February 2001


Eyes Wide Open: San Francisco and Beyond
Travel Memories
Tom Owen

Over a year ago, to celebrate the new millennium, Phyllis and I for the first time visited San Francisco, the near North Coast, and the vineyards of the Napa and Sonoma valleys. Two of our children, Elisa and Andrew, were in the area with friends and joined us from time-to-time. For the most part, the winter weather was surprisingly warm and bright.

San Francisco

San Francisco sits on forty-three steep hills on the north end of a narrow peninsula that forms half a giant bay. Residents have made a pact with God: by agreeing to live on hillsides undermined by dangerous geologic faults, they have been granted unbelievable natural beauty and a promise that it will never be icy or oppressively hot.

The heat in our Bodega Bay motel room was very weak, while many public restrooms, even in the dead of winter, were unheated. In San Francisco, sidewalk dining, warmed by hanging space heaters, was commonplace. On the other hand, our big city hotel room was not air-conditioned, explaining why our bed was draped with mosquito netting to ward off summertime night-flyers able to enter with impunity through unscreened windows.

No wonder San Francisco residents are so hyped about physical fitness. You have to make like a Mountain Goat just to get home.

Cable cars were invented for San Francisco's hills after mules and draft horses failed to hold up under the strain. We rode out to Van Ness Avenue on the California Street Cable Car line—one of three that survives. In blatant disregard for liability suits, passengers are allowed to hang off the car's outdoor running boards. When two cars approach, there's barely an inch separation between daredevils hanging on. If you look carefully through the narrow opening in the street, you see the underground cable that pulls the car at a constant eleven miles per hour. The car operator manipulates a devise that grasps the moving cable; the car stops by letting loose and applying a friction brake. We visited the cable car museum where all the underground lines, powered by giant winding wheels, come together.

The sign at the curbing reads: “Idling engines for more than five minutes strictly prohibited: $100 fine.” On the hilliest streets, signs warn: “Prevent Runaways: Park in Gear, Curb Wheels, and Set Brake.”

A few of the city's steepest streets were closed because cars could not safely navigate their incline. Lombard Street was rebuilt into a series of one-way, terraced ramps that cars can now reasonably descend.

Signs hang over the intersection to tell you the name of the cross street. In downtown, the street names have also been etched into the corner sidewalk slab. All alleys have been given names and signs tell you when one alley ends and another begins.

Grocery stores double as drop-off centers for recyclable beverage containers. I saw several Hispanic men hefting cardboard and glass gathered from restaurants and stores into their old pickup.

Treasure Island is in the middle of San Francisco Bay halfway to Oakland. Built of dirt dredged from the bay, the island was destined to become an international airport after it served as the site for the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition. Instead, beginning in World War II, it became an U. S. Naval Station.

The center city is nice but undistinguished. The Transamerica Building, downtown's most dramatic structure, is shaped like a narrow pyramid that tapers to a pencil point. The skyscraper loses some of its effect, however, because it sits at the bottom of a deep valley.

San Francisco's City Hall is big enough to be a state capitol. Out back, a vast public plaza, with a parking garage underneath, is lined with harshly pruned mulberry trees.

Sometimes you believe only sons and daughters of China and Italy live in San Francisco.

Many Chinese find quiet corners in the waterfront and neighborhood parks to do early morning fitness rituals. One bright sunny morning in Washington Square, an older couple and a young woman jousted gracefully with large swords.

Surprise! A. P. Giannini, the son of Italian immigrants, founded the “Bank of Italy” in San Francisco. He later renamed it the “Bank of America.”

Numerous large Roman Catholic churches scattered all over town prompted me to speculate that early waves of Mexican and Irish Catholics were joined in the late 19th Century by tens of thousands of devout Italians.

The city's hallmark is its many close-in neighborhoods. Each one is filled with ninety-year-old, two and three story frame row houses clustered around a vibrant neighborhood business district. One evening in Noe Valley, we walked for at least ten blocks through a corridor lined with everyday stores and restaurants.

