Road Trips should be long enough to make a holiday, but not so long you need another holiday to recover from it. I think we just about got it right.
San Francisco: the northern bit
When we arrived at the hotel my blistered feet had become so toxic-smelling, I’d’ve happily set them alight just to be done with them. A shower, shave, and food can do wonders.
We got up early the next morning and walked from Nob Hill to the Alcatraz ferry, passing parked cars with smashed windows and (presumably) missing valuables. We then crossed the street where the crew of the starship Enterprise were nearly knocked down by a taxi in Star Trek IV (there are film locations everywhere!). It was sunny overhead but foggy in the bay, as the frequent, morose blasts from the foghorn had indicated when we first woke up.
Alcatraz is best seen on the first outing of the day before more and more boatloads of tourists arrive. The audio tour of the prison is excellent (narrated by former prisoners and guards), and the site contains a surprising number of small, cheerful garden areas. It made for a great little escape from the city (and the perfect place to do Sean Connery impersonations, whilst noting that key scenes in The Rock don’t actually look like that in the prison).
Ashore, we headed west towards the bridge, stopping off for lunch at the Black Spot Cafe before enjoying the swanky Marina district. There was something familiar about walking along a beach towards an iconic red bridge – we do that walking to Cramond back in Edinburgh, with the Forth Bridge in the distance – and I think this familiarity made us warm to San Francisco.
We turned south through the Presidio area, formerly a military base and now a well-maintained hub of creativity, and got to perhaps one of the most surprising places in the city: the Palace of Fine Arts. The dome kept popping into view everywhere we’d been walking, but when you arrive at it, nothing prepares you for the scale of it. It’s unlike anything else in the city, and we could see why so many people were there for wedding photos and graduation pictures.
It was time to head back to the hotel. Heading east along Chestnut Street (an artsy community with lots of attractive old 2-storey buildings), we paused for soup and cold drinks at a humourless, straight-faced organic cafe before tackling the steep hills.
Tourists lined the sides of Lombard Street to take photos of the traffic jam zig-zagging down it; on another steep hill an elderly Chinese lady was bent double as she tried shuffling her way to the top with her shopping; and when we got to Coit Tower and saw the queues there around three sides of the building, we decided we’d been on our feet too long to stand around for the best part of an hour. We could each spend our eight dollars elsewhere!
Outside the Cable Car Museum, I overheard a guide telling tourists that Big Trouble In Little China was partly inspired by real life in the 1980s (I assume he meant the street gangs rather than ancient spirits, magic, and monsters).
Back at the hotel we discovered that our intended walking route for the next day was almost identical to the Bay-To-Breakers race taking place at exactly the same time. Sometimes, our timing sucks.
San Francisco: Golden Gate Park
First thing on a Sunday morning, the only people out on San Francisco’s streets are homeless. And there are a lot of homeless people. We were their sole focus of attention as we headed to City Hall, an unsettling feeling that somehow we were encroaching on their territory. Back home, homeless people are the same skin colour as everyone else. Here, the people we passed were almost exclusively black. They merely stared at us – obvious foreigners – in absolute silence. What could we say?
One guy growled to himself in his sleep under his blankets. Another was making kung-fu moves against a street sign. A couple feasted on the litter scattered around an open trash can. An old man shuffled and twitched like a broken robot. The pungent stench of urine filled the air. All this was in an affluent, high-tech city with towering glass skyscrapers, flashy cars, and high-end boutiques. It was hard to process.
I have no idea what it’s like to live here. It’s the sort of thing you might read about developing countries – but why here, in the world’s currently richest country? Is there some corollary to the ‘American Dream’ that assumes if you’re not wealthy, it must be because you didn’t want to be, and therefore deserve to live in abject poverty? It made for a very sobering start to the day.
About an hour later, on Haight Street, we passed through the epicentre of hippy counter-culture in the 1960s where retro shops sell tie-dye and flowery garments, psychedelia, and new-age bollocks. Some of the residents still embraced the fashions of 50 years previously, as if time had stood still (only cellphones and modern cars ruined the effect). Between the retro feel and the arty vibe (buildings were all painted in bright, vivid colours), there was something appealing about the place.
At the entrance to Golden Gate Park we saw possibly the very last of the original hippies: a denim-clad couple who must’ve been about 70, with long white hair, listening to classic Sixties songs on his radio. On the roadside lawns, dozens more homeless folk sat or lay down under the trees.
On our way westward we made a detour uphill to see the tiled steps at Grandview Park (also known as Sixteenth Avenue or Moraga Street), where signs warned against car break-ins and asked Has Anyone Seen This Woman, Photographed Stealing Our Plants? The homes here must’ve been worth a fortune. On a clear day you’d see all the way downhill to the Pacific Ocean; but today a fog bank lay along the shore.
We re-entered Golden Gate Park, and our path coincided with the race: the thump of 80s music, the loud garble of some local DJ shouting encouragement, the cheers and claps of spectators and supporters. The earliest finishers were already making their way back into town, still in costume (or the remnants). We ended up being siphoned off our intended route through a labyrinth of cordons and event marshals, along with the sweaty, panting racegoers, past a couple of windmills and a restaurant where we’d originally hoped to stop and have lunch – but was mobbed with queues snaking around and people sitting drinking beer on the lawn. But at least we’d made it to the Pacific coast.
The buses back into town were packed with (you guessed it) racegoers, so we went across the road to board an empty bus heading towards the coast, with the intention of staying aboard before it turned around to pick everyone up and head back into town. This confused and upset the angry little man who was driving it, but by refusing to get off and threatening to delay his cigarette break at the bus terminal, he relented and we finally got to sit down.
We had a long lunch on the sixth floor of Macy’s with a view of Union Square, and drank more booze than we’d had in a single sitting since the holiday began. We staggered back to the hotel, slept for an hour, packed our bags and slept again until morning.
We were exhausted – too exhausted to go shopping before our flight – so instead we went to the airport before breakfast and simply sat, ate, read, and watched dozens of slack-jawed fellow travellers staring in numb horror at the TV screens showing the latest episode of ‘Oh God What’s Trump Done Now?!’ on the news channels. We’d been out of touch from news and social media for over a fortnight, and it had been utterly blissful.
Aside from being exhausted, we were also delighted at how smoothly the trip had gone.
Will there be an Epic USA Road Trip Two? Damn right, there will!