The Dish

Words by Sloane Citron

Photos by Scott R. Kline

I stopped at the top of one of the steeper hills and saw a beautiful white-tailed hawk circling above my head. I watched the sleek bird silently gliding for 10 minutes, somehow assuming that my wife and daughters were doing the same thing. But they were not, and had continued their fast-paced walk. They were out of sight so I saw no reason to try to catch up. 

At one point on the way down there were two paths to take and à la Robert Frost, I took the path less traveled. This was a mistake, as when I made it back to the entrance at Junipero Serra Boulevard, the rest of my family was nowhere to be found. Since I had left my cell phone in the car, I was stuck—the result being that this particular outing is now permanently etched in my memory as the time I walked the five-plus miles home from The Dish.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, you should. Colloquially known as simply “The Dish,” the more accurate name is The Stanford Dish, which specifically is a 150-foot-diameter radio antenna located up in the foothills above the Stanford main campus. The nickname came about because it looks like, well, a dish. It was built in the 1960s with funding from the Air Force to help collect information on Soviet radar installations by somehow detecting radio signals bouncing off the moon. In more recent years, The Dish has been used to undertake such NASA functions as communicating with the Voyager craft. 

While this is all very interesting, today, when you say “The Dish,” you really mean a system of trails that provide—with some steep hills—a good solid workout. Once, it was just dirt paths with no restrictions, but a decade or so back, Stanford put down some parameters for using their land. This got some people upset, but it was, after all, their land. They put up fencing, paved the paths, prohibited dogs and developed some parking areas. 

On any day, rain or shine, hot or cold, people of every shape and size and age do The Dish. Some run it, others can barely walk it; some do it every day and others only occasionally. The terrain is beautiful and from certain spots you can see across the Bay; on some especially clear days, you can make out the familiar outlines of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Dish is part of the culture of my family. No one does it with any religious zeal, but some of us end up doing it at least a few times each month. While we boys in the family enjoy it, it is really the women who are more devoted. The guys mostly tag along, when we are permitted and/or invited. I’m in good shape but my female compatriots prefer to do The Dish at a rapid clip and sometimes I hold them back. I don’t understand the hurry, preferring to saunter a bit to take in the smells and sights of the area, always hoping to see a fox, a hawk or at least a lightning-fast jackrabbit. 

But I keep my ears open and when I hear something about “The Dish,” I perk up and make it my business to find out who is going and when and if I can join them. Almost always, they let me come along, although I always remember to keep my cell phone with me now.

I don’t love the “exercise” part of The Dish as much as I like spending time with my family and being outside. But it is a workout. Whatever clothing I start with is not what I end up wearing in the end. I do relish the slight burn I feel after completing the almost four-mile trek, up and down the hills. I immediately think that I can have a second helping of dessert that night.  

Of course, things are a bit different now with all these little third-generation “Dishers”  to push or carry up and down the steep parts of the trails. A couple of weeks ago, my son Josh and his wife, Adara, and their two-year-old and their six-month-old baby came with me on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. They brought their double-wide stroller, some serious snacks and all the other things needed for two little ones. 

We approached the hike with a bit of trepidation given the size and weight of the stroller. The first hill, which is modified now, was fine. But over the next hour, things got a bit tough. That stroller got heavier and heavier as we pushed it up and down the hills. It was a real effort. Sometimes I carried my grandson on my shoulders, and sometimes he walked, although I’m afraid that if he had walked the entire thing we’d still be out there.

By the end of the standard loop, Josh and Adara laughed and suggested that they didn’t imagine doing The Dish again soon with two children in tow. But The Dish is a seductive thing—the beauty, the air, the feeling of having accomplished something—and I just know that on a beautiful, cool day, the call to do it again will echo through their home and they will be back to enjoy its magnificent charms