“Alex, you’re a bit of a nut, you know that?”
Even my own mother was questioning my sanity.
I had just told her October’s resolution, which was no gas- and electric-powered transportation. That meant no cars. No taxis. No buses. No subways. And since I’m irrationally terrified of city biking and haven’t ridden a Razor scooter since Junior High, that left just walking.
As a friend put it, “What started off as a noble endeavor is quickly spiraling into self-inflicted torture.” This month was way out of character. The only outdoorsy thing about me is my lumberjack-like chest hair. I’m not particularly environmentally conscious (in high school, I “protested” Travel Green Day by driving to school twice and spraying aerosol cans when classmates complained). In fact, as a teenager, I lamented that Italy sucked because there was “too much walking.”
So yeah, I’m a gas-guzzling, electricity-draining, spoiled American. As September transitioned to October, I was prepared for a real kick in nuts.
On October 1st, I laced up my Vans, slung on my backpack, and trudged off for work.
It was a rare hot, sunny day in San Francisco—a good omen, I thought. I needed to drop something off, so I detoured 15 minutes south before rerouting towards the office.
There are days when you realize how beautiful your city is, and this was one of them. I strolled by green grasses, gazed at the pastel-colored Victorian houses, and made goofy faces at the dogs passing by.
At around the time I passed my second park I thought, “Weird… I should be able to see downtown by now.”
I walked another block. No closer. In fact, it felt like I was moving further away.
I had just walked three-quarters of a mile in the wrong direction.
I’ve jokingly referred to my sense of direction as my worst quality, but there was nothing funny about that moment. My pleasant stroll turned into a labored slog—the beautiful sunshine now just hot solar radiation.
One hour and 3 miles after leaving my apartment, I stumbled into work. I looked like Death’s sweaty cousin. My backpack stuck to my drenched shirt as beads of sweat poured down my face.
I slumped into a chair, kicked off my Vans, and took a deep breath. My back was sore. My feet were sorer. My pride was sorest.
To be fair, if I had any internal compass whatsoever, October might have gotten off to a better start. But the ramifications hit me—I was stuck. I could go only as far as my legs would take me. Now everywhere had to be evaluated by its walkability.
And I needed to change my fucking shoes. I gladly subbed out my Vans for more functional running shoes, even if I lost style points for sporting them with jeans (a.k.a the “Jerry Seinfeld”).
Those shoes would soon be tested.
On the first Saturday in October, UCLA football was playing Berkeley. Thanks to September’s resolution, I had not watched a second of my alma mater’s football program. I wanted to go. One problem:
A 5 mile body of water called the San Francisco Bay.
I checked to see if bikes were allowed on the Bay Bridge. They weren’t. BART used electricity. Unless I wanted to swim, I was out of options. And then suddenly:
It just popped into my head. Wind power! I was in business!
But where to get said sailboat on 5 days’ notice?
I asked friends that sailed. I Googled. I Craigslisted. Three rejections and two hours later, I had reached an agreement with a fellow by the name of “Captain Josh” to sail myself and 10 friends across the San Francisco Bay at $40 a pop. And alcohol was allowed on board.
Here we go sailgating! Initiate fistpump!
When the day arrived, I laced up my new pair of Nikes and ran two miles to meet Captain Josh. After getting lost (shocker) with just five minutes to spare, I broke into a dead sprint. I wasn’t going to be late. I had a sailboat to catch, goddamnit!
Luckily, I arrived on time and introduced myself and the group to Captain Josh, a mid-thirties guy with Top Siders and a sweaty upper lip. We boarded and headed out, ready for a luxurious booze cruise. Unfortunately, Captain Josh had to use his gas motor to navigate out of the pier—strike one. After five minutes, he said, “so we can turn off the motor and put up the sail now, but just so you know, the wind will basically tilt us sideways.”
