Day Three: Descent to the Bay
On paper, this is the longest driving day of the trip, as we head from Salt Lake to San Francisco. We’re out early and grab some pastries before plowing out westward. If Wyoming seemed like vast tracts of nothing, today will eclipse that entirely: western Utah and much of Nevada are as empty as an area around a major American highway can be. We first skirt the Great Salt Lake, striking in contrast with the brown hills rising around it, and then the land becomes white: salt flats, all in a line across the floor of the Great Basin. Signs warn us to stay alert, lest we fall asleep at the wheel and veer off into a salt mine. Here and there, drivers have done exactly that, intentionally: tire tracks head off the freeway and some ways out on to the flat, and a couple of cars sit out there doing whatever it is that people do on salt flats.
We can see Nevada from nearly forty miles away, as mountains thrust their way upward right at the border. The contrast is immediate: a cluster of casinos scream their presence just across the state line, ready to welcome in some sinful Utahns. Even a dismal gas station some ways further along has a slot machine room. The road itself winds up and down brown, scrubby passes, and we glimpse the first of many peaks we pass on this day that still have some snow on their upper reaches. There are occasional hints of greenery along rivers, and little oasis towns interrupt the monotony. We cruise through Reno without stopping, and begin one last major climb up into the Sierras.
After we cross the border into California, the mountains are finally green again, and I-80 pitches upward. We’re stopped for an agricultural inspection, and then detour off the highway for a jaunt down to Lake Tahoe. It is, as expected, gorgeous. Its cool waters are bliss after a long day in the car. We wade out some ways after a late lunch. The road around the north shore of the lake is a delight to drive as it weaves through the resorts and quaint shops; we ditch the AC and throw the windows open. We stop for a quick jog up Eagle Rock, a rocky extrusion near the shore that offers commanding views of the lake and the mountains beyond. We could spend much more time here, but the ocean calls.
The descent from the Sierras is probably the trip’s most extreme drop, as we sink from 7,000 feet at the Donner Pass—a site that brings back fond memories of a long internment on an Amtrak train here many years ago—to less than 1,000 feet in the Central Valley. Sacramento reveals some very California scenes: an eight-lane highway baking in late afternoon sun, the westbound lanes crawling while ours is crowded but motoring along. Signs everywhere alert of us the ongoing drought, and urge us to avoid watering our lawns.
We come to the Bay Area as the sun is sinking toward the horizon. A golden haze looms over the city and the bridges, the fog seemingly aglow and the Transamerica Pyramid thrusting its way out above the Financial District. Thanks to some unexpected good fortune, the traffic on the Bay Bridge is manageable, so we can plow straight into the heart of the city with minimal delay. It happens to be Pride Weekend here, too. We’re not exactly in Utah anymore.
This is my first time in San Francisco, and my first glances leave me as awed as I’ve ever been by any place on earth. As a sucker for hills, large water features, wine, Mexican food, and Mediterranean climes, this is in many ways my ideal city. The hills and fog and water make it feel curiously familiar to a Duluthian, and it is incredibly easy to live well, and spend easily, here. The closest comparison that I’ve seen before is probably Barcelona, but even that is much more spread out than San Francisco, and this city is very much its own. Its crowds and its prices are drawbacks, along with that lingering threat of a tremor that could dump it all into the bay. But the color, the vibrancy, and the unmatched views put it among the greatest of American cities without even expending effort. (And oh, does San Francisco expend effort, even if it tries to play it down with that faux Bay Area cool.)
We’re relieved to find parking just off the freeway—too easy, as we’ll eventually learn—and meet my cousin at his place in Hayes Valley, in the center of the city just north of Market Street. He knows how to host an urban planner, and shares a long stream of details on the streets and neighborhoods we pass. He leads us on a walking tour up a hill toward dinner at a fantastic Mexican restaurant, and we stop by a couple of bars to wrap up our evening, one with an incredible variety of local beer, and one that’s an excellent little dive. It’s a solid introduction, and we have much to explore over our two full days along the bay.
