After spending a little time becoming acquainted with the area in which Abra lives, including a visit to the main campus of Stanford University, a swift twenty-minute walk to the west, I braved a train-ride from Palo Alto into San Francisco proper, a full hour away to the north. After such an idyllic day visiting the vineyard and Monterey, followed by a lovely day exploring Stanford, replete with uniform, stately sandstone buildings of a neo-classical style, I wondered idly on the train just how San Francisco city centre would compare. Of course, comparisons of this ilk lead me nowhere but, nevertheless I was to discover much more to surprise and delight me in the very heart-beat of the Bay Area.
My train pulled into town early in the morning of that first of two visits thus-far, dropping me, excited and aimless, to the south-east of the main centre. In the train terminal I found a stand offering free city maps, ostensibly to detail the bewildering array of bus routes but, I decided that I would make do on foot, my preferred method for covering a hitherto unfamiliar area. I walked up to the main arterial road that dissects the city centre from east to west, Market Street, and from here continued to the visitor centre. I waited patiently in line to chat at length with a lovely, friendly lady across the counter, who was bursting with great ideas of activities upon which I could spent my time. I left the visitor centre with a stronger purpose to my step and my mind alive with possibilities.
My first stop was in Union Square, which lies in the centre of San Francisco's glamorous district, boasting a 'Saks', 'Macy's' and many fine hotels, complete with decorous doormen and bell-boys. I lingered here only briefly: there was much to do and see over the course of this first day and Union Square seemed to offer little to hold my attention for very long. I headed uphill out of the square and stopped at a true '50s-styled diner that practically screamed 'Americana'. Inside I was treated to a veritable feast of roasted vegetables, salad and coleslaw over toasted focaccia bread and a milkshake - wrapped in ice-cream - that threatened to block every artery in my body: not only did it come in a tall glass filled to the brim but, I was also presented with the rest of the mixture in a large metal tankard that succeeded in refilling my glass three times - ah, America!
Lunch concluded, barely able to stand, let alone walk, I continued slowly to the gateway into Chinatown. I had been told by Ben while we were in LA that the Chinatown in San Francisco is the largest of its kind anywhere outside China itself. I have no idea as to the accuracy of this statement but, crawling along the main through-fare, stop-starting every few yards, at the height of a Saturday afternoon; I was prepared to give credibility to the claim. The street was alive with bodies, window-shopping and filling up every available inch of pavement and road, which was gridlocked by pedestrians and closed to all other traffic. There was no sign of tarmac pavement to be seen anywhere. The air was charged with the sounds of authentic Chinese music, played by wizened old men on thin, elongated, string instruments at the side of the road and with the smells of delicious al fresco cooking, arising from grills stationed at various crossroads down the street, surrounded by swarms of hungry locals and tourists alike. Chinese lanterns hung from lamp-posts and signs in the characters protruded from the sides of walls and above the entrances to buildings. The only thing recognizably American - other than the occasional voice shouted above the street-life symphony - was the name of the road along which this maelstrom unfolded: 'Grant', named after the legendary civil war leader of Union troops; the general to whom Lee finally surrendered at Appomattox.
Escaping the chaos of Chinatown, I journeyed on down Columbus Avenue and it was while walking down this busy concourse that my thoughts turned to another of my admired figures from this area of the west coast - in fact, a whole group of characters, the Counting Crows. This musical band formed in the Bay Area some twenty years ago and remains one of my favourites even today. Their latest album contained a number of references to San Francisco within various lyrics and even one song title and I now experienced a sense of familiarity as I met Washington Square. This is the name of the aforementioned song on the latest album and, as I stood contemplating this fact while observing the busy square, packed full of people on this bright, sunny Saturday afternoon, further thoughts crashed in upon me. I was walking down Columbus, the namesake of which is referenced heavily in a further song on the album and turning now to check the street-sign, I saw that it stood next to 'Michelangelo's Café': Michelangelo is a muse to whom Adam Duritz, the band's main songwriter, appeals upon many an occasion. The coincidences were enormous and I smiled to think that perhaps Duritz had sat in that café, on that street, observing the same people in the same park that now I observed also; the feeling was akin - in some very small sense - to those happy realizations made in Ecuador whenever I frequented a place mentioned by Mum and Dad: these places have all felt familiar.
I had chosen to visit San Francisco on a Saturday quite by chance actually: I had simply wanted to see the city and it just so happened that it was a Saturday when this visit became reality. I was fortunate that this was the case, as the place was alive, buzzing with people and entertainment. On one edge of Washington Square there was a small street festival being celebrated. The square is in the centre of the city's 'Little Italy' neighbourhood and the festival was in recognition of this specific identity: there was Italian food and drink being offered from stalls on the side of the road, closed to traffic, and Italian musicians and dancers entertained the resultant crowd. Sunlight streamed down upon the scene, basking in a healthy glow not unlike that one might expect when wandering through a Tuscan town and I enjoyed a restive period observing the welcome distraction from my walking tour. Later this day, further along this same street of Columbus, I called in at a famous, independent bookstore named 'City Lights', a popular past haunt of the beat poets, Jack Kerouac numbered amongst them. The store was akin to some sign of heaven to any book-lover, parading seemingly countless volumes upon cramped yet sturdy wooden shelves and offering multiple seating opportunities, tucked away into quiet little alcoves and corners, complete with signs encouraging visitors to take a book, a seat and some time in which to escape the hustle and bustle of outside that was flowing past the shop's windows.
