One of the things I love about San Francisco is the culture of walking that is dominant as a means of transport, adventure and recreation. With only seven miles of land, from end to end, you can literally walk across the entire city in a single day. To do this, is to experience the smelly air of the Bay hitting your face, the delicacy of a gourmet Vietnamese sandwich enlivening your taste buds in the Tenderloin and being wrapped in a cloak of fog as the neon-sign of the Balboa Theater glows against a twilight sky in the Richmond. Walking across the city is like getting a free movie pass, being part of a traveling sideshow or a moving meditation. It's beautiful and dirty and harsh, all at the same time. Walking encourages chance encounters and synchronicity, it's not just about getting from point A-to-B, but taking all the divergent paths that happen to come your way.
I like the word "flâneur" to describe the art of walking with no purpose or specific destination. The word invokes romantic images and a grand tradition of free spirited wanderers. The dictionary describes the flâneur as "somebody who is idle or loafing about." This negative connotation ignores a significant tradition of writers and artists and thinkers who have "loafed" to find inspiration. Through these walks countless artists have observed the minute details of life and transformed them into words and images. Maybe that's why most films produced in Hollywood feel so false and artificial. Can you experience the smells, sounds and interactions of daily life from behind the wheel of a moving vehicle?
In any case, on one of my numerous meandering walks across the city, I followed the rickety staircases leading up to Twin Peaks and wound my way to Tank Hill. The view was sublime, with an expanse of blue sky and an unobstructed view of both bridges as well as the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, Buena Vista Park, all of down town, and a clear shot inside the multi-million dollar homes that line the street. (There is always something fascinating about seeing how other people live.) Although Tank Hill is a small park and space is limited, sitting on the edge of the hillside gives you the illusion of floating in the sky and literally having the entire city at your feet.
I am not suggesting that this tiny bit of land is a completely unknown entity, but I had been living in San Francisco for over a decade before I experienced its beauty and wonder. The name Tank Hill dates back to 1894 when the area housed a giant water tank that stored drinking water pumped from Laguna Honda. After the tank became obsolete in 1957, the entire hill was sold for merely 250,000 dollars and slated for development. In 1977, the community pressured the city to buy back the land from developers as part of the Open Space program and to restore its natural habitat. Since the environment represents the indigenous landscape of the area, sitting at the top of Tank Hill is a little bit like going back in time. I often try to imagine the expanse of land before it was leveled and paved over to create modern day San Francisco. No cars, no roads and miles of uncharted territory for those brave souls who dared to walk in the wild.
As I meander down the hill and back into the grind of city life, I recognize my appreciation for both the wilderness of San Francisco's past and the chaos of its present incarnation as a city. I am pleased to join a long tradition of artists, philosophers, tramps, and bums who have made wandering an art form, pastime and religious experience.
Rebecca Solnit's book Wanderlust: A History of Walking describes the joys of getting lost in everyday life. It comes the closest to capturing this experience on the page and explores the importance of letting go of a goal or a destination, of rediscovering one's environment through wandering. Listen to an interview with Rebecca Solnit of KQED's Forum.