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Writers on Writers: Leath Tonino and Rebecca Solnit Take a Ramble

Getting lost with the author of Infinite City.

Wending her way on foot from Potrero Hill through the Mission to reach our designated rendezvous at the corner of Dolores and 22nd, Rebecca Solnit passed a group of middle-aged Latino men drinking Southern Comfort out in front of a garage. They offered her a shot, and she politely declined. Maybe on the way back, she told them. Right now, she had to meet someone for a walk.

That someone was me, and I was excited. I’d been reading Solnit on and off for a decade, first Wanderlust: A History of Walking, then A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and, more recently, Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas: a collection of 22 maps and accompanying essays, each a different version of the city Solnit has called home for the past 33 years. Though I hadn’t yet cracked her new book, The Faraway Nearby, I figured it was one more take on the classic Solnit imperative: The places we live, visit, and travel through—not to mention the ideas, stories, and so-called truths that surround our everyday lives—should be explored from countless angles. Hers is the art of finding worlds within worlds. Who better to stroll with?

Our plan was simple. We’d cut up and over Twin Peaks and continue on to Ocean Beach, stopping along the way to consider raccoons, motorcycles, murals, hawks, cracks in fences, modern architecture, homeless people, you name it. Neither of us knew how many miles or hours it would take to reach the beach. We carried no map. Our plan was really more of an anti-plan. It was an excuse to get lost.

“Walking is meandering,” Solnit writes in Wanderlust, and meander we did: past Dolores Heights mansions, over Market Street on an elevated sidewalk, up a switchbacking dirt trail littered with broken glass. The trail led us to the top of Twin Peaks, where we caught our breath and spun 360s with the tourists before plunging into the “wilderness” beyond. At the head of one of those classic, overgrown, fantasyland San Francisco stairwells, Solnit remarked, clearly delighted, that she’d never been down these stairs before. A short while later, we hit a dead end, a cul-de-sac backed by a eucalyptus thicket. “Normally, I’d be down for a bushwhack,” she said, “but I’m not wearing my bushwhacking shoes.”

Solnit is part nature writer, part historian, part art critic, part lefty polemicist, part philosopher, and part radical cartographer—which is to say that her interests ramble and roam, just like her feet. Walking at her side is not entirely unlike walking with, say, a scent-thrilled terrier: She bounds from one thing to the next, her mind unleashed, energetic, relentless. In the Inner Sunset, she gave a lecture on the dunes beneath the pavement; two more blocks, and it was a discourse on the naming of east-west-running streets. A house with a huge flat-screen television prompted a disquisition on the ways we shut ourselves off from the larger world. Goats found their way into the conversation, though I’ve forgotten how or why.

It got dark. We kept walking. We poked around a vacant lot. Finally, after three or so hours on our feet, we reached the ocean. I took my shoes off and stood at the water’s edge. Solnit stationed herself just out of the waves’ reach, shoes still on, 10 paces to my left.

It dawned on me, standing there, the rush and whir of the surf in my ears, that we’d been talking ever since we’d left Dolores and 22nd, that a mere walk through the city had enlivened us, drawn from us an endless stream of jokes and thoughts and memories and associations (plus some oohs and aahs). It also dawned on me that this was probably what every walk felt like for Solnit, her investigative spirit rendering even the most banal errand a micro-adventure of sorts. And then, the third and final epiphany dawned on me: I was tired.

Of course, we had no plan for getting home. We agreed that finding a bus might not be the worst idea, public transportation in its own way offering a unique version of San Francisco’s geography and culture.

“If those nice guys are still drinking Southern Comfort when I pass by, I think I’ll have a shot,” Solnit said. “I feel as though I’ve earned it.”

Journalist Leath Tonino is a Vermonter residing in the Mission. He’s currently working on stories about the Grand Canyon, the Connecticut River, roadkill in New Jersey, and elephant sanctuaries in Nepal.

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