Trekking the Golden Gate

ON A CLEAR MONDAY MORNING toward the end of the long northern California rainy season I dropped a change of clothes and little else into my daypack, laced up my hiking boots, and stepped out the door of my Oakland home - the first step on what would turn out to be the most relaxing, most efficient, least expensive trek I have ever had. By quitting time on Friday afternoon I would have reached the tiny hamlet of Olema in western Marin County, with 50 new miles on my boots, a clear head, a tuned up body, and an extreme readiness for the weekend.

At the Rockridge BART station I boarded a train headed under the bay and emerged twenty minutes later into the full clang and shuffle of a San Francisco workaday morning. At the Powell Street cable car turnaround I caught a bus to the corner of Haight and Stanyan Streets, the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park. I have on occasion endured expensive twenty-four hour airplane extravaganzas to go trekking in the Philippines, Nepal, and Thailand - but on this particular morning I had reached my trailhead in about an hour, at a total cost of less than four dollars.

The winter downpours had given northern California an emerald aura, and as I strolled through the three-and-a-half sylvan miles of Golden Gate Park I had to keep reminding myself that I was in the middle of one of the world's most vibrant cities. Until the park's founding in the 1870s a stroller would have encountered only rolling sand dunes here, but I now enjoyed a succession of manicured gardens and meadows, groves of hundred-foot tall Monterey pines, and eucalyptus trees imported from Australia. Here was a fragrant rhododendron dell, there a Japanese tea garden, and over there a waterfall emptying into a quiet lake guarded over by a Chinese pagoda - the world brought extravagantly to my back yard. I had envisioned my hike as cheap R & R, not historical meditation, but as I emerged from the park and onto the bright sandy sprawl of Ocean Beach, I could not help but think of the previous generations whose foresight (plus sweat and tax dollars) have given San Francisco its enormous green heart.

THE TRAILS I HAD TREKKED in Asia were all located in mountainous, roadless areas, and were in fact ancient thoroughfares traveled by merchants, herders, pilgrims, and locals simply out visiting. Each trail was punctuated by small villages where cheap food and lodging were readily available. But there is no similar beaten path to Olema, and I had spent several months prior to this hike carefully studying regional trail maps. In the end I cobbled together a route linking all my favorite local day hikes, and locating places where I might spend a night without spending a fortune. And since I would be "living off the land" (a euphemism my wife and I apply to the strict restaurant/deli/bakery/convenience store diet we adhere to on car trips) I had noted supply points for water and food.

My first pit stop was Louie's, a boxy diner bolted to a bluff overlooking Seal Rocks, the Cliff House, and the mouth of the Golden Gate. Louie's has affordable food to go with its zillion dollar views, and has been a fixture on my visitors' tour of San Francisco ever since an afternoon years ago when, mid-meal, someone yelled "Whales!" and I joined waiters, cooks, and clientele in a rush to the picture windows. Two magnificent gray whales were cavorting northward, leaping almost entirely out of the ocean, side by side, breaching in perfect synchronicity every few seconds until finally fading from view on their migratory route to Alaska.

If San Francisco still has any secrets its northwest edge is definitely one of them. The Coast Trail (which I would follow off-and-on all week) runs past Louie's front door, ducks into a stretch of wind-bent Monterey cyprus, and then enters the closest thing San Francisco has to a rain forest. In this almost-jungle, the city's distant noises are smothered by the ocean's lullaby, so that an astronaut accidentally dropped here at night might be forgiven for guessing, at dawn, that he or she had alighted in Hawaii or perhaps rural Japan.

Two miles later, however, the trail becomes a sidewalk leading past the pillared mansions of the Seacliff neighborhood (home to actor Robin Williams, among others), and then drops down onto the sand of Baker Beach. Here on hot summer days the looming Golden Gate Bridge forms an exotic backdrop for hundreds of naked bodies (the northern half of Baker Beach is clothing optional). This day, however, was cool and the beach almost deserted, but at its far end I passed two young men working on overall tans. Glasses of white wine were pressed into the sand at their elbows, Verdi seeped from their boom box, and even a misplaced astronaut would know that this could only be San Francisco.

