California Dreaming: The Sights of San Francisco

Out of all the American cities that I was excited to visit during my travels, San Francisco was easily one of the top contenders. After the hundreds of times I’d seen the sweeping aerial views of the Golden Gate Bridge after the opening credits of almost every episode of Charmed, I was excited to see the city that I’d viewed so often through a TV screen. Or at least, I thought I was… however, a quick Google search upon my arrival revealed that the Charmed manor was actually located in LA, and that pretty much the entirety of the show, save those sweeping panoramas, was filmed in LA, despite being set in San Francisco. Yet San Francisco was the chosen setting because of the supposedly weird and quirky nature of the city, which allowed a sisterhood of urban witches to exist unnoticed, so in my mind the city was still a mysterious gem waiting to be discovered.

***

When I wasn’t getting drunk and passing out in the Castro or celebrating some wholesome American holidays, there was plenty of time to explore the many corners of San Francisco. Of course, after getting a bike from Rob on my first day in the city, I leapt at the first chance I had to cycle over to the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Make sure you pick a day when there’s not too much fog,” Rob had reminded me when he’d taken me to pick the bike up. “Otherwise  you might not actually see that much of the bridge.” I wasn’t exactly sure how I was supposed to tell whether or not there was fog on the bay, given that I couldn’t see it at all from my place in Noe Valley, but a bright and sunny day was the only cue that I needed to jump out of bed and set out on my way.

What I loved about San Francisco was how bike friendly it was, despite being a huge city with lots of traffic. When I punched in my destination into Google Maps, it showed me a route that I could travel that took me all the way to the northern edge of the city via bike lanes. And most of the cars seemed pretty accommodating to the cyclists too, unlike some of the aggressive behaviour from traffic that I’d witnessed in various places, particularly my home city of Sydney. However, the hills were my biggest downfall. I could power on up the longer, gradual inclines, but I have to admit there were a few monstrosities that were far too steep for me to pedal all the way up, and I had to dismount and walk the bike up those.

Once I hit the northern edge of the city, it was a long and mostly flat stretch of green ovals and parks until I finally reached the Golden Gate Bridge. It hadn’t seemed that far on the map, but it took me the better part of an hour to even get close.

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The Golden Gate Bridge

Once I finally approached the bridge, it took a little while to actually navigate the roads and pathways to make it up to the bridge itself. And then it was only when I got onto the bridge did it really strike me just how long it actually was. But there was no way that I was going to come this far and not ride across the bridge.

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Before crossing the bridge.

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The bridge and Rob’s old Burning Man bike. 

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Bridge selfie.

It wasn’t until I reached the other side of the bridge that I realised that there wasn’t actually much on the other side. I mean, I knew that it wasn’t in the centre of the city, so I wasn’t expecting anything too exciting. But it was, for all intents and purposes, a bridge that led to nowhere. I went to keep following the road that led off the bridge, but saw that it started off into what felt like the countryside, and while I’m sure there is something if you keep following the road, I was conscious of how far I had come, which was exactly how far I still had to go in order to get home. So instead I turned off and headed on a trail down the hill to the waters edge. There I discovered a few fisherman and a small information centre, with not much to offer except a shop where I purchased a bottle of water – I had underestimated the distance and therefore how much water I would actually need.

There wasn’t much else to see though, so I powered back up the hill and once again cross the Golden Gate Bridge back into San Francisco. Once I reached the other side, I decided to take a new route through some of the roads and pathways around the bridges edge, in an attempt to see some more sights. And that is how I found myself passing through the San Francisco National Cemetery. I slowed down a little as I passed the pristine, green grass with the rows of small white tombstones, and paused for a moment and spared a thought for the dead, before cycling on out back into the city and onwards towards home. Rob hadn’t been kidding when he said that a ride out to the bridge would take most of the day, and I promptly collapsed when I got home, and eventually ran myself another long, hot bath.

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San Francisco National Cemetery

***

For my next sightseeing outing, I decided to give my body a break from the cycling and test out the public transport system in San Francisco. On a few occasions when I hadn’t had the energy to walk to the hills to and from the Castro, it had been easy enough to jump  on a bus, but this time once I arrived at the Castro, I kept going and hopped on the metro system known as the BART, which stands for Bay Area Rapid Transport. There are a number of BART stops in San Francisco itself, and the network crosses the bay to connect it with Oakland, Berkley, and a bunch of other cities on the east side of the bay. I jumped off just before the train crossed the bay, which placed me in the Financial District. I then walked up along the edge of the water until I reached Pier 39, which is without a doubt a huge tourist trap, but nonetheless I entered and walked along the wooden boardwalks, passing all the shops and restaurants and food stalls and screaming children. I paid no attention to any of that, but the only thing that really caught my attention was the sea lion colony that lived on a collection of wooden flotsams by the pier.

