Home / News / Urban Camping, Day 1: Leaving Home

Urban Camping, Day 1: Leaving Home

May 28, 2023May 28, 2023

From the majestic daytime views at Coit Tower to a sleepless night on Irish Hill.

Alta Journal is pleased to present a five-part original series by author and Alta contributor Gary Kamiya. Each week, we’ll publish online the next portion of “Urban Camping.” Visit to keep reading, and sign up here for email notifications when each new installment is available.This Alta Serial is a camping story with a wild twist: It takes place in San Francisco. Kamiya embarks on a four-night, five-day adventure without sleeping in a hotel or at a campground. His aim is to touch each of this seven-by-seven-mile city’s four corners and to immerse himself in its natural beauty and built environment. Carrying a backpack and a sleeping bag (and a credit card), he steps away from the familiar comforts of home to begin his journey.

Monday, May 29, Telegraph Hill. At 11 a.m., I walked out of my apartment on Varennes Street, on the western slope of Telegraph Hill, carrying a backpack with a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, some clothes, and a few other items. I walked up Filbert Street to Coit Tower. When I got there, I stashed my backpack in a closet and climbed more than 250 steps to the top.

I went around in a circle, taking in one of the great panoramas of the city. The Embarcadero. The Bay Bridge. Downtown. Potrero Hill. Bayview Hill. Bernal Heights. McLaren Park. Mount San Bruno. Mount Davidson. Twin Peaks. Golden Gate Heights. Golden Gate Park. The Presidio. The Golden Gate Bridge. Crissy Field. Fort Mason. Fisherman’s Wharf. At my feet, the twin spires of Saints Peter and Paul Church rose up above Washington Square.

The most unexpected sight was a thin blue strip above the Presidio. It was the Pacific Ocean, seven miles away, beyond invisible Ocean Beach. I was seeing across the entire city.

This vast cityscape was always wondrous to behold. But this time, I was seeing it with new eyes. For I was about to backpack through it. I was going to hike across this terrain for five days, carrying my bed on my back, sleeping out in the open for four nights in a row. And the knowledge of what I was about to do turned this familiar landscape into something rich and strange. The landscape before me was an undiscovered world, and I was about to plunge into it.

I went down the stairs, shouldered my pack, and started walking down Filbert Street.

Like London taxi drivers who are required to learn every street and byway in that vast metropolis, I have spent the past dozen years “doing the knowledge” for San Francisco.

When I told people I was going to backpack across San Francisco for five days and sleep out in the open, their usual response was “Why?” There are many reasons, including some I am probably not aware of. But these are the main ones:

First, I love exploring. Discovering new things—whether in the Sierra, while traveling abroad, or in San Francisco—has been a passion of mine for most of my life. I’ve always been fascinated by the great explorers. As a kid, I marveled at the Gjøa, the small but indomitable boat that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen sailed through the Northwest Passage, and which sat forlornly near the Beach Chalet until it was returned to Norway in 1972. When I was researching my first book about San Francisco, I became obsessed with the figures who put California on European maps, the first non-natives who set foot on San Francisco soil: Cabrillo, Drake, Vizcaíno, Portolá, Rivera, Anza. Backpacking across the city was my humble effort to follow in the footsteps of these pathfinders, even if all I discovered was a place to sleep in the sand dunes off Great Highway and Taraval.

Second, I’ve had a lifelong love affair with San Francisco. I have spent more than half a century exploring this city. Like London taxi drivers who are required to learn every street and byway in that vast metropolis, I have spent the past dozen years “doing the knowledge” for San Francisco, walking its streets and immersing myself in its history. Hiking across the city and sleeping out in it was simply the logical culmination of this obsession. This would be the most hands-on—or, literally, body-on—experience of the city I could have: full-spectrum San Francisco.

The sheer weirdness of my plan—reflected in the less decorous reaction of a few of my friends: “Are you out of your fucking mind?”—was also a major selling point. Could I really find safe places to camp out in San Francisco four nights in a row, and if I did, would I even be able to sleep? Before I left, a friend told me that one of her friends had been a juror on a trial in which a homeless person was accused of murdering another homeless person by stabbing them with a screwdriver. Would every 3 a.m. rustle in the bushes conjure visions of some Screwdriver Man, Phillips head in his upraised hand? What about coyotes, raccoons, insects (I rejected a tent as too visible)? Could my almost 70-year-old body, equipped with two artificial knees, hold up under the strain of carrying a backpack 15 miles a day across the hilliest city in the country?

