San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park

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Bika and the author after a hike in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park.

Our Tibetan Terrier, Bika, was very fond of hiking in Buena Vista Park. The oldest official park in San Francisco, it was established in 1867 and was originally named Hill Park. It is comprised of either 36 or 37 acres (various experts dispute this point), and is located almost exactly in the geographical center of the city. The hill around which the park is laid out rises to a height of 575 feet, which is lofty for our coastal metropolis, and is an oasis of vegetation, wildlife and views totally surrounded by elegant residential neighborhoods and popular commercial districts. From Buena Vista Park, you can catch glimpses through the trees of just about any other part of town you want to see.

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View of Marin Headlands and St. Ignatius Church from Buena Vista Park

I suspect that Bika liked Buena Vista Park so much because it is generally a sunny place, just as her own personality was habitually sunny and cheerful. The main hiking trail, which we always began with when we went there, ascends the warmer south-east slope of the hill at just the right angle: you need to be a bit vigorous to make it to the top without excess huffing and puffing, but it’s not so steep that you can’t enjoy the walk without being a seasoned mountaineer, though Bika was definitely in the latter category. The trail is broad there, and lined with towering eucalyptus which sway in the breeze, along with other forms of native and non-native vegetation of the coastal Californian and Mediterranean varieties. Had William Randolph Hearst ever acquired the hilltop and built a castle on it, I’ve often thought, he would have lined this south-east upward-bound trail with flowering orange and pomegranate trees, roses and trellised grape vines, as he did the roads and riding paths leading the last mile or two to the upper entrance gates of his estate at San Simeon. It would have been lovely, but I’m glad he didn’t. The natural effect of the park as it is today is a relief after all the tightly-packed construction and high-density, often artificial living of the surrounding city.

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One of the fires following the Great Earthquake of 1906, as viewed from Buena Vista Park

Once, on this trail, Bika and I encountered two rough-looking customers whose dual Rottweilers made a snarling beeline for Bika the instant they saw her, so that I was forced to pick her up and hoist her to my shoulder lest her rather frail frame be crushed by the bigger dogs or some other horrific incident ensue. The Rottweilers’ owners were indignant that I should do this, saying that it only made their dogs think mine was ready for a fight, but this was something I dealt with fairly often with Bika: she weighed only 30 pounds, and I was forever keeping an eye out for dogs or bicycles or coyotes (we have all three near our house) to appear out of nowhere and rob me of the best friend and companion of all my days. I was perturbed that morning in the park, of course, but looking back on it now gives me yet another pleasant memory of the Bika years to cherish. Because I was able to help her, you see, and she leaped happily down from my shoulder moments later and continued her delighted and smiling ascent to the top.

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One of the elegant houses opposite the entrance to Buena Vista Park, this one designed and built by Ida McCain in 1916

The paths up the the west side of the hill feature gutters constructed by WPA workers in the 1930’s from broken headstones from 19th century cemeteries in San Francisco’s Lone Mountain-Laurel Heights area. Beginning in 1914 and continuing into the 1940’s, thousands of headstones were transported to the immense necropolises of Colma, south of the city (not always with their accompanying human remains), and unclaimed monuments were later broken up and used for landfill and in the construction of seawalls in various parts of town. If you look carefully at the stones used in Buena Vista Park, you can find some whose inscriptions have survived. Searching them out might make for a rather macabre hobby, I suppose, but you might also learn something. My own great-grandfather was one of those whose remains went missing during this period of transmigration of the dead. For all I know, his monument may be visible in Buena Vista Park today, used for the construction of a wall or gutter. Recycling. I really don’t know what to think about this, but it’s an interesting idea.

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View north-west to Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County.

One last thing about Bika’s favorite city park: it contains one of San Francisco’s few remaining coast live oak groves. Buena Vista’s is on the park’s northern slope. All kinds of creatures thrive there, and one reason is that the acorn crop comes in the fall when other food sources disappear and many animals must start preparing for the winter. Sapsuckers drink the trees’ phloem (tissue below the bark which transports sugars throughout the tree); western harvest mice strip the bark; and Botta’s pocket gophers eat the roots of saplings. Birds including brown creepers and nuthatches search trunks, branches and leaves for the many insect species which thrive in live oaks. And here’s a little fact which I really like: some species of squirrels gather nuts for the winter and store them in any available hiding place, usually burying them, and, despite their excellent memories, sometimes forget where their culinary treasures have been concealed. As a result, many a great oak tree has received its start from a forgotten acorn which never made its way to a hungry squirrel’s festive dinner. As for Bika and squirrels, she paid no attention to them. ‘Lower life forms!’ she seemed to think, whenever one crossed her path. When I finally get around to taking one of our recently adopted Tibetan Terriers for its first hike in Buena Vista Park, I’m sure he or she will think exactly the same thing.