My six-year tenure in San Francisco has involved more wonder-fueled adventure than all of my childhood years put together. I’ve developed a Pavlovian response to the promise of new experiences here, especially when they’re twinned with an element of exclusiveness.
I almost lost my champagne (and my partner) over the side of a chartered sailboat birthday party, flown kites off a hidden Headlands cliff, and picnicked in every tucked-away green patch in the city. After years of this kind of local exploration, though, I’d just assumed that I’d seen most of what San Francisco has to offer.
So I was intrigued by the idea of TransportedSF – a bimonthly “happening” hosted by Teacher with the Bus that whisks riders away on oddball tours. Using an environmentally-sound field trip/party bus, the group offers treks to sacred sites, foraging trips to Mt. Tam, beach dance parties, and other “experiments.”
I recently decided to pay 20 clams for a ride aboard the biodiesel, solar-paneled vehicle and signed up for TransportedSF’s tour of the best short hikes. Its website promised to show us a hidden garden whose location is “too precious a secret to share with anyone not coming on the tour!”
A day of unusual sightseeing – out of the way slides, gardens, and stairways — sounds too good to resist. But I’m also skeptical. At this point, are there any secret places left to explore?
It is unseasonably warm as we board the bus outside of Revolution Cafe in the Mission and I take stock of my fellow travelers. The crowd is comprised of lone ragtag stoners, Burning Man IT types, a bearded dude with a double walking stick situation, and middle-aged lesbians tricked-out in sensible hiking attire. There are a few surprises, too, like the group of raucous downtown ad agency ladies.
They tell me excitedly about their recent failed attempt to join an adult scavenger hunt (they didn’t sign up in time). These women seem to hold the most potential for fun – I sidle up to them.
Upon boarding, half of the crowd pulls out cans of Tecate and Rolling Rock. Luckily, I’d reviewed the FAQ section of TransportedSF’s website ahead of time, which suggested that booze was welcome on the bus, and so I have a bottle of bubbly in my bag.
I decide not to crack it open until after the first hike, which our guide Alex Warnow has just informed us will involve climbing up and over Bernal Heights. Alex then plugs in his iPod and we listen to lounge-y club music as the whole bus vibrates and we head toward the first stop of our adventure.
After hopping off the bus, we begin a steep climb up a windy street in Bernal. Alex points out a yellow street sign with a painted stencil of a zombie, arms out. “Zombie crossing!” somebody chortles appreciatively and people take hammy pictures.
We wind our way down wooden stairs, through a hidden community garden, and then up above Bayview, past many gorgeous houses and a little street named “Joy.” Part of what convinced me to move to San Francisco was the whimsical promise of the place names: Treasure Island, Twin Peaks, Telegraph Hill. Alex looks at me and smiles.
“Joy Street!” he emphasizes. I nod. I have never been here before (secret tour: 1, me: 0). Alex shoots off, all energy. We follow like a happy little army, wandering through Bernal’s narrow backstreets.
We climb to the summit of Bernal Heights Hill, reach a dusty ledge, and survey a vista of San Francisco. Though we’re not exactly in a secret spot (me: 1), the sense of accomplishment is surprisingly strong.
We’ve kept up a fast pace and the weather is so spectacular that I’m sweating. I enjoy the moment and then Alex bounds off again, through a grove of trees.
Adjacent to Bernal Heights Park, between Esmeralda Avenue and Winfield Street, Alex leads us to two massive concrete slides. Suddenly we’ve taken cardboard to our butts and we’re flying down the sand-covered shoots, booting some kids out of the way in the process. I’ve had this semi-dangerous slide experience many times before at Seward Street Slides in the Castro, but I didn’t know about this particular spot (secret tour: 2).
I particularly loved watching one of the ad ladies, a recent Denver transplant, catch air near the bottom and fly.
