Travel Log: San Francisco, 2013 03-02-2013

I recently spent ten days exploring San Francisco and the Bay Area. It was a bit of a workcation, in that one of my primary reasons for heading West was to work with some of the neat folks in Opower's SoMa office. But the personal rationale went far, far beyond that: I have spent the past few years being told, relentlessly, that I would just love it there. I was assured, reassured, and re-reassured that everything from things extremely important to me--good weather, proximity to nature, vibrant culture--to things marginally important to me--an active food scene, the tech scene--awaited. People correctly guessed at a few aspects of my personality that would find San Francisco enjoyable, and some painted and reflected other qualities onto me all the same. Friends in the area kept badgering, "Why haven't you gotten here, yet? Come visit, at least!"

So it was also a bit of a litmus test: are they right? Is this where I want to go? Does anything truly worthwhile await me? These are pretty big questions to answer in a week and a half. But, perhaps above even this, my travel bug just cannot escape the temptation of a trip to somewhere, anywhere, new. So I went.

And, boy, did I get around. I biked or walked a healthy portion of the city: downtown, SoMa, North Beach, Chinatown, Russian Hill, Nob Hill, Pacific Heights, the Tenderloin, the Wharf, the Mission, the Castro, the Haight, the Presidio, the Marina, the Western Addition, the northern reaches of the Sunset, and long stretches of the port. I biked across the Golden Gate Bridge up North to Sausalito. I biked West from the Ferry Building, through Golden Gate Park to Ocean Beach. I spent time relaxing, meditating, and sun-bathing in Fort Mason Green, Alamo Square, Buena Vista Park, Golden Gate Park, Washington Square, Union Square, Dolores Park, and Alta Plaza. I rented a car and drove South to Palo Alto and the Stanford Campus, across the Dumbarton Bridge and up to Berkeley, and across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to Muir Woods to see my first redwoods.

If it sounds like I'm just name-dropping spots around the Bay at this point, I apologize. I'm really just trying to get across the point that I saw a lot, and took away some great experiences. But because my mind was so active and my motion so perpetual, I did not keep a running log of my travels, as has become somewhat customary for my more substantial journeys. But, along the way, I did jot down a few notes on the backs of napkins and etch a few memories into my brain matter, and I would like to recount some of these here, for you, right now.

Story Time

During the bookending weekends of the trip, I stayed at the apartment of my friend Adam and his much better half Kelly. They were ridiculously hospitable, their cats are super heroes, and their couch, curled up in a little bay window with an accompanying breeze composed of perfect strength and temperature, is vastly superior to my own bed. However, I had been forewarned by a few folks and blog articles about the neighborhood: the Tenderloin. "Be careful." "It gets a little sketchy once you get past Hyde." "You'll get propositioned, for sure." I'd say that I spent a decent amount of time walking to and fro through the core of the neighborhood and my take-away is that the supposedly roughest neighborhood of San Francisco feels like some of the most moderate of D.C.: sure, I did get a few offers from a few folks for a few things, but not once did I feel threatened or concerned for my well-being. And the people that did approach asking if I was looking to score were downright friendly. In fact, one such young man even cracked a joke and pointed out that I had some bills creeping up over the seam of my back pocket, right after asking me if I wanted some pretty hard stuff and right before showing me the quickest route to the restaurant that I was having trouble locating. You couldn't get better hospitality in the Financial District.