I had realized long before this thrilling, peaceful sojourn in the sanctuary of uncountable books that there was far too much that I wanted to do in the city centre that could be crammed into a single day and so it was that I found myself returning a mere two days later, again very early in the morning, a yawning figure upon the same train. This time I was prepared and able to make much more efficient use of my time, which is not to say that being prepared was superior to my previous experience, simply that it was a necessary difference upon this second calling. I purchased a day-pass for the city centre's public bus network and headed straight to the wharf aboard a laudably quaint old, wooden tram (rejuvenated and made to run electronically by the city's transport department) and a last-minute boat ticket to Alcatraz. I spent the whole morning upon 'The Rock', soaking up a little of the atmosphere of one of the world's most infamous prisons and enjoying the panoramic views back across the bay towards the city, the salt breeze buffeting against my body.
Disembarking upon the island early that morning, my luck had once again shone through as I found myself just in time for one of the two accompanied tours offered that day, this detailing some of the more famous of the thirteen escape attempts made during Alcatraz's history as a federal penitentiary and presented by a voluntary member of the island's staff. The genial old chap was clearly hugely enthusiastic about his subject and, like any good teacher, this positivity soon rubbed off on we delighted members of the paying public. The stories related are too numerous for me to repeat each one here but, they were all interesting and made riveting by such a consummate story-teller. My favourite was the first told to me and concerns a young, daredevil inmate called John Giles who in July 1945 managed to escape 'The Rock' and flee as far as a nearby island. Giles was an inmate responsible for helping out at the docking area, where boats still arrive at and depart from the island today. In its days as a prison, Alcatraz served usefully as a provider of cheap labour, among which was that of a laundry service to the uniforms of all military-men in the Bay Area. Giles was on hand to unload the cargo from such ships and transfer it to a holding area in readiness for the short trip up to the prison itself. Over the course of some months - perhaps years - Giles had succeeded in secretly ferreting away individual items of a soldier's military uniform, everything in the correct size for his build and frame, until he had a complete, matching set. Soon thereafter, while working in the docking area one day, a ship pulled in the exact example of which Giles had been faithfully awaiting: a military personnel transporter. Giles slipped quietly away from his station and under the wooden decking that formed the island's old quayside. He quickly slipped the uniform, which he had stashed under the quay, hanging above the water, suspended in a duffel-bag from a wooden strut. Climbing back top-side of the quay, Giles nonchalantly strolled aboard the ship, complete with papers of leave, which he had already filled out.
At this point, it was a case of so far, so good for Mr. Giles. All that our young, hot-blooded, cool-headed protagonist required now was for the ship to sail swiftly for San Francisco and he could slip quietly from the ship, blend in with the countless other uniformed men strolling about the city and smuggle himself away to freedom. Giles had his papers of leave; he had even filled them out to read San Francisco as his destination. Alas, alack; the ship bore no such course. Instead, Giles was spirited away to the nearby, much larger island of Angel. By the time that he had realized that this was his course, the boat captain had realized that he had a surplus soldier aboard and the prison authorities on Alcatraz that they were one prisoner short. When Giles arrived at Angel and disembarked, he found prison authorities already awaiting him: they turned him around and marched him straight back aboard another vessel and straight back to Alcatraz - he did not even pass 'Go'.
The story and others like it were a fantastic introduction to a place that became known to me through the film 'The Rock', which was brilliant, due largely to those two incredible actors, Sean Connery and Ed Harris. Entering the prison itself, I took a self-guided audio tour, which was another nice touch: rather than find myself lost among the sizeable herd viewing the prison that day, I could instead wander along at my own pace, listening to the narrative in peace and quiet, stopping it at any point when I wanted to explore my present location little more thoroughly than the story's time-frame allowed. The prison was cold and grim; the cells tiny and claustrophobic, even before I made my way to the isolation block, where prisoners were held in their cells all day every day, with the exception of one hour a week, during which time they were let out to indulge in exercise. As one anonymous commentator so aptly says, "people who break the law go to prison: people who break the law in prison go to Alcatraz". Home to some of America's most infamous felons, including the smooth, threatening Al Capone, the intellectually gifted, thoroughly psychotic sociopath Robert "Birdman" Stroud and pleasant yet murderous George "Machine-gun" Kelly, Alcatraz is a forbidding place even today, years after it closed its doors to such inmates on account of the debilitating effects of natural erosion upon the edifices by the inclement weather system. It is difficult to frown upon or remain aloof from the excitement of such glorification of these men and of this structure. It is thrilling indeed to imagine a time when such characters roamed the barred walkways of this hellish incarceration.
