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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