When we arrived in the Bay Area, we drove immediately across the city to the Pacific Ocean and the Cliff House Restaurant, which clings high above seal rocks on the harsh coast. Wall photos document the series of ornate structures that have lured diners to this most uncommon location.

The stone and concrete ruins of the Sutro Baths were visible in the shallow inlet below the restaurant. That glass and steel aquatic center was built in 1886 by Adolph Sutro, a Prussian immigrant who had made a killing in Nevada silver. The complex boasted numerous swimming pools filled and emptied by the tides, with water heated by a gigantic power plant. Sutro advertised 20,000 swim suits available for rent and billed his giant natatorium and cultural complex as “California's Tropical Winter Garden.” Sadly, by the 1930s, the Sutro Baths fell on hardtimes and were demolished in the 1960s.

We stayed at the walkup Hotel Boheme on Columbus Avenue in the North Beach neighborhood. An unpretentious canopy over the sidewalk marked the door that led up a narrow stairway to the second floor reception desk. In the 1950s, North Beach cradled Jack Kerouac and San Francisco's “Beatniks;” our hotel's shadowy hallways were lined with “left-bank” style black and white photos of the “beats” and the neighborhood Italians, who surely found them bewildering. A couple of striptease clubs were the only reminders of North Beach's seedy past.

The Boheme was just a block away from where Italian North Beach meets Chinatown. At that intersection, street-name signs start to be written in both English and Chinese characters while back in North Beach, the Columbus Avenue sign reads in Italian, “Calle Cristobol Colon.” On that Chinatown/North Beach boundary line, two shops dramatically illustrate the meeting of the two cultures: Little City Meats—“Home of the Sicilian Sausage”—is on one corner and a Chinese produce market sits across the street. The sidewalk in front of the Chinese market is piled high with boxes of colorful fruits and vegetables—each box identified by a large sign, handwritten in Chinese script.

Graffiti hurriedly scrawled on the front of an abandoned North Beach storefront reads: “Buon Giorno, Principessa.”

You know you are in Chinatown when the newsvendor's rack holds the Chinese edition of “Car and Driver” magazine. Amidst all the signs in Chinese, one, in English and scrolled in neon, simply reads: “Translator.” Even the brightly painted pavilion in the neighborhood park is shaped like a pagoda.

On Chinatown's main street, clothes are hung to dry on lines strung across narrow balconies on the building's upper stories.

In the Castro neighborhood, the sign on the office window reads: “Chinese Herbal Medicine/Acupuncture.”

On our first night, we ate at an Italian restaurant down the street from our hotel. The establishment was overstaffed with waiters and managers—all frenetically moving about with limited result. Our waiter, a Martin Short caricature with wildly spiked hair, affected a dramatic French accent.

The first morning we climbed through a residential neighborhood of steep hillside streets, stairs, and platforms to the top of Telegraph Hill. What must moving day be like for those wealthy residents who have chosen to live in one of the world's most dramatic urban places? There are fire hydrants, but in case of an inferno, no pumper fire truck could get near some of those cliffside homes. The hearty residents of this district work together to maintain the flower gardens on the steep terraces and to keep their public spaces livable. They have even installed poop bag dispensers to ensure that pets are picked up after.

We breakfasted in the warm morning sun at a table outside a coffee shop in the Embarcadero neighborhood. Around the corner, an old factory building was getting a multi-million dollar transformation. Big windows were being inserted in the barren brick facade so that condo owners lucky enough to live on the upper floors will have grand views of the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and beyond.

In a half-lit chapel alcove of the gigantic Grace Episcopal Cathedral, two older men—the one dressed for a downtown law office and the other for Saturday golf—embraced, kissed, and parted. Across the street in sunlit Huntington Park, “Jaime” aimed his two-wheeler, aided by training wheels, at barefoot “Pedro,” who cart-wheeled to safety onto the lush park lawn. The park was built years ago for the city's Nob Hill elite and, even now, a public-private park conservancy is seeing that Huntington's ornate marble fountain is restored. That “Fountain of the Tortoise” is a replica of one built in Rome in the 16th Century.

Dolores Street through the Mission and Noe Valley neighborhoods is divided by a grassy median lined with palm trees.