ON THE SIDEWALK in the middle of the mile-and-one-eight Golden Gate Bridge span, I sat down and removed my boots to patch my new blisters. Below, the water of the bay was steely calm and an uncharacteristic turquoise color. Two jetskiers buzzed out from Sausalito to harass a Gulf Oil tanker heading to... Prudhoe Bay? Osaka? L.A.?

A wall of dark clouds were massed to the east, above the Bay Bridge and distant Oakland, but a rogue sunbeam highlighted the skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco, giving the City a stark, whitewashed appearance. I took in everything from Coit Tower to the Pyramid Building to Twin Peaks and the Presidio, and thought: "If there is a prettier city in the world—and I doubt it—I indeed look forward to meeting her."

The jutting ridges north of the bridge—golden brown all summer long, but as lush in springtime as the infield at Pacbell Park—are riddled with the gun emplacements and old buildings of de-commissioned Fort Barry. The fort's former bachelor officers' quarters have been converted into a $13/night hostel, where, after my 12-mile day, I almost fell asleep waiting for a Sausalito pizzeria to deliver my dinner.

AT EIGHT MILES, Tuesday's route would be shorter but steeper than Monday's. After skirting the Pacific at Rodeo Beach the Coastal Trail turns abruptly skyward. As I ascended and descended the contours of Wolf Ridge, over my shoulder I could see San Francisco bobbing up and down like a swimmer in trouble. Early on I heard the distant barking of seals at the Marine Mammal Center, where volunteers treat a variety of injured sea animals, but mostly I heard only the sound of my boots scuffing the deserted trail and the occasional boom of Pacific surf pounding the rocks hundreds of feet below.

The top of Wolf Ridge affords a view down into the Gerbode Valley, an uninhabited bowl that is, almost unbelievably, barely a five-minute drive north of San Francisco. Not many cities can boast of a sprawling wilderness so close to their borders, and if a number of Marin County citizens hadn't stuck out their necks a few decades back, neither could San Francisco. In the 1960s a developer had acquired rights to a Gerbode Valley sheep ranch and proposed turning it into an abomination named "Marincello," intended home and staging area for 25,000 commuters (the Fort Barry visitors center has pictures of the architect's model, complete with high-rises and cul-de-sacs). But the activists' petitions and lawsuits spared the land, and in 1972 the Gerbode Valley became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Tuesday's sky was a famous northern California blue, and bouquets of spring wildflowers lined the path over Wolf Ridge. I wondered: "Has the San Francisco Board of Supervisors considered designating the pretty pink one—the 'Western Bleedingheart'—the City's official flower?"

In a gap in the middle of a quarter-mile-long thicket of poison oak I ate my last two slices of leftover pizza and a Hershey bar. A tailwind pushed me up and over Coyote Ridge, all aripple with golden grasses, and almost before I knew it I was hiking onto the grounds of the Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center.

I had driven past the Highway 1 driveway to Green Gulch hundreds of times, always wondering what I might find if I were to turn in. Now, hiking in from the ocean, I came upon a several-acre field where a dozen of the community's fifty-five residents stooped over rows of carrots, lettuce, onions and beets: a bucolic scene characteristic of Asia, but, in America, strictly exotic. Half a dozen horses grazed in a nearby pasture, and the smells of fresh manure and fresh-turned earth mixed nicely in the salty breeze.

I was shown to an uncommonly quiet room in the community's Japanese-style guesthouse; its twelve rooms were surrounded by a thirty-foot tall atrium, and the entire structure was surrounded by a hushed pine grove. The $75 tariff included an invitation to join the community's evening meditation session and vegetarian dinner (most of it grown right on the grounds)—and, after a nap, I did just that.

WEDNESDAY—an eight-mile day that began in brooding fog along the coast and ended in bright sunshine near the top of Mt. Tamalpais—was perhaps my favorite day of the trip. After fruit, bread, and coffee with the Green Gulch residents I hiked three miles inland on the Redwood Creek Trail. The crystalline creek, full to its banks after the drenching winter, wound through groves of bay trees. In the tall grass of a clearing, two deer stood frozen like lawn statues, staring wide-eyed, poised for flight, until I passed. Soon a gray fox with dapper splashes of auburn at its shoulders trotted down the trail toward me; startled, it ran back to where the trail made a U-turn around a steep ravine. Standing on opposite arms of the U—fifteen feet apart, but safely separated by the ravine—we studied each other. For a full minute the fox's disdainful gray eyes did not blink, but when I began to softly whistle "Silent Night, Holy Night" (thinking: "I'll put it at ease.") it fled into the brush. And I marched on, into the redwoods.

