Day 77: Sunday 28th May
Gwynnie: One of SF’s most famous sights is, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge, and by the time we realised we were about to drive over it, it was a mad dash to grab the cameras and try to get some decent shots:
I’m proud to say that it was me who drove over the bridge, although it was just pure coincidence that it was my turn to drive then. SF was another time when we were all scattered – Thomas was staying at a hostel, Jenn and Anna were staying with Anna’s friend Tessa, and I was staying with my dear friend Saba, who I lived near back when we both lived in Japan. I realised a little too late that Saba lived miles out of the centre, so the most logical thing was for me to drop everyone off and then drive to Saba’s by myself.
It was the first time I had driven Daisy alone – through a city, in the dark, I was a little terrified. Fortunately, the sat nav guided me safely to Saba’s door, and I was able to meet her super cute three-year-old and catch up over old times.
Anna: Jenn and I spent the evening hanging out with Tessa and her husband Brian. I have to give a special shout-out to Tessa as she was my first ever American friend, and therefore a big inspiration for the road trip, or at least the germ of the seed of the idea that formed in my head over the years that I could use the road trip as an opportunity to visit all my friends from the US. We first met back in 2009 as fresh-faced twenty-year-olds studying abroad in Berlin, when she introduced me to the American delights of pumpkin-carving.
She even took me as her honorary guest to my first ever American Thanksgiving, where I was thoroughly embarrassed when people asked me what I was studying, and I had to say, meekly, “American Studies”. Cue raucous laughter – I think they enjoyed the thought that I was studying them. But I suppose in a way I was and still am 😉 It was lovely to catch up with Tessa after so long – 8 years! But it seems we sadly forgot to take any photos of our reunion 😦
Day 78: Monday 29th May
Anna: Jenn and I forced ourselves to get up at 7.30am to go for a run. Tessa and Brian had recommended that we run to a certain lookout point for some amazing views of the city:
Unfortunately, the famous San Francisco fog had rolled in that morning, so after running up an extremely steep hill, that was the sight that met our eyes. I have to say, this was the hardest, most unrewarding run I have ever done in my life – it was all uphill (the steepest hills I’ve ever attempted to run up) and there weren’t even views at the end of it because of that thick wall of fog everywhere. I have never been so close to giving up in my life – the only reason I didn’t was because I had Jenn a few metres ahead of me coaching me onwards. Fortunately, when we got back to Tessa’s, we were greeted with some amazing pancakes that she kindly cooked us for breakfast.
Gwynnie: Driving back into San Francisco – because Saba lives out near Fremont – I realised I had to pay $5 toll to cross the bridge back into the city. I panicked, not sure that I had any cash on me. Somehow, I had exactly $5 in coins and change, and was able to pass! Phew. I joined Anna and Jenn at Tessa’s, where I was given some pancakes… so kind!
Eventually, we were on our way, and after picking Thomas up we tried to find somewhere to park downtown. This turned into a bit of a nightmare – it seemed impossible to find anywhere to park for less than $40. Usually in the USA we found that you could drive down a few side streets and park for free, but we didn’t want to be too far from the pier this day because we were heading to Alcatraz and Jenn had to catch her flight out of SF shortly after. So, in the end, we opted to pay $35 for some parking, the cheapest we could find after driving around and around a few times.
We had some time before our trip to Alcatraz, though, so we went to Pier 39 to see the sea lions! We had heard that there were sea lions that you could see for free, so we expected perhaps a small handful of them. However, we were surprised to find signposts leading to the sea lions, and then – hundreds of them!!!
After marvelling at the weirdness of the sea lions for a while, we went to find some food. Jenn went off to meet a friend she had in SF, while the rest of us went to Frankie’s Pier 43, where I tried some overpriced clam chowder. It had a very “train station food” vibe, and I remember wishing I’d ordered what Thomas had (Thomas says he remembers it as being not very good, Anna didn’t even order anything)… not as good as those chowders we had in Maine, of course. We wandered around Chinatown after that before going back to meet Jenn and take our ferry over to Alcatraz Island! (Anna: I ate a corndog while waiting for the ferry, because it sounded like a typical American food that I should try, and it was gross.)
