. The festival goes on in the streets below me, now with a thousand friendly revelers, and I have a momentary feeling of having found my old home.

I have five more days to find the exact house where I lived. But as I step closer to the edge of the balcony – music so loud my head pounds with the beat, the cobbled streets now completely white with the powdery wet spray – it doesn’t seem I need to feel any closer to my once hometown of Pasto.

 

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Walking Valencia Peak Trail

It rises 1,347-feet from the ocean to the crest of the mount. Central California’s Valencia Peak in Montano de Oro State Park lies just a few miles away from my home in Morro Bay, and just a few rational thoughts away from a trek I should take. But my family has a now-and-again tradition of taking hikes during holidays, and many of those treks challenge the concept of what I should be doing at 65 years of age. I have done this walk before, so I already know that today will be complicated by a rocky path, gut-wrenching views straight down, and a slick granite dome that I will have to cross to reach that last, highest step in the climb. I don’t live dangerously with any amount of ease. But I am determined today to at least be in the vicinity of the top of the peak.

My husband and son must be mountain goat people. Or perhaps neither likes to entertain the thought that there are events that should be thought about and reasoned with, rather than plunged into on a whim. Mesquite brush blocks my view for much of the early, easy part of this venture. My two companions walk ahead of me, chatting as if there was no mountaintop ahead of us, ignoring the growing distance between what they can do and what I can do.

I shouldn’t complain about physical abilities. I can excercise every day. I can take a long walk in dry sand every afternoon. I can still bend over to touch my toes, and I am very grateful for all those not-yet-lost skills that make my life easier. But I can’t keep up with my husband and son, and wouldn’t feel it’s a smart thing to do if I could. They are apt to stand at the edge of sea cliffs and play as if no ground beneath their feet will ever give way. I have always been the one who pulls them back so they will survive and one day have a chance to appreciate how un-smart it is to stand so high above water coursing over jagged rocks.

Today, our challenges lie eastward. Rocks and sand begin to tumble away from the path as we hit the grades heading away from the tides. Mounds of granite begin to crop out from the path and bits and pieces crumble away. The disintegrating stone gathers into crevices in the trail and creates 1/4 inch of unsteady dry mash between me and the earth.

“Mom? You okay?” I hear several times. Yes, I’m okay. But how much farther? What if I wait and the two of them can tromp the rest of the way while I sit and enjoy the view. I suggest it to my son, who seems disappointed. I want to tell him that he might be just a bit more distressed if I fall over the edge of this ever-increasing lift from sea level. But instead we all continue on, them picking up their chatter again and me not slipping around as much as my complaints would indicate.

We walk above cloud cover. Then, the clouds follow us up the hillside and we walk inside a bubble of cool steam. There is no perspective and no way to gauge how much farther to the next bench. There are really only two resting places, I think, and maybe we have already passed one. I plan to sit and let my two companions continue on when we reach the next bench, because my trepidation at the height of the mountainside has become replaced with a long-lost sense of vertigo. I am walking into something I can’t see away from something that is no longer there.

Three times I think we are at the top. Three times I continue on, urged by my son that it is really, really right up there, just around the corner of the trail where he and his dad are walking.

When I make it, the view is fabulous. I stand back from the two of them, watching them look out over the edge, safe in their sitting-down perch, still chatting, still secure that the ground will always hold beneath them.

Like life itself, this walk becomes a competitive game of philosophy versus reality. When you have walked as much as you can, endured as many cross-backs as you should have to, do you then jump across a slick granite path to reach some ultimately theoretical goal? Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. But today, even though I am tempted to just refocus the camera to seem as-if  I am on the edge of the mountain height, I take that last step to claim the territory I am walking. Maybe next time, I’ll find a bench and wait.

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best photo in the world

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Walking with the PNW Ferries

 

Sometimes there is just too much magic in this world. How do people build the things they do? How do people think up what should be in any given place, and how do they convince other people to buy into their idea of magic?

That has always been my reaction to the ferries that people in the Pacific Northwest take as ordinary parts of daily living. I have known about these contraptions for a very, very long time. Maybe I even took one as a young child on a family vacation. But the fact that some people use this system of hollowed-out ships to go back and forth to work makes my mind go blank. Is this a good idea – strapping yourself and your vehicle onto a boat and floating out across unsteady water every morning and then turning around to do it all again before dinner in the late afternoon?

It makes me wonder about how we all arrange our everyday lives and how differently we adapt to our surroundings. The ferries in and around Seattle and the beautiful island groups of the Puget Sound area are an adventurous example of people adapting to the place they live. Today, my walk will be around the corridors of a boat designed for this special region.

