by Ian McGregor – Guest Bloger: Cela’s Trek
updated 11:10 PST, Wed September 24, 2014
When you know autumn is coming and you’ve been stuck inside working for a few hours, it’s really difficult to not want to get out and explore. Today the city was calling, and after doing some quick research, I set off on my adventure to San Francisco.
Generally when you hear about San Francisco, you have people telling you all about Fisherman’s Wharf, the cable cars, Lombard Street, all the hills, and of course, the Golden Gate. They are all as much an essence of the city as the people who live and work there, but that’s not the whole story. To really get to know a city, you have to embrace it in all its triumphs and shortcomings, be willing to get lost, and basically just be open to different experiences. Sure as a visitor you can hit all the “tourist” spots and get all those pictures that have been taken millions if not billions of times before you, but is that really the point? What is it are you going to remember more: you getting the pictures, or the experiences and memories you build with the people around you while exploring a foreign city? Science suggests the opposite, and though pictures are sometimes amazing and necessary, I urge you to forego trying to get every single thing on camera and just letting yourself immerse in the culture you’ve stepped into.
But I digress. Since San Francisco (or SF or “the city”, as it’s known in the Bay Area) is so hilly and this was my first time bringing my bike along, I decided to keep it simple and ride along the wharf over to the bridge; I wanted to go to Golden Gate National Recreation Area and actually see the bridge for myself from its western side instead of just a straight eastern view from Berkeley. Online the distance looked to be only a few miles at best one way, so with a snack, some water, and homework (no I didn’t really do any of that…) I headed off to the city.
Getting off at Embarcadero Station and emerging from the underground is like stepping into a teleporter and suddenly ending up in New York (when you’re not gasping for breath – the BART really needs to put bike ramps on the staircases like they have in Copenhagen). The buildings rise up seemingly out of nowhere and engulf you…coming from cities with the tallest buildings measuring only a few stories, it’s not difficult to understand why some people can feel claustrophobic. Putting that aside, though, what SF has in its heart is a vibrant hum of energy. When you step out of the underground and on to the street, you instinctively know important things are happening all around you, and in a city with so much history both for the region and for the country, the confluence of past and present is inherently alive wherever you go. Though this wasn’t my first time in the city, I once again embraced its vibrancy and excitedly headed east toward the piers to begin my journey.
After biking a little along the waterfront and weaving in and out of traffic, I decided to pause and walk as a tourist along the boardwalk of Pier 39, arguably SF’s most prominent waterfront area next to Fisherman’s Wharf. I’ve been to the pier before; last year I performed there as part of a rally. But being there as a tourist is different. This time I paid attention to the throngs of people walking the shoreline (even now, in late September!) as one of them and not an outsider, and I was surprised by the amount of diversity I saw. I paused in front of the pier to write this in my book: “It’s easy to understand why people call the place a cultural melting pot. Just a short walk from Pier 27 to Fisherman’s Wharf allowed me to meet at least 20 different languages and people from all around the world.” All around me I saw scenes that could have been from anywhere in in coastal tourist America: tourists with cameras, couples kissing in front of the pier signs, sounds of gulls, people calling for taxis, etc. What’s interesting about this is that in being such a melting pot, the area could be as much a dock in New York as it could be SF itself. It’s representative and characteristic of both itself and elsewhere, and I think that’s what makes the city such a unique place.
Yet being the cultural melting pot of America can get to be a little crowded, so I ditched the end of Embarcadero Street for an uphill ride courtesy of my turning on to North Point St from Powell, which turned out to be totally worth it when I ran into Ghiradelli Square. Granted, I had been planning to go eventually to check it off my bucket list, but it was so spontaneous how I ended up at the right street corner that I just had to check it out. For some background, Ghiradelli Square is the collection of red-brick buildings that used to house the Ghiradelli chocolate factory. Now half shopping mall, half historical landmark, the square has plaques situated to give visitors a glimpse into the life of Ghiradelli himself. It turns out that before the chocolatier came to set up shop in San Francisco (among other adventures), he was apprenticed to a confectioner in Genoa, Italy, where he learned how to make desserts of all kinds. The Ghiradelli factory was established in 1852, and the original building used for selling the finished chocolate products is still in business adjacent to a sweets restaurant, which even today had long lines. Walking inside, I loved how I felt I was experiencing my own bit of history with the old “Mustard Building 1899” and “Cocoa Building” signs above my head. I am definitely coming back to that chocolate shop. After all, how many times can you say you’ve bought a chocolate from the place where it was historically made?
