WRTII, Part 1: Riding the Waves

14 May

The next three posts will tell the tale of my recent West Coast adventure, as detailed in this introductory post.

My wanderlust is calling, and I’m ready to answer. I spend my Friday at work chomping at the bit. I was supposed to have a meeting halfway between Duluth and Minneapolis today and bought plane tickets accordingly, but alas, the meeting was canceled, so I’m stuck in the office, watching the clock. I drive down to Minneapolis late in the afternoon, and meet a big group of old friends for dinner and games. After a leisurely Saturday morning, I head for the airport and make the four-hour journey to San Francisco, where I will spend a weekend in the company of my cousin. I visited him on my road trip two summers ago, and this will be my only repeat destination on this trip, but as it’s a city that no brief weekend jaunt can do justice, it’s a welcome return.

My cousin collects me from the airport and we jump right in with a swift tour of a few sites around the city that one won’t find in a guidebook. First, a tree swing with a stellar view of Billy Goat Hill; alas, this time around, the guerrilla swing-hangers lost their war with the Parks Department, and it has been cut down, spoiling the fun. Next, a concrete slide in a vacant lot on a hillside, complete with cardboard to scoot down the slope, the brainchild of a neighborhood kid some decades before. Finally, a labyrinth at Lands End laid out in stones in the model of the one in the Chartres cathedral, which we meander through in full. San Francisco is a complete adult playground; even, we lament, as the city prices out most young families.

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Sticking with the playground theme, our mode of transportation for much of the weekend will be the most San Francisco thing imaginable: a moped app named Scoot. Much like bikeshares, Scoot allows users to unlock mopeds stashed around the city (either in scattered garages or on the streets, where past users have left them), put on a helmet from an otherwise locked compartment, and Scoot to their desired destinations. I take a little while to get used to it, as the proximity of the brake and the throttle make for a few awkward lurches, but before long I’m Scooting with confidence. It’s also entirely practical for San Francisco, where traffic is never too fast, and where hills make a traditional bikeshare much more of an ordeal for the causal peddler. A twenty-minute series of introductory videos coaches users on the mechanics of mopeds and basic safety, and thanks me for being part of a movement to change the world. Such pretention is one of the reason the tech world drives me insane. Isn’t it ever enough just to be a good, fun idea for a particular city?

This being San Francisco, though, Scoot is only the tip of the iceberg. The current craze (or infestation, depending on whom one asks) involves electric scooters, which zip along on streets (where they are supposed to be) and sidewalks (where they are not) and get dumped in all sorts of odd places around the city. Somehow, these aren’t even the most preposterous transportation options in the city. That award goes to the GoCars, the yellow three-wheeled two-seaters that putter about a couple of inches off the ground. It all feels awfully gratuitous, but all these options get us where we need to go in the end.

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After a delicious dinner in the Sunset District, Saturday night features a beer tasting with a few familiar faces from my previous visit to the Bay Area. The conversation turns to local politics as we down stouts and nibble at smelly cheese. San Francisco’s impending mayoral election will follow familiar plot lines to the 2016 Democratic Party primary, as an establishment figure tries to break the city’s glass ceiling while some rebels nip at her heels. Beyond that, the Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) movement tries desperately to break through the cynicism of well-heeled Bay Area liberals who reject greater density and development so as to preserve their perfect little neighborhoods, thereby driving some of the city’s absurd property values. I can’t help but be sympathetic to the cause, though my inner contrarian raises a few objections. Are we really right to pack more and more people into San Francisco, an earthquake-prone metropolis in a state that has its water issues? And this country already has a problem with concentration of wealth in too few major cities; might not the pricing out of San Francisco be a natural corrective that forces the tech engine of the American economy to spread the wealth and talent elsewhere? Duluth would be happy to have the services of a few refugees looking for a foggy, hilly city with much more reasonable real estate. I suppose I can dream.

Speaking of dreams, it crosses my mind several stouts in that my cousin and his friends are living a sort of millennial dream. They enjoy comfortable (if somewhat crowded) urban living, delicious food and drink, weekends at Tahoe, and travel around the world for both work and play. College, work, and church provide networks that form little communities within a larger city. We even got some avocado toast as an appetizer without a hint of irony. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that living it for a few days stirs up a little desire to start searching the job listings, as that magnetic Fear of Missing Out, so ubiquitous in an age of social media, rears its head again. A cursory look suggests I could double my salary, and while much of that gain would get swallowed up by rent, Bay Area money would still go awfully far, especially in travels or some eventual move elsewhere. Tempting, isn’t it?

