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Vol.18, no.1
February/March 2015


A Walk in the Clouds 
Story By: Curt Sanburn
Photos By: Jack Wolford

The five-mile straightway of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach terminates at the bluffs of Land’s End in a big, stony embrace called Kelly’s Cove. The cove has been the spiritual home for San Francisco surfers since the 1940s, well before leashes and wetsuits. In fact, it was at Ocean Beach that waterman Jack O’Neill developed the first commercially available neoprene wetsuits in 1952, just so he and his buddies could stay out in the fifty-five-degree water. To really warm up, though, there was always a driftwood bonfire going at Kelly’s Cove.

On a sunny afternoon last October, about a hundred mostly older men and women came together along the seawall and on the beach for the tenth annual Kelly’s Cove Reunion and potluck. Wizened and weather-beaten, in tie-dyed T-shirts, shorts and hoodies, these are the old guard of the west side’s tough and proud surf scene. Organizer Jin An “Arne” Wong bullhorned everyone to gather around a small bonfire pit and lit the fire. “This is where it all happened,” he said. “This is where we gathered as a community, where we shared our experience and learned from each other. This place was our coconut wireless.”

Yogi Steve Krolik, or “Zen Buddha,” as he’s known, addressed the crowd: “Our theme this year is the fire,” he said. “The fire that warms us, the fire within. As surfers we need that internal heat, a warm heart.” He blew a conch shell three times as a siren wailed on the Great Highway nearby. He blows the conch, he said, “for the heart, the spirit and the soul of surfers.” 

Then, one by one, members of the group walked up to the fire and tossed into it small flags and spoke the names inscribed on them, names of those who are now gone: “Stan Ross, mat surfer!” one man invoked, tossing his flag into the fire. “Aloha!” the crowd cheered, remembering. “Charlie Grimm, pioneer!” another called. Again, “Aloha!” “Gloria Hickey, bodysurfer and wife and mother!” “Aloha!” … “Da mayor, Bob Flossie!” “Aloha!”

The ceremony was simple and beautiful, like the cold, glassy waves peeling on the sandbars just offshore. Looming above the fire pit was the concrete hulk of the landmark Cliff House restaurant, a San Francisco classic that has presided over the beach from its bluff top at Land’s End since 1863. Back in the glory days of this community of surfers, the San Francisco coastline was a marginal, mostly unvisited place with a checkered past and terrible weather. The weather hasn’t changed, but almost everything else about the headlands has, and the reformation of the urban wilderness where these pioneers surfed has become one of the city’s great successes.

Land’s End and the Presidio are the names given to the foggy twin headlands that dominate San Francisco’s northwestern, seaward section. The two cliff-edged and forested promontories, each rising 370 feet above rocky, coved shores and separated from each other by a creek, comprise the southern shore of the Golden Gate, the treacherous strait that connects San Francisco Bay to the Pacific. The strait was named by American explorer John Fremont in 1846, well before the gold rush of 1849 and ninety-three years before it was spanned by the beautiful vermilion bridge. 

The farther east of the two headlands, the Presidio, marks the narrowest point of the strait. Its rugged bluffs and forests belie its nearly 150-year history as a major military base, home to the Sixth US Army. But before that, in 1794, the Spanish had built an adobe fort on its northernmost point, which they called Punta del Cantil Blanco (point of the white cliff). The Army put a massive fort near the same spot in 1861, which is still there. And finally in 1936, builders of the Golden Gate Bridge rearranged the bluff to make way for its southern approach, with a huge arch overleaping the old fort below. Meanwhile, beginning in 1891, big defensive gun batteries were dug into the bluffs at both the Presidio and Land’s End to discourage enemy ships from entering the bay. In this the guns were successful: They never fired a shot except to practice. 

Farther west, jutting into the wide Pacific, is Land’s End, with its deadly sea cliffs, shipwrecks and panoramic views. During the post-gold rush years of the nineteenth century, it was the city’s premier sightseeing destination, never mind the fog: Thousands of visitors from the East Coast and Europe rode horses or carriages across miles of desolate sand dunes for their first glimpses of the fabled Pacific Ocean. But it was a cold, windy and melancholy place, so in 1868 the burgeoning city decided that the high plateau at Land’s End would make an appropriately remote setting for a two-hundred-acre graveyard for indigents and foreign immigrants. In 1909 the cemetery was dug up and replaced by a greensward and golf course called Lincoln Park, with great views of the Golden Gate and the city’s hilly expanse spreading east and south.

I live a block from Lincoln Park, and I’ve walked the trails threading through it and along the Gate for a decade now. During that time it’s all changed: Where Land’s End was once wild and unkempt, it’s now accessible, civilized and still spectacular. The Presidio, too. Many people don’t know (or don’t care) about San Francisco’s west side, beachy and scenic though it is, because it’s so infernally foggy, especially during summer months when most tourists visit. Guidebooks ignore it or put it in the last chapter under “Other Outings.” But after twenty years’ worth of planning and work, both headlands have been remade into one of the most magnificent urban parklands in the world. It’s a story full of old-time raffishness and magnificence, written with all the civic thoughtfulness—and generosity—required to create great public spaces in the twenty-first century.