Gwynnie: In case you don’t know, Alcatraz is a famous prison situated on an island off SF (yes, Azkaban was very probably inspired by this).
It operated as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963, and ‘hosted’ some famous criminals such as Al Capone. The island was ‘discovered’ in 1775 and the fort was built in the 1850s, after the island had been consigned for military use (when it also become home to the West Coast’s first operational lighthouse). It actually served as a military prison until the early 20th Century, holding Confederate sympathisers during the American Civil War and others accused of treason.
(Fun fact – ‘alcatraz’ means ‘pelican’ in Spanish. The island gets its name because it is, unsurprisingly, full of pelicans:)
After the prison shut down in 1963 (because it was too expensive to keep open, apparently), a group of Native American activists occupied the island from 1969-1971:
(Another fun fact: for decades this graffiti on the water tower was almost indecipherable, but the National Park Service restored it in 2012 – the only example of a time the NPS actually restored modern-day graffiti.)
Now, of course, it’s a tourist attraction! If you want to go there, you need to book your ferry in advance through this website, another example of fine organisation ahead of time! 😉 The ferry takes perhaps 15 minutes and once you’re on the island, you join a tour that takes you up into the prison, where you’re given an audio guide and left to wander around at your own pace. Inside, you’ll be able to see into several of the cells – even walk into a couple and really feel the dark, creepy loneliness setting in.
We were told that there had been 14 known escape attempts from Alcatraz. One of the most famous ones was May 2nd-4th 1946, where six prisoners overpowered jailhouse officers and were able to gain access to weapons. In this battle, two guards were killed and 18 injured. The US Marines were called in, and the three who had attempted to escape were killed. However, the most famous is the one on which the film The Great Escape is based, and the story is pretty crazy.
Apparently, Frank Lee Morris had a lifetime of criminal offences behind him, and a deep knowledge of the prison system to boot. He was described as having ‘superior intelligence’, and in fact the reason he was sent to Alcatraz was because of his history of escape attempts from other prisons. Somehow, he and another inmate managed to use small things that they had found and collected in the prison while cleaning – such as old saw blades – and spent months carefully designing and creating lifelike dummies of themselves using bits of the wall carved out slowly over time, which they were able to place in the beds to make it look as if they were sleeping:
While crafting these, they had also dug escape tunnels through the prison’s ventilation holes, and had somehow apparently fashioned rafts and life jackets using old raincoats given and stolen from other inmates. Apparently, they disappeared, and nobody knows for sure whether their escape was successful – although the audio guide was pretty determined that they had probably drowned during the treacherous crossing back into San Francisco. You can read more here.
We also learned general things about life at the prison, saw them operating the levers that automatically locked or opened all the cells at once, and all that. All in all, it was interesting, and a nice way to spend a few hours.
After taking the ferry back to the city, Jenn had to leave us, sadly! So Thomas and Anna drove to the airport to drop Jenn off for her flight, while I took a train back to Saba’s. (Anna: I am sad to report that Jenn left the US without fulfilling her dream of seeing a bear.)
Gwynnie: I had another friend in SF who I knew through the peace forum I organised in Romania back in 2016, so I met up with her for some dinner. I was thrilled to realise that there’s Burmese food all over San Francisco (something I learnt that I loved a few years ago), so we went to a place called Kyain Kyain, where the food was pretty cheap and delicious.
Day 79: Tuesday 30th May
Gwynnie: Saba had a free guest pass for Oakland zoo, so that’s where we went! Saba’s kid was very excited to see all the animals, and we wandered around with fries and coffee, looking at everything. Unfortunately, I let her take all the photos and now I don’t have them, so until Saba sends me the pictures, I’ll show you a random picture of the zoo:
Turns out you can walk around inside the zoo on Google street maps – that’s where this is from. Just like I was there all over again! There was also a funfair at the zoo, so we watched Saba’s adorable daughter play on some rides before she got cranky and wanted to go to sleep.
