Although we've lived in the city for nearly 10 years now, I've never been to the top of Strawberry Hill in the center of Golden Gate Park's Stow Lake, an emerald doughnut of water where you can rent over-priced paddle boats and dinghies.
Skip the boats. The free hike is too much fun.
Note: If you're going with a 4-year-old girl who screams with terror every time she watches the Wonder Pets (the Wonder Pets! The animal world's most docile show tunes-loving superheroes!), I'd also skip any city legends about ghost nuns roaming the grounds for matins every night or the haunted specters of turn-of-the-century suicides come back to ceaselessly mourn the loss of their souls. Just a suggestion.
It took us about an hour to slowly make our way to the top of the hill, which rises to about 400 feet. We started at the lake boathouse and twisted around to one of the stone bridges to reach the island, feeding ducks and geese along the way. My wife hates geese because when she was a child, one of them turned on her and started biting. Our daughter had a similar experience on this hike, and she spent the rest of the day casting sideways glances at the wild birds, as if they might turn on her at any moment. I spent the rest of the hike thinking about Dana's response once Emme told her what happened: "Yes child, I understand. Have you ever heard of the devil? He is made of geese."
From the looks of them, I think Dana has a point.
Just beyond the bridge, Emme spotted a turtle digging in the dirt along the path. She grabbed my leg and then wordlessly pointed. We crouched down in silence for a long time, watching the turtle lay eggs. Later, I told her about a book I just read -- The Story of Edgar Sawtelle -- and how the main character and his dogs ate turtle eggs to survive in the Wisconsin outback. The story put an unnecessary edge on the quiet miracle-of-life moment we had just witnessed, and the child made me promise I wouldn't dig up the eggs for breakfast. (See note above about over-sharing with your 4 year old.)
We continued the hike and were nearly at the top when Emme spotted a spray of tree stumps. She spent a few minutes jumping between them, while I enjoyed the view of the city skyline in the distance, a few skyscrapers rising above the cover of park trees. San Francisco is filled with parks and I always enjoy the feeling of getting lost in the city -- there is a perfect blend of urban and nature here, and the hike to the top of Strawberry Hill personifies this.
Back in the 1890s, one of the landowners in what would become the Sunset District built an observatory on top of the hill -- a castle-like fortress where people could take in the city and the surrounding wilds. It was supposed to be "earthquake proof" and so naturally it crumbled after the 1906 quake and is now a small series of pocked ruins and steps. Emme was pretending she was a mountain goat, scampering from pock to pock, when a mom and her three kids happened upon us. The kids saw Emme and wanted to imitate her, and so we all spent the next 20 minutes listening to their mother scream, "Be careful! No! Don't step there! Be careful!" Even Emme started staring at the woman, as if to say, "Just freaking let your kids play, lady." I would normally go on a tangent about how loud and obnoxious city parents are, how over-protective and nurse-maidy. But about five minutes later, while crouched above a gopher hole, I saw the sand suddenly shift and screamed while clutching at Emme. The shrieks turned heads and I felt only shame when my daughter said, "Calm down, daddy, it's only a gopher. Geez."
I'm not sure if Emme has a memory like an elephant or I just have the memory of a sieve, but either way she keeps bringing up things I've promised to show her, such as how to light a fire. Although I have a vague memory of telling her the broad strokes of "To Build a Fire," I'm pretty sure I'd never promised to show her how to burn down a city forest. So I compromised, showing her the implements required for a fire but not working hard enough to actually light one. Someday she'll figure out it takes a solid 30 minutes of effort to get anything that even remotely resembles heat.
On the backside of the hill, we climbed down the steps at the side of Huntington Falls, a man-made waterfall that leads to a series of stepping stones. The stones were a great treat and we spent a long time jumping about, pretending to almost fall in the water before the other came to the rescue.
We had a great time feeding the ducks, running from geese and gophers, climbing forgotten ruins and risking our bodily warmth while skipping at the edge of the cold water. In the end, we hiked around for nearly three hours, stopping for wild blackberries and fennel or just to marvel in silence at something, such as the turtle eggs or the juvenile red tail hawk we saw perched in a tree. If you're going on this hike, I'd recommend bringing a lot of bread for the birds and to prepare to spend more time than you think: There are miracles everywhere. And maybe, if you're lucky, ghosts.