Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The City, The Game

The San Diego conference was scheduled for October 9–12, so Tara and I decided to extend our
stay through the 14th. That would give us time to travel from San Diego to San Francisco after the
conference, spend time in the city, attend the game and take a red eye home after the game. With a six
hour flight each way, a 500 mile drive from San Diego to San Francisco and a long day at a football game, we decided Bert wouldn’t make the trip. Thankfully, I have a wonderful mother-in-law (how many guys can say that?) who offered to watch the little man while we were away. We really can’t thank her enough for making this trip possible. And, of course, I can’t leave out Tara’s grandparents who were gracious enough to drive us to and from the airport, which allowed us to save on time and parking fees. Thank you all so much!

I arrived in San Diego on the morning of the 9th. Tara arrived on the 11th, near the end of the
conference. San Diego is a beautiful city but to be honest, we didn’t see much of it. Tara and I went to
dinner and did a little shopping but, beyond that, my focus was primarily on business. But once Friday
rolled around and the conference concluded, we couldn’t check out fast enough!

Here’s a description of the things we saw and did during my dream trip. It’s a long story but understand, this is as much a record of my dream trip for my keeping as it is a story for you.

During the drive from SD to SF on Friday, somewhere between SD and Los Angeles, we saw a sign for a State Beach. Of course we saw it at the last minute so, naturally, I had to cut across 4 lanes of traffic to make the exit, but it was worth it. It cost $15/day to visit the beach but when I mentioned we were from PA and just wanted to see the Pacific, the park ranger allowed us to pass for free and we spent about 20 minutes there. The water was COLD! It was a true surfer beach too, with at least two dozen surfers out in the water. And all ages too: guys in their twenties to gray-haired ones, driving everything from nice new pick-ups to VW vans to old dune buggies with wooden surfboards strapped on the side. A little slice of California.

Back on the road, we passed through Los Angeles, over huge mountains and down through the San
Joaquin Valley. For about 300 miles there was nearly zero natural plant life – just dry, barren landscape.

Maps shows a river running through that valley but I don’t believe I saw a drop of water along the
way – save for the elaborate irrigation system. However, there were huge farms, if you can call them
that, where miles and miles of lemon trees and other crops were grown. There were also disturbingly
massive feed lots. As Tara put it, “it gives new meaning to ‘as far as the eye can see.’” Miles and miles
of cattle. It’s amazing how such a vast, open landscape can seem so cramped.

When we arrived at our hotel in South San Francisco, it was late so we only had time to make use of the hot tub. What a bummer, I know. I was excited but technically, we were only in South SF, not yet within the official city limits.

Saturday morning we started with a tour of Alcatraz. It included an audio tour narrated by several former guards and inmates. It was amazing to see the cell house.

I can’t imagine being incarcerated there; trapped in tiny cell made of cold steel and concrete. We heard stories of escape attempts, of prison fights and riots, lock downs and long days or weeks in isolation. I stood in an isolation cell, closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it would be like; searching for a button in the 24/7 darkness to pass the time, as one inmate described. Or, hearing the sounds of people and traffic in the city, only 1.5 miles away, or the ships in the bay as the inmates did. Then, I opened my eyes and got the hell out of there, thankful it was only a visit.

Most of the buildings have been left to crumble, which adds to the authenticity and eeriness of the island. Much of the rest of the island has become a wildlife sanctuary for numerous species of bird. It also has really beautiful, brightly colored plants which seemed to clash with the crumbling concrete and rusting steel.

One of the most interesting features of the entire island was ‘the yard’. The yard was an open area adjacent to the cell house where inmates were able to go outdoors. The yard consisted of a flat, open concrete area for recreation as well as a baseball diamond. Sounds nice, however, the yard was surrounded by huge concrete walls which were capped by a chain link fence with barbed wire. From the floor of the yard, you couldn’t see anything except the cell house, the sky and those walls. The walls of the yard had one steel door, conveniently left open for us tourists. The irony is how beautiful the view was through that door, looking over the bay and directly at the Golden Gate Bridge. I wonder if they knew. I’m sure they knew and I’m sure it ate at them.

Back on the main land, we walked to Fisherman’s Wharf. We spent some time watching the sea lions,
which neither of us had ever seen before, and we ate lunch at Bistro Boudin. It’s a bakery/restaurant
which makes some ridiculously good sourdough bread. And, they make some crazy shapes with their
bread; crabs, fish, sea turtles and best of all, life-size alligators. They offer a tour of the bakery, which is
small but it was cool to see the machines in action.