Alta Live welcomes Gary Kamiya on Wednesday, August 9 at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time.REGISTER

I wasn’t actually that worried. I’m an optimistic person by nature, and I’m pretty street-smart. I walk around San Francisco all the time, including to places that many people think of as the urban equivalent of Mordor, and very little scares me. To me, the world in general and San Francisco in particular has always been a fundamentally benign place—the opposite of Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam album cover, which depicts the buildings behind a sleeping bum as hideous, screaming serpents. I’ve always seen San Francisco as a mosh pit—if you throw yourself down, something’s going to catch you. This trip would be a proof of concept.

One thing this trip was emphatically not was an attempt to experience homelessness, at least not in the way most homeless people do. I was going to be sleeping outdoors, but the similarities ended there. I was a middle-class guy walking around the city on a five-day lark, armed with a comfortable per diem and the best camping gear money could buy. I scouted my sleeping locations in advance, and chose them not just because they were flat, hidden, and spaced out across the city but because they were located as close as possible to restaurants and bars. This gold-plated sojourn—“The American Express Card: don’t be homeless without it!” could have been my motto—was about as close to most people’s experience of being unhoused as a French aristocrat dressing up as a shepherdess.

My trip was simply an adventure. Not knowing what would happen was the point. That’s what I was looking for.

I descend Filbert Street, bidding farewell to my alley along the way, and turn left down North Beach’s main drag, Grant Avenue. There aren’t many people on the street, which isn’t surprising because it’s Memorial Day. I go past the Grant & Green Saloon, a joint that has the double distinction of standing on an intersection whose street sign appears on a classic album by Grant Green, and being the only bar in which I picked up a girl in my entire life. Admiring this glittering erotic diamond exquisitely set off by an infinite void, I walk by the Caffe Trieste, which introduced espresso to the West Coast in 1956 and is one of the hood’s last remaining links to the Beat era. The usual group of old men is sitting outside having their eternal tertulia. I don’t see anyone I know, which is just as well because I don’t feel like stopping to explain why I am backpacking through my neighborhood. I cross Columbus into Chinatown. It feels right to kick off a trek to neighborhoods of lunar obscurity by walking through one of the most touristy parts of the city. Grant Avenue is filled with the usual mixture of Chinese merchants and tourists, gawking at its unique combination of kitsch and authenticity.

I leave Chinatown at the Dragon Gate on Bush and amble to Union Square and the Tenderloin. Tonight I’m planning to sleep on Irish Hill, a consummately obscure serpentinite lump between Dogpatch and the eastern waterfront. But that’s only a couple of miles away, so I’m making a detour into the city’s central square and then to its most notorious neighborhood.

As I make my way along Post toward Union Square, I’m relieved that my pack fits well and doesn’t feel too heavy. I don’t want to be running on fumes. I’ve got to be able to indulge my whims and go out of my way when I feel like it. I don’t want to be the object of the icy contempt of Friedrich Nietzsche, who in an aphorism about tourists wrote, “They climb mountains like animals, stupid and sweating; one has forgotten to tell them there are beautiful views on the way up.”

Union Square isn’t empty, but it’s far from bustling. The great downtown living room feels a little like a stage set for a big city, not the real thing. During the surreal early days of the pandemic, San Francisco was so deserted it looked intoxicatingly like a de Chirico painting. Now it still looks like one, but the effect isn’t intoxicating anymore. This isn’t a time-out from reality—this is reality.

I wander past the Powell Street cable car turnaround, down to Turk, and up to Taylor. Ten years ago, this first block of Turk was the most depraved place in the city, filled with dozens of raggedy men and women openly smoking crack. The TL has always been an anything-goes place, mostly because there really isn’t any alternative, but the squalor of that block was too much even for San Francisco. The city solved the problem simply by forbidding cars to park on that block, and by having the cops put out the word that glass pipe privileges there had been revoked.

Today it’s one of the stranger blocks in the city, with a gleaming new high-rise on the south side looming over the run-down SROs and the broken-down bums and derelicts, most of them harmless, who wander these streets. Much of the national media depicts the Tenderloin as more or less equivalent to the right-hand panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. It’s a rough, sad neighborhood, but it’s a lot closer to a skid row than a hellscape filled with evildoers.

