Any robust burgher, possessed of a roving curiosity about his town and the desire to traverse its hills and dales, is no stranger to the pleasures of an urban hike. I myself relish a ranging ramble, and on a recent Saturday I struck out on what would be one of the more epic tours I've taken.
Neither the effete mincing of the itchy-footed flaneur, nor the balmy ballade of a postprandial stroll, a proper urban hike means rigor, fortitude, an endeavoring spirit and a devil-may-care mien. Balancing the demands of the hike with the distinguished bearing of an urbanite is the hardest part. Rest assured, though, I have you covered.
As the urban hike marries the athleticism of the Alpinist with the good sartorial sense of the urban sophisticate, let me lay down the first, and perhaps most vital dictum: natural fibers only. Though gear is fine for Himalayan excursions, one must recall that a city hike is ineluctably urban, so the same prohibitions on neoprene, smartwool and (shudder) running shoes that apply to all places save Yosemite still apply.
A good urban hiker maps at least one good ascent into his route, so dress in layers, ideally with a scarf and hat - a tweed fedora is my preferred headwear for a good tromp. Wear one fewer layer than you would otherwise, and as you'll be traipsing about, and perspiring to some degree (we are merely civilized beasts, are we not?), there will be times when you'll want to shed what you can.
Footwear is critical, and the point at which many urban hikers make their gravest mistakes. I opt for the classic Clark's Desert Boot in beeswax leather. Sturdier than the suede version and born of the needs of British officers in Cairo, the Desert Boot is hale enough to tackle any puddle-bestrewn San Franciscan hill while still communicating good sense and good taste. I purchased mine from Shoe Biz on 24th St. in Noe Valley. Ask for Adam, when you duck in. He'll set you right.
Properly-shod, the urban hiker needs only two more things: a map (topographical if possible) and a book. The book, ideally, should easily tuck into you back trouser pocket. When sitting in some newly-discovered café or at the pinnacle of a hard-won climb, you'll want to catch your breath, savor the view, and for a short bit, have a read. For my hike I happened into City Lights Books in search of poet Frank O'Hara's "Lunch Poems" from their Pocket Poets Series. Despite its merits, only a fool would hike with the Collected Auden.
The first part of my urban hike was a jaunt with my wife from our apartment in the Mission to meet my eventual co-hiker Ezra for breakfast at the Liberty Café in Bernal Heights. He met us there, and over top-drawer housemade English muffins and eggs, we plotted our route. In the interest of exploring some of the city's more wooded environs and less-traveled neighborhoods I laid out my ambitious path: Bernal Heights to Glen Park, down into Glen Park Canyon, up to the city's highest point on Mt. Davidson, then down again into West Portal for lunch. From there it could be Stern Grove, St. Francis Wood, the Inner Sunset, or hell, maybe the Great Ocean Road.
Ezra looked nervous and began to second-guess his attire. My wife looked happy to be heading home. I drained my coffee cup and headed for the door. As we ambled back to Ezra's house to pick up another layer, I laid out my ethos for a proper urban hike. Ezra had other things on his mind.
"For me, the urban hike is all about indulging a sense of exploration. Though bowing to caprice is critical," I said.
"None of Tom Petty's deep cuts are better than the singles. That's rare, especially for a guy with such a long career," Ezra said.
"When out for a real ramble, the urban hiker takes the steeper, darker, slipperier, less clear path," I said.
"Jeff Lynne's production on 'Full Moon Fever' really has those acoustic guitars chiming," Ezra said.
"You're right about Petty and the deep cuts, you know," I said.
"This hike sounds like fun," Ezra said.
By this point we had walked across Crescent St, hugging St. Mary's Playground, crossed Mission, and were cruising down College toward the whizzing traffic on San Jose. We took the overpass into Glen Park, hooked left of Chenery and made a stop in Tyger's Café to use the head. Relieved - in this, proximity to plumbing, urban hikes are vastly superior to the rural sort - it was up the hill, across Sussex, over Elk St. and down into Glen Park Canyon.
Most definitely a neighborhood park, this swath of wooded greenery and trails between the heights of Glen Park and Mt. Davidson is largely left to the locals. On another hike I'd wandered its northern end, so in the spirit of overturning a new stone, we shot off straight across and up the other side. Ezra tried to convince me that Little Children was just an average film. I tried to convince him that Brad Pitt is a great character actor stuck in a leading man's body.
Hewing to what might roughly be described as a trail, we clung tight to the side of the hill, scrambled up loose eucalyptus leaves to emerge on O'Shaughnessy Blvd. From there the rocky crags of Mt Davidson, or at least its lower bits, rose maybe 100 feet above us. We went straight up, scrambling in the loose dirt and brush. Jackets in hand, we crested the peak for the first epic view of the day, over the Bay to Oakland. Though perhaps even more marvelous was the red-tailed hawk circling low. We surveyed the city from one rocky outcropping, turned around to see that the peak's true pinnacle was still some distance off in Mt Davidson Park, and Ezra tried to tell me that Dirty Projectors are technically skilled but ultimately soulless.
The real climb was to come, though: Mt Davidson Park, nearly 1000 feet above sea-level.
Traversing Mt Davidson's sleepy residential stretches, and surmounting the wooded peak, we came to the foot of the peak's real prize, a one hundred-foot high white cross. It's only one in a series of crosses to top Mt. Davidson since 1923. This one was dedicated in 1934 by FDR, but to skirt a lawsuit claiming it contravened the California Constitution for the city to own a religious monument, the city sold the land under the cross for $26,000 to the Council of Armenian Organizations of Northern California in the late 90s.
Ready for a bit more urban action, we made our way down a very slick, steep path toward Portola. By this time, we'd worked up a proper sweat and were ready for lunch. We headed straight for West Portal's Manor Coffee Shop-a near-perfect time capsule of a 1940s diner I'd been keen on trying. Feeling rather like a flatfoot in an old noir I had a club sandwich with fries and a coffee. Ezra had a patty melt.
Old-timers came and went, some of whom looked like it has been their weekend routine for decades. We lingered at the counter, cooled our heels, and plotted our next move. We decided on McCoppin Square, if only because neither of us had been there before. We hustled down to catch the L at West Portal-the urban hiker should feel fully empowered to take public transport to, from, and during the hike-and rode it out Taraval St. to 22nd Avenue.
From there it was a lazy amble through the square and up 24th Avenue to watch the Mighty Mustangs of Lincoln High practice. They looked good, though the kicker was shaky. Ezra tried to convince me that this decade of indie rockers are uniformly better singers than those of the 90s.
As the sun was starting to set over the ocean-the view from 24th Ave and Quintara, just next to the Sunset Reservoir is truly stunning-and the wind whipped up, we started to head for home. We walked north to Judah St., caught the N into Duboce Triangle and made a final stop at Books and Bookshelves on Sanchez Street. As we pawed through the dollar LPs, Ezra declared Bobby McFerrin worthy of a second listen.
It was getting properly dark by the time we'd walked into the Castro and back into the Mission. We parted ways as Ezra hopped into a cab at Valencia and 22nd. I was home in a jiff, just a tick before 5:30. In our eight hours we'd covered untold miles, climbed San Francisco's highest peak, forged our own trails up the rough terrain of Mt Davidson, bought three records (McFerrin and Baez for Ezra, Michel LeGrand and Friends for me) and, perhaps as important to the day as all our exploration, had done no trifling amount of convincing.
Design: Kari Stevens