Yesterday I joined two friends for a wander in among the dips and hills and wave-crashed coastlines of Tennessee Valley, just north of San Francisco in Marin. Our hike began beneath heavy cloud cover but before long we climbed above the fog. Our sneakers sank into the muddy trail underfoot, our eyes scanned the white cloud band below for intermittent glimpses of the Pacific. We tromped along the coastal path to Pirate’s Cove, stepping into and out of foggy patches that exposed glimpses of the rocky shores. A mile from the parking lot, our trail crested a high ridge and the rolls and rounded peaks of the Bay Area, the house dotted hillsides of Saulsalito, and the skyline of the city framed between the sides of a valley, were spread out before us. A gentle breeze blew past, a large bird sailed overhead. We paused for a moment, exclaimed ‘oh, it’s so beautiful!’ and then continued on our way, back to the packed streets, packed schedules, packed public spaces of city life.

After six months of San Francisco, I continually ask the question: how the hell do people do this? I keep hoping that with time the densly populated lifestyle will get easier, the concrete stretches more soft and giving, the many public park sufficient substitutes for real nature. If anything the experience becomes more challenging each day. I seek and grab any opportunity to escape to the world beyond the city, hoping that doing so will refresh my perspective and allow me to open myself to the city again. Excursions beyond the Golden Gate, Bay Bridge, or 101 South have become mental breaks but also painful reminders of how good life can be in quieter, greener, less populated settings, reminders that make return each time more challenging.

But, there’s something to be said for pushing yourself through an experience that challenges your every last resolve. If life were easy, it would be boring. My 45 minute daily walk to work is peppered with scenes I’d often rather not see–a crackhead lurching down the sidewalk at Market St. and Jones, his eyes rolling uncontrolled like marbles in their sockets; the bums that dot the lawns of city hall pushing their shopping carts overflowing with trash bags of their belongings, peeing, defecating in the bushes; rows on rows of buildings, sidewalks, streets, accompanied by the incessant swoosh, whoosh, honks of cars busses, trucks, cabs, trains passing by, so densly packed that the sun sometimes is hidden by the sky scrapers. But the walk is also filled with sights I enjoy–polished women in funky couture coats and every variety of knee high boot; the herd of bicyclists, many donning suits, that flood Market Street en route to work; the sophisticated storefront displays of the downtown Anthropology, Gucci, Versace; the white tents and mouthwatering local, fresh produce of the Civic Center Farmer’s Market. Despite the discomforts, witnessing this raw variety of life everyday makes me feel strangely connected to humanity and the human experience of life in this concentrated 7 mile by 7 mile square of the world. And that’s something I wouldn’t feel so easily in a small mountain town.

So maybe that’s how people do it: they take the bad with the good and simply live their lives. Or they just don’t get caught dwelling on it all like I do. Or they block out the less appealing facets of the city with headphones and an IPod (which I also have taken to doing), and celebrate the more appealing ones.

Or some people do this–they appreciate the culture, the diversity, the human connections, the entertainments of the city for a time. Once they’ve had their fill, they return to life on the quieter, greener, perhaps more mountainous other side with a slightly broader world view, expanded not by traditional institutional education, but simply by life.