"All good things are wild and free." --Henry David Thoreau

Monday, November 9, 2009


A Stroll with the Living and the Dead:
Bringing Baby to the Cemetery

            Arriving at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park with my baby this afternoon for a stroll after a doctor appointment in a nearby clinic, we were a few days overdue for both the a propos Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, but with perfect timing to have the place to ourselves (save for the maintenance men in white pickups who cruise the grounds, and a family feeding ducks and geese at the pond in the east entryway off of El Camino). It had been over a decade and a half since my first visit.  I remember traipsing around as a high school student, accompanied by my Gothic friend Amelia who draped herself across concrete angels while I wielded a Pentax K 1000 camera and a roll of black and white film. Fast-forward to my mid-20s when I moved to within walking distance of the cemeteries, and my housemates and I went once or twice to trespass, drink wine, and get pleasantly spooked. Now in my more sober thirties I sport a baby and, I guess, a mildly odd sense of aesthetics and exercise.

 Today was a gorgeous day and the late afternoon so warm that I left my sweater in the car. This cemetery is perhaps a perfect place to walk with a stroller: wide, paved roads have minimal traffic and loop up a steep enough incline that I felt I had a fair to middling post-cesarean workout without straining my stitches.  I grew somnambulant from the sunny clime and felt I could fall asleep on the sweeping lawns studded with tiny daisies  (except I didn’t; perhaps I’m warped from my German grandmother’s admonition of maintaining appropriate behavior otherwise, she said, after she died she would push a hand out of the earth to point an accusatory finger if I visited her grave).

My baby and I took a circuitous route and marveled at the pyramid-shaped tombstone, the concrete dog, the Egyptian Sphinx, the countless Angels. We pondered life and death (well, at least I did whereas the baby, with synapses firing, might’ve noted the pleasant vibrations of the stroller). I considered our ancestors, our parents, and the baby’s family tree; with every beginning there is an ending, and then a new beginning. It is not so much a note of sadness as a reminder that we live once in this lifetime, no matter whether we believe in reincarnation or the laws of physics that say energy cannot be destroyed or created, that it only changes form.  Kahlil Gibran wrote, “If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life. For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” I keep my eyes open, appreciate each moment, revel in the existence of my daughter, and thank those that came before us, who ultimately gave us life.

We wandered around, noting names and dates. History resonates in any cemetery, and Cypress Lawns vibrates with famous and colorful characters: Hubert Howe Bancroft (1832-1918), a man with seriously impressive muttonchops and handlebar moustache, whose extensive book collection became the foundation for the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley; Arthur Brown Jr. (1874-1957), an architect involved in building San Francisco’s City Hall, Coit Tower, Opera House, War Memorial Veterans Building, and the Transbay Transit Terminal; Charles de Young (1845-1880),  of the Chronicle newspaper and the San Francisco art museum; John McLaren (1846-1943), the nature lover who transformed a desert of sand dunes into Golden Gate Park; the Hearst family, beginning with the patriarch, George (1820-1891), who trekked with his wife from Missouri to California, made a fortune in mining precious metals, and started the Examiner; the Hearst matriarch, Phoebe (1842-1919), a woman interested in archaeology, anthropology, and education, who donated $21 million dollars to philanthropic causes; the most famous Hearst, the media mogul William Randolph (1863-1951); and my favorite local celebrity, Lily Hitchcock Coit (1843-1929), also known as “Firebelle Lily,” rescued by firemen from the Knickerbocker Engine Company when she was a ten-year-old living on Telegraph Hill, and who ultimately donated an impressive $100,000 to build the Washington Square Monument and Coit Tower. The affluence and prestige of the interred make this cemetery top-notch in terms of looks and history.

             The only drawback to Cypress Lawns is the nearby shooting range that, of course, makes a thunderous racket. (Another drawback might be the maintenance men in their white trucks who sometimes gave me funny looks as I posed my baby in her carriage next to a particularly cool crypt.  Ah, did I feel like a weird San Franciscan in those moments!)

