100,000 Steps In San Francisco: An Anxious Outsider’s Walking Tour

San Francisco, CA – September, 2019

Day 1: 34,714 Steps

When I walked up a carpeted staircase that smelled of cardboard and ginger, the proprietor flashed a peace sign, her two fingers inquiring if I had company.  She looked dejected when I requested a table by myself but led me to a seat by a window overlooking Grant Street. Nobody in the restaurant was drinking water so I didn’t ask for any, but instead was provided with a stainless steel pot and a small porcelain cup. Tea for one.

I ordered quickly, which is fortunate because clay pot cooking is not an expeditious art, and sipped the green tea while looked out the window.  Through a wrought iron railing I watched tourists zoom around, gawking skyward at the mad-libbed buildings with Victorian fronts and upturned pagoda roofs.  On the street level were trinket shops and jewelry stores that inhaled passersby in one gasp and emitted them moments later, arms empty, before the next building would do the same.  My lunch, eggplant ginger over sticky rice, was scalding on arrival so I had more time for glancing onto the street. A coolheaded man was attempting to parallel park an RV in front of a sign that read Free Ear Piercing.  A more difficult task in San Francisco I couldn’t imagine.

Knowing I couldn’t bring any leftovers, I ate as much as I could and walked back downstairs into the crowd, leaving Grant and continuing north on Stockton, which was parallel to the west.  It was no less crowded but instead lined with open air vegetable and spice markets, queues of locals with bags and pushcarts beneath drooping, tattered awnings.  After a few blocks I was back on the main road among the tour busses and magnet shops, happy to finally have nowhere to go.

Sometime late in the past months I became jaded with traveling – at times it ceased to be a pleasure and had become a necessary task to maintain equilibrium like an expensive haircut. I would exhaustedly stare at online satellite maps and plan which ways to get to places, plotting exact turn by turn directions for a morning walk from hotel to coffee shop. The trips themselves were enjoyable once I was there, but the preplanning and extensive internet searching made the trip a chore to be completed.  By trying to experience a place properly, I harmed my ability to do so at all. 

Now I was in northern California to visit my brother but would have the first few days to myself in San Francisco while he was working. I packed just two extra shirts and searched nothing but how to get a BART card – no restaurant reviews or must-see neighborhoods or where not to walk in San Francisco.  I took the BART line into downtown and went up the escalator with nothing but a blurry mental map.

Chinatown was my first stop by happenstance and hunger, after which I stair stepped northeastward, passing through colorful Jack Kerouac Alley, and emerged in Italy, dangling lanterns and vertical signs replaced by sidewalk seating and Peroni umbrellas. From North Beach I approached Telegraph Hill, where the sidewalk becomes impossibly angled, and headed to Coit Tower. Amongst other panting travelers, hands-on-knees, I glanced back to see my first view of the city from above, the streetscape straddling the contradictory line between architectural uniformity and unique expression. Many American cities lack this aesthetic, opting for either a motley patchwork of new and old or a dystopian sameness.

From Telegraph Hill, I caught my first glance of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific beyond.  It had been nearly a decade since I had seen the largest ocean and never from this end.  I paid eight or so dollars to go up to the top of Coit Tower for a panoramic view of the city and was stuffed with seven others in an old elevator that closed with a scissor gate.  The attendant, a bubbly middle aged blonde woman, asked each patron to choose a non-English language we knew, and would then have a conversation in each. French, the only tongue in which I could even hope to check her accuracy, was a free pass and I was disappointed that nobody threw out Maltese or an indigenous Papuan language and I felt I missed my chance.  Still, she made the cramped ride to the top substantially more interesting.

The tower deck was blustery and cacophonous, circled by rocky walls that felt like a popcorn ceiling pocked with domed windows. Most of the them were shut but two were open, creating a cross-gale, the source of the clamor.  Each aspect lent a different spectacular view: The financial district fronted by the Transamerica Pyramid, the low-rise old neighborhoods undulating like ribbons up Russian Hill, Alcatraz and the bay, the water meeting the clear sky in a cerulean ombre.

Leaving the tower, I hoped to stump the elevator attendant with some little-known language, but she had been replaced in the interim by a chipper young guy on a barstool. I had a cup of coffee at Reveille near Jackson Square, across the street from the Sentinel Building, a mid-rise Flatiron-shaped building the green-copper hue of Lady Liberty.  Columbus Avenue slices the downtown street grid forming pointed buildings and complicated pedestrian crossings and I sat at its point on a sidewalk table, unevenly angled as the street begins its ascent toward Telegraph Hill.  I didn’t necessarily need more caffeine but I gladly paid the price to sit and sip a cortado while observing the late afternoon exodus from the financial district.  I didn’t know how long I was there – my phone was on life support for lack of batteries and I wore no watch, but eventually the tide of office workers slowed down and I figured it was close to five. 

