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 known where I was, just the sudden accumulation of people with cameras would have made 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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Walking Port San Luis Pier

Golden arms of seaweed wave in the lazy current of San Luis Obispo Bay. The waters turn from opaque moss green to shining turquoise and several shades between as the clouds and the sun do their daily trick of minute-to-minute change. Warm up two degrees with the sun, cool down one degree with the clouds. A bit of breeze refreshes us walkers for two minutes, then eases off to let the sun dominate.

I am walking the Port San Luis Pier. It’s a good thing that the distance is short. Today, the calm of the weather, the pleasant warm-and-cool feel of the air, the fresh of the breeze and the slow bake of the sun, all blend to make me lethargic. Shouldn’t every day be like this? Wait. This is the Central California Coast. Each day *is* like this.

Such weather might persuade residents to feel entitled to every-day perfection. All we ever get here is the push-pull of 65 degrees F against 70 degrees F. What did we do to deserve this weather bliss? Nothing. It is ours not because we are clever people or thoughtful or smart. All we did was manage to live here, in weathered perfection.

Summer heat from other places drives people away from their homes. Carloads and van-fulls and buses bring vacationers by the hundreds daily to this pier. Even though I am not from those places of hottest summertimes any longer, I join in with the crowd today, stay-cationing 40 minutes from my home. We visitors walk and bike down the pier and kayak around the pier supports. We stop by the dozens, leaning against the guardrails, to enjoy the sprayed water of a pelican landing, and the splash of a seal diving from a platform into the light-hearted waves.

A sea lion wakes up, disturbed by the seal’s dive or by the plunking down of another sea lion right on top of the first. The yelp is loud and we humans hear the complaint of the sound and we empathize with the sea lion. Who wants to be woken up in the middle of a nice summer’s sleep, interrupting the soothing mist and warm sun? A clamour sets up and a domino of sea lion voices rolls up and down the platform. We vacationers laugh and remark that the sea lions are not so different from us.

A fishing boat whose home port is where I live, just north up the coast, pulls away from the pier. Too late, I wonder what kind of fish they have sold to the fish markets here. The boat looks old, but tidy. I mourn the lost adventure of watching the catch lifted onto the pier, and the skill of how that is done. But, I am still in a haze of laziness, and glad that I didn’t have to expend even the energy to watch such a demanding physical task.

The seal that had dived into the water swims alongside the fishing boat, arching up from the waves, watching for handouts. When no leftover fish is thrown overboard, the seal jumps completely out of the water, perhaps a last-ditch effort to beg a scrap. The boat moves away, appearing to be in that slow-moving summer haze that has infected us all, except the graceful and fast-moving seal in its artful act of begging.

The wood of the pier itself is a million connected heavy pieces of timber that look like they could withstand long bouts of inclement weather, unlike any they will ever encounter here. My steps are soundless on the enormous planks and I feel nothing that tells the pier of my presence. No rocking, no vibration. So many people walk this pier every day, my footstep has no impact – there will be nothing left for the pier to remember me by.

Individuals and whole family groups gather to fish off the side of the pier. I am tempted to stay and watch, soothed by the contemplative non-activity of fishing. I have always thought of fishing as a philosophical pursuit, maybe because I so rarely wait around to see the catch.

As I come to the end of my walk, returning to the point where the wharf embraces the shoreline, I see a cage where fishers who have been successful come to clean and store away their catch. Not knowing one fish from another, I hear someone say ‘rock cod’ and another wonder if the ‘ocean perch’ are biting. As we walk by a fish-and-chip restaurant a wonderful aroma comes out to tempt us, and – if I wasn’t so lulled by the weather – I might spend a moment pondering a fish’s existence.

But mine today is spent in bliss: one small walk in perfect weather along a pier that takes my footsteps as if they were nothing at all.

 

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Walking Harmony Headlands

 

 

Once – not so long ago – the tiny hamlet of Harmony, California was for sale. An idyllic bend along The Pacific Coast Highway between a velvet-covered ridge and a golden hillside, I wondered who had purchased this small patch of perfection.

Walk across the highway and over the hill, you find the Pacific Coast. Up the ridge is the pristine Los Padres National Forest. Mist in the morning, sunny breezes in the afternoon and foggy evenings wrap Harmony in what you may believe is fiction, too beautiful to be real.

But real people – 18 of them –  do live here. And many others drop in for browsing the wooden clapboard storefronts, shopping, eating at the cafe and watching the glassblowers shape their art. An appealing wine tasting room and restaurant are at the end of a picturesque winding drive.

Though my interest in the town is real, my true reason for driving the 12 miles north is to walk the Harmony Headlands Trail. One and a half miles over a hill from Highway 1, the Pacific Ocean pushes its salty spray again and again in tides against the bluffs. I could walk over, hillside to coastline and see what I could see. Many people have walked this trail, but until I do it myself, is it real? I want to see for myself before I believe.

Even though I live just a few miles south and the beach breeze cools me frequently throughout the day, I am always surprised to walk along a hillside path during the parched summer, then pass into cool breezes. Close to the hillside, you have sunny warmth; take one step out from the hills’ protection, crisp ocean coolness reaches out to touch you. Up the hill from the trailhead I go, stepping in and out of the freshest air on the planet.

The trail winds around and then up along the ridge of the humpback coastal mound. We call them hills, but these are really geographic waves of rock and earth with covers of wildflowers in the spring and dry grass and ground squirrels in the summer. The wide pathway makes for easy walking and I think that next time, I may test out summer sandals instead of hiking boots. Why not? In this land of near-make-believe, it’s hard to think that anything would come and bite my ankles and the weather surely does not call for anything hardy or wooly. Flips-flops would do just fine.

I crest the ridge. The sun is a hot-rock massage on my shoulders and the mist offers a fresh air salt scrub for my face. I might as well be at a high-price spa. But this is so much nicer, and costs nothing but footsteps. I pause at the top to relish the simple grace of feeling clean. As pleasant as all that is, though, the view is the real attraction.

Today, the purity of the sky, the time of day and the currents of the tide turn the Pacific Ocean nearly turquoise. A double line of white rolls against the shore, but lazily, as the waves find their way to the rocks and sand. The path lets me ramble down, an easy pace, to the bluffs that form the west coast of the North American Continent.

Cool offshore breezes blend with the sun shining its pleasant warmth. Even though I face a bit of a climb on the way back, I don’t worry about the heat or the cold. Mother Nature has taken care of that for me. Am I just a bit too comfortable? Is this just a bit too nice for real life? The walk might make me think so, but this story I tell today is exactly the way it really is. If you tend to doubt me, remember the trail’s name: Harmony Headlands. I am at the apex of agreement between Mother Nature and me.

Harmony, California. The town itself may have been bought and sold and bought again. But the beauty here is a time-worn possession of Mother Nature. And now that I have seen it myself, I know that it is real. I’m a believer.

 

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