traversing The City

“What we call places are stable locations with unstable converging forces that cannot be delineated either by fences on the ground or by boundaries in the imagination […] And a city is a particular kind of place, perhaps best described as many worlds in one place”

-Rebecca Solnit, Infinite City, A San Francisco Atlas-

land ho! sighting the Golden Gate Bridge from the Land's End Trail

land ho! sighting the Golden Gate Bridge from the Land’s End Trail

In 2010, Rebecca Solnit published her beautifully creative book Infinite City, thereby adding to the repertoire of the myriad of ways San Francisco is imagined. It is known as a city of Pride, home of the Giants, the place where the Beat Poets wound their words, and it is known for housing the highest population of Chinese people outside of China. There is so much to explore in this city. Through Solnit’s eyes, it is a place where monarch butterfly breeding sites coexist with gay public spaces, a place where Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” isn’t the only celebrated San Francisco movie, a place where superfund sites and breathtaking public parks coexist, and a place, undoubtedly, to be celebrated.

And traversed! Ever since I saw Solnit’s map of San Francisco as Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, I have loved thinking about cities as sacred islands where luminous and valuable gems are waiting to be uncovered. As I left San Francisco almost four years ago, I constructed my own treasure island, writing about my own favorite sites in the city.  This is a city that is meant to be zigzagged by foot. You simply cannot get a sense of this place in its truth while in a car or even on bike. This is a place that is meant to be walked, weekend after weekend, up and down. But even then, you would have so much more to find there.

Andy Goldsworthy's spire in the Presidio

Andy Goldsworthy’s spire in the Presidio

One of my favorite days in the City when I lived there coincided with a visit I had from my friend Sam Galvin from college. She had been working in San Jose and wanted to come up to San Francisco for the day to explore. I was more than happy to help her with that adventure. And adventured we did indeed- from the CalTrain station in Mission Bay, up the east end of the peninsula along the Embarcadero, winding our way along the Bay past the Ferry Building and Fort Mason to the Golden Gate Bridge. Finally, we cut South into the Presidio and took a bus to Haight-Ashbury. We walked at least a dozen miles that day. North and then West, we traversed the City in its sweeping, beautiful, diverse beauty. Ever since that day, I have been wanting to attempt a hike of epic proportions like this again .

one of the many interconnecting trails that wind their way up the ocean coast towards Golden Gate Bridge

one of the many interconnecting trails that wind their way up the ocean coast towards Golden Gate Bridge

My plan was to start at the base of Ocean Beach, making my way up the coast of the ocean and then the bay around the city’s borders, the goal being to walk as much of San Francisco’s perimeter as I could. The crust of San Francisco is a delicious layer of wild surf, rugged cliffs, never-ending wind, and (thankfully) a myriad of trails with which to explore it. So in honor of Labor Day this past August, Alison (a new San Francisco resident) and I ventured out onto the borders of the city limits, the borders where the city asphalt meets Monterey Cyprus, Eucalyptus, Coyote Brush and False Heather, where orderly streets meet wild animals and salty air. Alison taught me much of the ecology of the Presidio, the beautiful park where she now works. She was my companion on the 15+ miles of walking. She agreed that we should stop for sandwiches and coffee and ice cream sundaes. She agreed that walking was a great way to have great conversations. We ventured out in a labor of love for our city. And how here she is to share her reflections:

A co-worker recently gave me directions by holding out his hand and marking points along his palm, making geography in the topographically chaotic city of San Francisco a little easier to understand. I recently moved here, and could get lost in a paper bag so I appreciated a lesson in direction that was so accessible. Hold out your left palm:

  • The expanse from below your thumb and forefinger is the Pacific Ocean and Ocean beach. It’s a quiet and peaceful end point of the city, mostly occupied by the outer sunset neighborhood and a chunk of Golden Gate Park.
  • The slope upward from forefinger, to middle finger, to pinky is the north side of the city encompassing the Presidio, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Embarcadero. Based on location, the middle finger is the Golden Gate Bridge (which is very appropriate considering traffic on the bridge during rush hour).
  • From the pinky downward is the section of the city that is the busiest, liveliest, and most vibrant, including downtown, SOMA, the mission, the Castro, and other great neighborhoods.
how many shades of green can you find?

how many shades of green can you find?

With directions on my hand and now etched in my mind, the best way to really learn the city is by foot (ideally with a good friend and walking partner). After weeks of anticipation, Katie and I set out on a warm Labor Day morning amidst the gulls, and crowds, and hills to learn the city by the soles of our feet. We started just above Fort Funston, around the top of the thumb, trekked through the fingers of Land’s End and the Presidio, all the way to just past the ring finger in Fisherman’s Wharf. 15 miles in a city that’s only 49 square miles is no small feat, and we definitely felt like we earned the sundaes we wolfed down at the end of our journey at Ghiradelli’s in Fisherman’s Wharf.

It’s heartening how the city moves by when you take to many deliberate miles by foot. Incongruent conversations of people walking by somehow complement the birdsong and passing cars. The sweaty, sunscreen smell of hoards of beach-goers meshes perfectly with the salty ocean and smell of sun beating down on Monterey Pine trees that line the way. It’s so freeing, so gratifying to move openly around San Francisco using feet, muscle, will power, excellent company, and maybe even the lines on the palm of my hand as inspiration.

-by Alison Pollack

You may also like:

Sacred Places of San Francisco: treasure island
infinite cities
Looking at a City


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