Marilyn Straka has lived in San Francisco for
over 30 years. She is an
outdoors enthusiast and has explored the neighborhoods and parks of San
Francisco both for exercise and as her hobby. She has retired from her "day job" and is pursuing her seconc career of
offering personalized tours to those with special needs.
Marilyn with her son, Rob, at
by Marilyn Straka
Many guides have been written describing San Francisco and the
variety of ways to explore this fantastic city: bicycle rides, dog
walking guides, restaurant guides, history walks, Barbary Coast guide,
architectural guides and the list goes on. So why are ON THE LEVEL
guidebooks unique? They present easy, spacious walks in a hilly, crowded
city for people of many abilities. These excursions are for people who
want to get out and see the beautiful parks and neighborhoods of San
Francisco but may have special needs - people using electric scooters or
wheelchairs, those who are able to walk a short distance on easy
terrain, or those pushing a stroller. Even beginning roller bladers, who
want to avoid hills, will find that a number of these excursions are
available to you. If you have special needs, you generally have to put
more effort into getting places so you want to have confidence that
everything will work out when you get there. This book is unique because
it is for people who like to plan their excursions in advance.
Useful things I like to know when planning an excursion:
Is there parking available near the starting point?
Are there any designated accessible spaces?
Will there be places to rest? Or to use the rest rooms?
Where will a hill or stairs make navigation difficult?
What is the character and history of the area?
Will there be a public telephone?
Should I bring my own water?
I documented these walks because I only like "good"
While I cannot guarantee "only good surprises," I
hope by following these excursions that unexpected obstacles will be
minimized. Each excursion lists exceptions to the standard features
and includes helpful hints for having an enjoyable outing.
Speaking of surprises, I encourage you to enjoy each excursion over
and over. Through the years, I have walked these paths multiple times
and each time I discover something new. A few highlights come to mind
such as spotting the elusive alligator at Mountain Lake Park - my son
still doesn't believe me! (Mountain Lake
Park), encountering a
"parade" of people in black tie attire as they walked down
Pacific Avenue to a private party (Pacific Heights
East), seeing skunks
at dusk on the edge of the Presidio where Broadway meets Lyon (Pacific
Heights West), seeing baby swans learning to swim (Palace of Fine
watching Robin Williams filming Mrs. Doubtfire (Pacific Heights
and observing a photo shoot for Playboy as the US National Basketball
team posed in their shorts with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background
(Fort Point). After each shot, they would huddle under portable heaters
where my son approached them and got their autographs!
As part of the introduction to each excursion, I have included a list
of themes for repeating the walk (see Marina
example). Teachers will find these suggestions useful for classroom
excursions. If you find an excursion that works well for you, try it
again (and again!) and I'm sure you will notice different things each
time you repeat a walk.
You may wonder why I have included the full text from plaques and
markers along the route when you will be there in person and can read it
yourself. The answer is twofold. When I walk, I like to keep moving.
When my son was younger, he was very active and I found that I would
often have to pass by historical descriptions or markers in order to
keep up with him. By having the full text available in the Points of
Interest, you have the option of familiarizing yourself in advance with
this information. Then, on the actual excursion, you can skim the text
and recall highlights or summarize for a young person in the family or
group and move on more quickly.
Why have I
One of my life-long goals is to help people with physical
limitations. In high school and college my career goal was to be a
physical therapist. Although I ended up being a computer
programmer/business analyst, I have always sought the people-oriented
aspects of the job. I have never forgotten my first career goal and now
hope to do something related for my second career. My booklets and
walks are a natural lead-in to my second career of taking people with
limited access into the out of doors to explore nature.
Having had two knee surgeries and even spending some time in a
wheelchair, I know from experience that it can be very limiting to get
around San Francisco when you cannot navigate hills. After one surgery,
I walked the same block of level sidewalk in front of my Pacific Heights
condo again and again because I was afraid to tackle an incline using
crutches! My time in a wheelchair (in 1981) made me much more aware of
my surroundings, such as narrow doorways, inaccessible bathrooms,
difficulty in turning around, and especially my dependency on others.
By following my own walks, I hope to
be able to explore San Francisco for many years to come
even with bad knees! I also hope to get my mother to San Francisco
(from flat Minnesota) to see that there are level walks in San Francisco
I started thinking about this project
in September of 1996. I was telling my friend Bobbie Coslow about my
idea for a second career which I would pursue when I got my son through
college. I would have my own business where I would take elderly or
physically challenged people on excursions to the Marin Headlands and
other beautiful places even as far as Yosemite places
to enjoy nature that are not easily accessible. Bobbie is a very high
energy person, a breast cancer survivor and a person I greatly admire.
She challenged me to start living my dream now instead of waiting 10
years. Although I was skeptical because of time constraints, about a
year later I started documenting my favorite San Francisco excursions,
many of which are completely or partly on level ground. Gradually, I
saw the possibility of combining the excursions into a book or creating
individual booklets and presenting the excursions as self-guided so
people could enjoy them even without my guidance. My son, Rob, who was
14 at the time, would accompany me on the walks and make a rough draft
of a map for each excursion. I want to thank Rob for his enthusiasm
early on and for the many hours he has helped me with the computer aspects
of the project.
Draft map of Marina Green done by Rob
I would like to thank Adah Bakalinsky for being my mentor on this
project. She learned the ropes while writing her own books and was very
generous to pass her knowledge and encouragement to me. Adah is the
author of my favorite San Francisco walking tour book, Stairway Walks
in San Francisco. I have walked several times with Adah; she is so
knowledgeable and so energetic that she brings the city to life.
Adah Bakalinsky likes hills and steps!
I would also like to thank the people who helped me check out my
walks. Foremost is Ben Pease, my map maker. I was very fortunate to
engage him as he is an excellent map maker, has already documented many
parts of the city and has experience with handicapped accessibility as
well. He got excited about my project and helped me with research and
verification as well as the maps. My designers, Shique Seigel, Leslie
Waltzer, and William Braznell are all very skilled in their profession and were
understanding about the many deadlines. Reenie Albert, Sandra Andrews,
Judy Conroy, Elizabeth Hoffman, Bonnie Lewkowicz, Gene Lloyd, Marge and
Pete Titcomb, and Pat Tuma were
instrumental in making sure that the walks were accurate.
Kudos for technical assistance to:
Janice Anderson-Gram, writer and publisher for Waters Edge Press. See
her beautiful book about poinsettias at www.WatersEdgePress.com.
- Cathy Flanders, President of Flanders
Design. She can be reached at (415) 922-5789.
- Bob Mellin, Publishing Services Director
for Balboa Publishing Corp. See his website at www.mybook.org.
- Margo Metegrano, who worked with me to
design this site. She's the managing editor of CowboyPoetry.com
and maintains other sites.
Special Thanks to Anita Hill
of the Yerba Buena Alliance,
John Killacky and Catherine Mercado of the Yerba
Buena Center for the Arts and Kirsten Maynard of Sony
Metreon for their assistance
with the Yerba Buena Gardens excursion.
Special Thanks to
Steve Haller, Park Historian
for his assistance with the Fort Mason
Special Thanks to
Elizabeth Leep of University
High School, San Francisco Decorator Showcase, and Tracy Taylor
of the Hotel Drisco
for their assistance with the Pacific
Heights West excursion.
Marge, thanks for all your help and
Finally, my mother who is from the plains of Minnesota, inspired me.
She told me on her last visit to San Francisco, "I will not be back
until you flatten out those hills!"