We are taking our first ferry together, my husband and I, during the summer months, when tourists – like us – invade the PNW ferries to experience the beauty and the style of this unique place. We line up with a group of vehicles at 7 am for the 8 am ferry from Port Townsend to Coupeville. We are early because of our fear of missing the ferry, or of getting lost on the way from Port Angeles, or of getting bumped off our reservation by a multitude of other tourists who are earlier and more anxious to get on the ferry than we are. The online site for the ferry system has extremely severe warnings about getting to the ferry early – at leat 30 minutes ahead of time – and always reserving your spot.

Our drive from Port Angeles is beautiful – gracious views into the sound, faint sightings of Victoria, BC in the distance, and rich forests with generous grasslands. We are entertained by the sights and reach Port Townsend with plenty of time. We wonder how to do this ferry-thing. An hour of lag-time doesn’t seem like too much to figure things out. But there are road signs that we follow, and it all becomes a simple process. We spend a small moment wondering why we had made ourselves get up at the crack of dawn to get here. Still, we aren’t the first people in line.

More and more cars and vans and recreational vehicles arrive. An enormous 16-wheeler pulls in, then another. A fellow in a toll booth guides each driver to one or another of the eight – or is it nine?-  lanes. There must be an ordering or a logic to the system, but I am glad I don’t have to know it myself. We park where we are told to park, then wait with everyone else. People get out of their vehicles and chat, or sit in their cars, getting that bit of sleep that the earliness of the ferry had denied them. It is all very orderly and confident and seemingly time-worn. This may be my first adventure on this ferry, but other frequent ferry-goers give it all a feeling of calm and regularity.

A couple traveling on their motorcycles from Bremerton, WA tell us what to expect on our way to Friday Harbor today. We had begun to wonder if we hadn’t planned too much for this day, if we would really be able to go all that distance, getting off this ferry in Coupeville and driving all the distance of Whidbey Island, then through Fidalgo Island to the town of Anacortes where the San Juan Islands ferry departs, getting into another line like the one we were already in, and finally cruising all the way to the last stop on the ferry line. Would it all play out as we planned? The couple assured us that people do it all the time, even by bicycle. In fact, there are several people who walk onto the ferry by foot, obviously with a plan as to what to do when they disembark. It is all so new to us, and it is nice to have some of the Bremerton couple’s calm ease our nervousness.

It all goes according to plan. The sun shines the entire way. We have views of mountains and views over waters, and views to towns along the way. Our usual sense of travel confidence returns as the day goes on. By the time we reach the Anacortes Ferry and take our place in line, we feel like we know what to expect and expect it will all go smoothly. It does, and we spend a calm and pleasant night in Friday Harbor, before returning on the ferry the next day, like pros who know much more today than yesterday.

Mostly, we now understand the logic behind this magical system of delivery. It would make no sense in most places in the world, but somebody with an incredible sense of planning and insight figured out the perfect way to get from one place to another in this area of spectacular sights and unique inventions.

Walking a rainforest trail in Olympic National Park

 

A rain forest in the Pacific Northwest of the USA? Washington State is far from the tropics, and I have always associated rain forests with equators, hot weather and steam. I plan a visit – laced with a good deal of skeptism – after our romp around Hurricane Ridge.

Twenty minutes down the mountain we drive from the snow-crusted high-altitude of Hurricane Ridge. The Olympic National Park guide promises a rain forest walk close by. What do they mean, I wonder? Are they just tickling my fancy? Why am I wearing a jacket to a rain forest? There is still a layer of snow on the underside of my tennies. I think a public affairs person has gotten a bit over-enthusiastic with the details of this brochure. Rain forest? We’ll see.

I have to settle for the small rain forest walk near the Hurricane Ridge Visitor’s Center just outside Port Angeles, because the roads to the park’s Hoh Rainforest are still closed because of snow. Snow. I am still suspicious that winter weather and ferns can co-exist. We’ll just see.

We park at the visitor’s center lot and follow a racing group of twenty-somethings who are chattering with excitement. Where are they going in such a hurry? Why the rush? They are pursuing the call of warmth and hanging vines with greater confidence – and enthusiasm – than I. They must be rain forest believers, and I decide I want to believe, too. They scoot up and over fallen logs and along a creek in their race to touch this natural dream. Perhaps they are hurrying to follow another hiker’s spotting of a drip off a fern in a gully of steam. There might be one, just one, in this lip of a forest off a road to ever-lasting snow.

