Not-Walking Antarctica

 

 

 

For ethical reasons, perhaps we shouldn’t have gone. For financial reasons we chose to go the cheap way, by cruise ship. For companionship, we went together, even though it was Bruce’s idea, completely his idea, his idea from the beginning and thoroughly his idea to go in the first place. His reasoning went something like this: having already put our feet onto the earth in six continents, we should visit the seventh. We’ve done other faulty things for less well-thought reasons before. And so, for adventuring reasons, we did go.

Here’s the story (and remember, this was entirely Bruce’s idea):

We settle in to the massive ship, and I am torn about being here. Is it comforting that we have so much protection from the elements and the rough seas? The ship is completely full, and over-run with older people carrying large amounts of camera equipment, Audubon guides and Sir David Attenborough’s audio books. I learn that there is a naturalist who will be making presentations as we get closer to Antarctica.

Before we go to sleep the first night, there is a grumble in the atmosphere of the ship: A slightly unsettled blip in the inter-personal current. I think it is just me getting used to this place, just me getting my sea legs.

The next morning, long after the time when I could jump ship and swim to shore, we get a revised itinerary. It will take us longer than anticipated to get to our destinations, so our first stop, at Ushuaia, Argentina will be shortened. There is a vague explanation that is mumbled around the ship – an engine is not working quite right. And we are heading to one of the most turbulent oceans on the planet.

The stop in Ushuaia is even more brief than expected, due to weather or winds or engine trouble. Once back on the seas, we are told that it will take us longer than expected to reach Antarctica, due to weather or winds or engine trouble. We entertain ourselves with visits to the naturalist’s programs. Each one is entertaining and so crowded people are sitting in the aisles. What else is a ship full to do?

Passengers begin to emerge who know a thing or two about oceans and engines. I hear people complain about ship-shape upkeep and the seriousness of less-than-perfect engine function in the middle of a rough sea.

We do make it to the shores of Antarctica.

The continent itself is thrilling. Ice, snow, rock and ocean. Completely gray and white, with a bit of astounding turquoise when a piece of sunshine hits the two-story ice just right. Overwhelming in a black and white movie style, Antarctica spews its coldness into view. It seems to me a world apart from everything I know. It is unthinkable that I am here.

As we leave the continent, it is announced that we won’t be able to make our next stop, Elephant Islands. Bad weather, landing conditions, faulty engines.
That night, it is announced that we won’t be able to stop at The Falkland Islands. The next morning, we learn we won’t make the last stop in our itinerary, Puerto Madryn, Argentina.

During one lunchtime, Bruce – the one who wanted to be here – and I step into the buffet, and walk right into a security guard. Security guard? It’s not like he announces himself, but just by standing where he is standing and looking like he does, I know that’s what he is.

Then I notice that the buffet’s seating area is packed shoulder-to shoulder with passengers, and the multi-lingual speech is getting louder and louder. The windows are fogged up with the charged emotion that did not come from lunch’s sliced roast beef sandwiches. People are speaking in animation and high-emotion. I am uncomfortable and Bruce is nearly laughing. He asks the security guard what is going on while I sink into the background, losing my appetite.

It seems a joining of forces is occurring – the Argentine passengers and the larger tour groups (from the Philippines and from China) – have come together to sign petitions of formal complaints about the condition of the ship and the restructuring of the voyage’s schedule. They think this mechanical problem was foreseen and that we all have been defrauded and that King Penguins will be lost in the fray if we passengers don’t receive some recompense for having lost the opportunity of a lifetime.

I don’t know where to look for fault – the cruise line for skipping 3 out of 4 planned stops and running a huge ship on a faulty engine, the passengers for being as selfish as I didn’t want to be in booking this trip, or Bruce, whose idea it was in the first place.

We make it back to Buenos Aires, a safe place in any comparison, and nothing ever comes of anything. The petitions signed by every passenger (probably twice by most), the formal complaints to the governments and the companies involved, the simple violations of the rules of civility in promising one thing and delivering something quite different – nothing ever happens. It remains just one more life experience. Sometimes we just don’t get what we expect, but we do get something.

I got a continent I would never have seen by myself, and a never-ending story to recap time and again with the partner and love of my life. It was, after all, all his fault.

Walking Ushuaia, Argentina

I have been traveling through South America for a month at the point I reach Ushuaia, Argentina.

I think I know what to expect from the entire continent, in a general way. I’ve seen beauty and been shown gracious welcome. I’ve had the humbling experience of traveling by land through many border crossings and standing in line at two of those crossings for over 6 hours. I have braved city bus systems, fallen over several sidewalk irregularities, practiced my Spanish language, eaten food that did not agree, and enjoyed many meals that did. I have done all of that and am surviving – even loving the priviledge of being able to put my feet to the ground in places many people can’t imagine ever seeing in person.