             The baby and I headed in the direction of San Bruno Mountain, which was a lovely golden-green from the recent rain, reached the edge of the cemetery, and made our leisurely way downhill.  We stopped to throw a woolen blanket on the lawn (making sure there was no grave underneath) to do a diaper change.  How pleasing that baby could be free and naked in the sunshine! And when she decided to wail and fuss, there wasn’t anyone to bother.  We got back on track, stopping here and there so I could jot down a cool name from a 19th century tombstone, while baby glared over the edge of her binky at the different statues. The shadows had grown long and dramatic by the time we reached the car, surrounded by honking geese. The late afternoon is perhaps one of the best times to visit as you have the sun setting over the trees in the west, the intense angle of light in the necropolis, and San Bruno Mountain is lit up in the east. 

            On a final baby-related note, if you are in need of diapers or a toilet (with a baby-changing table), Babies R Us is half a mile away. I must warn you that every time I go to that store, I am surprised by the restroom’s filthy state. Given the options, I would rather change my baby under a craggy old cypress next to a marble tombstone on any day.

Selected Old-Timey Names:

Gals: Minna, Elise, Martha, Margaret, Emily, Bezy, Myrtle, Gertrude, Charlotte, Violet, Viola, Olivia, Fannie, Derothy (yes, that’s right—not Dorothy), Helen, Eda Maria, Philena

Guys:  Jacob, Harry, Henry, Hugh, Frederick, Boudewyn, George, Edwin, Garnet, Jas, Adolf, Fred, Oskar, Fritz, Rudolph, Cyrus

What and Where?

Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, 1370 El Camino Real, Colma, 94014. Open 8am to 5 pm. (www.cypresslawn.com) 

Babies R Us, 775 Serramonte Boulevard, Colma, 94014. (650.449.5106)

Last Hiked:
            Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Note about Urban Hikes in General

Living in a city makes me crave the outdoors, and thus gravitate towards any urban hike I can find. The more remote, the better, I tend to think. Give me flowers and fields, forests and craggy hills, and all the while the comfort that I’m a relatively short distance from home and any convenience. However, an urban hike is still in a city and subject to any of a city’s problems. For this reason perhaps:

  • Hike with another adult.
  • Bring a cell phone.
  •  If you experience trepidation about a trail or strangers you encounter, you might as well follow your gut feeling and leave the hike for another day.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Nearly Secret Hike: Bayview Hill of San Francisco

           Anyone cruising north into San Francisco on the blighted 101 freeway will notice a wind-swept, semi-wooded hill pressed against the bay, shadowing Monster Park Stadium, looking desolate, wild, and unexplored. This is the forty-four acre Bayview Hill in the too often-overlooked southeastern quadrant of San Francisco. Some of its best features are the panoramic views of the city, sweeping from Twin Peaks to downtown to the Bay Bridge, Mount Tamalpais, Mount Diablo, San Bruno Mountain, and the glistening expanse of the bay. Given its isolated location—although ironically in plain view of thousands of passing motorists—and a single access road, Key Avenue, this is a truly secret hike; since it is not a popular walkway, it is one of the most diverse natural resource areas in the city.

The Baby Factor

      There is a one-mile hike that circles the top of the hill; the “trail” is an old paved road that a chunky-wheeled stroller could manage. Although you’ll begin with a steep uphill for a quarter mile, my husband and I hiked it with a thirteen-day-old baby in a sling. Sport strollers with chunky wheels could manage just fine. We encountered a small family with a six-year-old girl (intensely curious about peeking at our baby!) who hiked like a champion. Given the isolated location of the park and its infrequent visitors, I recommend that at least two adults hike together. People tend to allow their dogs off leash, but the two dog owners we encountered leashed their pooches when they saw my husband, baby, and I coming up the trail.


