Among the top reasons for San Francisco’s popularity as a city is its proximity to wilderness. Your beautiful hike or peaceful retreat is just a car ride away. The curse is that without a car, you are keenly aware of your confinement.
Last week, in need of escape, I decided to break through the city’s barriers with the help of public transportation and Uber. The night before, I carefully planned my route, checking BART timings, estimating Uber fares, and reading reviews about the 10-mile loop I wanted to hike. I was reluctant to over-prepare (strangers’ accounts of terrain and difficulty is only so helpful), but I wanted to be somewhat aware of what lay ahead. Given my recent knee surgery and the more recent heavy rains, I recognized the risks of my endeavor. But my desire to get outdoors was too great.
The morning of the hike, I woke up before sunrise, packed my snacks, donned my hiking boots for the first time in a year, and left home. Just as I was passing a local coffee shop, a barista opened its doors for the morning. Taking it as a sign, I stopped in for a pre-hike treat, but not without waiting in line behind four people who had been camped outside (Another sign, this one validating my need for escape)! Latte in hand, I continued to the BART station. The train arrived shortly after, and twenty-five minutes later, I arrived in Oakland. From there, I ordered an Uber and four minutes later, I was on my way to the trailhead.
We entered the park just as the gates opened. My heart was light, buoyed by the childlike excitement of being first to a prize. I looked at my phone to see how much further we had to drive when my heart sank.
I had no cell phone service.
Through all my maps and considerations, I had overlooked this possibility. How would I call an Uber at the end of the loop? The trailhead was miles into the park and my knee would likely be unhelpful by the end. For a split second I wondered if I should turn around. But I knew I couldn’t face myself if I did.
“Shoot. I don’t have service. I wonder how I’m going to get out of here,” I said to my Uber driver. “I’m sure you’ll figure something out,” she said unconvincingly.
I got out and watched the car drive away. Still early, there was nobody else around. I admitted that maybe it was a bad idea to hike alone. This was no Wild and I was no Cheryl Strayed, but shrouded in layers of morning fog, my sense of alone-ness was especially heightened—and I hadn’t yet even started uphill.
I moved timidly toward the trailhead, partly due to the frigid temperature and mostly due to my worry. The trail began with a mud-slicked uphill path. But I barely noticed it. My mind was filled with plans and backup plans. Walk only three miles, turn back, then walk out of the park the same way we had driven. Walk only five miles, turn back, then find a bus, if it existed, near the trailhead. Walk only five miles, turn back, use a park emergency phone (do those exist?) to contact a park ranger. Go back to the trailhead and make a friend.
All of my options involved turning back because it was slightly more comfortable than going forward. I didn’t know what I would do back at the initial trailhead, but I knew I could figure something out from there by retracing my steps.
There was no knowing what was ahead.
Two miles into the hike, I came to a clearing. The sun hit the trail for the first time, and as I looked out at the view, I saw that I was already above the clouds. It was breath-taking. With the clearance of brush came a clearance of mind. You’re not turning back I told myself. You’re done thinking about this.
And so I walked on. Cushioned by panoramic views of hills, protected by the fatherly figures of redwood trees, I emptied my brain of worry and replenished it with the chirps of birds and the squishing of my boots traversing the mud.
Halfway through the loop, I came to a trailhead which kissed a residential street up in the Oakland Hills. I checked my phone, and to my delight, it had cell service. Now completely at ease, I hiked a few more miles to another clearing then called an Uber to take me back to the center of the city.
As I sat amidst civilization, my thoughts trailed back to my hike. The privilege that caused—and existed within—the problem I experienced was not unobvious to me. But being alone in a time of perceived need was not unique. And not knowing whether to go on or turn back was certainly not unique to me, or to hiking.
Too often in life, we are faced with the two distinct options of continuing forward or going back where we came from. Though temporal continuity makes neither path entirely predictable, the latter is ever-so-slightly more tangible, and thus, comfortable. If we’ve done it once before we can likely do something similar once again. Traveled a second time, the journey is more clear. Its known destination provides the confidence of experience. The memories provide paths for nimble navigation.
And while looking back is easier, moving forward is what life is about. Unexpected delights are only wholly experienced once—and their rewards are incomparable. We needn’t forget the past, but we also needn’t relive it. We can instead incorporate it and its nostalgic comforts into our present.
Yes, this past weekend I hiked a ten-mile loop. But when I ended at the start, I was miles beyond where I had begun.