I was graciously afforded a loaner bike by the kind folks at the Opower SF office at the start of my journey. Picking it up was the second stop I made after landing at SFO the Friday evening of my arrival. When I gave it an initial examination, I saw that the tires had a significant thirst for air, and the office had a pump hanging around just for that reason. Undaunted, I rode out into the city to wear it in before my big adventure the next day: biking across the Golden Gate. Flash forward to late Saturday morning: on the same black Schwinn, passing the first tower of the bridge. The span of the bridge goes slightly uphill as it advances northward, and I attempted to shift gears accordingly. Suddenly, I felt the resistance go empty: the chain had slipped off of the back gear. Bewildered, wind-beaten, somewhat exhausted, I pushed the bike along a path filled with racing cyclists, in between a roughly 250 foot drop to the Pacific Ocean and cars whizzing into the city a scant few feet from my person. Once I reached a little enclave in the side of the bridge, I set to work at fixing the chain situation, tapping into knowledge that I presumed I had left behind in the fifth grade. A young man who only a few tens of meters back had been struggling for breath on a rental bike passed me with a hopefully sincere, "Good luck, buddy." A few minutes and a few pounds of oil and grease later, I was fortunately on my way. I made it up to Hendrik Point for a gorgeous view back over the bridge, and then down to lovely Sausalito. A ferry ride took me back down to the eastern reaches of the city, from which I took off across the city to reach Ocean Beach for some sandy, salty, sweaty fun. I did not notice until after sunset when I began to leave the beach, but, apparently, at some point in Golden Gate Park the quick-release bar, the only thing keeping the front wheel of the bike affixed to the frame, came off entirely. Like the reckless buffoon that I am, I initially attempted to ride all the way back across the city. About twenty seconds into this particular adventure, I gave up and pushed the bike some twenty or thirty blocks to the first bus stop that I could find that would take me downtown.

At that bus stop, I met an interesting, wonderfully kind fellow named Luz. He recently moved to the city from New York, and we shared some laughs over the stark differences between San Francisco and East Coast cities. He guessed that I was a Computer Science major, which is apparently apparent from my appearance. We talked startups, we talked the huge improvement of the new Google Maps app for iOS, we talked about his projects, we talked my projects. It was all so cliche, but I ate it up because Luz is so damn charming. He helped me get my bike onto the rack on the front of the bus, and I paid back his kindness by buying him a $2 MUNI pass, which he did not require but accepted graciously all the same. Right about the time we exchanged email addresses, we heard the bus driver get in a shouting match with a homeless fellow out on the sidewalk, then heard him yell at a girl who had some sort of confusion about bus fare. A few more interesting incidents happened and he assured me that, though the MUNI buses can be a bit more adventurous than what we were used to in our respective East Coast hometowns, this was crazy. By the time we parted ways, he was small-talking another ostensible entrepreneur on the bus about his idea for a new dating app. Oh, Luz.

Going back to before the Great Quick-Release Loss of 2013: I stumbled into something strange and exciting: some sort of impromptu youth cycling caravan. I entered Golden Gate Park from the Panhandle, behind another cyclist on a red road bike, and just ahead of a couple of young lovers on some fixed gear fare. As we passed into the park, a couple more cyclists were folded into in our growing strand. And as we continued our relentless march down JFK Drive, more and more gals and guys kept joining in, and all of us apparently teenagers or twenty-somethings. At one point, a girl right around my age in leggings and a purple sun dress came down from the sidewalk and rolled up next to me, as a boy perhaps a few years older with a gnarly beard and "We Are the People" by Empire of the Sun blaring through some sort of speaker cruised past. As we approached Ocean Beach, our caravan had spread out to two lanes of a dozen or so bikes, spaced no more than thirty meters apart from head to tail. We hit the beach and went about our respective leisures. As quickly and spontaneously as it had formed, it came to an end.

On the Bart, headed back to SFO Sunday morning to pick up a rental car, a few buskers set up shop on the train and got ready to perform. But these were no ordinary buskers, mind you: there was a mid-forties father with a mandolin and his two teenage sons playing buckets as drums, and they played an amazing cover of The Beatles' "I Am the Walrus". The father was the main vocalist, but the sons joined in for the hook and for "I am he as you are he..." and they all had the widest, brightest smiles I can remember seeing. When they finished, the father howled and proclaimed with perfect confidence, "You have never heard the walrus played like that!" He was completely right. We erupted in delirious applause.