I took stock of our group. One of my friends—to preserve her identity, we’ll call her “Shelley”—was already turning shades of green from the rocky waters. Her boyfriend, we’ll call him “Todd,” was shoveling Cheez-Its into his face by the handful, his drunken eyes moving independently like a chameleon’s. We were not fit for a 45 degree tilt.
So I took one for the team. “Fuck it. Let’s use the motor.”
The next 90 minutes were gorgeous—blue seas and bluer skies. I didn’t care that we used more gas than an SUV—the opportunity to enjoy the ocean breeze underneath the majestic Bay Bridge was too good to pass up. Exceptions needed to be made.
But the trip didn’t end when I hit dry land. While everyone else loaded into cabs en route to the stadium, I stretched for my second run of the day. I was not in good shape—my muscles were tired and the post-workout meal of Maker’s Mark and Coke was not exactly replenishing. But I gave myself a quick little pep talk and off I went.
A few minutes into my jog, my brother—who could barely form full sentences at that point—ditched his cab and came barreling onto the sidewalk. I was glad to have a companion for the 3 mile trek ahead. But what followed was one of the dumbest, and most dangerous things I’ve ever done.
Running three miles when you’re out of shape is dumb. Running three miles when you’re out of shape and hammered is dumber. Running three miles over bridges with tiny sidewalks, heavy traffic, and laughably small “guardrails,” all while out of shape and hammered is just fucking moronic. There were several moments when I pictured my mother’s reaction after being notified that her only two sons were lying in adjacent hospital beds.
But an hour later, we made it. It took a 2 mile run, a sailboat, another 3 mile run, and several near-misses, but for a brief few hours, I was king of stupidity at the Berkeley game.
Captain Josh offered to give us a discounted ride back, but I opted for BART. When faced with the option of breaking October’s resolution or enduring The Amazing Race Part II, the decision was quite clear. Fuck. That.
After the ill-fated first try, my later walks to work were less sweaty, but much… well, livelier. One of San Francisco’s defining characteristics is its multitude of districts, which change in a matter of blocks. Case in point: five minutes into my morning walk to downtown, I went from a quiet residential neighborhood to smack dab in the middle of the Tenderloin.
I hate to be coarse (not really), but if San Francisco was the human body, the Tenderloin would be the unwashed butthole after a battle with a spicy bean and cheese burrito. In fact, it’s not particularly uncommon to walk through the Tenderloin and see a scraggly homeless man wiping his actual butthole with discarded trash. Nor is it uncommon to see the ground littered with dirty needles, urine puddles, and human blobs rolled in patchwork carpets.
So twice a day for 31 days, I got to mingle with San Francisco’s best and brightest. Needless to say, I walked quickly.
It could’ve been the environment, but I found walking to work to be a mixed bag. Doubling my morning commute time—especially when things at work were heating up—added stress. I couldn’t get into that Zen-like meditative state. Watching bus after bus whoosh by—on one walk, I counted seven—did not particularly help matters. But there were positive aspects. I lost 5 pounds in 31 days. My day was brightened each morning while exchanging friendly “hello’s” with a kind-faced, older gentlemen lounging on his front porch. And I got to experience the sights and sounds of my city in a new light.
Weekends were another beast altogether and I was usually forced to play the role of social outcast. Birthday party for a close friend in Napa? “Yeah… not gonna make it.” Roommate needs a ride from the airport? “Really wish I could, but my hands are tied.” Friday night outing in distant North Beach? “I think I’ll just go to McTeague’s.”
As the remaining October days dwindled, I reflected on my progress. I could knock out 2 mile walks no problem and my calves had turned rock-hard. In aggregate, I walked over 120 miles in a month—enough to make it from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. No transportation wasn’t as soul-crushing as no music, nor as psychologically taxing as no swearing, but it was hard-core. When November 1st came, I was more than happy to resume my post along the 38 bus line.
Unfortunately, things would not get easier. Not by a longshot.
In November, I would take penny pinching to a new extreme and attempt to live off of $8 a day.