But all my experience, as well as my abiding stereotypes, gives nothing to prepare me for this small city at the edge of the world. I begin my walk at the harbour, facing the downtown area and looking up to the surrounding jagged mountains.

I walk across the street to the visitor’s center. It seems no single nationality nor one language has a lasting claim to this place. I remind myself to speak Spanish, but I lose count at nine languages that seem common: Spanish, of course, and English, also German, Mandarin, Italian, the English spoken in Australia (!I know they can say the same about American English!), at least two Eastern-European languages (I think Polish and Hungarian?) and another tongue I can’t identify at all.

Across one street is the downtown area. It seems retailers find this place especially enticing, as brand-names from all over the world have built-up a presence here in this town of a bit over 50,000 souls. Hard Rock Cafe, for heavens’ sake, is here. It is apparent to me as I step into the city center – all two-square blocks of it – that something is going on here that should remind me that it is never a good idea to walk around with my stereotypes.

Whatever my expectations were, instead, I am greeted by: Upscale mountaineering retailers, luxury leather goods, specialty yachts, space-age small planes.

But even with the connection to the world’s marketers, Ushuaia remains a part of its pristine geography.  Even during this summer walk, snow is visible on the sharp peaks surrounding the bay, signposts warn of impending bear visits, the mirrored quality of the icy water reflects puffy clean clouds, penguins live nearby.

It all leaves me a bit out-of-sorts. I walk through the downtown and out into a more residential neighborhood. It is cozier here, and I find a bench on a pie-shaped park to sit and watch pelicans on the bay. I wonder what it is that has me so befuddled. I take a walk wherever I go; today should be no different. I am here today, and tomorrow venturing by ship to Antartica, but I find that Ushuaia is pulling my attention. On the cusp of viewing the continent that so few people ever see, it is this little city that makes me stop and think.

It feels more like home than I expected to experience in a place so far away from where I live. There is a California calm here, a confident idea in the streets that no town, anywhere, does life like its done here. I sit on a suburban bench, at the extreme southern tip of my connected continent, and I feel like I am living in the middle of California Cool. I think maybe that is not such a good idea.

But then, I remind myself, Ushaia knows itself better than I do. My own California calm takes over, and I decide to just let it be. Ushuaia seems to be doing just fine defining its own character, at its own pace. I’m the one that needs an attitude adjustment – and I hope I leave my stereotypes behind as I venture farther south.

 

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Walking Buenos Aires, Argentina

Listening to visitors pronounce ‘Buenos Aires’ is enormously entertaining. People from Britain say ‘Ahhhres’, giving the word the sophistication it deserves. People from the USA say ‘Air-rays’. It’s a simple switch for them: just adding ‘rays’ to the already familiar word ‘air’. Curiously, travelers don’t seem to confuse ‘Buenos’, but there is already enough intrigue about the city. Buenos Aires itself is even more entertaining to travelers than its name, and everyone should visit.

This is my second time in the city; the first being over 40 years ago. I don’t dance the tango, I don’t eat pondorous beef meals (though the person walking next to me might like to.) But, now as 40 years ago, I find endless ways to entertain myself. This is one city where anyone can feel like a Porteño – a resident of Buenos Aires.

Some cities are strategically breath-taking, placed in an area of great beauty, like Bogotá, Colombia. Others may be located in a convenient area, like Panamá City, Panamá. Some communities spread like wildfire, consuming geography without apparent logic, like my former hometown of Pasto, Colombia. And some cities, like Buenos Aires, plot their own thoughtful development with grace and beauty, replacing topography with a vibrant and classic style that begs people to visit and effortlessly impresses them when they do.

We arrive from Lima and I pull out our hotel information. I am not always good at selecting places to stay. We are thrifty sorts, and like to get as much for our money as we can, but while we look for safety and value, location of the hotel is always our first concern. Can we walk to the places we want to see? Are there restaurants and stores close by?

The taxi driver knew the hotel right away, without the need for an address, which is a credit to him, and gives me hope that this time, I picked well. It is a hot day in Buenos Aires, and we drive into a neighborhood with a canopy of green extending over the city streets. The taxi pulls up along a shaded sidewalk to a shiningly clean hotel with ornate stately features. Melia Recoleta Plaza. It is classically beautiful, and I decide immediately that if I only explore this one building while in Buenos Aires, the trip will have been worthwhile.