Switching stimulants and sides of town, I walked south past Market Street and visited a map-themed bar to idle away the last few hours before dinner with my brother.  The server was cheery but quiet, disappearing for long periods of time between tap pulling.  It was no matter, I wasn’t there to chat but to enjoy a piney IPA and peruse the maps and charts that lined the exposed walls – and to kill time. I did so amply, and scooted out into the warm evening towards the BART as soon as the pint was gone.

Day 2: 54,735 Steps

On the second morning, a train was pulling away as I arrived, but no matter – I had nowhere to be and time meant little as I needed to explore away over twelve hours waiting for my brother.  When the next train opened its doors, my phone battery was already fading so it was relegated to my jeans pocket except for snapping photos or taking notes.  This is a freeing circumstance, and as much as we all say we want to put down our devices and savor our surroundings, often it takes an uncontrollable catalyst to force our hand.  I looked up rather than down, used street signs and an internal compass for wayfinding, careful to notice subtleties of change.  Instant information can be a wonderful tool if used properly, but the productivity it allows is counteracted by a lack of focus. Imagine what we could accomplish with the patience of the past and the resources of the present.

This day could hardly be more like San Francisco or less like the one prior. The fog, which the locals call Karl, lay still and heavy over the city like an atmospheric hangover, the kind of weather that makes your feet feel wet when it isn’t raining.  My mood matched the gloom, and I headed for the bay and planned to walk the periphery of the peninsula until I felt like turning around.  I bought a coffee and observed, on the long walk up the Embarcadero: A woman sprinting up the dock towards an Oakland ferry, not realizing it was an arrival instead of a departure; A dancing robot barista in a completely empty shop next to a human-employed café with a line out the door; Families in San Francisco hoodies who showed up without realizing it was brisk out and hurried to the wharf to buy a souvenir; A man who looked like W. Kamau Bell with a sign that said Five Dollar Joints, throwing and spinning it around like someone advertising outside of a car dealership; An old man playing “Smoke on the Water” on a zhongruan with a bucket full of tips.

Pier 39 has all the tackiness of a maritime-themed, human scale version of Pigeon Forge.  Adults bought shot glasses with their names on them and kids overfilled themselves with ice cream and tried to avoid the attention of the street performers – it would be best skipped if not for the wildlife.  I could hear the sea lions before seeing them, their deep barks echoing through the fog.  They were squeezed tight on the platforms, climbing over each other and scratching themselves, pausing only to shoo away a bird.  Two were resting comfortably on a distant dock while the others jostled for position in the crowd.  Fights broke out and often one animal would slip into the chilly water after losing his spot only to resurface elsewhere on the platform and begin the process anew.  I must have watched them for a half an hour before needing to move and warm up.

I ignored the rest of Fisherman’s Wharf and kept the coast glued to my right, following the cliffs near Fort Mason and the docks of the marina.  There were so many runners I had to move to the side of the path to avoid the only locals who dared venture outside without a padded coat.  Boats gave way to a beach as I neared the Presidio and left the wealthy residential areas of the northern city.  I watched people fling tennis balls from long plastic arms and then look at their phones until an exhilarated dog retrieved it from the waterline.  This repeated until the dogs inevitably discovered each other, romping in the tidepools and buying their owners some extra scroll time. 

The sandy path I trod went unturned for over a mile and I felt like I was on a treadmill, never getting closer to the distant Golden Gate Bridge.  When I at last arrived at an NPS building called The Warming Hut, I needed to put its name to use, as well as buy a large water and snack.  It was breezier than before when I stepped back outside, but the clouds began to break, opening up a gingham tapestry of gray and blue, and the reemergence of the sun lifted my mood so quickly I could have got the emotional bends. The change in weather caused the perceived temperature to rapidly seesaw, and people milled from the hut to the benches outside with such regularity that it’s a shame they didn’t install a turnstile. I sat on a pier and chatted with a group of cyclists who were finishing a ride south from the Oregon border in support of something or another.  Prying myself away, I continued toward the bridge, the road now flanked by a juniper-clad cliff and a rocky breakwater.  Often the choppy sea would slam against the peerless chain railing, rusty from decades of the same.