We left the sun-drenched street to stand inside the cool, shadowy Basilica Dolores. Near the ceiling though, the sun blasted through a row of stained glass windows to shower a section of pews in blazing orange light. The massive 19th Century church stands alongside a lovely 1791 Spanish mission, built on the site where San Francisco had begun fifteen years earlier. Outback, the mission cemetery contains the unmarked mass grave of over 5,000 Castonoan Indians, many of whom had died of European diseases. Nearby, richly carved headstones mark the burial place of prominent early San Franciscans, some of Spanish and others of Irish decent.

We had started our day with a subway ride to the 16th Street BART Station followed by a long walk to the Basilica. We then walked on to Castro Street, a center of gay life. After lunch there, we boarded a trolley bus for just a dollar, took a transfer, and traveled over a giant hill and down into the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood—old flower child heaven—and the entrance to Golden Gate Park.

Golden Gate Park contains several well-manicured “bowling greens.” A building nearby housed the “San Francisco Bowling Club,” founded in 1901. Starting in 1870, the three-mile long park evolved from windswept sand dunes into a landscaped home for museums, boating, golf, gardens, stable, bison compound, and a Japanese Garden. (Some of the buildings and statuary date from 1894 when the park hosted the giant California Midwinter Fair.)

In the late afternoon's darkening chill, we sipped tea and nibbled Asian sweets in a tile-roofed pagoda in Golden Gate's Japanese Tea Garden. A leaf held by a lone strand of spider web twirled gracefully from a bamboo screen. The Garden was filled with crooked cedar trees coifed into cloud-shaped foliage. Along the narrow, curving paths, gently falling water murmured among the rocks.

After a couple of hours in the park, we headed for a trolley bus turn around just outside a north gate, where we used our transfer from the earlier ride to Haight-Ashbury to board the Fulton Street line back downtown. (With other electric buses lined up in front of us at the curb, our driver stepped out and reattached our rear power pole to a set of wires over the driving lane.) Once downtown, we ran hard through the rush-hour crowd, tightly grasping our transfers, to catch a Columbus Avenue trolley to the hotel. It was a personal triumph to pull off all that riding for just $1.00! On the painful side, the night before, Phyllis and I walked ten blocks from downtown back to our hotel because I couldn't make a transit route map show me exactly where to stand.

Northern Coast

In January's chill, despite charcoal clouds and mist, the coast was bathed in a luminescent glow. The tortured sky, churned by sea wind, kept the light moving.

Point Reyes is a stark promontory that extends ten miles into the sea. Back in 1870, at the dangerous tip, a lighthouse was built into the craggy coastal bluff. From the last vestige of “normal” landscape, three hundred steps lead straight down the cliff to the lighthouse where the big light and steam-powered foghorn operated. The lighthouse keeper and family made a missionary's commitment to live in that cold, forbidding place. Still, there is beauty in the dull, grey/green grass tufts, the bent trees with knuckled roots, the fingery ice-plant, the tiny orange cactus-like flowers, the thin-soiled violets and the mineral stained sedimentary rock that shafted skyward. Down by the lighthouse, layered rocks hanging high above the sea are marbleized with river gravel deposited during some ancient aeon.

The Point Reyes light keeper struggled to collect fresh water to turn into steam for the foghorn. Scarce rainwater was channeled into a shallow basin carved from the rock high up on the cliff and piped to the lighthouse below. “Water! Water! Everywhere! And Not A Drop To Drink!”

Drakes Bay, slightly down the coast from Point Reyes, is believed to be where in 1579, Sir Francis Drake laid over to repair his fleet. We ate fried oysters and fries at a rustic public park restaurant on that windswept bay—a single wood-burning stove in the dining area fought to dispel the chill.

At Bodega Bay, the sound of barking seals on a rocky offshore island joined the mournful, regular blast of the Coast Guard horn that marks the narrow entrance to the harbor. From windswept Bodega Head, high above the bay, a line of orange buoys bobbled about, ready to guide fishermen to underwater traps set for Dungeness crab.