The young people scurry on, taking a fork in the pathway toward a work camp. I decide they already know much about this area, and take on their confidence for myself. If they have found a rain forest here, then I might also. I stay on the path that promises ferns and mist and hanging moss.

Up and down into the ravine, the old growth begins to show itself. Slips of sun bring warmth and shy rays of brightness. The green of the plantlife and the cozy red-brown of the mulched ground lay around me with the comfort of cool mists and soft light. It isn’t a hot rain forest, but here it is, with its light-hearted coolness splattered about with fresh but humid air. I seem to walk through one after another – first cool mist, then sun-warmed air. No wonder growing things do their very best work here. It’s soothing and quiet and just exactly right in its temperate comfort.

I am happy enough to slow down and take in what nature is providing right up close: ferns, lichen, moss hanging from trees, cooling steam rising from a downed lodgepole pine as the sun warms the bark. Proof of rain forest.

I am convinced. Maybe it’s not exactly the biome I used to teach my third-grade students. But it is magical and it is here, unbelievably close to snow in the early summer of the Pacific Northwest.

 

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Walking Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park

Snow in June. The possibility hasn’t crossed my mind. At my comfortable Central California home, snow never falls, even in January. As we drive from Port Angeles to Hurricane Ridge in Washington State’s Olympic National Park, there it appears atop the higher mountains that begin to come into view. Then, as the car climbs, more snow appears in patches near the road. And finally, snow makes changes to my plans, as I compare my mesh-topped tennies to a foot-high mound of glistening cold white along a marked trail.

We park at the Visitor’s Center, and wonder at the snow abundance. It stands in three-foot high arches over the trail we want to walk, sits on the meadow in large football-field-sized spreads, and has not yet dropped off some branches of the tallest lodgepole pines. Snow does not fall during our walk – but the white coating is all around, because it had obviously fallen all winter long, then stayed.

Mine may be a small walk, but the views are large. Snaggle-toothed mountains rim the horizon to the south and east. North and west celebrate the vista toward the Pacific Ocean and the expanse of water between Port Angeles and Victoria, BC. What a treat it all is, and I am once again amazed at the sights we can see if we just get up and go.

I cross over one of the snow spills that covers the trail. Close up, the icy mound is crystaled and gives way easily. It’s not yet warm enough to coax the snow into melting just because it’s June, but even though it holds together in a cold hillock, and even though it covers the trail, there are signs it won’t last forever. For one hint of warmth, the sun bounces off the clouds and the surroundings, a promise of warmer weather. At least I hope it to be.

But not yet will anyone see that change, and certainly not me today. The sun is muted by a cloud as I reach the next snow-covered portion of the trail. It is too deep and too wide to cross. My walk reaches the turn-around point. Going back, I take time to watch creatures on the ground, in the trees and overhead.

I especially like the Olympic Marmot. At first sight, from very far away, I think the creatures are foxes because of the red flash of their tail as they run. I pull out my binoculars and compare them to the diagrams at the visitors’ center. Definitely marmots. Deer are everywhere, and I have to remember that I should not approach them. They, of course, have not read that park regulation, and approach me regardless. Along a paved road heading back to the visitors’ center, I have to race-walk away to keep the deer from getting closer than the Park Service thinks is safe.

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Wiser people than I would have studied-up ahead of time, been more travel-savvy or known to pack snow shoes. But somewhere along the way from wanting to control everything in life and now – older and more understanding of life’s serendipity – I have tamed my need to know everything. Plan better? Why? When even the mule deer cheer my arrival, unannounced, unstudied, willing to take whatever comes. My mesh-covered tennies will survive.

 

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Walking Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

 

Up, up, up and over Presidio’s hills and through the Richmond District from our hotel, Golden Gate Park calls to me. Aside from the De Young Museum, Japanese Tea Garden and Conservatory of Flowers, it can be a wild place, and a bit disreputable for walking. Even so, I have this weird idea that I shouldn’t come to this city without visiting its Park. But I had decided our trip to San Francisco should be car-free. The walk there and back is easily 10 miles and includes some impressive hills. Navigating the transit system from our Cow Hollow neighborhood hotel is complicated. After several days of long walks, resting our feet is the wiser choice. Instead, we accept the challenge and walk.