Bayview Hill is made of broken bedrock and silica rich mud interlayered with beach sand buried and baked to form chert and sandstone layers. Before the Spanish arrived, this was the stomping ground of native Ohlone people and home to grizzlies, elk, wolf, and deer. Tenuous reminders of these days are evident in native bunchgrasses that have survived the centuries, like California brome (Bromus carinatus) and June grass (Koeleria macrantha), which elk and deer ate. The hill became a park in 1915, but the city has sliced and diced it, shoveling away large sections for Monster Park, the football stadium to the east, and the dump to the west across the freeway. Current erosion from the days of rock quarrying continues to threaten certain sections of the park, mostly in the northern area.

Your Day Begins

Start your day by packing picnic food, water, sun protection, and hiking gear since you won’t find stores, restaurants, or restrooms up there. The closest public bathroom is in Candlestick Point Recreation Area (drive down Key Avenue, turn right on Jennings Street, right on Jamestown Avenue, driving along the football stadium until reaching Candlestick Point on the other side) or at Gilman Playground.  My husband and I merely changed diapers en route to the top of Bayview Hill, sitting in the shade of blue gum eucalyptus.     
There is one paved, circular road (which I call the “trail”), accessible by car for park officials but traversable by foot for others. Access it by driving up Key Avenue to the car barrier, park, and start your hike. You’ll go uphill for a quarter mile or so; stop to look over your shoulder at the unfurling view, take photos, notice the solitude, the blue scrub jays in the oak trees. You’ll reach a forest of blue gum eucalyptus and pines on the crest, and there’s a three-quarters of a mile loop around the apex of the hill. On the south side you'll find a snag, a large, dead tree on the top of a rise; this is a good opportunity to discuss with an older child how dead trees provide vital habitat for many insects and birds like woodpeckers and nuthatches. Watch for the relics of old staircases and retaining walls built by the WPA decades ago, while being conscious of the fragile plant and animal species, and treading carefully through the different habitats of grassland, forest, and scrub. If you charge down unofficial trails with eyes half-shut, you could bowl into patches of poison oak.


            Bayview Park is home to many animals, including the typical San Francisco raccoons, mice, pocket gophers, striped skunks, and Virginia opossums. Lizards and salamanders slither about, and you might see several harmless snakes basking in the sun, or eeling through the grasses like garters—maybe even the Pacific ring-neck snake, which diets on earthworms and the like, and whose tail corkscrews when it is threatened. If lucky, you might see the endangered Mission Blue butterfly (Icaricia icarioides missionensis), with blue or brownish wings bordered in black, fluttering on one of the lupine plants it needs for survival. More common is the small Acmon Blue butterfly with black spots and an orange splash on its delicate, silvery-blue wings.
            Bird watching is quite good with the likelihood of spying various raptors, including great horned owls, noisy scrub jays, and kestrels. A positive aspect of the plentiful blue gum eucalyptus trees on the apex of the hill is that they provide nesting for several species of hawk.  There are also smaller birds such as sparrows, meadowlarks, and wrens; goldfinches and nuthatches breed here.


There is plenty of plant life to appreciate. Besides the ubiquitous, invasive blue gum eucalyptus trees, you can find Coast live oak, mostly in the southeast part of the park. Seek out the native, sensitive Islais cherry (pronounced is-lay, the Ohlone word for cherry) with coin-shaped, serrated-edged leaves.
If you adventure here in the spring or summer, keep watch for the rare coast larkspur (Delphinium patens), a sun-loving perennial with violet colored, star-shaped blossoms. According to San Francisco Recreation and Parks, Bayview Hill is the only place left in the city where you can find it. Also look for San Francisco collinsia (Collinsia multicolor), the San Francisco Blue-Eyed Mary, an endemic plant that has been destroyed in other local habitats. It’s a shade-loving herb with serrated leaves and clusters of pale lavender, multi-lobed flowers which bloom in the spring. You find it in the southwestern section of the park. At the trailhead on Key Avenue, there is a waterproof chart of wildflowers that bloom in the spring here. 