Next, we decided to walk to Lombard Street. It wasn’t a long walk but the hills are just crazy. Television, movies and video games don’t do them justice. If you were to trip and fall on one of those hills, I’m fairly certain you’d just roll nonstop to the bottom. Lombard Street was beautiful – paved with brick, neatly landscaped flower beds all along the street, nice stairs up and down each side. It’s such a strange street but the homes (yes, people actually live there) are incredible.

Imagine for a minute, you walk up Lombard and at the peak, you walk to the middle of the cross street, stop and turn right. Lombard is to your right now and you’re looking down the cross street which descends all the way to the bay. There are homes lining each side of the street which narrows your focus to only what’s ahead and not in your peripheral. And what’s ahead? The Rock. Alcatraz sits squarely between the rows of homes lining the street. Only, you’re on such a hill that you’re standing well above the peak of Alcatraz, making it appear small. It’s picturesque to say the least. But, you only get a brief moment to see it and possibly snap a quick picture before you have to move because, well, you’re standing in the middle of the street, on top of the cable car tracks. Was it worth it? You betcha.

We walked down that cross street and at the bottom is Ghirardelli Square. We stopped in many of the
shops and of course, bought chocolate. Because it was October, they were giving samples of chocolate
with pumpkin cream in the middle. Wow.

In front of Ghirardelli Square there is a small hill, at the bottom of which is a beach. Built into that small
hill is a series of what can only be described as concrete bleachers. After a long walk, Tara and I decided to rest for a while, taking in the view of the bay and The Rock. Little did we expect to take in another type of view as well. After a few minutes we heard the small crowd gathered there start to cheer and whistle. We didn’t understand until we looked down at the water directly in front of us. What did we see? Two people skinny dipping. Someone has since asked us if it was a nude beach. No and in fact, it was in the middle of the Ghirardelli Square/Fisherman’s Wharf tourist area with thousands of people looking on. Brave.

After our little break/viewing experience, we headed back to the car. We talked about trying to find the Japanese Tea Garden, but there was something I wanted to do first. Remember how I mentioned that people actually live along Lombard Street? Yeah, they’re crazy people. They’d have to be to live there and this is why. Just to be able to drive down the street, Tara and I waited in a line of traffic for 45 minutes. The only reason for the traffic was because so many people had the same idea. And, this line of traffic doesn’t just wind down some normal street, no. This street happens to be the steepest hill I’ve ever driven on. So steep that even the car we were driving with an automatic transmission rolled back quickly each time I took my foot off the brake. And, you need to understand that I drive a stick-shift every day so having trouble with roll-back in an automatic was strange. The hill was so steep that at one point Tara and I heard a loud, revving engine that really didn’t sound right. Two car lengths ahead of us, someone’s car simply didn’t have enough power to get up the hill from a dead stop. We actually had to back down in order to allow him room to turn around and head back down the hill. Just like that, his dream of driving Lombard came to an end. I felt bad for him and I was a little nervous about the rest of the hill. Finally, we reached the top and wound our way down Lombard. Such a ridiculous idea; to wait in traffic 45 minutes just to drive down an 1/8 mile stretch of road just because it happens to be very curvy. Who does that?! Well, I’m happy to say, I did that. But, I still can’t figure out what would possess someone to live there and go through that every day. I do feel bad for adding to the problem but… 

Our plan was to drive out to Golden Gate Park to see the Japanese Tea Garden after dinner but upon
pulling it up on my phone, we realized it was only open until 6pm – not enough time. So we decided to take in another site Tara wanted to see: the Painted Ladies. Neither of us were sure of the actual name or where to find them, but a kids' book we had picked up for Bert featured them. Remember the show Full House? It's the opening scene of a park and gorgeous Victorian homes I'm talking about. Thanks to the magic of GPS and a smart phone (something one of our good friends refers to as the “Google Machine”), we plugged in “Alamo Square Park” and headed straight there.

The park is really nice and very popular – both by locals, who were out jogging or walking their dogs, and also by tourists. People were spread out on blankets, with bottles of wine and six-packs of beer, just hanging out. Bert would have loved it too because there was a nice little fenced in playground directly across the street from the houses that he could have run around in. We sat for a while, again taking in the view and snapping pictures of the Victorian homes with the city’s skyline in the background. It was strange to be sitting in the very place I had only ever seen on TV.

While sitting in the park, Tara and I discussed where we would eat dinner. The usual places are always
easy to find but who wants to eat at a restaurant we could just as easily find at home? So, back to the
Google Machine. Before traveling to SF, I researched and downloaded a few apps about the city. One
was a tourism guide that located your current position and offered directions to various attractions
around you (restaurants, tourist sites, stores, etc.). Tara pulled up the app and it recommended a
Mediterranean restaurant called La Mediterranee. The food was amazing and so different from
anything we can find near home. What’s interesting is, for all the hype about seeing the major sites of
the city, the time spent driving around random side streets with Tara navigating and the time spent with
Tara in the quiet La Mediterranee were my favorite part of the entire trip and easily what I remember
and think about most. Shhh, don’t tell her though.