Back within the city, I enjoyed a famous San Franciscan lunch of clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. The fish was delicious and being able to eat my bowl after the soup was brilliant! Sourdough bread is a particular San Franciscan tradition, made locally and it is very tasty. Sourdough is the result of using one of two main methods for producing leavened bread: the other method incorporates yeast and is the route taken almost exclusively by bread-makers in the UK. Sourdough bread has become especially popular in San Francisco, where it is made by a range of bakeries and I am certainly a fan (although that assertion can be made regarding practically any type of good, wholesome bread). After this hearty lunch besides the water, I returned inland to take one of the famous wooden cable-cars from the centre of town back out to the harbor-front. These old-fashioned cars have been refitted, much like the tram that I referred to earlier, and now form a central attraction in this beautiful, quirky city. The cable-car crawled up steep slopes and rushed down the other side, passengers sat on wooden, slated benches or hanging out of the car from metal poles - it was all rather exciting.
After this trip down nostalgia lane, I continued my journey north around the promontory towards another of San Francisco's lauded landmarks, the Golden Gate Bridge. This is to my mind perhaps the most iconic visual marker along the entirety of the west coast and it was here, finally, that my enviable good fortune halted, albeit temporarily. For my complete pilgrimage to the bridge, from disembarking at the wharf after returning from Alcatraz, to arriving beneath the mighty structure at its southern terminus, I was unable to see the bridge, the whole area permeated by thick fog, every vista obliterated from view. Granted, I was disappointed by this unexpected situation but, I have been incredibly lucky in viewing unimpaired so many other sights: my friend Mark, from the Galapagos cruise, recently posted photographs of his own trek along the Santa Cruz trail outside Huaraz in northern Peru and almost every one of them depicts thick, soul-shattering mist and rain. Furthermore, as Dad so truly says, 'the cup is always half-full': I did at least capture some fabulously mystical snaps of parts of the bridge wrapped in mist and secrecy. The sound, besides this atmosphere, which my camera does not capture, was similarly eerie, the fog silencing so many sounds, muffling others, contributing to a muted scene indeed. It was a strange, though not altogether unwanted, experience and I do at least have some postcards detailing the quintessential view!
Before returning to the train station and on towards my temporary home in Palo Alto that night, I first called in at the house of some friends of Erin, a lovely girl in whose estimable company I travelled across the salt flats in Bolivia. For that very trip, Erin had lent me some money to cover my expenses, as my card failed to work at the sole functioning cash-point in our departure town of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. When I learnt that Erin lives in San Francisco, I resolved to pay her this money back in person, rather than mail it to her. Now, arrived in her home town, I received a message from her, saying that she was currently holed up in Washington DC but, that I could drop the money off at the house of some friends. These friends, Ethan and Emily, were lovely people and did not hesitate to welcome me in for a quick chat. This chat ran over into a supper of delicious left-overs from a dinner-party the previous weekend and then further to the point that Ethan and I even headed out for a swift pint at a famous local drinking hole. The 'Toronado' has fifty different ales available on tap every night - many of my friends, Jim especially, would have been in their element here. Incidentally, perhaps Jim visited when he was here some months previously? I enjoyed a tasty offering from a local micro-brewery that was clearly of the Belgian amber style and some wonderful conversation, before catching a final metro back across the city in time for the final train of the night back to Palo Alto.
As a closing note, I wish to return to the evening of my first visit into the city centre, when I was returning to the train station, albeit in a very leisurely fashion, after ambling around the water-front for much of the late afternoon. En route back to Columbus Avenue, by this stage a favourite street of mine, I chanced upon sighting the Coit tower, a landmark structure atop Telegraph Hill in a very affluent part of the city centre, offering breath-taking views out over the rest of the area. Climbing this hill in the gathering gloom, I arrived at its summit in time to watch a brilliant, vibrant sun setting behind the outlined structure of the Golden Gate Bridge. Little did I know at the time that this would provide my clearest view of the iconic structure to date but, I was amazed, awe-struck by the sheer beauty of the scene before me. The sky burnt a warm orange, tinged with red; a glorious backdrop to the city skyline, various, multi-coloured lights already beginning to flicker on in many of these edifices. The breeze was a soothing balm and although I wore only a t-shirt, I was far from cold in the onrushing darkness. It was at this moment, looking out upon such a warm, friendly, open city that an epiphany of sorts arrived in my mind: I would like very much to return to this fair city, to live, to work, to play in its shadow and in its sun, to share in its fortunes and misfortunes, for a time at least. Of course, Vancouver must come first, that city that I find reflected here to an almost unnatural degree yet, there is always afterwards…
Best wishes to everyone!