Later that evening, Saba and I went into the city to meet up with Kassondra, another friend of ours from the Japan days! We walked around a little, looking at places to eat, grabbing some coffee and cakes, and then we found a pretty amazing Thai restaurant (which I’m 95% sure was Tamarind Hall), where the prices really weren’t as bad as you’d expect. We had a good catch up – seeing as it was already 7 years ago when we were all young, fresh-faced English teachers in Hamamatsu, we had a lot to catch up on!
Anna: Meanwhile, Thomas and I decided to spend the day exploring some of San Francisco’s neighbourhoods. We started off with The Mission district, which we had heard was great for burritos and murals, both of which turned out to be correct – I had the most amazing burrito I’ve ever had in my life at Taqueria El Falorito!
And the murals weren’t bad either.
The Mission is named after the Mission San Francisco de Asís church, built in 1776. We mistakenly thought that the newer Mission Dolores Basilica, which is right next to it and looks much more aesthetically impressive, was the church, so that’s what we took photos of.
The original 1776 structure actually looks more like a little house with a cross on top – you can see the side of it in the left-hand corner of this photo.
We walked through the Mission Dolores Park, and stopped briefly at Kasa Indian Eatery for a mango lassi. The next district we went to check out was Castro – known as the gay district.
We saw the famous Castro Theatre and read some stuff about Harvey Milk, the popular and first openly gay elected official in the history of California who was assassinated in 1978, and the subject of the 2008 film ‘Milk’ (which is worth a watch, by the way) – there was an outdoor exhibition about him near the subway station.
The final neighbourhood on our list was Haight-Ashbury – apparently hipster central. On the way over there, we saw this church, the impressive Saint Ignatius.
In Haight-Ashbury a man passing by us in the street who may have been homeless, but possibly wasn’t and was just trying his luck, asked whether he could have the rest of our burrito (it was so huge that we had taken the rest of it to go and had been carrying it round in a bag all day). We gave it to him, but deeply regretted it about five seconds later.
We also saw this window display with a camp Darth Vader (Ed: my mistake, it’s actually Boba Fett! Thanks readers):
After briefly browsing a bookshop, we stopped for beer at Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery, and ended up spending the evening there. It was fitted out like a British pub and served craft beer and pub food.
Day 80: Wednesday 31st May
Anna: I spent the morning writing a blog post and then went out to meet Gwynnie for lunch. I decided to walk so I could soak in some more of the San Francisco vibes. Here are some things I saw on my walk:
I met Gwynnie at the King of Thai Noodle House, which had yummy food and also a wall with ‘Thank You’ written on it in many different languages – including Welsh (to Gwynnie’s delight) and Czech!
After that, we did a classic San Francisco thing – rode on one of the historic cable cars! Who can conjure up an image of San Francisco without thinking of one of those old cable cars climbing up the steep hills? There are a few of the old lines still in operation that now run mainly as tourist attractions. We took the Powell-Mason line from Union Square, but there is also the Powell-Hyde line (which goes to Lombard Street – famous for being the world’s “crookedest street” with terrifying curves and switchbacks as the gradient of the hill is so steep) and the California-Van Ness line.
The cable car was pretty touristy but still kind of cool, with a conductor who came round and stamped our tickets. There were no doors on the sides – you could just jump off at any moment if you have an appetite for danger!
Then we headed to Chinatown to meet Thomas. We met him at the famous Chinatown Gate:
We walked around Chinatown a bit, stopping to look at the Tin How Temple and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. However, we didn’t take pictures of either of those things, so here are some pictures of other things we saw in Chinatown, like these magnificent cakes:
Another thing San Francisco is apparently great for is “secret stairways” – I guess not so secret if everyone knows about them. But there are a few of these slightly hidden stairways around the city leading up to impressive lookout points. We went to the Filbert Steps starting at the bottom of Sansome Street.