Back on the bus, the pop-up community is in full effect. Besides a few slightly sullen-looking straight couples, everyone seems happy. I unscrew my classy bottle of sparkling wine and stare at the string bean neo-hippie in sunglasses across from me. He’s passing out beers to anyone who asks. The downtown gals pass around chips and have all the materials to make mimosas, a level of organization I admire and I tell them so.
They shrug like it ain’t nothing, and then we toast one another.
As we wind up into Twin Peaks listening to a Bloc Party remix, Alex asks us to indicate our energy levels thus far. Everyone gives a thumbs up, though I suddenly feel overly ambitious when the giant hill we’ve agreed to climb comes into view.
After hopping off the bus, I realize that I’ve made a questionable decision in downing champagne before embarking on the most challenging trail of our journey. Then again, tipsy party hiking could be awesome. Or at least that’s what I tell myself as we stride up a residential street at a quick clip on our way to the base of Mount Davidson.
The smell of eucalyptus is probably my favorite aspect of the San Francisco landscape, and I find myself rapidly sobering up as we sweat our way through shady groves of these trees. Periodically, a lanky balding guy and a younger dude ahead of me stop to smoke a bowl. Stoner conversation ensues between the two.
Located near Portola Drive and Twin Peaks, Mount Davidson is the highest natural point in San Francisco, but the narrow trail (which is uncrowded even on a warm winter day) certainly makes you feel like you’re entering a hidden spot.
The really incredible part, however, is the enormous 100-foot white concrete cross in our midst.
The cross dominates the landscape, even though it’s tucked back from the vista point. I wander over to the clearing it’s planted in and read the plaque memorializing victims of the 1915 Armenian genocide. A hush is brought over the revelry of the day.
The cross, I later learn, used to belong to the city. It was built to honor early California pioneers, and Easter Sunday services were broadcast nationally from the site for 30 years until the ACLU and other organizations sued to stop the use of taxpayer funds to maintain and display a religious symbol.
It was ultimately auctioned off to the Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California, who installed the commemorative plaque in 1997.
The sculpture is certainly a stunning sight, high above the city. The secret tour is now 3 for 4 –pretty good, but TransportedSF’s biggest boast awaits my challenge, and it’s right around the corner.
On the way to our last stop – the “precious” hidden garden teased on the website – Alex tells us in all seriousness that he discovered this spot after many long hours of hiking and driving all over the city. He claims that he has “barely shown anybody” the magical-ness of it. I’d be salivating with all the hype right now, but I’m pretty exhausted. Given the mimosa crowd spacing out near me, I’m guessing I’m not the only one low on energy.
We pull into a UCSF parking lot and follow Alex up the winding Mount Sutro trails. It’s supposedly possible to get to the base of the Sutro Towers from here, but we’ve run out of time, a fact that I find immensely disappointing once I realize where we are.
We climb up to a low summit and stumble upon huge patches of wild sage in a clearing beneath swaying eucalyptus trees. People pick leaves and rub them open and the air smells fantastic.
These trails are indeed among the most hidden in the city. We are utterly alone, except for a very old man who runs past us with startling speed, jumps atop a large rock, hops back down, and then runs off again. Everyone stares but no one says a thing. It is exactly the sort of oddball vision you’d expect at a clandestine San Francisco destination.
Final tally? Secret tour: 4, me: 1.
Back on the bus, the vibe has gotten very mellow and it smells like old beer and fresh sage. We are a bunch of sleepy kids returning from a magical field trip on a very adult school bus. As we ride back to Revolution Cafe, I notice more hidden landscapes unfolding for anyone adventurous enough to look. Does TransportedSF have the keys to an unknown SF? I’m a believer. All aboard!
Want to ride the bus?
TransportedSF does several events every month, planned a week or two in advance. Check the site often for information, schedule, and tickets. You can also join the mailing list to stay in the know.
Visit the Teacher with the Bus site to learn more about how you can charter a bus for any adventure you’ve got up your sleeve.
Whatever you do, don’t forget to BYOB. In fact, bring extra for people not in the know. Happy trails!