From the Covers series
After midnight, an evening of chatter and jazz in a warm room behind me, the air felt more still, the sky a deeper cool. Not one car passed me as I rolled along Chestnut, thinking about how to get home.
During the day I would have made my way to Polk and taken the safety of the bike lanes up and over Russian Hill, even though that would be going west to eventually go east. I thought about Van Ness, just one block closer and slightly less steep than Polk—and even at night an artery coursing with manic cars too.
The most direct route south would be to take the next right and ride Steiner up and over Pacific Heights, which is to say up four blocks of 10 percent grade or more and the last block steeper than 18 percent. Well after midnight and an evening of chatter and jazz in a warm room, up seemed to be the right way to go.
Steiner Street from Greenwich to Fulton is part of Route 45 in the Official San Francisco Bike Route System. Riding it north from the Lower Haight is not a huge challenge, especially if you take Fillmore to Post and shimmy over. The view of Angel Island and Tiburon when you crest the hill at Pacific is delightful and the swift descent toward the bay is fantastic. None of this is visible at night, behind you. You might hear a foghorn, but this night was clear, no clouds, no breeze, just a basic San Francisco cool.
The music and laughing still resonated in me and the first block from Union to Green went by easily and as I looked left and right at nothing but parked cars and street lights I thought this was definitely the way to go. Halfway to Vallejo my legs started to talk back and at Vallejo I started to listen, saw myself walking the bike. Then I saw a guy walking a dog.
On a quiet empty street, if I walked the bike, the dog wouldn't ignore me even if its companion did, and surely a conversation would ensue about bike riding and walking at night up a hill. It might be a very pleasant conversation, but a witness to my pause would make it feel like a defeat. So I stood up from the saddle and I pushed back on my legs and my lungs started to burn and I forgot the man and the dog and the music and all of life before midnight and kept my eyes on the street where it met my front tire.
I stopped at Broadway to catch my breath and the dogwalker was suddenly behind me and he spoke. That. Was. Great. It was more the tone than what he said: a sincerity, a respect, that I heard as one person feeling the whole night and just then this block at this time. My thanks tripped out with an exhale and I pulled the handlebars upright and went on, unable to say anything more and not wanting to hear anything more that might be said and aware that if I did not ride the wave he'd set in motion with his remark, it would pass and leave me there, on that side of the sky.
The last block was the worst and the easiest because then there was no question but that I would do it. My lungs were on fire, my pulse drummed into my face, and each in and out breath dried my gaping mouth, but I would make it up that hill and I did though there was a moment four parked cars before Pacific when I thought what am I doing I should have stayed and talked to that guy and not because this is killing me and what if I don't make it and then I'll really feel like an idiot—
After riding beyond midnight into the cool deep still blue there is only up and up until the drop into the exquisite eventual inevitable dawn.