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By Jeanne Halpern
"Hey, Louis," called Bob Muller to the man sitting on the log. "What are you doing there?"
Though I was walking up front with Bob, the hike leader, I hadn't noticed the tall man with the yellow bandana around his neck. He shouted back to Bob: "Just waiting for you, hoping you'd take this trail back. I got to the Alpine Club too late to start out with you."
"Hi," I said, offering this new hiker my hand to shake. His fingers felt cool against mine, like a touch of Redwood Creek. "Looks like you picked just the right spot to wait. I'm Jeanne Halpern."
"Hmmm," he hesitated a moment, then smiled. "Yes, I've heard about you. You lead hikes in San Francisco, right? The Movies Hike -- everybody talks about that -- and something about canyons... I'm Louis Prisco."
I felt flattered, but even more, a sense of anticipation. Here's one more chance to reach my goal. I'd come on this annual Sierra Club hike leaders' bash on Mount Tamalpais hoping to get advice on Potrero Hill, which I had to cross on an upcoming hike. But over the last hour and a half, as we looped down to Muir Woods and back toward the Alpine Club, I'd asked every hike leader where he or she led hikes, and the answer was always Marin or the East Bay. But do I have another goal as well? Since I moved to San Francisco five years ago, a widow, I've met every man I dated on a Sierra Club hike.
"And where do you lead hikes?" I asked Louis.
"Oh, mainly Mount Tam. San Bruno Mountain, too. Once in a while in the city."
"Where in the city?"
"Different places," he said. "South of Market, Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill..."
He looked startled. I explained that I wanted to fill a hole in my January hike in the South of Market area. Smiling and nodding, he offered to teach me the hill. Maybe Louis has a goal for this outing, too?
At the end of our hike, when we reached the Alpine Club, we sat next to each other under the fall foliage at the potluck lunch. A recent graduate of Jenny Craig, I nibbled at some fruit salad and a piece of barbequed chicken breast. I couldn't take my eyes off Louis' pyramid of potato salad, bean salad, green salad, fruit salad, pasta salad, pickles, two hot dogs, a hamburger in a bun, and two brownies. He said, with a wide, unembarrassed smile, "I love to eat." To which I answered, "I love to cook."
As I was leaving the party, he said, "Whenever you want to walk Potrero Hill...," and handed me a small piece of paper with his name and phone number on it. I slipped it into a drawer when I got home.
About a month later, I left a message on his voice mail that I'd call about Potrero Hill after I did my Fountains and Falls hike at Halloween. Mmmmm. This is his work number -- a signal he's married?
He surprised me by turning up at 10 a.m. at the Ferry Building for the fountains walk. Eight miles later, near the entrance to the old Academy of Sciences museum in Golden Gate Park, where we were headed to see our last fountain, I invited him to join a small group of hikers at dinner at a Chinese restaurant on Irving Street.
"I'd like to, but -- other plans," he said. Ah, his wife's got dinner on the table.
Two weeks later, a cream-colored envelope arrived with his name and return address. I savored its textured linen weave between my fingers as I would an expensive fabric. Then I slid a letter opener across the top. His note began, "Your fountains hike Oct. 30 was exceptionally imaginative, a work of art." I really ought to get back to him soon, before he forgets.
During a long trip to the East Coast, I sent Louis a note saying I'd call as soon as I got home. We scheduled a walk over Potrero Hill for mid-December, but it rained that Saturday.
When I phoned to postpone and we'd talked a while, I said, "How about a movie?"
"Anna Christie, the unexpurgated German original, at the Castro," I answered, thinking how much fun it would be to see Greta Garbo in her first talking movie. He agreed immediately.
After the show, since Louis had a cold, I invited him home for some of my curative, homemade chicken soup with rice.
"Yes," he said, as I refilled his bowl a second time, with soup so hot it steamed up his glasses. "I'm glad you love to cook."
The next day, warm with December sunshine, he showed me the ins and outs of Potrero Hill, kissing me at every opportunity -- at the top near the recreation center, inside a community garden at a plot filled with carnivorous plants, and even on noisy Potrero Boulevard. The rest, as they say, is history -- but not ours alone.
