San Francisco is latticed with places perfect for contemplation; Fort Funston is just such a bastion to sit back and let the world wash over you.
It’s a common practice of mine now to take a last-minute hike before some lengthy air travel departing from San Francisco. Having missed the Christmas holiday with my family — the byproduct of a series of bleak events that ran the gamut from odious price hikes and multi-day cancellations to the first signs of Omicron’s grip on San Francisco — I was hesitatingly eager to return back on the East Coast. But this looming trip comes with a specific heaviness; that unmistakable weight afforded by apparent goodbyes.
The past three years have seen the health markers for various members of the family decline at a dizzying rate. My maternal grandmother’s Alzheimer’s has progressed to a point that it’s now affecting her motor skills; she can still, however, recount the July evening when we huddled inside a staircase closet in our Dallas, Texas home as tornado sirens rang. My mother’s father — my last-living grandfather — is a man of gobsmacking synaptic prowess, who’s still a practicing civil engineer at 84 years old; he, though, remains an ardent anti-vaxxer and has recently decided to let his kidneys fail on their own accord, forgoing the indignities that connote another round of dialysis. My mother’s multiple myeloma, a rare terminal form of blood cancer that’s insidious symptoms show themselves in shadowed orbs on MRI readings, has gone out of remission; she could have ten months or ten years before conversations over dinner grow silent.
Mortality is a fickle fact of living that most of us, including myself, don’t necessarily heed until it’s square in our faces. Or in the line of sight of someone we love. Or conveyed through a particularly haunting, cementing, visceral form of language. Nevertheless: Death remains the most universal common denominator of the human species.
We are all in a constant state of cellular unraveling; a microscopic metamorphosis into something else intangible, leading us to somewhere else outside our realms on conception. It’s a condition of both satin transformation and tattering I’ve been drawn to as of late, which was more the reason to revisit Fort Funston: An urban greenspace — complete with intact sand bluffs and its very own windy microclimate — that over a century ago was a military base.
Acquired by the federal government in 1900 under its then-name the “Lake Merced Military Reservation,” Fort Funston stands a former harbor defense installation located in the southwestern corner of our city.
In its heyday, Fort Funston included several artillery batteries. located on Skyline Boulevard at John Muir Drive, west of Lake Merced. But its prominence as a West Coast military defense line and weapons production (and storage) center was short-lived; the installation was decommissioned and transferred to the National Park Service in 1963 — where it has since become a beloved local hotspot for hikers, dog walkers, hang gliders, and basically anyone keen on taking in its 200-foot-plus sandy bluffs.
Fun Fact: Today, the largest remaining dune field on the San Francisco peninsula is at Fort Funston.
Parking perpendicular to Skyline Boulevard, I found myself beneath the foot of a steep hill, an incline latticed by a network of ridges and staircases, the latter bit of urban hiking infrastructure a particular interest of mine. Mother Nature’s reclaim of the space is evident throughout, as well. The coos of killdeer soundtrack the still air. Plant restoration projects are sectioned-off by cautionary signage. Dog prints speckle the loose sand. The same medium nestles between my toes as I trudge up the incline — a sensory reminder that grounds me in granular balms of beige. I see a German short-haired pointer chasing after a well-loved frisbee. I smell the cool, crisp tinge of the Pacific crashing not too far away. I’m reminded that life’s contentments fit in its smaller moments; the episodes of sentient existence that live outside the canon of capitalism.
Descending down to the beach below, I take a calculated risk, disrobing and making a beeline to the foamed surf ahead. (Like these impromptu pre-travel jaunts, Coldwater therapy has also grown into a touchstone activity in times of shift; of change; of uneasiness that’s hard to ascribe a lexicon upon.) A wave breaks in tandem with the bowing of my head. As does another. And another. The fridge seawater envelopes me like an embrace — salt on my tongue, water in my ears, eyes closed.
What I can only describe as a sense of appreciation for the privilege of occupying this ziplock bag of proteins and enzymes filled whatever space sat between myself and the rocky outcrop behind. Toweling myself — all the while hawkishly peering to my left and right, should a wayward canine or fisherman pop up in my periphery — made for a similar camaraderie with contentment in just existing, regardless of my internal state of entropy. The mere fact of experiencing the sands of time pass, no matter its length of time, is something to find solace, gratitude, and grace in. Nobody, no one thing leaves this world in the same state when it was either conceived or connected.
Fort Funston’s innate gentleness around surrender eluded me up until this very morning. Yes, I’d hiked the quilt work of gravel trails prior, but its newfound novelism remained elusive. Perhaps that’s because an essential element of relatability and time was lacking prior; the world is quite a different place than it was circa 2019. Though this newfound appreciation for the greenspace (that just so happens to occasionally lend itself to an impromptu fit of meditative skinny dipping) stands as an example of transformation.
It’s a sentiment I can absorb regardless of whether or not I find myself at cruising altitude.