Bayview Hill is a wonderful place to hike and picnic; you can imagine yourself in an eagle’s aerie, lifted above the traffic and chaos of the city. Hopefully the native plants and animals will survive and thrive in the future; for now, appreciate them with meditative awareness and share this park with people you love. Come here seeking open land, plants, and animals—not people or conveniences.

What and Where?

Bayview Park Brochure:
San Francisco Recreation and Parks Natural Areas Program:
Candlestick Point State Recreation Area (where you’ll find a public restroom):
Gilman Playground:
(Giants Drive at Gilman, across from Monster Park)


Heading south on 101:
-Exit towards Cow Palace / 3rd Street
-Follow signs for 3rd Street / US 101 N / Bayshore Blvd N
-Stay right at the fork, follow signs for 3rd Street / Bayshore Blvd S
-Left on Bayshore Blvd
-Continue on 3rd Street
-Right at Key Avenue

Heading north on 101:
-Exit 429B / 3rd Street
-Right at Key Avenue

Monday, October 12, 2009

When Birth Plans Go Awry

Too early to get up. Four in the morning. It's dark outside and fog envelops the house. It is about twenty-four hours before giving birth to my first baby. I've had visions of feeling contractions, of water breaking, while in the comfort of home, and of walking the hills until my dilation sends me to the hospital where a midwife will keep post over me. I've had visions of a natural birth where I push and labor until my partner catches the child and cuts the cord, and no doctors wheel my daughter away for tests. 

My plans have gone awry from having a natural birth sans drugs, to having a scheduled C-section due to the baby's obstinate transverse position across my pelvic bones. I fear the labyrinth of hospital red-tape, the medical bureaucracy, the recovery of the body. I'm still coming to terms with the notion of the cosmic crapshoot, that a strong will can be bent by the decisions of others, particularly that of a tiny baby whose tangible signs of life are ripples and flutters under my skin. It is a questionable irony to feel in control of another--the one you conceived with your partner--and find out that their phantom movements are more powerful and shape-shifting than your own brawn.

I was born on a renovated World War II tanker off the coast of Florida to a father who delivered me and a mother who smoked cigarettes between contractions. "So your birth makes a good story," says my mom when I cried to her the other day about fear of going under the scalpel. "So what?" She and my dad desired to be on the open sea during my birth; but if they were, things would be far different in my life now. The placenta that nourished me never came out on its own accord, and so my mom began to hemorrhage; luckily the ship was moored at the port of Jacksonville, and it was a short drive to a hospital for sedation, scraping, and recovery. 

Still, it is hard not to feel confused in the face of information and advice coming my way: an article about "orgasmic moms" in the local, free paper Common Ground; a British magazine article called "Hippie Mama" about Ina May Gaskin's midwifery experiences in rural Tennessee. My big sister Tanya--a strong-willed, politically charged woman-- gave birth to her son Kekoa exactly the way she wanted it, forsaking drugs and medical interventions, even through the agony of perineal stitching at the end of the experience. She called me yesterday to assure that my daughter will be here soon, and that her health is of more importance than the method in which she enters this world.

I don't plan to post writing like this, of such a personal nature that perhaps leaves too much exposure, and thus a possibility for feedback I might cringe about.  I try to focus on the not-so-distant future of hiking the hills and exploring the neighborhoods of San Francisco with my daughter in a sling or a stroller, and of disseminating information about outdoor places to go in a day's jaunt, of cafes where you don't have to wield diapers on the bathroom floor, of hidden spots where a parent and child in the city can still feel grounded, connected to the earth. 

In the time being my focus is myopic. "When you see her face," my sister told me, "it will all be worth it. It'll be your birth story and it'll be great." I shall keep those words in mind and heart. Thank you, Tanya. 

Friday, October 9, 2009

Spectacular Views and Wildlife: A Day in McLaren Park of San Francisco

            To experience a hint of what San Francisco was like before it became a vibrant city—golden, rolling hills covered in wild grasses, raptors soaring above—venture to the rarely-trodden southeast corner where you’ll find McLaren Park, from which you will see splendid views and encounter wildlife in the middle of a city. John McLaren Park’s 317 acres make it the second largest park in San Francisco after Golden Gate Park, and it is much more diverse.