Passing lavish mansions and neighborhoods dotted with square-block mini-parks, we use the city streets as cut-back trails to ease our climb. Even so, I notice horizontal scoring on sidewalks with steep inclines and a time or two I walk up sidewalk steps. It’s impossible to ignore the climb, and even more impossible not to wonder about our return trip after visiting the park. Many people think downhill walking is more challenging than the uphill. I’m not sure I want to develop an opinion on the subject. There’s always taxis, I assure myself.

Instead of counting the steps I am taking, I try counting the number of older luxury homes currently getting facelifts. There are many. I peek into the interior of one and realize that it is a shell-home. The inside is entirely gutted, waiting – no doubt – for a total modern refit. I am perplexed at the notion of paying five million US dollars for a home you are planning to gut and re-do. As I walk through the lovely neighborhood, I’m glad that amount of financial encumberment is someone else’s concern. My concern is whether or not my feet will last this lavish walk I am intent on completing.

Happily, I enter the Richmond District and discover a new Chinatown. For several blocks down Clement Street I walk along a tempting row of Asian restaurants and markets. The old Chinatown is world-famous and miles east across the city. This new one is vibrant, unassuming, with an aroma like a whole neighborhood where I should come for lunch. Or breakfast, if I had planned better.

This part of the walk goes along fast, and before I can say Haight-Ashbury, I stand at the head of Golden Gate Park. Its many entrances are busy welcoming all types of vehicles. Tour buses, taxis, private cars and a few people on foot follow each other into a different world in the midst of this city life. All of a sudden, grassy pathways and forested walkways present themselves in place of busy streets. Three-story high buildings seem to disolve into centuries-old trees that envelope paths leading into 1,017 acres of wilderness. I know better than to get lost in that tangle, and head to the Academy of Sciences along an asphalt path.

But three busloads of school children are let off to enjoy a day of hands-on learning, and I wonder if the Botanical Garden might be a better idea.

It is a great idea.

From the first step to the last, I am charmed by this exquisite rest stop. The gift shop, then the meadow, then the scent garden and the several meditating visitors display this as a place of respite inside a nature reserve tucked into a large and otherwise busy city. I want to stay longer than I should, and decide I need to learn as much about the occupants of the Butterfly Garden as I can.

Inside the park, I add miles onto my day, walking past Stow Lake and around the outside of the south end of the park just to see what is there. It probably isn’t wise, all this walking, but tomorrow I leave San Francisco. I feel I should see as much as I can.

I’d intended just to put my walking feet on a couple of the thousand acres of Golden Gate Park, to touch my memories. I recall a photograph of me as a toddler sitting on a daisy-sprinkled meadow there. As a college student, I had attended several New Games events there.

But largely, I’d avoided this park, another of San Francisco’s iconic places. Wild, unruly, disreputable, even dangerous at times during my life, this had seemed a place I should avoid. But, today, the park updates my stereotypes and leaves me impressed at what it offers a city and its countless tourists.

I have some time to contemplate all this. There is a long walk back that awaits me.

 

 

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Walking Lombard Street in San Francisco

 

 

 

 

Known as the most crooked street in the city of San Francisco, most people only hear about the zig-zag portion of the famous roadway. Lombard Street itself, though, stretches several miles from our hotel in the Cow Hollow neighborhood east to Coit Tower. I decide it can and should be walked, crooked part and straight.

Of course, this walk begins and ends in San Francisco, where even the straight streets climb up and down hills. I plan out the walk on a two-dimensional map, measure the distance, and wonder how much up-and-down there will be that isn’t seen on the map. I’ve been to both Coit Tower and Lombard Street before, but not from this westerly direction, not both at one time, and not walking the distance on my own two feet.

I start out venturing east from our hotel, after a very nice breakfast at Home Plate Restaurant. Fortified with coffee, scones and eggs-over-medium, the walk looks like an easy, flat one for as far as I can see along Lombard. The rumble of cars and trucks, the stop-and-start of traffic lights, the view to the bay at each intersection and the freshness of lace-like fog all join me as I begin. Only once, I cross the street to avoid an early-morning drunk fellow who is having trouble sharing the sidewalk.

Soon Van Ness Avenue blocks my progress, with a snarl of construction along with it. Signs warn cars to detour around the street. But, what about me in my walking shoes? In this high-density city, streets hoping for an up-date have to accommodate everything: large equipment, cement mixers, roped-off areas jumbled with the refuse of renewal. Somehow, traffic moves around and I find my way past the site, in this area planned for last century’s necessities.

I leave much of the bustle behind as I enter the more residential area of Russian Hill. But, this is San Francisco. There are print shops, hairdressers, and one after another after another of every variety of laundries – dry and wet –  that make each block or two feel like a self-contained small town. I’ve walked a mile or two, and feel like I’ve passed through three complete villages, each with a personality and population of its own.

