On Dec. 29, Bryan Bischof set out to climb one more staircase in Berkeley. He walked up Tilden Path, a small staircase in the Berkeley Hills surrounded by dense bamboo with his dog Ravioli in tow, and finished with a loop along Grizzly Peak Avenue.
After three years and 285 miles, Bischof was ready to say he had walked all the streets of Berkeley.
But then again — to be precise, as Bischof, a 36-year-old mathematician, tends to be — that wasn’t quite accurate.
“I’ve completed all the roads in Berkeley, but there’s an asterisk. There’s always an asterisk,” Bischof said.
The map of Bischof’s sojourns through Berkeley is an impressive grid of intersecting roads, but when he looks at Wandrer, the app he uses to track his progress, he sees the opposite: “Little bits,” as he calls them — red lines on the map representing the segments of roads that he, for whatever reason, has missed.
Sometimes, roads are inaccessible, blocked off by construction. Other times, some glitch in the GPS falsely claims Bischof hasn’t been somewhere he has. On top of that, the map is open-source, meaning that at any point, anyone can add some new segment of road that hadn’t been there before.
Seeking to complete his project, Bischof has paced up and down Shattuck Avenue at least 20 times, ventured into intersections and walked in zig-zags, hoping that the GPS will pick up his signal.
In his mind, the walks became math problems, an exercise the mathematics Ph.D. uses to determine the most efficient way to complete the most miles.
“I sometimes tease my wife, I’ve never finished anything in my life, and I don’t intend to,” said Bischof. “Every math problem I’ve ever worked on, there’s still remaining things to think about. With this project, what looks like a very finite amount of detritus is, probably, in some dimensions, infinite.”
In pursuit of his goal
During the pandemic, local exploration became popular and, when combined with GPS tracking apps, quantifiable. The Oakland subreddit has multiple posts from bikers who have cycled every street in Oakland. The Oaklandside’s road safety reporter Jose Fermoso, who tracked his Berkeley and Oakland walks on a paper map, estimates that he has walked about three quarters of the two cities.
Bischof’s first Berkeley walk was in 2010 up the fire trail in Strawberry Canyon, a hike so beautiful that it convinced him to move to the city. Later, he started walking in his North Berkeley neighborhood during his therapy sessions, which he took on the phone. He started with one street one week, then moved to a different one the next. Soon, he was planning out his therapy walks in advance, exploring new parts of the neighborhood.
Eventually, he began documenting his walks and the 99% goal emerged. “Ninety-nine was my threshold, but in my heart, I would like to see less little bits of red,” Bischof said.
For three years, Bischof and Ravioli, a 5-year old husky, often joined by his wife, Valentina Besprozvannykh, walked with a purpose: to collect as many new miles as possible. Over time, the project became increasingly about avoiding the streets they had already visited.
At the end of each walk, Bischof uploaded his data to Wandrer and Strava, a popular fitness tracking app. He posted photos and witty captions describing math concepts — “error correcting” and “out of distribution.”
Throughout the project, he saw every side of Berkeley. The hidden paths in the hills, where he encountered other committed hikers, often carrying hiking poles and day-packs, on a mission of their own. The local oddities in people’s yards — the house shaped like a fish, the yard that had been turned into an interactive, homemade musical instrument exhibit.
His favorite road? Panoramic Way. His least favorite? Frontage Road, right next to the Bay Trail.
After ‘mission accomplished,’ a wayward feeling
For as long as he can remember, Bischof has been the kind of person devoted to the strange and arduous pursuits, often involving collecting, which he calls side-quests.
When he got into cycling, he devised the shortest possible route that combines the 100 most challenging routes in the contiguous United States. He wants to try specialty coffee from every country that grows it and visit a National Park Site in every state. He has collected every coffee bag he has bought since 2012, and he once meticulously cataloged every article of clothing he owned, minus socks and underwear.
On the Wandrer leaderboard for Berkeley, there are about five people who appear to be going for a similar goal as Bischof, but no one has gotten anywhere near as close as he has. (When a devoted runner named Thomas Pillow joined Wandrer, Bischof realized he would never again top the monthly leaderboard for most new miles walked in Alameda County.)
Calling his Berkeley walking side-quest done has brought complicated emotions — the unexpected weight of finishing a project that reshaped the way Bischof interacted with the city.
“Where the hell am I going to walk my dog now?” he asked.
Since posting about his project on social media, Bischof has felt the simultaneous rush of pride that always comes with completing a years-long task, but also, a kind of emptiness. “I’m ultimately finding myself a little wayward,” he said. He has also been driving farther and farther afield for new walks. By mid-January, he had moved on to his next goal: Circumnavigating all 900 miles of the Bay Trail and Bay Area Ridge Trail.
The day after I took a walk with Bischof — a circuitous path through UC Berkeley campus that included a couple brief pursuits of trails unwalked — Bischof sent me a text message with a screenshot of the Wandrer map. “Our walk yielded some “little bits,” he wrote. The count had ticked up to 99.1%.
Then, a week later, he was down to 98.9%, the culprit seeming to be a loop northwest of Arlington Circle that just appeared on the map.
“The futility of perfection,” he wrote, adding a winking face.