            Start by going to Leland and San Bruno Streets in Visitation Valley. Leland Street has a funky selection of neighborhood stores, a library, and a post office. Stock-up at Latin bodegas like La Loma Produce and Casa Lopez Produce, where you will find pyramids of fruit, delicious queso fresco (fresh cheese), homemade pico de gallo salsa, and chicken or pork tamales, wrapped and ready to eat on the road; or sample goodies from a to-go box of Chinese dim sum at Happy Family (makers of excellent homemade dim sum); or taste the well-endowed tacos or a sizeable mojado burrito at Nayarit Taqueria; or drink your morning coffee and have a bagel at Joe Leland Café. If you need to change your baby, be warned: there are no restrooms equipped with changing tables.

            When you’re ready to ramble with provisions and water, head to Rutland and Leland Streets, where you’ll take a right turn on Rutland, walking north uphill to McLaren Park. Turn left at Wilde Street and continue to the golden mountain (which will be kelly green in the rainy season) of McLaren Park.

My favorite route begins on the upper half of McLaren Park where Wilde Street dead-ends; circumnavigate from the southeast to the southwest, crossing Mansell Street near Persia Street, the outer edge of the park, and continue in a loop from the northwest to the northeast. Mansell Street bisects the park into two halves: the wild, wooly southern side, and the groomed, watered northern side. Both sides have their virtues and should be explored.    

From Wilde Street start your journey through McLaren Park by taking a meandering concrete path up the slope towards a defunct observation tower on the top of the hill where Monterey cypress grow. The views are beautiful—at sunrise you’ll see the Bay turn golden and a stream of seagulls riding the airwaves; at sunset you’ll see sinuous tongues of fog creep in from the Pacific, and maybe a moon rising over Bay View Hill to your left; throughout the day you’ll see the spectacular geography of eastern San Francisco, the valleys and communities, the undeveloped San Bruno Mountain to the south, and a sweeping vista of the East Bay. Take notice of the Gleneagles International Golf Course south of you; there’s a friendly bar with drinks and some food. Avoid going further south or you’ll leave the park; instead, explore the paths traversing the upper flanks of the park and keep an eye out for falcons, osprey, hawks, and kestrels, especially if you visit in the late fall to early winter during migration season. With patience, you might spot the rare raptors: the Northern Goshawk, or a turkey vulture. My husband has found coyotes on his evening stroll, and the grasslands are habitats for California quail, raccoons, skunks, and opossums.

            You will see the 80 foot blue water tower in the northwest corner long before you arrive there—sit at its base, feel the ocean wind, and enjoy a spectacular view of the Pacific on a clear day. Heading east on the paved trails, you’ll find the reservoir where folks swim their dogs and joggers regularly run. Following eastbound paths, you reach McNab Lake on the lower perimeter of the park, where you can find hummingbirds, crows, sparrows, and Great Horned Owls. You may see an endangered Grey Fox in the riparian habitats of the southeast parts of the park. If you stay further uphill, you’ll reach the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, an impressive hemisphere with hints of Greek architecture, and a public restroom in a nestle of eucalyptus trees and blackberry bushes.

            End your hike where you began—making your way back to Leland Street for another chance to buy that fabulous mojado burrito at Nayant Taqueria or eat homemade Chinese food at Happy Family that you passed up earlier in your eagerness to enter McLaren Park. Your dogs will be barking (those holding you up), and you’ll feel accomplished for having explored part of San Francisco that still feels rural and wild.


What and Where?

Joe Leland Café,  28 Leland Ave.

Happy Family, 107 Leland Ave., 333-8999

Nayant Taqueria, 98 Leland Ave., 587-7721

Casa Lopez Produce, 58 Leland Ave., 586-4745

La Loma Produce #2, 65 Leland Ave., 239-7520


Relevant Website:

Friends of McLaren Park Website with lists of plants and animals: