Lessons in Walking Uphill

Photograph by Tatiana Dannenbaum

by Maggie Jordan

Every Sunday, I lace up my boots, walk out the door, and begin the steady ascent to the summit of Bernal Heights. There are many hills in San Francisco, but this one is my favorite. Gentle and unassuming, Bernal was a safe haven in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. While other parts of the city liquified and burned, Bernal’s solid chert foundation provided a home to displaced people. Over a century later, I learned to seek refuge in the same iron-red rocks.

In the beginning, I walked up Bernal as a tourist, my very first Philz in hand. The colorful noise of the city, the exhaust fumes and pulsing bass, began to float away as I climbed. Orange poppies bloomed and off-leash dogs frolicked under the summer sun. I stared at the looming skyscrapers and willed myself to believe I could build a life here.

Bernal offered sweet solace the day I moved out of the apartment I shared with an ex, the woman I had moved across the country for. I hid in the tall grass, convincing myself that if I kept very still, time would stop moving forward; if I shut my eyes tight enough, I might open them and find her standing there.

I like to lay at the highest point, where the grass is a lush emerald blanket against maroon sedimentary layers. As seasons pass, I’ve watched the stalks grow long and wild before drying, becoming kindling. For months, Bernal is brown, bald, and subdued.

I hiked Bernal daily in the lonely weeks post-breakup. I told myself that if I was in public, I could not cry. Amid the steady incline, my heart throbbed with exertion and suppressed tears. Humbled by the effort, I sank to my knees, marking two dusty pits in barren soil. Bernal patiently soaked up my tears where they fell to cracked earth, and we waited for the storm to pass.

These hills are not my domain alone; Bernal’s denizens are ever-shifting and varied. Children learn to drive soapbox cars, amateur photographers set up tripods before sunset, joggers swing arms and knock knees, couples share an Anchor Steam. Terriers greet huskies with a sniff to the tail. Raptors soar alongside arrivals to SFO. There might be a coyote, but I have never seen one.

Each spring, I am awed by Bernal’s rebirth. Waves of wildflowers—first something yellow, then pink and white—are followed by brambly blackberries. The eucalyptus tree is always there, growing alongside the rustic stone and wood slat benches. They offer a perch to return to, season after season.

Bernal is where my now-partner claims she first knew she loved me. It was too soon to say then, but those three words hung heavy and tender in the space between us. Bernal held them close until I was ready to release a fresh new breath into the fog.

Sometimes I think I know Bernal; I think I have traipsed every circuitous path. And though I usually walk the same meandering route, subsequent weeks often bring the discovery of a new staircase or another road that leads in. When I grow bold and let my feet carry me without glancing at the ground, I have to slow myself down and remember the moments when I have stumbled, tripped, and fallen again. Each time I slip, I get back up, and I keep climbing.

It was a long, rainy winter with the whole city getting a much-needed wash. Now, spring sun shines on tender new grass, and the clearing of the air unveils a rare view of the Golden Gate Bridge, standing in splendid relief against Marin’s sweeping headlands. For some, this is the emblem of San Francisco. But as my personal geography has been shattered, shaken, and rebuilt, it’s Bernal that keeps a careful watch from the center of the map.

The first roots I laid here were spidery and fragile, desperately entangled with others and easily broken by shifting winds over the bay. They have since grown stronger and learned to weave down through scraggly rocks to find the nourishing soil beneath, bringing forth the life now in bloom.

I’ve learned in San Francisco that memories can entwine with places, imprinting not only on people but on the very landscape of the city. When I think about uprooting again, I wonder how I’ll find myself when I can’t look to the skyline and see the fading colors of the sunset reflected back, awash in pastel possibilities. On my hill, my rock, every blade of grass grew from salted waters. To leave this city is to risk a world of abundance, born of my own ability to persist, and climb into the unknown.

Still, I know that when the day comes and I take my final walk downhill, the old Bernal radio tower will crackle its song over the distance. My roots will stretch and grow and carry with them my love for this place, to transplant and begin anew.


Maggie Jordan joined the magazine as a staff writer this year. She’s a writer at heart, and helps thousands of people find a therapist through Zencare.co. She’s currently in the process of postponing her move back to New York from San Francisco.