One evening after a day of nearly non-stop coding, I met up with my friends Adam and Brent, together known as mrsjxn, and art directed a jam-making session. My direction: "deep, droning, much bass". It was fascinating watching their methodology: jumping back and forth between driver and passenger, sewing together hand-made beats from a controller, a vast array of samples, heavy beat-repeat, and a hundred other concepts that I didn't understand. Trying to decipher their respective strengths and weakness, and how they fit together as musical architects, was head-spinning. Adam ended up slaving away over his Macbook late into the night, and ended up with "Mellifluous". You can still discern some of that deep drone that I had requested strewn throughout sections of the track, but Adam sprinkled some heavy vocal sampling on top and turned it into a different beast entirely. I dig how it turned out, and I expect a director's credit when your album drops, gentlemen. Thanks.

I found a new piece of real estate to add to my ever-expanding collection of little corners of the globe to call my own: the Old Union Courtyard at Stanford. It's a beautiful campus, decorated with palm trees, stucco walls, red, Spanish-style roofs, and a clear strand of Mediterranean influence in its architecture. But this courtyard in particular, which took me completely off guard as I stumbled into it while looking back over my shoulder at a building which caught my eye, was particularly lovely: I felt vaguely as though, somehow, suddenly, I were back in Barcelona or Rome. I sat down on a sun-drenched patch of grass, took off my shoes, and meditated in the breeze, to the sound of trickling water in the nearby fountain. It was peaceful. It was a delightful break for my mind and body. It was, and is, my new garden.

While sitting on Ocean Beach, waiting for the sun to set, I tried to capture my thoughts by scribbling a few notes on the back of a sheet of paper that I had. Here they are, precisely as I wrote them:

  • Boy, dad, soccer ball, boy is better than dad.
  • Man and woman jump in frigid waves. Consider it, then jump into next wave. Consider it, then jump again. And again.
  • Dogs fetching, everything.
  • Waiting for sunset.
  • Thinking, thinking, thinking, Always thinking.
  • Think I'm content.
  • Couples with dogs, everywhere. And kids.
  • Biked here in a makeshift, ad hoc, caravan youth movement. Crazy.
  • Hard to tell locals apart from tourists here. At leisure, it's all the same. Not that it matters. Every one's a tourist somewhere. But are we all locals? Don't really feel like a local anywhere.
  • High tide is wild. Massive sprays of white ocean when waves begin to break.
  • Love it when strangers exchange smiles. "We don't know each other, but we both know this is a great fucking moment. Look at the ocean!"
  • Two dogs break into chase and playful scrapping. Every other dog notices. Which ones join in the fray? Fascinating to see.
  • A kite!
  • Four guys play frisbee fetch with another guy's dog. Every one is pleased with the outcome.

Clearly, some of those notes were intended for expansion into more fully-formed thoughts. But I decided it would just be better to relay what I transcribed in the moment than to try to apply retroactively expounded meaning. So it is.

On the flight back East, I existed in past, present, and future. I reflected on the trip that had just culminated, on the people that I had met, on the places that I saw, and on the memories that were born into existence. And I took every sensory input from the flight in with wide-open embrace. As we cruised over the Rockies, the horizon completely blurred and the ground suddenly changed. As the snowcapped mountainous peaks yielded to foothills and eventually into flatland, the ground became a shade of blue that merged with and flowed into that of the sky. This sight, combined with my thoughts in this instant of time and the sounds of Boards of Canada flowing into my ears, felt unmistakably as though we were flying into a void of nothingness. Much of the rest of the flight was spent looking forward: will I be back? Will I ultimately validate all of the friends who told me I'd wind up here eventually? I don't know. But I have to say: it looks good. Because it all felt good.

Capping off the trip: somewhere over Missouri, the pilot spoke to us over the intercom: "Uh, attention ladies and gentlemen. This is pretty amazing: in about ten seconds, you'll see a trail of space debris flying through the sky off to the right side of the plane. In twenty years as a pilot, I've never seen anything like it." I happened to have a window seat on the right, southern-facing side of the plane. A few seconds later, like a white-orange comet, it came into view. Everyone rushed to the right side of the plane to crowd over us with window-views to see it. For a few seconds, we watched something man-made that had fallen out of orbit burn up as it collided toward the Earth. Then, it was gone. We all went back to our respective headphones and bags of pretzels.