Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Monday, April 30, 2012

KARMA SUTRO



And speaking of walking and swimming pools, I was in San Francisco a couple of weekends back, and decided to go walking in a place I knew next to nothing about.  I headed off to Point Lobos, not so far from Golden Gate Park, the ruins of the Sutro Baths.  I was there on a bright, warm, sunny April morning and the ruins were surprisingly well-populated with walkers and amblers and the occasional scrambler.


The Sutro Baths, I know now though I didn’t know them, were a vast indoor bathing complex opened in 1896, by Adolph Sutro, a successful businessman and one time San Francisco mayor.  They were located between a cliff edge and the Pacific Ocean, a great turn of the century scheme, all glass and wrought iron, seven pools, six of them filled by the incoming tide, the seventh containing fresh water.  


Images from the time make it look like a cross between a football stadium, an opera house and the Crystal Palace, and evidently many visitors back in the day were there to watch rather than swim: there was seating for 8,000, and photographs show the seats absolutely packed. There was also a skating rink and a museum containing Mr. Sutro’s collection of curiosities.



Very little of this could be deduced on the ground from looking at the present day ruins, and after looking at photographs and even blueprints from the baths’ glory days, I’m still not exactly certain how the current fragments relate to that elaborate and optimistic nineteenth century structure. 


What we have now are chunks of strewn masonry, broken columns, pools of still water, a pedestrian tunnel, and an inscrutable block that looks like an above-ground bunker, but must have been in one of the lowest levels of the original building.  There are also a number of what appear to be concrete catwalks, actually the foundations of the baths’ walls, I suppose, raised not so very high above the surrounding water.  Some of them appear to be the retaining walls of the individual pools, but the longest one runs right alongside the ocean, from one end of the baths to the other. 


I wasn’t sure exactly how seriously to take that sign, “Cliff and Surf Area Extremely Dangerous: people have been swept from the rocks and drowned,” but I don’t think it was a completely superfluous warning.  Certainly the sea was rough even on that warm sunny day, and some sections of that oceanside walkway were wet: you could certainly have got drenched if not necessarily drowned.


Of course, the vast majority of the people visiting the ruins felt the urge, perhaps the compulsion, to walk along at least some of those catwalks.  In one sense there was nothing very challenging or risky about most of them.  At their narrowest they were still a couple of feet wide, and if they’d been at ground level and not edged by water they’d have presented no problem for anyone.  Even as it was, some people just strolled along them as easily as if they were walking down a garden path.  Others however walked as delicately and deliberately as if they were on a tightrope, or tiptoeing through a minefield. 


Personally I was somewhere between the two.  I walked the concrete strip alongside ocean, purposefully and carefully, making sure not to slip on the wet sections. I didn’t fear for my life, but I did fear the terrible humiliation that would have ensued if I’d lost my footing and got a soaking.  I did just fine.  It was a fun little walk, and invigorating enough, but I admit there was a certain relief when it was over.

Drenching and drowning are not the only risks around the Sutro Baths.  The cliffs are high, the drops steep and scary, and on one of them there was this wonderful sign. 


Of course it’s actually very ambiguous.  It obviously started out as a simple “no walking” sign, a pedestrian with a diagonal line struck through him.  Now he’s been turned into the grim reaper, but the line through him is still visible, as though it means “no death,” which is a nice idea, but there’s something about that cliff edge, with the view of rocks and ruins below, that made death seem a perfectly real possibility.


Here's a terrific website that tells a great deal more about the Sutro Baths:

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