Then I hit the hill. Of course, there have been some steady climbs, and some slight downturns. But here, impressively, begins the type of hill for which SF is famous. My husband and I are conversing as the incline presents itself beneath our feet and I am half-way up before I notice the change in the sidewalk. Here, it is scored horizontally across the path, making it easier for shoes to cling, easier for steps to grab a purchase, and more difficult to ignore the fact that my breath is being challenged. I take a short break and turn to look back. Only then, with the third-floor windows of buildings I just walked past now beneath my line of sight, do I realize the meaning of how steep is this steep.

Exhilaratingly steep. I walk backward for several steps, giving my toes a rest and letting me enjoy the view west for a few more footsteps. Then, I am at the famous section of Lombard Street. Me, and a few dozen other travelers.

If I didn’t know where I was, just the sudden accumulation of people with cameras would make me know this is a place worth noticing. People pose, step up onto brickwork, look incautiously around – all the things tourists always do. And this is a place to do all that. The street becomes one-way, paved with a slippery brick, rimmed with beautiful landscaping, sidewalk steps and pretty houses. It’s not at all like any other part of San Francisco. But, here I am, walking a path I said I would walk. It’s fun and celebratory, and the crowds aren’t elbow-to-elbow this early in the day.

Onward to Coit Tower is a simple San Francisco block or two, passing the North Beach Pool and Joe DiMaggio Playground. The hike up to the Tower itself winds through a small forest – wild enough that I pass a warning about coyotes, and then two men asleep on benches. The top of Telegraph Hill is home to Coit Tower, with views in every direction. I spend a while enjoying the sights, then remember that I have a long walk back.

And not all of that walk is downhill.

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Looking back toward the crooked section of Lombard – as one guide book said, it’s not scallywag crooked, it just zigs and zags.

San Francisco: world renown for more than one reason. Today, I am lucky to be walking along one of those famous streets. My feet can rest tomorrow.

 

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Walking the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

 

It has been suspended over the San Francisco Bay my entire life, a familiar sight from earliest childhood until now, in my 64th year. I remember visiting Great Aunt Bess in The City. Me, small and young, dressed out-of-character in a cream-colored coat with pearl-buttoned white gloves holding on to my mother’s hand, a toddler walking within view of the icon. I am not so young now, but still small compared to this structure that has spanned the bay and posed for viewing by millions of visitors. I’m no stranger to the Bridge, but today, I will walk the Golden Gate for the first time in my life.

I arrive on the 81st birthday of the several-week period from when the Bridge was completed until when it opened. If I had been here two days before, I would not have been able to walk, because others were running across in a footrace. If I had come next weekend, I would have walked among a crowd of Girl Scouts in one of their planned events crossing the Bridge. It is a busy place; I am glad for this calmer Tuesday morning visit, because heights scare the be-jesus out of me and crowds make my elbows defensive.

The approach to the Bridge from the Marina neighborhood of the city gives a familiar view. Today, the classic postcard photo travels alongside me, step-by-step closer to one of the world’s treasures. Slips and cut-off portions of the old Army Presidio lay to my left and its  WW2 air strip, Crissy Field, stretches to my right. The San Francisco Bay is beyond that, lapping against a shore of beaches interrupted by two or three public wharves. A brown sign directs me up a hill between old military buildings that appear to be rented out to private businesses – a bike rental company, a car repair garage, a yoga studio.

Up the hillside, I disappear into temperate forest. Ferns and nasturtium tangle with gnarled pine trees dripping with moss. I am presented a choice: an easy path or a low tunnel with a steep incline. I choose the tunnel, and am surprised when the incline is so steep I get a bit dizzy. This is a feeling I am trying to put-off. I didn’t expect to face dizziness until I put my foot on the Bridge. I look up.

The Golden Gate Bridge seems to be sitting on my nose, straight ahead. So big and so high off the water, my toes already tingle and want to curl away from the task I am electing to accomplish. I walk on.

An unceremonious step onto a broad sidewalk sets walkers along that famous path. No welcome sign, no archway, no photo stop. One moment, I am off the Bridge, the next I am heading toward an iconic moment. Views all around, the bustle of work-day traffic, the sturdiness of the structure, one step, then another, then another. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal, and I am glad to feel a relaxed sense of enjoyment take over.