The hard, treeless coast reminded me of postcard pictures of the Irish or Scottish shoreline. There is an understated beauty—a contest to see how many shades of military green and brown can be contained in that dramatic expanse. An Army quartermaster would have a field day picking among the palette-full of variations on the color khaki. Thin-cropped Irish green grass patches were spotted alongside hardy silvery ice plants. Bushes anchored in chocolate brown dirt looked like bonsaied cedar trees, but their leaves felt like velvet. Still, among all the variations on green and brown, there were tiny bright red, yellow, purple and orange flowers.

Harsh piles of grey to brown rock shafts, occasionally pitted with small caves, litter Northern California's coast. The surf pounds and frequently overpowers those rocks, swamping nearby wine-colored plants that grow on the coarse sandy bottom. Brownish charcoal and gray lichens cling to those favored rocks that receive less of a beating. The barren soft-soiled bluffs overlooking the sea appear to be cut smaller and eroded deeper each season. Just off shore, gulls and loons dive for fish in the cold deeper water.

Wine Country

The steep coastal ridge that lies north of San Francisco buffers the interior from the Pacific Ocean's vengeance. That's why, flowers and olive trees, with their dark fruit and silvery minnow-sized leaves, flourish in January.

When you move inland from the coast, the ridges are first topped with eucalyptus trees, followed by taller timber and ultimately the giant redwoods.

I wonder if the Russians, who once maintained an outpost in the North Bay area, named it Sebastopol? (There's an old Crimean city with the same name.) On New Years night, we saw a movie in that small town at an unusual seven-screen theatre. It had been installed in a two-story downtown building that had once been a school, office or factory.

In Occidental—once a logging center—we ate a great Paul Bunyan breakfast that featured flap jacks, omelets, and healthy blends of fresh fruit and vegetable juices. The old frame hotel and commercial buildings now house boutiques, galleries, and restaurants. Landscaped parking has been installed on the right-of-way where the narrow gauge logging railroad once ran.

The Native Americans called the broad Sonoma Valley, encircled by steep hills, the “Valley of the Moons.” I suspect that the pockmarked landscape reminded them of the lunar surface.

In Sonoma, the 1906 City Hall anchors California's largest public plaza. One day, several years back, chickens started crossing the street from the yard of the 1823 Spanish Mission, with its typical adobe walls and red-tile roof. (Franciscan missionaries had pushed northward from Mexico to curb Russia's imperial designs on the region.) At first, town officials returned the fowl to the mission each day. Finally, they relented and allowed the chickens to take up permanent residence among the plaza's trees and bushes. When we were there under a bright, blue sky, the hens cackled and roosters crowed boastfully around City Hall and the old Public Library, which had been renovated into a visitor's center.

Before there was big time wine production, the rich valleys north of San Francisco spawned “hot spring” resorts that boasted curative mineral baths. Still today, pilgrims in search of spiritual insight or “the cure” flock to towns like Calistoga and Freestone. Glen Ellen, a village in the Sonoma Valley, now home to a famous wine label, first thrived as a health resort, attracting the likes of novelist Jack London.

Scores of wineries invite you to stop by for a tour and a tasting. While most vineyards don't charge an entrance fee, there's an unwritten expectation that you'll buy at least a bottle or two. We stopped at the homes of the Sterling, Benziger, and Ravenswood labels and left impressed that each visit was unique. Sterling was nestled on a deeply forested mountainside, accessible to visitors only by aerial cable car. Its tour was self-guided, the production facility was austere and factory-like, and the samples sparse. The other two wineries were like stopping by a friendly farm home surrounded by fields of grapevines, with tasting and production located in buildings outback. Benziger featured a wonderful guided tram tour of the whole facility and, at Ravenswood, a delightful host talked you through as many sips as good sense and sobriety would allow.

Remember, the grapevine actually consists of two plants: after the rootstock is allowed to set for a year or so, a clipping of the desired variety of wine grape is grafted on. (The taproot eventually pushes forty feet into California's volcanic soil!) The grapes flourish under a strikingly warm sun, balanced by afternoon clouds and a cool sea breeze. While we were there, we saw very little fog, but after lunch, like clockwork, the clouds and chill winds arose.