Lately, the concrete canyons are the emptiest I’ve ever seen them.

I walk past CounterPulse, an alternative-performance space that occupies the site of an old porno palace a few buildings east of Taylor. The woman who runs it, a dynamic young mover and shaker named Julie Phelps, managed to talk some wealthy people into donating $5 million so that CounterPulse could buy and renovate the building. As usual, a couple of sketchy characters are standing in front of the door, but Phelps knows how to deal with them. She told me she knows most of the heroin dealers and hustlers on the block, and they’ve largely worked out a modus vivendi. That’s how things work at street level in the Tenderloin. No grand victories, just small positive human interactions.

I leave the Tenderloin and walk down eternally bedraggled Market Street, past downtown and the financial district. This is ground zero of San Francisco’s Great Abandonment. Most of the office workers have left, and the financial district is a morgue. It happens to be a holiday, but it’s always like this now. Lately, the concrete canyons are the emptiest I’ve ever seen them.

The Embarcadero is a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively. Hundreds of Giants fans are barreling down the waterfront, headed for the stadium. The sun streams down. For the first time on my trek, it feels like a holiday. Near the Ferry Building, I hook up for the first time with the photographer, Chris Hardy, who’s going to shoot me, an old colleague from my stint at the San Francisco Examiner 30 years ago. I’m a little bummed that I don’t get to be totally anonymous and incognito on my trek, but Chris is a cool guy, a tough old-school journalist, and we share war stories and laughs.

After a burger and beer at Frankie’s Java House, on Pier 40, I head past the ballpark, across the old counterweighted bascule bridge over Mission Creek, and along the waterfront. I go past the Bay View Boat Club, a wondrous oasis of funkiness in the sterile Legoland of Mission Bay, and make for the Ramp, another old S.F. holdout in the shadow of the Chase Center. I’m dismayed to see that the weedy, vacant-lot-like path that formerly led to the joint is gone. But it’s the usual fun scene of people happily drinking on a big open patio overlooking an industrial stretch of the waterfront, complete with a navy ship that appears to have been marooned there since the invasion of Tarawa. I have a margarita and head into the homestretch. Dogpatch and neighboring Irish Hill are almost in view, and I’m ready to get there. I’ve walked about eight miles, and my legs are heavy.

I arrive at the corner of 20th and Illinois, next to an old Bethlehem Steel building that now houses an RH showroom and the Palm Court restaurant, which serves $30 hamburgers. Irish Hill is just south of here, to the east of a parking lot.

Irish Hill is barely even a hill anymore, more like a mound.

I knew about Irish Hill, but I hadn’t thought about sleeping out there. It was Chris Carlsson, a fellow San Francisco–phile and shoe-leather geographer, who suggested it on a trip during which he took me to Ishi’s cave, another site I was considering. A friend and I scouted Irish Hill, and it checked every box: hidden, sleepable, likely to be unoccupied, and close to bars, restaurants, and coffee. And marking the optional weird-history box, it was off the charts.

Irish Hill is barely even a hill anymore, more like a mound, and no one has heard of it. But from the gold rush into the early 20th century, Irish Hill was home to close to 1,000 workers, most of them employed in the nearby Union Iron Works (later Bethlehem Steel), whose derelict industrial buildings are being renovated as part of the huge Brookfield Properties development project at Pier 70. At the time, Irish Hill was around 100 feet high and several unpaved blocks long, and the only way to access part of it was by climbing up 98 steps. Its brawny, hardworking residents, most of Irish descent, lived and drank and fought and caroused in the hill’s rooming houses and saloons. One joint, which rejoiced in the delicate name Mike Boyle’s Steam Beer Dump, featured bare-knuckle prize fights on Saturday nights.

Irish Hill is fenced off and accessible only through a parking lot on its west side. I walk through the lot, clamber up a path overgrown with foxtails, and make my way to the summit, next to a half dozen bedraggled eucalyptus trees. On my first scouting trip, I had found a good place to sleep here, but on a return trip I’d been disappointed to find that someone else had discovered it and had left some stuff, including a blanket, some garbage, and a six-inch knife without a handle, thrust to the hilt into the ground. I realized that whoever had slept up here probably just had that knife for protection, but it was still not exactly the object I wanted to find in my bedroom. And knife or no knife, this stumpy little hill was much too small a place for more than one person to sleep. If someone else appeared here, I was just going to leave.

