I generally do my stretching on the lawn in front of the Conservatory of Flowers. Golden Gate Park, on John F. Kennedy Blvd begins with the Conservatory of Flowers. Painted white, like a white-painted sand castle, the Conservatory stands in stark contrast to the patches of Crayola Crayon Colored flowers scattered around the lawn. The whole scene is woven with the sounds of picnic conversation, wind, the beat of runner’s feet, the humming of bike tires, and the clicking of cameras.
Running from the Conservatory, the tall brown trees with dark green tops sway with the breeze like elephants marching to the sea. On the left is the brown battleship building of the De Young museum, and across the field, the glass-front science experiment of the Science Museum. The knobby trees in the concourse between the two museums is a no-man’s land of tourist, dog walkers, wanderers, and Thai Chi practitioners. From a distance, they look like dots bumping into each other and moving in circles.
In the park, you might see groups of people doing Kung Fu classes, practicing their forms, kicking and punching in unison in a slow fight. On Sundays, if you look to the right, you’ll see a roller skate dance party straight from the summer of 1985, complete with fluorescent-colored shorts and sweat pants. A lot of naked torsos and bouncing pig tails disco-roller- skate-dancing in funky circle 8’s. Each person dances alone like giddy 16 year olds rehearsing for the prom. Across the street from the roller-skaters is an organized, chaotic cloud of people doing the Charleston to swing music swinging from large speakers.
The rose garden is further down on your right. The scent of roses mixed with BBQ smoke and cigarettes smoke smells like a fire in a perfume shop, or Valentines Day on fire.
Couples kiss, children fight, dogs roam. I have seen bikers yelling at cars, cars yelling at me. Once, as I crossed one of the streets, a man in a truck lurched forward as I jogged through the crosswalk. I put my hand up in a thank you, and he - five o’clock shadowed, and baseball capped - slowly and calmly flipped me off.
After the museums, the park flattens out and passes a scattering of fields filled with a swimming mix of families, and hobos, animals and sometimes what appears to be a mixture of both.
Airplanes buzz high above, cars and motorcycles sputter down the street, and thousands of conversations in hundreds of languages collide together, creating a high energy white noise that is impossible to hear and impossible to ignore.
Starting from the Conservatory of Flowers, at every mile there is a water fountain. That’s a great thing for a runner, but what makes Golden Gate Park special is that, each water fountain is equipped with a spigot set high for adult humans, a spigot set a little lower for human children, and then a spigot set at the ground level for dogs. While I can guess that my dog, Auggie loves the park for the respect they give him with the fountains, I’m sure the myriad smells of dog piss, garbage, food, people and plants all wafting in the air are even more intriguing. Regardless, he trots through the park with his nose perched high, sniffing and trying to take in all of the air at once.
The first set of fountains is located at the overpass at Crossover Drive. Beyond the overpass, JFK slopes downward, past a waterfall with green water tumbling out toward a foamy pool, and letting out to Loyd Lake with its single ruin consisting of a porch from a Nob Hill House that was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake; the only one of its kind, strangely. The casual runner should be careful while running past this area as it has been rumored to house spirits and ghostly floating orbs gliding on top of the green water.
To the trained eye, JFK’s side of the park becomes less pruned, and grows wilder. The trees hang over the running path like frozen waves.
Behind the trees, between 25th ave and 30th Ave, and between Fulton and JFK Blvd is a long strip of land laced with paths, hills, and mounds reserved for Frisbee golfers to “tee off” from. These are the goateed cargo short wearing guys, and their reluctant girlfriends. They emerge onto JFK and into their Subaru Outbacks and pickup trucks with eyelids at half-mass, and hovering under a cloud of pot-smoke and beer-breath-stink.
I have seen a crazy man, waving an umbrella like a sword and, as I passed him, he said “I’ll kill you all.”
Continue on JFK, and the runner descends down a slight slope toward Spreckles Lake, a large pool of water that, during the weekends, is the second home for man-children with their model yachts. These replicas bob like miniature society people around the lake. At times there will be small speedboats, skidding and humming along the water. When one of the speedboats capsizes (which is often), you will see a fully-grown man holding a fishing pole with a tennis ball attached the end. He will cast his ball over and over again until it hooks on the boat and either turns it right side up, or drags it to shore, where the fully-grown man will polish the boat and fill it with gas.
At Spreckles, there is another set of fountains for adults, children and dogs.
Keep running for about a quarter of a mile, and the Bison Paddock opens up like a day dream to the past, with six foot tall, prehistoric looking animals, marching regally with their heads high with no recollection that they used to run this town before we showed up.
After the Bison, the park darkens with shadows. The lighter shades of apple-green turn to a deep forest green, and the moisture from the ocean fills the air like smoke. There are less people in this section of the park, and the steep downward slope near the golf course gives the runner the sensation of descending into some kind of a new world. As the golf course breezes by on the right, the trees open up to the grey, mossy brick windmill, standing tall and immaculate, surrounded by hundreds of brightly colored tulips; reds, whites and yellows hugging the base and framed by green grass. The whole scene looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland. The runner then turns around and heads back uphill to see the whole scene in reverse, and the backsides of all the glory.