They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and for Debbie Bulger, that step was onto the Beach Hill stairs that many locals—but not many tourists—know connect downtown Santa Cruz to the Beach Boardwalk via Cliff Street. There’s a reason those stairs are on the cover of Secret Walks and Staircases in Santa Cruz, the book she recently published with her husband Richard Stover.
It was 1986, and Bulger had come to Santa Cruz for the first time to run in the Wharf to Wharf race. She asked someone how she could get downtown from the beach, and they told her about the stairs. She loved the walk, but she didn’t love the sign on Cliff Street that said “Not a Through Street.” Bulger moved to Santa Cruz two years later, and she never really got over her beef with the sign.
“It’s always bugged me,” she says. “It’s only ‘not a through street’ if you’re in a car.”
Clearly the seed had been planted for Bulger to champion the Santa Cruz pedestrian. But it didn’t bear fruit until she had spent years on several local advisory committees and task forces, where the lack of attention to the local walking world was noted over and over.
“It always came up,” she says. “Someone would say, ‘We need a walking guide for Santa Cruz.’”
Finally, Bulger decided to write it. It was six years in the making, and even then it took the eerie lull of quarantine last year to motivate her to pull it all together.
“I guess when we all got locked down, Richard and I got serious about it,” she says.
But there was plenty of work put into it before that, of course.
“There was about a year of planning where I made a list of all the pedestrian shortcuts and staircases,” she says. Then she and Stover walked the routes. Stover, the project’s computer tech, used open source data to track them, while Bulger preferred pushpins and yarn on a map of Santa Cruz. After a while, though, it started to look like one of those conspiracy theorists’ crazy charts that the FBI agents find in thriller films.
“It got complicated as more and more walks got on my list,” she says. “I sort of had to impose a limit before it got too big.”
Then there’s the fact that not all walks are created equal—even if they sound great on paper.
“We would do the walks, and sometimes they didn’t work out,” Bulger says with a laugh.
But she’s proud of the 28 walks meticulously documented with photos, maps and a complete list of turns in the book—some of which even most locals won’t have walked before. Like the alley by Arana Gulch on pages 242-243.
“That is a hidden gem,” she says. “You think you’re in such an exotic place.”
Bulger says she doesn’t really have a favorite Santa Cruz walk; it depends on what she’s in the mood for at any given time. And when she says the best thing about walking in Santa Cruz is that we have the perfect weather for it, she doesn’t just mean a sunny stroll through Pogonip—she can be just as happy promenading down West Cliff Drive in the rain.
Perhaps what’s most impressive is that even after logging all these steps, she still finds something surprising almost every time she goes out for a walk, whether it’s a mother duck and her babies nesting in the Bay Street median or a particular kind of flower newly in bloom.
“You just have to keep your eyes open,” she says.
The book has been selling briskly, even though it was released when tourism was discouraged, or flatly prohibited. That means that plenty of locals have been using it to explore Santa Cruz in a different way than they might be used to. She knows one city planner, for instance, who bought the book and took a very, er, officious approach.
“He said he did all the walks in the order they were in the book,” says Bulger. “He was true to his profession.”
‘Secret Walks and Staircases in Santa Cruz’ is available at Bookshop Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History and other places where books are sold. For more information, go to lostballoonpress.com.