The hotel has taken over a structure that was once a rooming house where Eva Peron lived. With curving staircases, gleaming wood accents, polished marble tile floors, this place acts as a living museum. Placards placed on framed photographs tell the history of Peronista Argentina. In black-and-white, next to the period architecture of the building itself, a history lesson begins before I unpack my bags in the room.

The area of Recoleta is home to our hotel. Even if tourists didn’t need to visit Evita’s grave in La Recoleta’s cemetary, they should come to see this neighborhood. The graveyard itself is a walking history tutorial, with cultural lessons displayed on tombstones. Decorations and poetry add details. Outside the cemetary, the shaded streets and the welcome of the cafes make walking a simple pleasure here. Carrying our map, we are stopped several times by residents who offer help with directions. One recommends that we visit the artisan fair in the park. We do, and find a huge gathering of craftpersons and shoppers. We are entertained for hours. Since I have decided that visiting Buenos Aires requires more than seeing the interior of the hotel, I now wonder if I really need to leave La Recoleta. The area is peaceful and inviting, surely sufficient for any visit.

But I do explore farther. El Ateneo Grand Splendid is just outside La Recoleta. In 2019, it was named the most beautiful bookstore in the world by National Geographic. When I walk into the store from the sidewalk, I wonder about the hype surrounding this famous place. I like bookstores, and have high expectations for the well-known ones. This one opens up from a fairly normal city street. It’s fine. But number one in the world?

And then I see the interior and understand. It’s so filled with architectural beauty that it’s difficult to focus on the literary works of art. This is just one more spot in Buenos Aires that can occupy an entire visit.

Of course, there are more. The walk to a popular shopping street, Calle Florida, from our hotel is a long one. In the heat, I wonder if my insistance on walking everywhere is wise. But how else do I see the sights I want to see at the pace I want to see them? The reward is in the shops along the street and the vendors with their goods on the sidewalk. And, of course, along the way, we stop in the shaded parks near the Casa Rosada, where the city’s political history has unfolded.

Every neighborhood we pass through and each restaurant and shop we enter, we encounter friendly, helpful Porteños. When we take a short break to sit in the shade of Plaza de Mayo, twice people approach and offer help with directions and recommendations. It seems to me the people of Buenos Aires want us to visit and enjoy the city they very obviously love.

That is the lasting impression I take with me from our second visit. I can stop worrying about pronouncing the name right. The important thing to remember is that Porteños love their city. This emotion spills out to welcome visitors like myself. 

Walking Quito, Ecuador

 

 

A cab from the bus station takes us toward the center of Quito, where we will be staying for several days. With over two million residents, it is no surprise that this city has neighborhoods of normal busy-ness, where life goes on along graffiti streets with too many vehicles. I think we are driving through most of these neighborhoods on our ride today, and marvel at the new yellow school buses, the traffic lights that impose order and the general rush I notice in the streets. We pass through bleached-out urban spread and then up-up-up to the high plateau of historical Quito. 

Once we reach Hotel Casa Gardenia, in the center of the city and settle in, my impressions change. Urbane, international, less hurried, welcoming.

But all those descriptions of Quito – the bustle and the serenity – surprise me. 

The last time I was here, traveling in a pack of two or four or six hamburger-starved young Americans, we sought out Rusty Burger the moment our feet hit the last step of the bus. We ate hamburgers translated into the South American experience and called them glorious. We stayed at a ramshackle hostel that was often packed to the brim with Peace Corps volunteers – like ourselves – and young back-packing world travelers from countries I had never been to. The streets of Quito I came to know 40 years ago had been a mixed-salad of old cars, old horse carts, aging homes inside tall stucco walls, and newer buildings along one section of a street near the hostel. It was a small landscape that I came to know well. I visited the historical section of the city only once or twice, after I had eaten my fill of homesick hamburgers.

Today, our hotel, built into an ancient building, lies along a curving and narrow cobbled street, and is guarded from that street by a thick wooden door from Colonial times. But inside, a modern glass-and-chrome structure offers a massive picture window that frames the entire central square in one gorgeous view. A storm approaches as we check-in, then passes by, cleaning our perspective and setting up our visit to be just as new and refreshed as the view itself. 

Our location offers an easy walking-tour visit to old Quito. We start out holding a tourist map and head down, down the narrow street. It contracts so much at one point that we have to yield for cars. At another passage, the sidewalk has steps that simply dissolve into a gutter from the 1700’s. We walk through a tunnel of stonework from that era, as modern cars compete with us for space.