MANY HIKES LATER and after we'd lived together a few years, we decided to share our happiness with other Sierra Club hikers by creating a Valentine Lovers' Hike. This hike, too, would be followed by a potluck at the Alpine Club, but with music and dancing and a large chocolate sheet cake topped with red roses and "Lovers' Hike" spelled out in red frosting inside a big red heart.
The true heart of the day, though, would be the hike. The route would duplicate the one Bob Muller had led on Mount Tam, but our hike would also be different: at every stop, we'd read a poem -- about nature or love. And when we reached the log where Louis had been sitting the day we met, we'd reenact our meeting, with Bob Muller repeating his Cupid line, "Hey, Louis. What are you doing there?" To which Louis would again answer, "Just waiting for you," but this time he'd look straight at me.
We had no trouble choosing where to stop or which poems worked best at a waterfall or a redwood tree. But once we reached the place for our dramatic reenactment, the core of our hike, we couldn't find the log.
"I'm positive you were sitting right here, at this bend in the trail." I stamped my foot at the exact point where I knew the log had been. I stared down over the steep, wooded slope to catch a glimpse of the log, sure it had rolled over. I knew I'd be able to find it and say, "See, it's right here!"
"No, darn it, the log was over there, at an angle," Louis pointed down the trail about 40 feet, his boots crunching cinders as he strode. "I should know! I spent more than half an hour prowling around, looking over that little rise in the hill so I could see the group coming. I was here. You were just walking by!" He tried to edge his way down to what he thought was our log. Turned out to be a newly fallen tree, too small anyway. The park service, we agreed, must have hauled our log away.
From behind us, a woman's voice called, "Louis, you hiking here today, too?" Her words sounded like chimes, her green straw hat was fastened down with a billowy scarf. Her name was Karen and she'd been on several of Louis' hikes. Once we recounted the tale of the missing log, she offered an explanation more captivating than any we'd come up with.
"I feel sure," she said, "that your log was placed here by Venus, goddess of love, so you two would meet. And after the log had served its purpose, Venus withdrew it and took it back to the upper world for future use." Hmmmm. Well, who knows?
On the day of our hike, when we reached the spot Louis had chosen for the reenactment, we began with Karen's Venus story. Right after the log-less minidrama, we asked each hiker to say something about him- or herself. We hoped they'd have gotten to know one another during the walk and maybe even paired up. We'd planned the hike to give them just such a chance.
But as we went around the circle of 29 men and women, ranging in age from about 30 to 70, we found no lovers-in-waiting. Only couples who had met on Sierra Club hikes over the years and were now dating or married. Why the odd number? One hiker's wife was home sick.
While we had not exactly achieved our goal, we did confirm an axiom of romance: that shared interests bring lovers together. Now, nearly 15 years after our first meeting on Mount Tam, Louis and I are planning to lead our second Valentine Lovers' Hike. And this time we hope at least a few lovers-in-waiting will join us.
Glen Park resident Jeanne Halpern has published articles about travel, family, and health in the New York Times, Woman's Day, the Chicago Tribune, and a dozen or so other publications. She also taught American literature and authored several books during her eight years as a professor at Purdue University in Indiana. Since retiring, she's written mainly personal essays and memoirs, and her favorite is "Betting on Uncle Louis," which is included in Paul Auster's 2001 collection I Thought My Father Was God. She also has an essay in the Wednesday Writers' anthology, Something That Matters, 2007. For 18 years, she's been a Sierra Club hike leader in San Francisco, conducting about two dozen hikes, including "Diamonds in the Rough," which featured four parks and playgrounds in Noe Valley.
Halpern invites Noe Valley Voice readers to join her and her partner of 15 years, Louis Prisco, on their Valentine Lovers' Hike on Mount Tamalpais, Saturday, Feb. 9. It starts at 9:15 a.m. at the California Alpine Club, 730 Panoramic Highway, Mill Valley, near the Mountain Home Inn. For more information, call 415-841-1254.