Day Four: Shattered Glass
After three straight days of ten hours on the road, we finally had a day to settle back and enjoy a city. My cousin is our guide, and our tour of San Francisco begins with Twin Peaks and Grand View Park, which together offer commanding views of the entire city. Twin Peaks has the more dramatic approach, and its upper reaches have been covered over by a pink triangle (the symbol used by the Nazis to mark gay Jews, now reclaimed) for Pride weekend. Below it, The Castro is decked out for the festivities, and people are pouring in for the festival. Grand View, meanwhile, is more subtle: the neighborhood around it features staid single-family homes, and its approach involves narrow streets turned staircases covered in intricate tiles that blend into murals from the bottom. Between the two, we have a complete panorama of San Francisco.
We continue a drive across the city and pass through Golden Gate Park, a sea of greenery that descends from the center of the city down to the ocean. It’s bigger than Central Park, though its water features are on the low side due to the drought, and there’s no shortage of congestion here, either. We head for the beach, which has a magical discovery for us: CorgiCon 2016, a festival for the wonderfully cute dogs. They all prance about the beach, burrow in the sand, and befriend one another. Some are in costume (flags, t-shirts), and one wears a GoPro. This is San Francisco, after all. They join their human handlers in beach bliss, and some of the more daring ones sprint through the surf, but most everyone keeps to the beach.
Next, we head a short ways up to Land’s End, the point that which the ocean meets the Golden Gate, the strait feeding into the bay. The scrub-covered slopes with their groves of cypresses evoke the Mediterranean, and breakers crash in on the rocks in aqua hues. The bridge stands proud across the strait, and trails meander along the cliff. We stop in at the Sutro Baths to admire these old ruins, and wrap around the park with steady views of the ocean and the bridge beyond. We complete the city tour with a drive through some of its more distinctive ethnic neighborhoods, and return to Hayes Valley to regroup before dinner.
Everything gets thrown for a loop when we hike up the street toward a pre-dinner drink, and I notice that the back passenger side window of my friend’s car is wide open. It’s been smashed, and glass is strewn across the street and the back seat. We’d brought in most of our valuables, thankfully, and insurance should hopefully cover the window. Still, there are substantial losses: my tent, our sleeping bags and pillows, some my friend’s clothes, my Duluth East cap, a Georgetown sweatshirt, my camera battery charger, the beer I’d brought as gifts for hosts, and a bunch of audiobooks from the Minneapolis Public Library. Thankfully, the library will forgive our costs with a police report, and most of the camping gear was hand-me-downs. (Though the tent, the sweatshirt, and the East cap did have some real sentimental value.) We’d put the more valuable stuff in the trunk, but there was enough scattered objects of intrigue such as clothes and food across the back seat to make the car an inviting target.
In a way, I’m lucky: I’m 26, and this is the first time I’ve been a victim of any sort of crime beyond the theft of a pencil. I try to be vigilant, but I also took car safety for granted in decent neighborhoods of major American cities. No more, apparently. For the rest of my stay, I find myself inspecting the tent camps of San Francisco’s homeless—of which there are many—in wishful hope for a glimpse purple and white Eureka tent. This city lacks the no-go zones of a Chicago or even Oakland across the bay, but it has an underbelly that looms on many corners. We rush the car into a repair place before it closes.
Dinner plans are further disrupted by a Pride week parade we were unaware of, which blocks our access to the pizza we’d hoped to have. (We later learn this is the lesbian parade, which apparently is its own show in addition to the better-known gay parade on Sunday.) A giant procession makes its way down from Dolores Park, and we have to jump through the crowd to negotiate our way to the other side of the street before walking parallel to a relentless drumline. Rainbow flags are everywhere, people lean out of second floor windows (some wearing nothing but duct tape covering teats), and others shower everyone in confetti. The placards are a mix of raunchy comments, expressions of solidarity for Orlando after the recent massacre, and broader leftist slogans. San Francisco, uninhibited and on full display.
We grab burritos at a taquería on a corner and take our dinner back to Dolores Park, which teems with sunbathing revelers. Booze and pot abound, though somehow no one has a bottle opener, leaving us struggling to gain access to Coke bottles. The park, to my intrigue, earns its name from Miguel Hidalgo, the father of Mexican independence, whose statue lords over the hill; at its base sits a replica of the bell he rang to signal the start of the revolt in Dolores Hidalgo in 1810. Here, we meet an old Georgetown roommate of mine, and he joins the party as we meander over to another friend’s place for some beer tasting.