Fortunately, it looks like whoever stayed here is gone. Their stuff is still here, but it doesn’t appear to have been touched in weeks. I decide it’s OK. I hide my pack under some branches and clamber down the hill. I’m ready for a drink, and the Dogpatch Saloon is only two blocks away.

The Dogpatch Saloon is a cool neighborhood dive, where in years past I would go to a fabled Sunday jazz jam. It’s doing a nice Memorial Day business. There are a few people at the bar, and a corner table is full of loud young guys. A 40-ish guy with silver hair bellies up to the bar. We talk about the Celtics, who are going down to a humiliating and final defeat on the TV, and then he says, “I gotta order drinks for that table.” I think he’s talking about the young guys, but he gestures to a different table, one at which three women are sitting. “We’re playing ‘Fuck, Marry, or Kill,’ ” he says. “Which one of those three women should I fuck, which one should I marry, and which one should I kill?”

I’ve never heard of this game, but even if I had, I wouldn’t touch that question with a six-foot pole. I look over, and all three women are looking at us and laughing. A few minutes later, one of the women comes up to order a drink. The ice, which never really existed to begin with, has been broken, and she tells me she’s the one he killed. “I had too much dirt on him—that’s why he had to kill me,” she says. A few minutes later, the second member of the trio comes up to order a drink. “You’re responsible for our marriage!” she says with a laugh. “You’ll be the guest of honor!” Finally, the third woman comes up to the bar. I’m not quite sure how to delicately broach the issue of her relations with Mr. Silver Hair, which by process of elimination I have managed to work out, but she comes to my rescue. “I’m the one he fucked,” she tells me. You can take a conversation in any direction after that opener. After we chitchat for a minute, the guy comes back and shares his thoughts on the strategy of the game: “The secret is to be honest, but not too honest.” When I leave, they’re still at their table, laughing.

I head across the street to Souvla, where I eat a delicious chicken salad, washed down with a nice minerally glass of Greek white. As I eat, I’m aware that I’m sitting in a comfortable room, lit by electricity and with a bathroom, and am about to go out into the unknown darkness where there are none of those things.

I leave around 9:30. It’s almost pitch-dark as I walk the five minutes to Irish Hill.

After I scramble up to the top, I put on my headlamp—I figure that if anyone down below notices a Cyclopean lunatic wandering around Irish Hill, they’re probably not going to come up to investigate—and go look for my backpack. I’m relieved to find it’s still there, and even more relieved to find that no one else seems to be on the hill. I try lying down in the place I had picked out, but it’s too lumpy. By good fortune, I find another little declivity in the hill, about 20 feet north and downhill, flat and protected from the westerly wind. I lay out my ground cloth, inflate my sleeping pad, arrange my stuff nearby (including the all-important water bottle that I remembered to fill at Souvla), and pull my down sleeping bag out of its stuff sack.

Before I get into my bag, I look around. All three floors of the RH building are lit up like a Christmas tree. If anyone is still in there arranging $5,000 couches, they would probably be surprised to know that some weird dude lying in the weeds atop that scraggly hill to their south is eyeing them. To the right, the white curving facade of the huge Chase Center appears. The Bay Bridge twinkles off to the northeast, with the flat translucent plane of the Bay in the foreground. The illuminated top of the Salesforce Tower glows pink in the downtown distance. One of the enormous old Bethlehem Steel buildings, now a revamped tech office, rises up immediately to the north, along 20th Street. I can look directly into one of its windows.

When I get into my sleeping bag, that long-distance view goes away and a little one takes its place. I’m looking at foxtails and nameless plants waving in the gentle breeze, with a few unknown buildings in the distance. I feel a great sense of relief. I made it up here, no one saw me or stopped me, and I’m sleeping in the heart of San Francisco, on a hill in the middle of nowhere.

I wriggle around, turn on my side, and arrange the pillowcase stuffed with clothes under my head. I’m pretty comfortable. But I can’t fall asleep.

I was ready for this. I didn’t expect to be able to sleep much this first night. I lie there, on that lost little rocky hill near the old industrial waterfront, for hours, watching the shapes of the plants waving in front of me until they crawl across the inside of my eyeballs. When I awake at 6:30 a.m., in the full gray light of day, it doesn’t feel like I have slept at all.•

Visit to keep reading “Urban Camping,” and sign up here for email notifications when each new installment is available.