After two days of craning our necks upwards at redwoods that have been standing for two thousand years, we left the magnificent Avenue of the Giants behind us, said goodbye to Humboldt County, and made our way slowly down the Pacific Coast Highway.
We hugged the rugged shoreline along the Pacific Coast Highway — a designated All-American Road (roads that, owing to their scenic, recreational, or archaeological importance become attractions in their own right, can be nominated and then approved for this cool distinction). There is no doubt PCH is worthy of the accolade. The road winds its way into cliffs that drop off into the Pacific Ocean, in parts buffered by a short stretch of wild beach, in others the cliffs themselves plunge down into the icy waters. A dazzling array of wildflowers adorns the banks and hillsides, sea lions rest lazily on rocky outcrops, golden eagles soar far above the screeching gulls, as pelicans drop from the air, swooping and twisting into the water at fish-defying speeds, cormorants cling to the sides of sea stacks, their drying wings splayed in dark stretched-out Ms. The road cuts its way back and up and down again, bends unforgivingly with the contours of the edge of the continent, and it goes on for hundreds of miles: all-American.
The soundtrack to all of this is country music, whose dedicated radio stations appear to be alone in their ability to send music into the outer reaches of coastal airwaves. Songs with relentless, unnervingly specific lyrics about heartache, vehicles (never a “car” or “truck”, always a Mustang or Chevy), God, guns, and the USA would hiss in and out of clarity until we’d switch it all off and listen to the gulls for a while. We passed through a few of the small hippie towns that dot the coast, stopping in one called Trinidad, population 311, curiously following signs for the market, interested in what it would mean in this context. On market days, it seems, 11 people sell their wares to the other 300 in a sectioned-off area of a parking lot outside the grocery store. A generously-bearded old man in a tie-dyed t-shirt plays Greensleeves on a handmade woodwind instrument, a beret with a few scattered coins at his feet; at one table, a family sells colourful blown glass to anyone who will buy it; at another, a young skinny man with a far-off look in his eyes displays his arrangement of potions.
Wishing we had time for more of this, but wanting to make it to the outskirts of San Francisco before dark, we pressed on, spending the night in Petaluma, CA. Here, we were close enough to the city of Greenbrae to allow us to keep our 9am breakfast date with our friend Alex’s mom, proprietor and eponym of the should-be-famous, should-be-All American, Fifi’s Diner. Fifi fed us a ridiculously delicious, ridiculously large amount of the most amazing food (including a compulsory 9am milkshake!) before sending us on our bloated way to explore the city of San Francisco.
Pulling in by ferry, our first sights of San Francisco were the city at large. Under endless grey skies, the grey skyscrapers welcomed us to the shores at the landmark Ferry Building terminal. Off the starboard side of the boat, the Golden Gate Bridge spread itself across the windy Bay, hidden in part by Alcatraz and foregrounded by racing catamarans listing precariously leeward, sloshing quietly, rapidly through the chilly waters. Ahead of us, Coit Tower rose atop Telegraph Hill like a giant monolithic thumbs-up to the entire Bay Area. The city was in the grip of America’s Cup fever — all about were bandstands and banners, advertising campaigns, flags flapping in strong wind, electronic signboards, and people in uniforms trying ever so hard to look busy.
We walked for miles. I don’t know how many miles exactly, but for 7 hours we barely stopped. We walked along the Embarcadero from the Ferry Building, pausing at Pier 39 to look at the vibrantly colourful oasis of activity and to visit the now-famous barking, smelly sea lions that have made the harbour their home.
At Marina Boulevard we sat on the beach for a while, staring up at the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance and the nearby Presidio, then cut up Lyon Street, ascending its grueling steps and alighting to some great views back down over part of the city, then passing by the university to get to Haight-Ashbury. Once the center of all things 60’s, the Haight now has the all the sad grit and tacky vending of a has-been hotspot. People still try to be cool here (dilatory loitering, ill-fitting clothing, abundant tattoos, painful-looking piercings, unkempt facial hair, saying “esque” at the end of words to sound well-informed), but it’s the trying that is the unhingement of it all — you get the sense that in the 60’s this stuff was cool, it simply happened that way and no one had to try very hard to make it so. Importantly, too, you get the sense that no one was trying to cash in on the zeitgeist. But that was 50 years ago. I wasn’t around then, but I offer a confident guess that the Haight-Ashbury we walked through is like the Haight-Ashbury Janis Joplin walked through in name only.
Being as cool as we are, we bought $5 wedding rings at a store somewhere along Haight Street, and for the first time on this trip we now sported the jewelry of the hitched (we left our actual wedding rings in a safe back in New York).
Stay tuned for an upcoming entry in which Meg’s fake wedding ring makes another appearance.
We walked farther east, then north again, watched cars descend with utmost trepidation at a maximum speed of 5MPH the steep, winding Lombard Street — the second most crooked street in America according to the old joke (the most crooked being Pennsylvania Avenue). Through the Castro and Mission Districts, and then along Market Street, we completed our (most inefficient, unplanned, but completely necessary to burn off Fifi’s calories) walk around San Francisco with one last visit to Fisherman’s Wharf for dinner.
One of the world’s culinary curiosities, like why anybody eats Hershey’s chocolate or why Caesar salad is expensive, is how some cities mysteriously excel at doing another country’s cuisine — see London for Indian food, New York for sushi or San Francisco for Mexican food. Maybe we were just that hungry. No, I remember now: it was that good. With our legs already warmed up from all that walking it was now time to run: with only two minutes to spare we loaded our laden bodies onto the ferry that would take us away, back across the waters to Larkspur, to Greenbrae, with the city of San Francisco now lit up behind us, away to Petaluma again for one last night before heading inland, east towards my American happy place…