Fort Point, built to defend the city during the Civil War, lies directly below the Golden Gate Bridge yet I had never heard of it.  I walked through the tunnel past a ranger who stood like the Queen’s Guard, motionless and severe.  I expected to pay up since this was an NPS site but he remained still as I passed, climbing the stairs to the top.  It seemed as if I could almost reach up and touch the underbelly of the bridge, deceptively low like a landing plane or a looming storm cloud.  I had the entire fort to myself, save for a young couple from China, who I spoke with briefly and took their picture, and a short-haired girl in a college sweatshirt doing yoga on the northeastern turret.  Like at Coit Tower, I wanted to see the city from several angles.  To the east, the now distant city, hill-clung and pastel, looked as if it were on a separate island from where I stood.  To the west was a thick coat of fog completely obscuring the open ocean and to the north, the partially hidden Marin Coast.  To the south was a Cliffside footpath winding up to properly cross the bridge, peopled by backpacked tourists looking like winter-clad leafcutter ants on a branch.  I soon joined them, but I actually preferred Fort Point, windswept and alone, to the clogged pedestrian lane of the bridge, and was left thinking: How is this free?

The rest of that day was spent taking a long way back downtown: Through Ghirardelli Square, where I enjoyed an out of season chocolate bock at San Francisco Brewing Company, down serpentine Lombard Street, taking requisite photos and feeling for those who have a driveway off of its crowded outer arcs.  I met my brother for dinner back in Jackson Square and then trudged onto the BART with my most steps walked of the three days, the acute seats of the yellow line friendlier confines than twelve hours prior.

Day 3: 24,359 Steps

I was ready to skip Haight-Ashbury, assuming it would be populated by mediocre troubadours and purveyors of kitschy hippiana, but it was the one part of the city my brother wanted to see, so I saved it for the day he would join me, and was pleasantly surprised to find an actual functioning neighborhood.  We had rented a car to visit other parts of Northern California, but on the way stopped it on a steep angled street off of Ashbury with stairs for sidewalk. I pulled the parking brake with fervor and we walked down into the neighborhood proper.  Architecturally, it was clearly San Francisco – spindled Queen Annes and other gabled Victorians, brightly colored yet faded, with protruding windows and concave entryways.  The streets were lined with Mediterranean evergreens and the occasional fan palm.  The hills were calf-busting or knee-buckling depending on direction.  Still, something about it made me feel as if we were removed from the rest of the city, despite it being nearer to downtown than the bridge.  Perhaps this was because I could see neither water nor the Transamerica Pyramid, fixtures elsewhere I wandered, or more likely because we had driven and parked, vehicles creating greater perceived distance despite shrinking the world.

The famed streets intersect where a clock permanently displaying twenty minutes after four hangs across from a Ben and Jerry’s.  Otherwise, most of the shops on Haight sell vintage clothing or handmade objects and I was pleased to see very little of the high-end, pseudo-hip megabrands that tend to take over trend centers after the secondhand shops lay the groundwork.  One such stalwart was Amoeba Music, the largest independent store of its kind in the nation.  It survived the digitalization of music shopping by converting from primarily CDs to records half a decade before that was the thing to do.  They heavily push the late-60s theming, with good advertising sense, but the records span the years from rock’s inception through the great indie throwback bands of the present.  You could even walk out with music from the genre’s nineties nadir if you so decided to punish yourself.

We ate Banh Mi from a place with three tables and then perused some of the shops, coming away only with bracelets from a Nepalese craft market.  The other direction along Haight took us to Buena Vista Park, where we walked a short loop up a hill past blankets of guitar playing descendants, biological or simply spiritual I can’t be sure, of the original neighborhood bohemians.

Our departure from the city once again placed me on its famous bridge, this time in a car and beneath sunshine, and as the cliffs of Marin blocked out any sense of urbanity I was left thinking of the places I missed. The Mission District, The Castro, and Golden Gate Park would have to wait until a future visit as would anywhere not within marching distance of a BART stop.  I had walked more than most would consider reasonable and still knew nothing of San Francisco, and with even the slightest planning I could have seen another neighborhood, sampled a street taco, or ferried to the East Bay. But this short trip mollified an anxious mind and allowed me to ease control for a few days and reexamine the way I travel, thinking no further ahead than my next step, one hundred thousand times.

The September 2019 Norcal Trilogy:

Redwoods and Sonoma

San Francisco <- You are here

Carmel-by-the-Sea and Point Lobos

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