There are a lot of reasons why that won’t happen, from family to temperament to some conviction over what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. But the allure tugs at my ambitious side, and only a week after my return, after a run around Congdon on a Perfect Duluth Day, do I fully remember why I don’t want to go down that road. I have my own little world to tend to here.

The delicious San Francisco life continues the next morning with a delectable brunch at Zazie in Cole Valley. (A pleasant West Coast offering: thanks to time zone differences, one can go to the bar next door and watch East Coast baseball while enduring one’s hour and a half wait for a brunch table.) The wait is worth it. And then, after further Scooting, we settle in at an authentic San Francisco crawfish boil, as one of my cousin’s friends has imported a stash of crustaceans and cooked them all up in a park with a view of the Golden Gate.

Sated, we Scoot over to Washington Square, see the old Italian neighborhood, and marvel at the public notice signage necessary to announce the planting of trees in San Francisco. I shake my head at my profession as we clamber up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower. The urban planners here probably have as much power as anywhere, and use it for all the wrong purposes. The panoramic views from Telegraph Hill blot out that annoyance, though, as they show us the bay to the north and east, a glistening city in the sun to the west, and the Financial District, complete with the remarkably phallic new Salesforce Tower, to the south. (This seems fitting in so many ways for the city’s contemporary aesthetic.) The streets that descend down from Coit to the various numbered piers are nothing more than stairways, with cozy but luxurious homes tucked behind their gardens. We board a ferry for Alcatraz and head over for an evening tour.

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The prison at Alcatraz has been closed for over 60 years, but its symbolic power remains, thanks to both its high-profile prisoners and its unique geography. An audio tour recounts the experiences of guards, prisoners, and the families that grew up on The Rock. I did not know, however, about the subsequent Native American occupation of Alcatraz, an attention-grabbing move in the 1960s still in evidence today in the graffiti they left behind. The occupation played a role in ending assimilation policies at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and freeing these groups to pursue greater self-determination.

The landscape, however, provides the greatest surprise of this visit: Alcatraz is a beautiful place. Sure, I expected a good view of the city and the Golden Gate, but Alcatraz itself has well-manicured gardens, graceful walks with stellar views, a few picturesque ruins, and offers up a sanctuary for thousands of birds. If not for the background noise in the audio tour, it would be impossible to remember that this place was once what it was. It is somehow heartening to see such an institution restored to the placid state of a seaside estate.

Following the tour, Alcatraz’s rangers offer a series of programs in various places around the island, recounting tales of famed prisoners or demonstrating the operation of the cell doors. The most memorable one, though, comes from a ranger who tells the tale of two inmates who dreamed of freedom. One, an escape artist whose attempts were foiled, figured out that he could brew beer in the milk bottles using the basic ingredients in the prison kitchen, where he toiled and found his escapes in hooch for years. The second, who came along after the guards had caught on to the milk bottle method, came up with an even more ingenious solution: beer fermentation in the prison’s fire extinguishers. Freedom, the ranger explains, is always possible with a change in perspective.

My cousin and I take the ferry back to the mainland and grab a late-night meal at El Farolito in the Mission. The street, filled with storefronts covered by garage doors, feels more Mexican than American, and save for the avocados on our burritos, the taquería itself has that vibe, too. We sit beneath a large painting of the Basilica of Guadalupe, and a lone mariachi minstrel makes his way up and down the length of the narrow restaurant. We devour our burritos and enjoy El Farolito’s excellent people-watching: young revelers on a Sunday night, complete families looking for an evening meal, gay couples, bougie white kids like us looking for an authentic bite. I’m at home here. Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea.

I bid my cousin farewell early Monday morning and take a BART train down to the airport. (How can such a wealthy metro have such a dismal train system?) I collect my chariot for the week, a white Jeep Renegade, from the cheery staff of Fox Rental, and begin my road trip. My first leg will give me my fill of ocean, as I swing south along the California coast. I head out on The 101 (highways come with articles in the West), intent upon seeing Silicon Valley and the Stanford campus with my own eyes. My enthusiasm for a window into the seat of technological power wanes amid thick traffic, however, so I pull my first audible of the trip and make a turn straight for the coast. I encounter The 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, at Half Moon Bay, and head south from there. I don’t regret my choice for a second.