It’s been a night among the demographic emblematic of the Bay Area, late twenty-somethings with jobs in tech or research or some other start-up with boundless knowledge of food and beer. They’re all superb arbiters of taste, though also self-aware enough to know the complexity of their life here, and of the looming challenges on the horizon, as family obligations begin to arise. From this perspective, Silicon Valley seems less like some magical zone of invention and more like another place where people are trying to get ahead and get by. We’re all in the same boat, and for all of the Bay Area’s bells and whistles, they all seem fairly tame now. The tech culture’s facade comes down: everyone here displays an intimate knowledge of apps, and equal measures of frustration with how poorly they all function. The evening ends with a Nob Hill rooftop view of much of the city, including both the Bay and Golden Gate bridges and the Transamerica Pyramid. Fading, we retreat to bed afterward.
Day Five: Divine Wine
With the city swamped for the Pride parade on Sunday, two cousins and I escape to wine country north of the city. This is the heart of American viticulture, and a necessary journey for a wine lover. We take our time in starting out, and then head north through Napa, laughing at the traffic jams coming into the city as we cruise out. There’s no shortage of opulence along Napa Valley, as the wineries have all built their little villas and luxurious estates amid the grapevines, and display questionable command of Italian as they adopt or make up names to convey their prestige. Some are familiar names, while others look to break in, and all look to ride the cachet of the Napa name to greater recognition. Seeking some more exquisite experiences, we drive on past most of them.
The first stop is also the most absurd: Castello di Amorosa, a legitimate castle perched just above the north end of Napa Valley. The stonework is astonishing, and in among the turrets and battlements are a chapel, a great hall, a drawbridge, and some elaborate loggias. (A few extra dollars admit one to the torture chamber, among other special rooms.) The wine and service here are not especially remarkable, and it brings in crowds in a way that our later destinations don’t, but it’s still a winy wonderland. We’ve created a complete spectacle.
Our next stop is the polar opposite experience. Locals, a wine cooperative in the miniature downtown of Geyserville, has no pretentions of an elaborate setting. It just delivers far better wine for no tasting fee, and reliably lures its visitors to purchase their favorites. Here, it’s easy to savor the different options and make informed comparisons, and make some effort to expand a mediocre vocabulary to describe the flavors we imbibe.
After a lunch stop in Healdsburg, we head into Sonoma, where we make two stops: first at Mazzocco, which specializes in Zinfandels, and then at Ridge, one of Sonoma’s gems. It’s a baking hot day in wine country, with temperatures in excess of 95 degrees, but we can linger inside while sipping at our glasses and still enjoy views of the vineyards marching out beyond us. I can’t resist a purchase from Ridge, though a looming trip through Canadian customs keeps me from going too crazy with the credit card.
Now that we’ve had our fill of wine, we head back to Healdsburg, where a well-manicured central square makes the area appear even ritzier. We stop by its brewery, Bear Republic, best known for its Racer 5 IPA, though I elect for a delectable sour instead. As if we haven’t sampled enough satisfying beverages, we then head down the 101 to Santa Rosa, where we visit one of my cousin’s favorite breweries, Russian River. Their variety is so great and their ability to deliver on all of them so impressive that it would be a waste just to get a couple of beers, so we share a complete sampler with 18 different beers, from standard lagers to classic West Coast IPAs to Belgians to sours. With the help of some pizza, I’m feeling decidedly fat by the end of the tasting, but I manage to finish it all off.
The sun sinks toward the horizon as we head back south through Marin County. It’s down below the horizon by the time we reach the Golden Gate, but there’s still enough of a glow to make a detour up the coastal road worthwhile. I’m treated to panoramas over the Golden Gate Bridge, the city, and the ocean beyond. The wind howls and the fog begins to roll in; it’s a solid 40 degrees colder here than it was back up in Sonoma. Still, it’s worth taking a moment to drink it all in, one last sip at the vessel of Bay Area beauty before a final drive over San Francisco’s hills down into Hayes Valley. It’s been a rich weekend that has sapped my wallet in more ways than one, and I’m sure to return before long. For now, though, it’s time to hit the road again.