Walk don't run

By Joe Yonan
Sunday, August 29, 2010

From the pinnacle of a windy, chilly, foggy neighborhood that once was little more than shifting sand dunes, I think I can see all of San Francisco. More fog rolling in from the Pacific as if in a time-lapse photograph. The downtown skyline basking in the sunlight of an entirely different microclimate. Mount Sutro, framed by cypress trees. Golden Gate Park, a shadow of forest cutting between neighborhoods. Even the top of the Golden Gate Bridge.

My perch lives up to the name Grand View Park, and there's just one way to the top. Here in the Sunset District, you can drive to the base - more easily if your car has a stick shift rather than an automatic transmission - but unless you're privy to a helicopter, you need your legs to take you up the final winding series of staircases and trails.

That suits me just fine.

I'm in San Francisco to eat and to walk, my favorite combination of travel activities, partly because doing enough of the latter allows me to do more of the former. But that's not the only reason. I walk to see. In Venice, Paris, New York and other pedestrians-rule places, my favorite learn-the-city strategy has been to stuff a map (or, these days, an iPhone) into my pocket, wander off without an agenda, then use the map to find my way back to home base only after I've exhausted all curiosity, not to mention my calves.

I can't think of a city better experienced by walking - or hiking, depending on how you look at it - than San Francisco. The 42 hills on which the city was built can make for gear-grinding treachery in a car, and only the fittest of the fit dare attack them by running or, God forbid, biking. Sure, you can hop in a cab or onto a cable car to traverse neighborhoods quickly, but nothing brings you into closer contact with the city's ever-changing vistas and textures than your own two feet.

Here, I don't need much help with the eating part of my mission. I work my sources the way I do on every other such trip. For the walking part, I've zeroed in on one expert: guidebook author Adah Bakalinsky, who at 87 is the reigning queen of walkers in a city that's full of them. Bakalinsky specializes in sightseeing strolls that are punctuated by the city's 600-plus stairways.

In the 24 years since she first wrote "Stairway Walks in San Francisco," Bakalinsky has become something of a stairway evangelist. Ask her about the defining features of the city she loves, and of course she'll go on about the light, the architecture, the hills, the neighbors and the neighborhoods. But it's the stairways that provide the connective tissue running through just about everything. They tie together streets that follow the contours of hills, they let residents get to public transportation and otherwise ambulate without fear of cars, they act as gathering places, sometimes impromptu ones.

"Stairways connect neighborhoods," she writes in her book's introduction. "Freeways disconnect neighborhoods."

Before I head up to Grand View Park, Bakalinsky escorts me to one of the city's most famous stairways, a mosaic-tiled beauty on Moraga Street that isfeatured on the cover of "Stairway Walks in San Francisco," which will see its seventh edition in November.

Walking up the mosaic stairway is pure meditation, as waves of fish and flowers, squirrels and snakes (many of them memorials by donors: "Mom, We Love & Miss You") seem to swirl in motion as you climb, and culminate at the top in a crescent moon, stars and a sun.

Bakalinsky's prescribed route doesn't immediately head for Grand View Park, but we're a little short on time, so rather than follow her ambling loop, I leave her behind with a photographer for a series of portraits and scramble up to marvel at the 360-degree vista. When I meet her on the way back down, Bakalinsky, a former social worker, is doing what she does best: chatting up neighbors, including one woman who's on her eighth lap of the mosaic stairway.

Bakalinsky is cheerful and polite ("Is this your neighborhood?"), but she later confesses to a bias against those who appear too interested in the calorie-burning aspects of walking. "I believe more in sauntering," she says, "and not to exercise. You get the exercise anyway, so you don't really need to think about it. To me, walking is about being alert to what's around you. The whole idea, really, is to discover."

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