San Francisco can be so miserably cold and foggy you have to take a walk to warm up. About three days a week, I suit up wearing several layers of fleece and head out to the walking path that borders the Great Highway next to Ocean Beach.
To the uninitiated, this intersection of land and sea may appear unwelcoming, desolate and grey. It’s grown on me to the point where I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather start my morning.
The path begins where the Great Highway meets Sloat Blvd, just west of the San Francisco Zoo. Built in 1983 by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission with monies from the Clean Water Act, the route is an easy one, stretching two miles from Sloat Blvd. to Lincoln Way, which borders Golden Gate Park. It follows a straight line, with the occasional rise and fall. Its straightforward topography makes the course an ideal choice for small children and old people to recreate, and there are plenty who do.
The salty air assaults and invigorates me the moment I get out of my car. I can’t see the ocean right away as the sand dunes obscure my view, but I can hear the rhythmic sound of the waves lapping the beach.
I look to the right and notice the outer Sunset homes and apartments sandwiched together like a Giant hoagie…grey, brown, white pieces of meat with an occasional tomato or yellow pepper. The bright-colored houses amuse me. I always imagine that the owners are overly optimistic people who think the sun will come out soon. It almost never does.
Barefoot surfers clad in full body wetsuits cross my path and bravely enter the Pacific. They suffer from serious bedhead, but it hardly matters given their sleek physiques. I believe the 55-degree ocean, bracing wind and ubiquitous fog freezes their body fat off.
I mark my progress by the streets that bisect the Lower Great Highway…Santiago, Rivera, Quintara, Pacheco, Ortega, Noriega, Moraga, all named for Spanish explorers and pioneers and in alphabetical sequence, which is reassuring for someone like me who prefers an ordered procession.
The final four street names before the park provide an introduction to 19th century American history: Lawton and Kirkham, two American generals; Judah, the forgotten engineer who dreamed the Transcontinental railroad; and Irving (Washington), the famous American author who wrote the short story Rip Van Winkle.
Golden Gate Park and a large expanse of Ocean beach known as Kelly’s Cove beckon at Lincoln Way, but after nodding to the newly renovated Murphy’s Windmill at the base of the park, I turn around and head back. At Noriega, I cut across the Great Highway and walk the sea wall path next to the ocean where soft grasses and waxy ice plants attempt to hold the bordering sand dunes in place.
I’m not a bird watcher, but I am drawn to the protected snowy plovers that gather in an assembly at the water’s edge. They are small, cute and apparently, very social. They travel in packs of hundreds. From what I have observed, they mostly sit on the beach and talk to each other, an activity that strongly resonates with me.
Amidst the snowy plover convention is a smattering of fishermen who plant their poles in the sand and cast their lines into the approaching waves. They wear hip-high boots and waterproof jackets to protect themselves against the unpredictable surf.
At Taraval, the seawall path ends and I resume my walk on the other side of the highway and a few short blocks to the end. After four miles of strolling in the damp fog and wind, my hair has grown wider and is in desperate need of a flat iron. But my soul has been nurtured by the raw beauty of the Pacific Ocean and the ironic Sunset District beach culture. I’ll sleep well tonight.