Sunday morning, we decided to try to get to the Golden Gate Bridge before the game. We started off
early and by the time we got there it was still VERY foggy. As we drove across the bridge, we could
barely tell we were on a bridge. You couldn’t see the water below at all and could only faintly see the
tops of the towers. You would think that would be disappointing and make for terrible pictures but
actually, the fog actually made for some really interesting pictures, and the sun broke through for a few shots in the middle of the bridge. We drove across the bridge and immediately turned around and headed back into the city. It was $6 to cross the bridge to get nowhere but it was the best toll I’ve ever paid.

I had wanted to see the Palace of Fine Arts so, after the return trip on the bridge, we stopped. The
Palace was originally built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exposition. However, it was originally only
intended to stand for the duration of the exposition and therefore was constructed of wood and plaster.
Naturally, those materials did not withstand the elements and by the early 1960’s, the original structure
was in ruins. In 1965, it was rebuilt mostly to the original specs, only out of steel and concrete. It was
a really nice place to walk around. It’s very scenic with the lagoon and various species of plants and
animals. I can understand why it’s such a popular location for weddings.

From there, we headed to The Stick. Driving into the complex, I could barely concentrate on driving; I was too busy trying to take in all the sights. But, we made it to a space safely. They said the gates opened at 10:15am, three hours before kickoff. We were there at 10:00. It worked out because being one of the first people through the gates meant we each got one of the free giveaways – a game day towel. Inside the park we spent time in the 49ers team store where I picked up a pennant and bought Bert a stuffed 49ers football – my lame attempt at making him a Niners fan as well. Of course, he’ll probably end up liking the Cowboys, or soccer, but that’s okay.

We also spent time in the 49ers Museum. I think I got weak in the knees walking through the door,
seeing old Steve Young and Joe Montana jerseys, Super Bowl trophies and rings and other memorabilia. I’m not sure if the trophies and such were the real deal – the skeptic in me says they were replicas but the fan in me wants to believe that I was actually a foot away from the Lombardi Trophy that Steve Young holds in that old VHS tape I still watch. After a few hours touring the museum and store, it was time to find our seats.

I’m at a loss now for words that would accurately convey the feeling I had when walking through the
tunnel and laying my eyes upon the field for the first time. Oh man, it was beautiful. It was still about
an hour till kickoff so I spent about 30 minutes walking around the stadium and snapping pictures while
it was still mostly empty and easy to move around. I was a little disappointed that tours of the stadium
weren’t offered but was happy to walk around myself. Then, I took my seat and waited for kickoff.

Oddly, I don’t have much to write about the game itself. I’m not a sports writer and honestly, it was an
ugly game – at least from the perspective of a 49ers fan. It was one of the worst performances I’ve ever
seen from any 49ers team. They got crushed. Final score: Giants 26, 49ers 3. And, there was a lot of
negative about the game experience; from the multiple groups of people around us who smoked weed
the entire game to the drunk, disgusting girl in front of us that spilled her beer all over everyone at least
once. How do people get drunk on $10 beers anyway? I won’t lie; the game experience wasn’t what I
dreamed up in my head for 23 years. But, that really makes no difference to me. I haven’t and I won’t
allow that to detract from the fact that I was there. I sat in those seats, I breathed that air (weed filled
or not), I saw the turf where all those great games were played; I stood on the grounds of The Stick.
Nothing can take that away. When the game was over and it was time to leave, I paused for a moment,
leaned against the rail of the second level and looked out over the field. I thank Tara for allowing me
that moment without saying anything; she knew what it meant. Knowing the stadium would be gone in
a little more than a year and that I would never again set eyes on that place, I took one last look, took a
deep breath, then turned around and walked out. It was the experience of a lifetime.

It’s been about a month now and I still can’t stop thinking about the trip. I’m so thankful for having
had the opportunity to be there. I can officially check it off the bucket list, and it was the number one
item on that list, but that doesn’t prevent me from wanting to go back and see more of the city. Maybe
someday but until then, I’ll enjoy my memories of the experience.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful story and the photos to illustrate it are great too. I felt like I tagged along on your trip! I'm glad you finally got to realize your dream and enjoy it.

    This destination is definitely on my bucket list. I haven't made it up to Northern CA but I am dying to see San Francisco.


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