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View of the sea lions from the opposite pier.

I hadn’t even known about these sea lions, so at first I was rather shocked when I rounded the corner of the pier to see so many of them sprawled out across the wooden planks. Then I thought that I must have been extremely lucky to be here on a day when a huge group of them had seemingly randomly come so close to the shore and decided to hang out, and it wasn’t until later that I learned that the sea lions were as much locals as any of the humans living in San Francisco.

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A strange sculpture that I encountered along my walk. 

I spent a little while longer looking out over the bay. I had contemplated doing a tour out to Alcatraz, but they cost a little more than I was willing to spend on a day out, and none of them were leaving at any convenient times. So I just wandered around the area some more, and took my time watching the thick fog roll in across the water.

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After that I headed back inland, back down to the Financial District and then into Chinatown, where I wandered around a bit more and bought some street food for lunch as I went along. The only other really identifiable attraction that I came across was the Transamerica Pyramid, which had also appeared in many scenic segues during episodes of Charmed, so I was very glad to discover that it too was also actually located in San Francisco. Although much more appealing to gaze upon was what was next to the Transamerica Pyramid – the Transamerica Redwood Park. I knew that there were forests of redwood trees further up the coast of California, not too far away from San Francisco but most likely too far away from me to get there, short of hiring a car, which was practically impossible (or insanely expensive) for me given that I was under the age of 25. The trees in the Transamerica park weren’t nearly as tall as the wild redwoods, I suspect, but it looked like a nice little sanctuary in the heart of the Financial District.

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Transamerica Redwood Park

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The Transamerica Pyramid 

***

There was one attraction in San Francisco that I hadn’t actually heard of before my arrival, but as soon as I studied a map and spotted it, I knew that it would be the site of one of my full day outings. Golden Gate Park, located just south of the Golden Gate Bridge, was San Fransisco’s version of Central Park, and while it wasn’t as big as some of the other huge parks that I’d visited in New York City and São Paulo, it was still of a significant size, rather narrow but extremely long, and with numerous different section inside, my visiting turned into a full day of adventure and exploration.

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Some of the features of Golden Gate Park include, but are not limited to, a golf course, an angling pool, a polo field, the San Francisco Botanical Gardens, several playgrounds, a stadium, De Young Museum, numerous gardens and meadows, an archery range, and a bison paddock.

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One of the numerous water habitats throughout the park.

 

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The Rose Garden

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The Conservatory of Flowers (which had unfortunately closed for the day by the time I reached it)

 

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Sun dial that I found amongst one of the many open meadows.

I also made sure that I took my bike off some of the main roads, and rode through some of the more off-road terrain the park had to offer. I’m not sure if that was really allowed, but it was such a nice experience to turn off into the forest and delve into the depths where it felt like you could disappear and no one would ever find you.

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Although I have to admit, I probably got the biggest kick out of seeing the bison roaming around in the paddock, which really took me back to my Year 8 History classes and flashbacks to Dances With Wolves.

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The bison paddock. 

After making it through the entire length of Golden Gate Park, I emerged on the beach, and I rode down along the edge of the sand a little bit, and watched the flocks of seagulls flutter aimless along the mostly empty beach. I stared out over the Pacific Ocean for a little bit, and while I’d worked up a bit of a sweat with all the bike riding through the park, there was a cool wind whipping off the ocean that made the idea of swimming rather unpleasant. It was also blowing a lot of sand everywhere, which was also quite unpleasant, so eventually I found a beach house to take shelter in and have some lunch, after which I headed back to the park.

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Birds at the beach.

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Dutch windmill located in the western end of Golden Gate Park. 

***

My final bout of sightseeing took me into the city centre again, on a rather aimless afternoon stroll, if I’m perfectly honest. From the Castro I wandered further into the city and stumbled across the beautiful San Francisco City Hall, an elegant building that almost looked like a brilliant royal palace. Across from the City Hall lay the Civic Center Plaza, which had rows of trees that had all shed their leaves at the approach of winter, but the way they were planted in perfectly straight rows created a strange visual effect when you stood in the middle of them that reminded me a lot of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

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San Francisco City Hall 

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Civic Center Plaza, complete with a Christmas tree. 

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The narrow tunnels created by the trees in the plaza. 

I wandered through the centre in the dying afternoon light, before heading back through the Castro and over the hills to get home.

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The gay streets of the Castro. 

***

I had been in San Francisco for almost two weeks, and I had loved every minute of it. While not as warm as I had expected California to be, I’d learnt a little about the phenomenon of the local climate, and the vibrant and colourful culture of the city had more than made up for it. I’d also met a bunch of awesome people, many of whom I’m still in touch with and will likely ensure that my first visit to San Francisco will not be my last. But alas, the countdown to the end of my seemingly endless worldwide journey had begun, and I still had the huge city of Los Angeles to explore before I jetted off from the mainland USA.