Before the Gold Rush most Bay Area valleys and hills were forested by Sequoia sempervirens. As late as the 1840s, the entire Easy Bay hill area was cloaked in redwoods (ship captains navigating the Golden Gate used specific enormous specimens above Oakland as navigational landmarks), but by 1861 every last one of the East Bay giants had been unceremoniously felled and milled into lumber to build gold mines, silver mines, and the newly popular Victorians. By the 1890s the only significant redwood grove remaining within thirty miles of San Francisco was located in Marin's Redwood Canyon. William and Elizabeth Thacher Kent, who had become rich through land speculation, bought the grove for $45,000, thinking to preserve it for future generations to admire.

But when a Mill Valley water company initiated legal proceedings to have the grove condemned (the plan: log the redwoods, dam Redwood Creek, fill Redwood Canyon with a reservoir facilitating the development of Marin County), William Kent sent a personal note and photographs of the grove to President Theodore Roosevelt. The Kents offered their grove to the government, gratis, with the suggestion that it be turned into a park named, surprisingly, not after themselves but after California's most famed naturalist.

Today (John) Muir Woods National Monument annually receives two million visitors. Craning their necks and wagging their heads, they wander among the ancient gargantuans—some of them 250 feet tall, big around as grain silos, and 1,000 years old—wistfully wondering what the Bay Area must have been like before its denuding.

THE PANORAMIC TRAIL angles steeply upward from the back of Redwood Canyon and quickly rises above the tops of the Muir redwoods. It passes through dense ponderosa pine and, later, the groves of laurel, manzanita and scrub oak that cover the upper reaches of Mt. Tamalpais.

By late afternoon I had climbed to 1,785 feet and reached my Wednesday night home, the West Point Inn. The view from the inn's porch—ocean, bridges, ridges, towns and the now-shriveled City—is half topographical map, half history lesson.

In 1896 train service was inaugurated between the town of Mill Valley and the top of Mt. Tamalpais. Bay Area residents and tourists from all over the world chugged to the top for lunches or picnics at the West Point Inn, the train's terminus. But automobiles stole away ridership, and in 1930, following a forest fire that damaged the line, the railroad was closed.

The Forest Service would have razed the abandoned inn during the 1950s if not for the intervention of the hastily formed West Point Inn Association. Donating time and labor, and raising funds with quarterly pancake breakfasts, the association's 200 members have managed to preserve the inn much as it was at the turn of the century. Access is via dirt trails open only to hikers and bicyclists, and the inn's accommodations are rustic—cold showers, no electricity, no restaurant—but, hey, so is the price: $30 a night.

For dinner I hiked two miles back to Highway 1 and the nearest restaurant, the relatively posh Mountain Home Inn. Enjoying a chicken caesar salad, Napa Valley merlot, chocolate cake, and a long golden sunset, I felt like I'd been gone for months and had traveled a million miles from my other life (most Wednesday nights I pilot a Yellow Cab around San Francisco). But after dinner, using a pay phone to dial my wife in Oakland, I found myself still just a thirty-five cent call from home. Travel is clearly a state of mind, not defined by odometer or calendar. And in my case, the soft click of the front door lock three days earlier had instantaneously induced a deep trance.

Back at the old railroad inn, I discovered that I was one of only three guests staying the night. I sat up with Brian, a vacationer from Indiana, to watch the logs in the fireplace burn down; later we moved to the porch to witness the fog thread through the Golden Gate and entwine the City. Around midnight a big yellow moon a few nights past full wobbled up over Berkeley like a giant lopsided lemon, casting an ethereal glow over the entire silent panorama. Brian had awakened that morning at his home in Indianapolis. Now he turned to me with a look so sad I thought he might cry, and sighed, "I would kill to live here."

THE FOG HAD disappeared by the time I awoke on Thursday. I hiked around to Mt. Tam's western side, its ocean view side, and followed a trail along a stream that tinkled from one clear pool down into another, until I reached a long graceful bow of sandy shoreline and the little village of Stinson Beach.