I had asked a local how best to get to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, but I had already forgotten which way he said after getting on North Point. That was fine, though, because I figured I would just follow the water around until I reached the bridge. I thus proceeded to go downhill to the SF Maritime National Historic Park. Just kidding! It dead-ended and I was forced to bike back up the hill on Van Ness. Live and learn! Anyways. I hooked a right on Bay and was excited to see I had made it to Fort Mason. The fort used to be an American Army base used, among other ways, as an outpost for watching over the passage between SF and Alcatraz. Now, though, it’s part of the National Recreation Area with historical buildings (and apparently a hostel!), and everyone is welcome to come in and wander around. I had come here a year and a half ago to perform for a wedding, and with the views of the bridge in the background, I knew I wanted to come explore the area in further detail later. Today I got my chance, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a grass park behind the buildings with walking/bike trails that allowed me to avoid the normal street. The trail then turned into the Golden Gate Promenade, which is a pathway that starts from Fort Mason and goes all the way until Fort Point, underneath the Golden Gate. Even though there were clouds, there were still many people enjoying the shoreline, and with the contrasting views of the bridge with a shrouded Mt. Tam, Tiburon, Angel Island, Alcatraz, and the East Bay it was no wonder locals and tourists alike were out and about. The promenade is mainly sandy gravel, and its wide avenue is perfect for strolling. Along the way you can see dune restoration in progress with small lakes and many California native plants, including the Monterrey Cypress. Somewhere along the way, the promenade turned into the SF Bay Trail, and I eventually found myself at Fort Point, which I quickly realized was another dead-end I had managed to find.
After watching some surfers (yes, surfers, even this cold water) catching some larger sets, I turned around and went up Long Ave before turning on the Battery East Trail. Because I was on a bike I had to stick to the roads, but there are hiking-only trails that take you to the old armament stations around the bridge, hence the name “Battery East Trail.” I quickly stumbled upon the overlook that’s provided a backdrop for millions of people around the world, so I added myself to the count. I decided to head up to the bridge before going to Baker Beach, but upon arriving and finding out I still had over a mile left to go, I figured to just go on the bridge for a little. Wait. Scratch that – in order to get on the bridge, I had to go under it, so I guess you could say I reached my goal of going to the western side of the Bridge! I speedily went up on the bridge so I could get some pictures before starting the long ride back; man was it windy up there! Such a big temperature difference from being inside the city. The way back was uneventful, unless you count me getting lost. I had seen the streets of Telegraph Hill in the distance while biking up to Fort Mason, and I thought I could scale them going back to the train station. So, I turned onto Hyde Street from Bay St….and stopped. Think of a giant wall where in 100 m of street you climb something like 15 m. There was absolutely no way I was going to climb that on my bike. Thus, I turned around and proceeded to get lost going through the heart of the city, but I wasn’t complaining. Needless to say, I found my way again and even got to see an art show in a mid-city park!
And on that happy note! In other news from what I’ve discussed previously, Scotland is still a part of the UK, for which the vote itself was monumental and I’m still not quite sure we appreciate how important that was. This has set the stage for a shake-up of UK devolution of powers and for whether Catalonia will still hold its own referendum in November. Things to stay tuned to…
And with that, I’m off and back to my homework. If you want to keep in touch with me outside of the blog, you can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and email. Plus! I recently found this photo website Snapwire courtesy of Suitable Travel Today where I can post my pictures from my trips in an easy format. Check them out if you want!
Enjoy your first days of autumn, and until next time, vi ses!
Ian McGregor is a guest blogger from Cela’s Trek where he is the Owner and Creator. Visit his blog here!