Esmeralda picked me up just after six. It was still dark, already warm, and the burning trees of the Yosemite Rim Fire sat in the air. We had a four hour trek ahead of us on our journey from Reno to San Francisco, and-
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Dirty Harry. Monk. Bullitt. Vertigo. Full House. William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy. 48 Hours. Maltese Falcon. The Rock. Mrs. Doubtfire. The Joy Luck Club. On the Road. McTeague. Basic Instinct. Tales of the City. Nash Bridges. Pacific Heights. The Presidio. So I Married An Axe Murderer. The Towering Inferno. The Streets Of …
Is there any American city that feels so known to people who haven’t visited it as San Francisco? There are more movies, novels, television shows set in New York, but the Big Apple is so large that it becomes almost generic, I think. Studios shoot movies in all kinds of places and call it New York and the larger public just accepts it, but San Francisco has such a unique visual look that it’s hard to fake. The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the steep hills, the compact rows of houses … San Francisco is as visually unique as any city on Earth, and while you can film Avengers in Cleveland and call it New York and only offend native New Yorkers, it’s much harder to find a city to stand-in for San Francisco. How do you fake that bridge? Those hills? Those houses?
Cameras (still and motion) love San Francisco, and now I do, too.
To be sure, it’s a case of instant attraction, the geologic equivalent of hitting a bar and finding yourself at a table with a woman you’ve known only from across the room and through the stories of others, yet by the time you’ve downed your seventh cocktail and the bartender is turning off the lights, you feel like you know her at a conversationally intimate level. You hear about her job, her ex-boyfriends, her desire to travel, her upbringing in Iowa, her fondness for Louisa May Alcott, her love of Manhattans, and dislike of Manhattan. Slowly but perceptibly, this woman who’s had your eye, if not your attention, turns from myth to reality and you don’t want the night to end. You can’t wait until you see her again, because she has left you thinking the second go-round will be even better than the first.
Those are my thoughts now of San Francisco, a city that managed to be exactly what I thought and hoped, and still so much more, too.
This is how it happened.
Esmeralda picked me up just after six and despite the early hour, Darwin roused himself from the couch to stand in my bedroom window and watch us go. Having perfected the “I cannot believe you are leaving without me are you ever going to come home?” face, he clings to it despite me never actually walking back upstairs to my second floor apartment and taking him with me. I hate leaving him behind, of course, but I make promises verbal and non-verbal that I will spoil him even more on the day after I return than I did the day before I left.
I’m traveling light this adventure – a small, orange hiker’s pack is full of medication, a camera, two granola bars, one pair of clean socks, one clean t-shirt, and one clean pair of boxers. It’s a day trip so I don’t plan on using any of these items minus the camera and medication, but one must be willing to admit that walking around a city in late August heat may well require the change of certain items. As a disciple of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, it makes me slightly sad that the small pack is not large enough for a full-sized towel, but sacrifices sometimes need to be made.
I have taken a day trip with Esmeralda (not her real name) before, but a quick 45-minute run to Squaw Valley is not the same as a 4-hour hike to the Bay. When we rode the tram and hiked to the top of Squaw Peak, we left at ten and were home by three; today, 3 PM would mean we still had a few hours left before even turning for home. I have never spent this much time with her, so I order myself to be a good passenger and refrain from complaining (should the want arise) about choices in music and poor driving skills. Neither of these things happen. The music runs the gamut from good to inoffensive and her driving skills are beyond reproach. She gets angry when we take a wrong turn, but the anger is temporary, vanishing behind a new smile as quickly as it replaced the old one. I generally do not like to function before 9, so I cannot remember the topic of our conversation (nor would I tell you the specifics if I did – in traveling terms, details of private conversations should largely remain private), but I know it was a good, extended chat that allowed me to settle comfortably into the passenger seat as I ceded control of the day to Esmeralda, who dictated the pace, the music, and the conversation.
I’m sure we talked about work.
I’m sure we talked about the day ahead.
I’m sure we talked about family.
I’m sure we talked about Darwin and Captain Marco (not her cat’s real name, but it would be awesome if it was).
Taking 1-80 west out of Reno is a wonderful drive. In minutes you are turning south and moving through the green hills of California, the Truckee River and train tacks serving as your sidecar. Approaching Sacramento is a mixed bag – it serves as the midway point between Reno and San Francisco so it’s arrival is a welcome sight, but it also means you’ve largely left the trees behind you as your run to sea level begins in earnest. At around 8:30, Esmeralda pulled off the highway so we could stop at a local bakery/coffee shop to get some breakfast. I don’t remember the name of the place or I’d give them some love because the glazed cake donut was good, the Diet Coke was cold, and they offered me a free refill.
Esmeralda had the coffee and it was hot. Despite the pleasantness of its odor, coffee makes zero sense to my taste buds.
I said the “donut” was good, but in truth, I bought two of them and ate only one. I don’t really remember ordering two donuts but my brain was only starting to crank and I must have ordered them out of habit. If you are fat or have been fat, you don’t ever become un-fat. Sure, you can lose the weight from your body, but it stays in your head. At full brain capacity, I would have ordered only one. I should have ordered only one. Well, I should have ordered exactly zero, but ordering one is exactly a 100% better decision than ordering two, yet somehow I ended up with two, ate one, and as far as I know, the other one is still sitting in the backseat of Esmeralda’s Mazda.
I’m sure she found it.
It was, in case you are wondering, an honest forget and not an attempt to pull off the blue t-shirt. That would have been a waste of a donut.
The Bay Bridge was closed for the weekend, so we used the 580 to cut across the bay via the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge which is a 5 1/2 mile long, double-decker, cantilever bridge. I love bridges. Esmeralda doesn’t. An interesting chat about this was had.
580 takes you to 101, which takes you to San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge.
Approaching the famous bridge was when I really started to get giddy about the prospect of spending the day in the city where Danny Tanner raised his kids. The bridge is completely woven into my conception of San Francisco, and as the 101 winded towards the bridge’s northern border, I dropped the ball in my role as the trip’s navigator and it took a moment longer than it should have to get on the structure.
The Golden Gate Bridge is everything I thought it would be, except in how quick the experience passes. It is a beautiful, grandiose, magnificent structure. Nothing about the look of the bridge disappoints. Connecting Marin County to the peninsula, the bridge has been in operation for 76 years now. That means, give or take a year or two, we are as far away from the opening of the bridge as the opening of the bridge was from the Civil War.
We were lucky that there were clouds rolling across the bridge, creating an almost mystical setting. The bridge hugs the land longer than I thought, and at nearly 1/3 the size of the Richmond-San Rafael, the trip across is over before you know it. I only had time to snap some photos with my cell phone, as you have barely comprehended passing the first tower when you find yourself under the second tower and then as you’re wondering if that was it … you’re in San Francisco.
And that’s where I’ll leave you for today. Next up: bison.
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