On a clear San Francisco morning, I met Barb Christianson and Sally Jo Dinwoodie, both 64, at a Hunter’s Point neighborhood with new, multi-storied townhouses that can go for a million dollars. Seven of us headed down the hill towards the Bay with the San Francisco skyline and Bay Bridge sparkling.
Christianson, Dinwoodie, and a small group of friends are walking the entire San Francisco Bay Trail by tackling one segment at a time, in order, once a month. After two years, they have covered more than half the trail, both the finished, and as best they can, the unfinished portions.
At the Hunter’s Point Shipyard, we walked past a guard who was fast asleep in the guardhouse. Our plan was to drop down to Crisp Street, the closest street to the water. As we discussed the route, a woman in a Jeep Cherokee drove up to the guard gate and honked her horn to wake up the guard. She yelled at him, and then yelled at us that the area was restricted.
After some disappointed discussion and talk of dissent, we eventually chose to climb back up to the transition area between Hunter’s Point and Bayview, where cultures and economies are pushing against each other. The condos were tidy and neat, but the neighborhood felt like a ghost town. The older neighborhoods had friendly people and more activity but are in serious need of some love in the form of city dollars.
At the bottom of Ingalls, we turned towards the water and were excited to find an open gate to Yosemite Slough and a trail along the water. A field of pickleweed, an egret, and a killdeer’s warning cry were familiar signs of a tidal marsh. Abruptly, the trail ended in an area heaped with trash and clothes. “This is the Bay Trail. One minute we’re on the trail and the next it dead ends into a homeless camp,” someone said.
The San Francisco Bay Trail is a proposed 500-mile trail that when finished will ring the Bay. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the year the region launched the Bay Trail. To date, public and private landowners have completed 356 miles of trail. The finished miles appear as solid green lines on the navigation map and the 25 regional map cards, and the yet-to-be completed sections as dashed green lines.
Bay Trail project manager Laura Thompson says that some of the dashed lines “represent a vision of how people will experience the edge of the shoreline in the future.” She stresses that the project discourages trespassing, and asks people not to follow the dashed lines. On the ground, only some of the unfinished sections are actually traversable. When they are, the Bay Trail map cards indicate a safe way to navigate those legs.
From the beginning, this group of Bay Trail walkers chose to walk the whole trail. “We stay as close as possible to the Bay. We want to see it. We’re on the Bay Trail,” says Christianson. “We’ve only trespassed maybe five times.”
Dinwoodie says they draw a clear line. “We’ve gone through holes in fences and walked through gates that were closed, but we have never climbed a fence and we don’t go through residential private property.”
On their one-year anniversary, the two women, along with Michelle Dhanak and Adena Kershner, approached a closed gate with a “No Trespassing” sign in Vallejo. The factory inside the fence was shuttered and there was a tempting hole in the fence.
They weighed their options at the gate. The Mare Island Strait lay to their left, and a steep cliff to the right. If they didn’t go forward, they would have to backtrack for miles, and that was against one of their three rules: Stay as close to the water as possible; don’t take shortcuts; and no back tracking.
Their trek had already proven challenging that morning. They had had to climb over slippery rocks underneath the Carquinez Bridge because of a trail gap. There’s a vision for the trail to cross Interstate 80 further north at Sonoma Boulevard, but for now, it’s nothing more than a dashed line on the navigation map.
After a brief discussion, the walkers slid through the hole in the gate. What they didn’t know was that they were stepping into a red-hot, land-use issue in Vallejo. The shuttered factory was the old General Mills flour plant and the site of a proposed cement plant opposed by many Vallejo citizens. (The Orcem cement plant proposal was withdrawn on May 24, 2019.)
Within minutes, a female caretaker sprang out of an abandoned building with two leashed barking dogs. “You can’t go through here. You have to turn around,” she snarled.
Without missing a beat, Christianson approached the woman (and the barking dogs) with phone in hand. She was polite, showed the caretaker where they were trying to go, and asked if she had any ideas on how they could get through.
The caretaker softened and escorted them to the gate at the other end of the 39-acre property. “Barb won her over,” says Dinwoodie. “We always joke, if there’s a problem we’ll send Barb.”
The walkers celebrated their one-year anniversary that day with beers at the Vallejo Ferry Terminal. Then they called Uber, and returned to their parked cars.
Christianson and Dinwoodie – both working women who are busy with friends and family – met as young moms 30 years ago. They walked the Bay Trail from Emeryville to Albany every Friday night with strollers. The moms kept walking until the Dinwoodie’s degenerative back pain kept her from the trail. Dinwoodie resisted surgery until her doctor told her she’d be in a wheelchair if she didn’t do something. She had the surgery.
Two years later, when she was healing and Christianson had finished the “marathon project” in which she ran a marathon in all 50 states in 10 years, they decided it would be fun to walk the entire Bay Trail. “Just a little bit each month,” Christianson told her friend. “You can do it.” They sent an email to their other female friends. No regrets or RSVPs needed. Just show up if you want to go.