Then we are at the central square. People call it the Grand Square (Plaza Grande) and Independence Square (Plaza de la Independencia). Ancient stonework continues from the street, but the square itself blooms with color from plantings of flowers mixed with grassy sections and lush trimmed bushes. People are everywhere: walking along, and sitting on the grass and on benches. Massive two- and three-storey buildings line the square, each with a historical purpose: the cathedral, the presidential palace, a grand hotel.

The building that attracts us most is the Archbishop’s Plaza, and the reason we choose this place is predictable. We are in search of food. Inside this former residence of Quito’s archbishop is a beautiful warren of tourism. The interior of the building holds several patios, one with a quintessential fountain, another with a zigzagging covered walkway. There are hallways linking the interior patios and enough entrances and exits to confuse any visitor. And there are restaurants.

We have a hard time deciding which menu to choose, and end up taking a table on an upstairs outdoor patio and eat a wonderful humita ( similar to tamales.) Another rain storm passes as we eat, and the patter of the rain into the interior courtyard is exactly enough to bring a pause to the day, but not enough to change our plans.

After the meal, we continue walking downhill to the city market. The two-story concrete structure contains fruits, vegetables and every imaginable meat. Cascading boxes are hidden behind multi-colored produce: purple and yellow potatoes, orange- and white-speckled corn,  light red-skinned plantains. Because there are ingredients, there are also food stalls. Fresh juices, roasted whole pig, llapingacho (stuffed potato patties.)

There is so much more to see, and we have some days to catch our memories of this city we had loved. Forty years later, I am joyful at discovering this modern transformation of Quito. Eating hamburgers from home seemed important at one time. And maybe that is a good personal memory. But Quito itself is so much more than Rusty Burgers, and I am very happy to know that now.

 

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Walking Otavalo, Ecuador

 

It’s been 40 years since my two feet walked this ground. The cement umbrella-ed artisan booths are still here. An aura of tranquil living impresses me – now as before – and it runs counter-point to the dramatic setting. Clouds still curl over the mountains. Something about the high-altitude air makes visitors feel they’ve never been clean before. But surrounding the market I remember from years ago are now rows and layers of canvas-covered awnings that expand the market to two or three times the size it was.

If you visit Otavalo, today as 40 years ago, it is likely for the artisan market. I had made the trip several times from my home in Colombia as a young woman in my twenties. I ate huge pancakes and drank my first kefir and orange juice in a hippie restaurant just across the square from the booth where I bought wool yarn for the blanket I would crochet. The hippie restaurant is no longer there, but before I venture out too far, my husband and I eat in a fabulous modern cafe. Then we set out to follow our memories. Will I find the same style of woven wall art that, 40 years later, still decorates our home? Will I find skeins of rough wool yarn, so natural that bits of dry grass and seeds are part of each creation?

Ruanas are still for sale, and as numerous. These long, sometimes very thick wraps of woven wool that have slits to fit your head through were ever-present and worn by everyone when I lived in the region. When I bought my own, from this outdoor market in Otavalo, and learned how to wear it with ease, I had finally felt at home with my South American experience.

Five times today, I circle the market, walking to relive my past. I stroll the rows across, and the rows up and down. I get lost in a tangle of tables where people sell items they no longer want next to the alley where you can buy sewing machines that were already second-hand when I was last here. Finally, I buy a new ruana, stash it in a bag, not sure if it is really the one I want, but knowing I need to go through this ritual.

On the few days of the week when there isn’t a market, the square in the middle of this town is empty, aside from the concrete circles with the odd umbrella covers. To me, these circular remnants are a wonderful touchstone, one thing that hasn’t changed, sturdy and reliable. Everywhere else I walk on this market day displays how the world has changed: cell phones and a million chargers for sale on top of a plastic folded table, warm wool sweaters and gloves and hats that are knitted by machine, wall-hangings in colors so bright I know there is modern chemistry in their dyes.

I want to buy some natural yarn, and think I will start a new project while we travel. I pick a craft woman, one among so many, and enjoy the back-and-forth of negotiations. The price is so good that I want to buy more than I can pack into my carry-on suitcase. I need a crochet hook, and can’t remember the word in Spanish. I try to describe what I want. The woman understands and takes me at a run into an alley where, in a brick-and-mortar shop, everything I could possibly need is for sale. The yarn I buy is soft and so warm my fingers are soothed just by the touch.

We walk to the odd-and-ends section of the market. My husband searches through tables and tables of screws and bolts, ancient watches, and finds a coin from last century to purchase.

It’s all a wonder: the stroll, the shopping trip, the search for memories.

I pull the ruana from the bag and put it on, walking away from the Otavalo artisans, comfortable again in this place of mists and mountains and forty-year old magic.

 

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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 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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Jo’s Monday walk