The morning of my departure, Todd and I both got up early: him getting ready for work, and me gathering up all my belongings and throwing them into my bag. He offered to give me a lift to the nearest BART station, which would take me across the bay and over into Oakland. It was from there that my Amtrak train would depart, and carry me down the Californian coast to LA. I said a heartfelt goodbye to Todd, who had done so much for me and without whom my stay in San Francisco would not have been the same, before jumping on the metro and heading across the bay to embark on one of the final legs of my worldwide tour.

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Turkey and Trees: Happy Holidays on the West Coast

After waking up at the crack of dawn to say one final goodbye to Gary, I returned to his bed to sleep until a more appropriate hour. I saw Brandon, later on my way out, and thanked him again for inviting me along to dinner and letting me join his friends in the celebration.
“Not a problem at all, it was great having you there! Not everyday we get Australian travellers stopping by to join us.” We said our goodbyes, and I headed downstairs to travel via bus back to Noe Valley, where I had to get ready for what I was anticipating would be a long afternoon. It was the first time I would be experiencing a real American holiday, and from what I had been led to believe from numerous popular culture references, as well as most Americans I had discussed it with, Thanksgiving was quite an event.

The one problem for me, however, was that Thanksgiving is typically a family affair. Already Gary, Kayvan and Todd had left the San Francisco to return to their hometowns to celebrate the day, so if I actually wanted to celebrate the day in some capacity then I would have to be relatively proactive about it. Thankfully, while I had been discussing my plans in San Francisco with Kayvan, he had told me about a few of his friends who were hosting what is fondly known as an “orphans Thanksgiving”: a holiday for people who couldn’t make it back home, or were otherwise unable to spent the holiday with their actual families. Kayvan told me about Rob and Jessie, two best friends who lived there in San Francisco, and said that he would put me in touch with them so that I wouldn’t have to spend the holiday by myself. Not that I would have felt that sad or lonely, considering I’d never really had a Thanksgiving to truly understand what I was missing out on, but all the same, I was excited to participate in yet another American experience that so far had only ever been confined to the realm of Hollywood.

***

As a general rule, the entire day of Thanksgiving is spent in the kitchen, making more food than it is physically possible for all your guests to consume. As a guest to the Thanksgiving dinner, all that Rob and Jessie asked was a contribution to the alcohol supply for the evening, so when the time came for me to head over, I stopped at the corner store and picked up a bottle of whiskey. The walk there took a little longer than expected, as once again I had forgotten to factor in the steep topography, and instead of heading back through the up-and-down towards the Castro, I was heading up to Diamond Heights (the name should’ve given it away, huh?), which felt like the suburban equivalent of sheer, cliff-face hiking from start to finish.  Upon arrival I was greeted by the hosts and a handful of guests who had already arrived, and I was led towards a table absolutely packed with plates of salads and sides and breads and snacks, as well as a hefty supply of booze. Jessie and Rob told me to relax and make myself at home, so I poured myself a cup of wine and sat down in the living room while they carved the turkey and attended to the final touches in the kitchen.

While a traditional Thanksgiving is more of a family affair, with a sit down dinner around a big table and I assume some inevitable family holiday drama, the orphans Thanksgiving was very chilled out. There were movies playing on the TV, and we mostly just sat around the living room with plastic cups and paper plates, getting up to help ourselves to the food as we wanted. There was nothing too dramatic or eventful though. In fact, although there had been some talk of maybe heading down to the Castro later in the evening (it kind of goes without saying that this was primarily a gay orphans Thanksgiving, right?), eventually people started dropping like flies, either heading home early or actually passing out around the house. Jessie went to his room at some point, although he never ended up emerging, and as the night progressed I noticed that I was the only person who was drinking from the particular bottle of red wine that I was drinking. So I was a little surprised to eventually find it completely empty, although it probably explained why I had been consistently dozing off on the couch while the rest of the party wound down around me. It didn’t appear as though anyone would be heading anywhere to keep on partying, not that I would have been able to keep up if they did, so eventually I took my leave, bid farewell to whoever was still conscious, and rolled back down the hill to Noe Valley.

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The Castro Theatre, in the Castro at dusk.

It was the following day when I learnt of the delightful consequence of making more food than can possibly be ingested: leftovers. Struggling through my late morning hangover, I received a group Facebook message from Jessie informing us all that there was plenty of food leftover from night before, and that we were all welcome to come and help finish them off or take some home. So eventually, when I felt ready to take on that steep trek again, I walked back up to Rob and Jessie’s to continue eating (and eventually drinking). We hung out there for most of the afternoon, and later in the evening Rob suggested that we head down to the Castro like we had been planning the previous evening. I think there might have been a few other people who joined us on the way down, but given how the night ended, I can’t guarantee that my memory of that was accurate. Maybe I was going through a lightweight phase. Maybe it was all the food I’d been eating, which was combining with the alcohol to make me feel sleepy and lethargic rather than tipsy and energised. All I know is that we started at a gay bar called The Mix, which was another chilled out gay bar with a nice outdoor patio. We also went two other clubs: QBar and 440 Castro, which were much more like nightclubs with dark rooms, flashing lights and loud music. I also lost absolutely everyone that I knew at some point, and eventually Rob found me in 440 Castro, were I was lying down in the dark on one of the couches, very close to passing out, if I hadn’t already done so. He gathered me up and told me we were heading home, and I was in no state to protest.