They started in Emeryville two years ago this June. One month after their two-year anniversary, I met the group on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge (it was the first of two times I joined the group on the trail to research this story), when eight of us set out at 8 a.m. Christianson and Dinwoodie are the only two have walked a segment every month since the beginning. Michelle Dhanak, and Annette Williams have done most of them, and plan to schedule make-up walks. A core group of others come occasionally.
Eight of us set out at 8 a.m. We crossed the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge, and stopped at the south overlook for a snack, I asked the group if they knew of anybody else who had done the entire trail. “By the time we finish, maybe there’ll be somebody,” said Dhanak, and everyone laughed.
“We don’t have a day deadline, or a number of miles that we have to go each day,” says Dinwoodie. “We like to do ten miles, but it’s whatever works. We also don’t have a deadline for when we finish. We figure it will take about two more years.”
In fact, several people have walked the finished sections of the trail, according to Thompson. Corinne DeBra has walked around several times, and returned to her car each time. Kurt Schwabe used public transit to walk all the solid lines in 30 days.
The trail through San Francisco brought us to Crissy Field with a stop at the Warming Hut; through a busy Farmer’s Market at Fort Mason; along the scalloped-shaped Aquatic Cove with swimmers doing their laps; and into the bustle of Fisherman’s Wharf and the Embarcadero. We took pictures, patted dogs, and after nine miles of walking boarded a ferry bound for Sausalito and our cars.
“Walking once a month doesn’t get you more fit,” says Dhanak. “Psychologically you get used to walking longer. Your feet hurt, your legs hurt, but you find out you can do it anyway.”
To hear more stories, I met Christianson and Dinwoodie at a café in Berkeley to look at their pictures and the navigation map. As we did, I felt like I was going through a family album with a married couple who had been together for years. They corrected each other and helped one another remember details. And both of them laughed a lot.
“Remember that time in San Rafael when we had to get under the bridge, and that young man on his bicycle helped us?” said Sally. The only route the walkers saw was on a freeway ramp, but the kid led them down a ravine, through some branches, and onto a trail they never would have seen without his help.
On the same day, they had argued about whether or not to try and walk through San Quentin State Prison grounds, or if they should follow the dashed line that skirted it. According to the map, there was a road closer to the water (remember that rule?) that went through prison grounds.
At the northern edge of San Quentin, the naysayers won the debate and the group walked around the prison. But as they walked, they wondered, “If we had called ahead would the prison have let us go through on the road?” Curious, they stopped to ask the guard at the gate on the south end.
Apparently, his jaw dropped. “Are you kidding me? It’s a prison!’” he said.
“He was so cute,” says Dinwoodie. “He thought we were so dorky.”
Napa was difficult; it took them four months of Sundays to get through. A draw bridge that never lowered stymied their progress, and they walked form miles on railroad tracks in the hot sun. One day they had no choice but to walk on the highway because they couldn’t get through an airport, a sanitation plant, and a state wildlife refuge that is open to permitted hunting and fishing, but not through-walkers.
They also had fun in Napa. They walked alongside vineyards in the morning sun, went wine tasting, and had a spa day in Calistoga. “We’ve gone wine tasting four times,” says Christianson. “But who’s counting?”
Back in Bayview at Yosemite Slough, we exited the marsh and walked through an industrial area with people living in RVs until we found our way back to the water’s edge at Candlestick Point State Recreation Area. The sky was blue, and a picnic table beneath a coast live oak tree offered a place for a shared snack.
We walked out to Candlestick Point on the designated trail and found campers (with tents and a permit), dog walkers, and picnickers setting up colorful tablecloths and balloons for a special celebration. “I love seeing how many people love the Bay and are using the trail,” says Dinwoodie, who attributes her good health to walking and a weekly dance date with Christianson at Berkeley’s Ashkenaz.
Upon leaving Candlestick Point, we came to more dashed lines and the need to decide on a route. “We are trying to be faithful to the Bay Trail idea by figuring out the most traversable close-to-the-bay route,” says Dinwoodie.
“These women’s mission appears to be a natural reaction to an unfinished Bay Trail,” says Bay Trail’s Thompson. “Seventy-one percent complete is enough to motivate people to will it to completion by walking its imagined entirety. It gives me hope.”
The two women trail blazers are looking forward to the second half of their adventure in the South Bay, where there are long stretches of completed trail. “We always look for Bay Trail signs. When we find one, we take a picture of it because we’re so proud we’re on the trail. A lot of the time we’re not sure,” says Dinwoodie.
“We’ve always had our stretch of trail that we’ve felt ownership of from Richmond to Oakland. We have that allegiance, and there’s people north of us and south of us who have their allegiances. The Bay Trail is really raising consciousness of the Bay,” says Sally.
Of course, one can’t help but wonder what will happen to the Bay Trail as sea levels continue to rise. Thompson says they are working with other regional and local interests to address unavoidable inundation in some locations. “The Bay Area as a region and individual cities are starting to tackle this,” she says. “It’s important for us to preserve continuity of the Bay Trail as sea levels rise.”
Next month, the conversation, the walk, and the friendships continue.
Top Photo: Katherine Briccetti