Half-way across, I notice the cloud cover, which brings milder temperatures and means there is little wind. For the 1.701 miles of its length, I never once fear heights. The path is wide, and I share it with few other walkers this early in the morning. My real danger is the occasional fast bike that whips by, its approach drowned-out by the traffic noise. Even with the misty clouds, I can see the cityscape in the distance, the Island of Alcatraz straight ahead to the east, the sister Bay Bridge and the Oakland-Berkeley cities in a morning haze. I see the Sausalito area to the north, looking rural in contrast to the maze of architecture in San Francisco itself.

The walk is over sooner than seems possible. I know going back will be as long, and am glad to have a second chance to relish the experience, to feel the transit, to test my fears.

Before now, I had flown over the Golden Gate, sailed under the Bridge, and crossed the expanse in a car. Today, I put my simple feet onto a dream, and turn it into reality.

 

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Walking the “Sea Glass Festival”

Pitted, frosted, opaque and weathered. Bottles clash with the ocean – the waves always win. But I also take a prize today – a walk that isn’t what I expect or plan, but what life brings as a gift of happenstance.

The Sea Glass Festival is a spectacular weekend of sea glass-inspired art, music, food and fun that appears like the magical mermaids it celebrates every March in Cayucos, Ca. Just 4 miles north from my house along Highway 1 in Central California, it’s a perfect way to spend a sunny afternoon. But there won’t be much walking, and since a welcome storm is coming tomorrow, I should combine my usual daily walk with the festival visit, because I may be house-bound for several days of rain-rain-rain. Visit Estero Bluffs State Park on the way? Yes, please.

It’s a beautiful and short drive. The bluffs of Estero Bay are familiar places, where shipwrecks, walks and wildlife entertain us creatures fortunate enough to visit. I choose to begin at the northern-most point of the State Park, a place I have never walked before. The park follows the coast for over 7 miles, with a tangle of pathways, and my walks have always covered the trails closest to home.

With hillsides lagging behind in the usual intense green of March, I am glad for rain, but glad also for today’s sun. I can get out, stretch my legs, and enjoy the spectacular weather before tomorrow’s storm. I park the car and walk west.

Stubby green spikes peek out from the winter cover of dried grass on each side of the path. A break in the fence allows me onto the trails that zig and zag toward the edge of the bluffs. I look ahead to the ocean, a ribbon of tourquoise, then dark and brilliant green and finally a dull silver, the depth of the water and the rows of seaweed making water-colored changes in what I see.

I see also a black something, in the far distance from my first steps onto the path. It rises up from the water and slides back down. Fin? Tail? I decide the dolphins are swimming en masse today, and follow the quickest path to the land’s edge. I want to see the dolphin spectacle – a stunning dance of togetherness and talent. I quicken my pace.

But the dolphins – or whatever else might be in the ocean, black formed and reaching up from the water – disappear, heading north. I follow.

A fence keeps me from walking down to the beach. This is Snowy Plover territory and it is their breeding season. Tiny birds that live and reproduce at the water’s edge, California protects them from the likes of me while they go about increasing their numbers. Since I enjoy seeing their popcorn puffs on the beach and their thousand flashes of white into the sky, I am happy to give them space now, as they will give me a show come autumn.

I walk past the Snowy Plover homesite and arrive at the walking beach. This long, curving stretch reaches toward a rocky cliff that ends Estero Bluffs State Beach. A slow-moving seal rolls in the waves two lines of surf from me. Toward the rocks at the end of the beach, I spot three sea otters, laying on their backs to eat their meals off their stomachs. Cormorants dive into the waters and plop back out with their catch. Idyllic? Yes.

My eye is drawn out farther into the water. The black fin or tail or something rises out momentarily, between the dark green, the sea weed and the silver. Too quick to distinguish, some other sea creature teases me.

I turn my view to the beach itself. A flash of color pulls my attention to the sand. Then another. And again. Since all my home decorating involves such finds, I am engaged for hours, walking a peaceful beach and collecting the leftover of man-made glass fragments, sanded against the grindstone of the ocean and replaced on this beach, blinking against today’s sun and beckoning me to reach. Into my hand, time and again, come rounded, pitted, faintly-colored bits of yesterday’s bottles. I have found my Sea Glass Festival.

It’s not the one I intended, but as the afternoon passes and I am not ready to leave the beach, I realize next year will be soon enough to attend the people festival. Today is for me, the beach and the ocean.

I walk back to the car, marveling at the catch in my hand. I start the engine, look up and see the spouts of two whales, finally admitting to me that it was them, all afternoon long, teasing me from behind that line of tourquiose water.

 

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