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The Castro Theatre at night. 

Rob helped me into a taxi and we headed back to Diamond Heights. Maybe he asked me where I lived in an attempt to drop me home, and I was just incapable of knowing or remembering the address, or perhaps he realised that I was in such a state that getting myself back into a relatively unfamiliar house by myself would have been a disastrous endeavour. I never really found out – my only clear recollection is stumbling out of the taxi back in Diamond Heights, and having my breath taken away by the sight that I saw. Under the glow the of street lights, the entire setting had been enveloped by a thick fog. I’d heard of San Francisco being well known for the fog that rolled over the water and into the bay, and for being quite a cold city even in the middle of summer, but I hadn’t realised that the fog would come all the way up the hill like this.
“Wow! The fog! It’s so beautiful!” I remember exclaiming, flocking forward into the misty haze and twirling a few times, scooping the low clouds up with my hands and watching it dissipate into thin air. Rob just chuckled and let me have my moment, before guiding me out of the fog and back into the house, where we both eventually crashed.

***

Thanksgiving wasn’t the only holiday that I would be experiencing while I was in the USA, and while it was still a good month away, the end of Thanksgiving celebrations marked the beginning of Christmas celebrations. Slowly but surely, coloured lights and shiny tinsel and big green Christmas trees were popping up all over the place. Whether I was riding my bike north to the Marina District and the Golden Gate Bridge, or going out for a stroll to dinner in the Castro, the festive season was well and truly upon us, and like most other holidays, Americans take Christmas very seriously.

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Rainbow Christmas tree in the heart of the Castro.

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Christmas provides San Francisco with an excuse to create some amazing gay propaganda – not that it needed an excuse, really.

The end of the weekend after Thanksgiving also marked Todd’s arrival back in San Francisco. It was a little strange at first, meeting a man after having already lived in his house for a week, but as soon as I met him I could sense that he was a kind and generous person. You know, the sort of kind and generous you would expect from a man who let a travelling stranger live in his house for a week before even meeting him. Todd was a lot older than me, no longer of a partying, young adult age, but after the few experiences I’d had out in the Castro during my first week, I was more than happy to take it easy and hang out with him in the evenings when he finished work, check out a few of his favourite eating places around the city, and talk about our travels and share some of our stories – as a host, Todd was a bit of a Couchsurfing veteran, and he’d done some pretty extensive travelling in his time too. It was always so nice to meet people like that, and to have such engaging conversations with them. That was the one thing I loved about travelling – people could come from all walks of life, from anywhere in the world, have all kinds of different interests and have relatively little in common with you, but travelling is a universal experience that connects you with those people and forms a diverse and vibrant international community.

***

Unlike Thanksgiving, I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the holiday of Christmas, and during my life I’d had a handful of traditions that I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to maintain during my travels. However, I was delighted when one afternoon Todd sent me a message, saying that he was going to be buying a Christmas tree on his way from work that evening, and that if I was around I was welcome to help him decorate it. Decorating the Christmas tree was something I usually always done with my mother, so it was nice to know I’d still have the chance to roll out the lights and tinsel and stick some ornaments on another tree. Even better was that for the first time I would be putting decorations on a real tree. Todd found some amusement in my enthusiasm for a tree that wasn’t made of plastic, and I told him all about how Christmas in Australia has to cut corners in ways like that if it ever had a hope in mimicking a Northern Hemisphere white Christmas.

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Our Christmas tree, ft. red wine.

When decorating the Christmas tree, Todd confessed that he preferred to keep the whole ordeal sleek and simple, not loading up the tree with too many colours or random decorations. I could appreciate that, and realised that that was actually an option when you didn’t have school-aged children who would bring home arts and crafts projects from school that simply had to be hung on the overcrowded tree. It made me smile to remember, but I have to admit that perfecting the simple, elegant Christmas tree look was not exactly simple. The branches of real, natural trees aren’t all as evenly spaced as their perfect, plastic counterparts, but after some twisting and turning and spinning the tree back and forth, we managed to get the flow of the lights pretty close to perfect.

After that we sat back on the couch to admire our handiwork, and with a clink of our red wine glasses, I turned to Todd with a cheesy grin.
“Well, I guess it’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas.”