At first The 1 runs somewhat inland, and I’m going through green cow pastures instead of beaches. Then, however, it rolls over a ridge, and the shoreline explodes before me, with ranks of perfect breakers making their way into shore as far as the eye can see. I make my first pit stop at Bean Hollow Beach, and while there’s not much to separate it from the beaches I’ve passed before or the ones that will follow, it seems an appropriate place to stop and admire some tide pools. I pass through Santa Cruz, and stock up on some camping gear at the REI in Marina. A late lunch comes at a cute café in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a stucco-spattered town that preserves its original character about as remarkably as any American city. Here one will find no parking meters, no street addresses, no stones out of place: just rows of cute houses, art galleries, and wine tasting rooms. Life must be rough here.

South of Carmel is Big Sur, that beautiful and sparsely populated streak of coast where mountains and sea collide. The 1 weaves along clifftops and drops down to beaches, and offers a stunning view at every turn. Most of my fellow travelers are tourists, though locals with surfboards head for a few well-chosen spots. The driving pace is leisurely, with frequent turn-outs, and while it is hard to tire of this scenery, I just go until I’ve had enough, and then work my way steadily back north toward my accommodations for the night on the Monterey Peninsula.

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I have the audiobook of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur for my listening pleasure on this stage of the journey. This is later-stage Kerouac, when his protagonist has become world-weary and tires of beatnik kids hunting him down for autographs. He drowns his sorrows in boozy binges. His solitary trip to Big Sur to clear his mind only leaves him lonelier, and sends him crawling back for more parties in San Francisco. All of his old friends from On the Road have aged, too. Cody Pomeray (Dean Moriarty in On the Road, and Neal Cassady in reality) has gone from the carefree epitome of cool to a family man trying to get out of the shadow of a stupid prison sentence for marijuana possession and live a decent life. Repeated later journeys down to the Big Sur cabin with various hangers-on always start out seeming like good ideas but are a mess by the end. While plenty of uncertainties afflicted Kerouac and friends in their early adventures, it came along with fevered searching and a sense of destiny. Now, the quest just ends in hangovers, and manipulation of words no longer does the trick, or at least not until the book ends in a deluge of stream-of-consciousness.

Big Sur, wrote Lillian Ross, is not a place at all, but a state of mind. Kerouac’s Jack Duluoz clearly did not inhabit that state of mind; he wasn’t able to shift his perspective, as the beer-brewing prisoners of Alcatraz had. Another semi-jaded aging writer traveling solo across Big Sur, however, can still pull it off, as he stops at Garrapata Beach and meander along the surf for a spell. Beauty alone may not bring enlightenment, but it is a powerful force in the moment.

I return to the Monterey Peninsula, stock up on food for my week of travel, and check in to my cottage in Pacific Grove. It’s a quaint, well-appointed place, and I throw open the windows to invite in a sea breeze. Next, I meander down Pacific Grove’s placid streets and start a two-mile hike to downtown Monterey along a beachfront path. Waves roll in to my left, Victorian homes watch over me to my right, and a man proposes to a woman along the path. I pass the Monterey aquarium, which is closing up shop at this time of day, and head down Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s old manufacturing district is now a collection of expensive shops and restaurants, though at least there’s still a bust of the author and a fountain honoring the canners midway down the street. I consume overpriced fish at a place that advertises itself as a brewery but just serves other people’s beer. With little else to do, I return to my cottage along inland streets, and Pacific Grove feels almost unnaturally placid. It’s a lovely place, but highly sanitized, its business district almost too quiet. Sure, it’s a Monday night, but the telltale vacation rental licenses hang prominently on the corner of many houses. I wonder if Duluth, another waterfront town of a similar size and distance from a wealthier metro, might someday lurch toward a similar fate. It could be worse, but it isn’t exactly abuzz with life, either.

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On this first of five nights of solitary travel, I reflect on my choice while drinking in some wine and sea breeze in my cabin. This is what I signed up for: a chance to take on everything between here and Zion by myself. I can either conquer it, or watch it go by. If I come back to these seaside towns I’ve seen today, I doubt it will be alone. But I have my solitary side, and a periodic need to prove myself in the wilderness, if only to myself. And when I come back, all will be well.

I arise early the next morning, and check out before anyone in the neighboring cottages stirs to life. I head down to the ocean one last time. Large bodies of water always pull me in, even though I’m a mediocre swimmer whose weak stomach is easily upset by bobbing on waves. Endless expanses of water impose themselves on people who live by them, and make clear our place in a grander scheme of things. I’ll miss the sea, and will welcome back vast expanses of water when I return home to Duluth in a week. For now, though, I turn inland, and look for inspiration away from the comfort of watery vastness. Freedom requires different perspectives.

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