<< Back to Main pageAnother weekend has rolled around and that means another attempt to force-feed adventure to IBM's most "extreme" interns. Working with a crack team of lawyers and business analysts, we identified something that everyone could handle - a scenic drive through California's Napa Valley, leaving the car for only the brief seconds required to chug a half-dozen little cups of wine at random vineyards along the route. There was one fatal flaw - it was advised to start in the valley no later than 8am, and given that San Jose is 1.5 hours away, this meant getting out the door at 6:30. One of the interns managed to make it down to the lobby within the 20-minute grace period, but upon banging on the door of the second, all I got was a groggy demand for more sleep. After TPing the door and hall real estate (TP is not really an effective form of retaliation when the offender's "lawn" is a whopping 4 square feet), I was off to San Francisco to see what adventures I could witlessly wander into.
I arrived in the Richmond district around 8am; this is the area in the far west of town, as far from what is conventionally thought of as San Fran as you can find, but I had been told it had free parking (I was later to discover that 9/10s of the city has more free parking than one compact, grade-adept car could ever make use of). From here, I wandered up into Lincoln Park which offered narrow walkways along towering cliffs with insane views of Marin County and the bridge. Everywhere there were signs saying something to the effect of "Warning: If you use this trail, you will die;" I'm always up for a challenge. At one point along the path, I encountered a homeless guy building an elaborate meditation circle; bums in this city are some of the most productive anywhere; since CA offers a cash refund for recyclables, they'll scour the streets and even dig through the trash to rescue a few precious cans from their untimely demise. When have you seen those pious environmentalists with that kind of dedication?
In one spot, I discovered a muddy, gravel-strewn slope that looked as if it might have been a trail at one time. I scrambled down it to walk along the rocky beach of a hidden cove; as I looked around, the notion entered my mind that there could be no way back to the trail and I could be stuck here until the tide came in and the waves carried me out to sea, but I eventually found a crumbling earthen wall to scale and was soon back on track.
Next I made my way into the Presidio, which was apparently some sort of military installation at one time; with my reputation as a history buff, you'll be surprised to hear that I have no idea what these were there for (all the signs were in some strange Germanic language), but it was still fun to climb on the batteries. There happened to be a half-marathon running along the narrow trails in the opposite direction (it's an unspoken Californian law that wherever you happen to be on a weekend morning, there is a race within a 3-mile radius - everyone on the east coast considered my 12-mile runs to be completely insane, over here such stories elicit a response along the lines of "What are you, lazy??"); to avoid screwing up their times, I had to periodically hang off the cliff and let them pass; this struck me as a dumb place to have a race - when you're running at full speed, you're not aware of your surroundings or whether you're actually on the course at any given time; this is an unfortunate circumstance when one wrong step means certain death. The trails in this area are not well-defined and it was difficult to judge whether I was walking anywhere near them; the danger with hiking is similar to the danger with the markets - by the time you realize you may have gone the wrong way, you've invested so much time and effort in taking the path that you find yourself desperately trying to make some trail pan out that obviously isn't there.
I've frequently heard surfers from the east coast complain about how good it is out west; while it's true that a "poor" surf day offers overhead waves, the good breaks don't come easy; I passed one spot where a group had somehow lowered themselves and their boards down 200-foot crags to get to a spot covered in board-shattering rocks. While I was deciding whether to rappel down the cliff myself, I discovered that the runners had now reversed direction and I had been inadvertently entered into the race; I made it through the rest of the trail and up a hundred meter sand "staircase" in record time.
Soon I was crossing under the Golden Gate Bridge (a somewhat unconventional approach) and making my way along the Golden Gate Promenade which is roughly equivalent to the Promenade d'Anglais in Nice. I was distracted by what appeared to be a huge Greek temple rising over the trees; it was adorned with statues and carvings of the gods and great white swans swam through the neighboring pond - I could have mistaken it for Mt. Olympus had it not housed a children's science museum called the "Exploratorium."
I thought my calves could use some toning so I took the slightly vertical road rising into Cow Hollow and Pacific Heights. These were typical San Fran neighborhoods with every color and style of house crammed as close as possible to its disparate neighbors so as to conserve their precious square-feet. And when one pays a few hundred thousand for the tiny patch of grass that distinguishes the doorstep from the sidewalk, one can not afford to waste space on such ordinary lawn ornamentation as gnomes and windsocks, but must erect a towering metal monstrosity to feed on unsuspecting pedestrians.
In all the guidebooks, the Mission district was touted as a crime-ridden area full of lesbians and Latinos; I interpreted this to mean "cheap lunch." I found a tacqueria which offered super burritos and an opportunity to practice my Spanish for just over 3 bucks (aside: It was just off the campus of Duke University, up a rickety staircase in an apartment-turned-restaurant hole-in-the-wall called Cosmic Cantina that I found my first super burrito. For a time I was convinced that this was the only place where you could find such a thing - a tortilla wrapped around a couple pounds of beans, cheese, rice and guacamole to form a concoction roughly the size of your arm - and I feared that I would eventually have to move back to NC. However upon traveling west I was to learn that it was common practice to pack an entire day's worth of food into one flour shell. There is likely a huge business opportunity in bringing these delicacies to the high schools and colleges of Florida.) After lunch, I walked up Mission St. where I was to encounter more varieties of restaurant in one half-mile then I had seen in all my travels up to that point; Senegalese, Nicaraguan, Venezuelan - if it's a country, it's represented here.
Next it was on to downtown along the main drag of Market St. At Powell, I saw my first cable car; people stood in a line 2 hours long to pay six bucks to go up the hill; I am pleased to say that I accomplished this awesome feat in a third the time without ever boarding the glorified city bus.
I worked my way through Chinatown, fighting off hordes of offers for Dim Sum and Moon Pies. Getting slightly dehydrated from the 15 mile hike up to this point, I stopped to pick up a refreshing can of "Grass Jelly drink." This is much like the sodas we have in this country, except that for whatever reason, there are lots of little chunks of jelly floating around in there; it's like going to a diner and mixing a bunch of the grape jelly packets into your water - except that instead of a fruity flavor, this tastes exactly like grass. Floating stuff seems to be a common theme in Asian beverages - whether it's tapioca, soy, or ground beef, there's a surprise waiting in every can.
In North Beach I found the Coit Tower, which is a rather puny 200-foot edifice on top of the abrupt Telegraph Hill. Unfortunately the line to get up the stairs was far too long and the city had sadistically planted trees around the base of the tower, so in the end, I was forced to move onto the next of the few thousand available views.
It was back down Market to the adjacent hills of Corona Heights and Buena Vista Park; after overlooking most of the city from a rocky perch, I proceeded to the University of San Francisco. It was here where I encountered what was by far the biggest slug I have ever seen; I would have included my foot in the picture as a reference frame had I not been absolutely certain that this beast would bite my leg off.
For dinner, I tried an Eritrean place (essentially Ethiopian, only spelled and pronounced differently); food in this city is uniformly amazing - and assuming you don't go anywhere of European origin (it's usually a good sign when you don't recognize the character set used to write the restaurant's name), it's even cheaper than in the east.
By this time, I had walked for roughly 12 hours and had lost the ability to stand up straight or move my legs more than a few inches at a time, so I decided it was probably a good idea to walk the 40 blocks back to the top of the hill where I had so cleverly left my car and head on home.