Stinson hasn't changed radically since its inception in the 1880s, when wealthy San Franciscans began building cottages where they might escape the City's summer fog. Today, no matter what time of year or day of the week, the town always has a summer vacation feel. On this school day in mid-May, barefoot kids who probably should have been practicing arithmetic somewhere were instead licking grape popsicles in front of the grocery store, while two truant adults slung cases of beer and bags of charcoal into the back of a pickup truck.

At a sleepy, nearly empty restaurant named Jack's by the Beach, in the middle of some indulgent living-off-the-land (my late breakfast included two chocolate milk shakes), I was amused to overhear one teenage girl at the next table complain to another that Stinson was getting "too buzzy." Apparently the secret local hot springs (a five- or six-person coastal pool, accessible only two or three days a month when the tide and moon are right) were not so secret any more: "At midnight last night there were sixteen people there. It was gross."

I SPENT THE AFTERNOON hiking along the top of Bolinas Ridge. The Bay Area is so rife with stunning views that it is impossible to proclaim this one best or that one, but the view from Bolinas Ridge has to make any top-three list. My eyes rotated continuously between the silky sky and flowering hillsides (blue lupen swirled around my ankles like a flash flood from heaven) and the smoky blue finger of Pt. Reyes pointing toward the horizon, toward something unseen out in the middle of the dazzling, prairielike Pacific.

Almost all the terra firma I could see from this spot was not only "undeveloped" but was also protected against future development. Much of West Marin lies within state and federal park systems, and many local farmers have sold future development rights to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, yet another group of concerned citizens trying to nurture America's most livable metropolis.

Descending through the woods of the Audubon Canyon Ranch at dusk, I came up behind two turkey vultures perched atop twin fence posts, three feet apart, leaning in toward each other as though gossiping. I assumed they were chained there - some Audubon project - but when I came within twenty feet of them one squawked in surprise; immediately they unfurled wings that spanned twelve or thirteen feet in total and flapped away, scolding me loudly as they soared above the pinkening waters of Bolinas Lagoon.

THE TOWN OF BOLINAS is home to 2,400 former and current hippies and other iconoclasts who have achieved notoriety for the speed with which they chop, torch or dynamite any "Bolinas" turnoff sign the state highway department has the impunity to try and erect. The most recent sign (metal posts embedded in concrete) was blasted to smithereens within eight hours.

I gleaned this last bit of intelligence from a woman named Barbara, whom I met inside the swinging frontier-style doors of Bolinas' lone watering hole, Smiley's Saloon. I had rented one of the six clean rooms in back of Smiley's ($75), had showered and thoroughly inspected myself for ticks, and was eating a cheeseburger and fries and wishing for another milkshake when Barbara leaned over from the next barstool and struck up a conversation. She seemed impressed that I had walked here from San Francisco, but was clearly relieved that I was just passing through. "Bolinas is already too crowded," she said. "And no one here wants to see it become another Stinson."

ON FRIDAY, my last day, I worshipped my way through twelve hilly miles in Pt. Reyes National Seashore, each of them unspeakably gorgeous. My morning route hugged clifftops hundreds of feet above the ocean, then cut inland to Bass Lake, the acknowledged best skinny-dipping spot in the Bay Area, before dropping to Alamere Falls, a 40-foot cascade that splashes right onto the beach. If I have a spiritual home it is the Alamere Falls trail. After hiking it 50 times, often without encountering another soul, I lost count, but each time I have come away smiling like the latest big lotto winner.

The afternoon's trail spiraled from the beach up to the top of a fifteen hundred-foot mountain and then gently lowered me through a cool, forested canyon to the quiet village of Olema - several decent living-off-the-land opportunities clustered around a four-way stop.

A bus leaves Olema for San Francisco each evening, but I didn't feel like waiting. I stuck out my thumb and three hours later, after six easy rides, was back home in Oakland, quite pleased with myself. If you call my trip a vacation, it was as enjoyable a vacation as I've ever had. It was also the most hassle-free and - at a total cost of under $350 - the cheapest I can recall. And best of all, I had added to my quiver a sterling new travel option: Think globally, trek locally.

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