We started climbing up them and there were indeed some nice views.
The stairway was lined with beautifully-maintained gardens full of greenery and flowers.
Gwynnie had to disappear about halfway up to teach on Skype for an hour or so, but Thomas and I continued up to the top where we found the Coit Tower.
It was $8 to go up the Coit Tower, plus there was a huge queue and I think they were about to close anyway, so we didn’t bother – but the view from the bottom still wasn’t bad. There was a slightly scary moment where Thomas tried to scare me by coming up behind me (or maybe he didn’t mean to scare me, but I’m just very jumpy) and I dropped my camera and was terrified all the photos would be lost. But luckily everything was fine – *phew*.
We climbed all the way back down again and went to meet up with Tessa and Gwynnie at Osha Thai Restaurant & Lounge in the Embarcadero Center, where we had a cocktail or two. We got into quite a stimulating conversation about AI and transhumanism – both big passions of Thomas’s and it turned out Tessa works for a think tank that deals with these topics!
After that, Gwynnie, Thomas and I went for dinner at The Stinking Rose – a restaurant famous for using garlic in every single one of its dishes. It was delicious!
After that Gwynnie went back to Saba’s, while Thomas and I decided to check out some things associated with another of San Francisco’s claims to fame – the Beat Generation. The core members of the Beat Generation, including Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, ended up in San Francisco during the 1950s (Jack Kerouac never really lived there as such but visited often and crashed on the floors of friends) and became part of the San Francisco Renaissance.
Two places associated with the Beat Generation in San Francisco are City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio Café – Vesuvio for being a place frequented by many Beat Generation writers, and City Lights Bookstore for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s poetry collection ‘Howl and Other Poems’ which became the subject of an obscenity trial. The alley between the cafe and bookstore used to be called Adler but was renamed ‘Jack Kerouac Alley’ in 1988.
We spent a while browsing the bookstore, and wanted to go and check out the cafe, but unfortunately around that time I inconveniently got a massive headache that had been coming on for a while and interfered with my ability to see, so we called it a night and had to content ourselves with seeing Vesuvio from the outside. We’ll go in for a drink another time, perhaps, and get some literary inspiration 😉
Incidentally, I have to mention here that I took a photo of the same mural in this area on THREE SEPARATE OCCASIONS without realising it was the same thing (once on Monday, once on Tuesday and once on Wednesday) – I only figured this out recently when looking through the photos. Here is the evidence:
I assume the illuminated books you can see in the third photo are because the mural is near the City Lights Bookstore, but I’m not sure. The mural is really cool – it’s called the Jazz Mural and it stretches around two sides of a building, one has more Chinese-inspired images on it and the other side has jazz musicians. Here is the jazz side up close:
Day 81: Thursday 1st June
Anna: After dropping Thomas off at a coffee shop (he was flying to LA later that day where we would meet him again in a couple of days), I drove the hour or so to Fremont to pick up Gwynnie from Saba’s. Driving on my own – although it wasn’t the first time I had done it on the trip – was a little scary but ok. The main problem was that I couldn’t figure out what exit I had to take off a certain roundabout and kept getting thrown back onto the same road that just took me round and round in an infinite loop, à la our experience of trying to leave Montreal – the city that wouldn’t let us go. After (I kid you not) five or six tries, and just as I began to think I may spend the rest of my life circling this same roundabout, I eventually managed to get on the right road.
I picked up Gwynnie and we stopped at a gas station to pee, where I was accosted by the guy inside at the checkout who aggressively told me toilets were for customers only. I lied and told him my friend was filling up gas outside – then legged it to the car and Gwynnie and I drove off feeling like we were in a high-speed chase. Onwards to Yosemite!