Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Story of Our Summer, Part II: San Francisco

Having obtained free airline tickets by driving to Philadelphia for Christmas, we decided to head to San Francisco over the Memorial Day weekend. Our thinking was that this weekend would give us some extra time to visit with Kim's brother Geoff, his partner Dave, and their friend Denise. This was a sound line of reasoning, as far as it went, but it neglected a couple of things.

One was that that the girls were both by now in the domain of the public school calendar, which had decreed that one day off for Memorial Day was plenty, thank you very much. In the end, Kim negotiated with their teachers and worked out a deal whereby the girls would each write blogs of their trip for their classmates to read. In this way we made our trip Educationally Sound.

The other thing was that I was finishing up my one-year stint teaching history at Far Away University, a 90-mile commute each way, and that my final exams would be given two days before the trip. In a hellacious 48 hours, I drove 180 miles, gave and graded 110 exams, calculated rather more final grades than that (not every student felt that the final was worth their time), and posted the grades on teh interweebs for them to look at in wonder and awe. Or awwwww. Either one. Then Kim and I packed until midnight, slept for 4 hours, and headed off for a Crack O' Dawn flight which would get us to San Francisco in time to have the day to explore.

For those of you who have not flown in the last seven years, all I can say is that the magic is gone. You show up two hours early. You herd yourself through the security checkpoint, suppressing the urge to baa like the sheep you are, looking appropriately solemn and turning over yet another Swiss Army knife for the personal collection of the US Attorney General because otherwise the terrorists win. You put your shoes back on. You find your gate - it's easy to spot: it's the one roughly halfway to your final destination. You head over and keep a sharp eye on the counter staff, who all seem to view the boarding process as a sort of shell game designed to keep people alert. You wedge yourself onto the plane, carrying enough food and supplies to support a covert incursion into a small third-world country (though if you should meet resistance you will die, since you are armed only with small clear plastic baggies full of toiletries and the memories of your latest Swiss Army knife). You know, people used to dress up to fly.

But fly we did, and without casualties. Once you're in the air, it's still pretty cool.

Geoff picked us up at the airport in his spiffy copper PT Cruiser and drove us back to Denise's apartment, where we would be staying. It's a great place, with a huge garden in the back (well, huge for being in the middle of the Mission District) to run around in. We set our stuff down and headed out to do Tourist Stuff - because we were Tourists, dagnabbit, and we might as well enjoy ourselves.

Geoff and Kim relax in Denise's garden

Geoff took us around the corner to a Pakistani restaurant (note: there is no such thing as a Pakistani restaurant in Wisconsin, mostly because the Pakistanis stubbornly refuse to put cheese on everything and we have standards here in the Dairy State. This is why we have to travel to get stuff like that). In a highly impressive show of bravery, Tabitha - whose normal idea of adventurous eating is to finish the ends of her hot dogs as well as the middle - actually ate and liked the Potato Nan. Lauren liked her food too, but she's a bit more willing to try things so we weren't quite as surprised. Afterward, we went up to a nice neighborhood park and let the girls run around for a bit. There was some sort of school field trip going on at the time, so the place was just overrun with kids, and it was windy enough to make you fear that they would all blow into the bay. But a good time was had, and nobody took any unplanned swimming trips.

Tabitha and her Potato Nan

Since we were already in the Mission District, it made sense for us to go to Mission Dolores, just a short walk away. The Mission is old and beautiful in the way that weathered stone and brick buildings can be. Kim and I had been there before, but this was the first time for the girls. It's a quiet place, nicely preserved and sort of centering just to stand around in. It's a peaceful spot in the middle of a fairly busy city. The garden in the back was the highlight for the girls, though, as they got to play in the yurt in the middle of it and run around the path. We have about as many yurts in Wisconsin as Pakistani restaurants, more's the pity - someone should look into this. Maybe if we used them to store cheese.

The girls at Mission Dolores

The next day was Dave's birthday, so we went downtown to his favorite Italian restaurant and ate a lunch such as lunches were created to eat. As a veteran of Italian cooking, I have to say that I was impressed. San Francisco is a lot like New Orleans, in that you really can't find a bad meal there.

Happy Birthday Uncle Dave!

Somewhere on the walk over, Dave acquired a nickname - he is now Uncle Wall-E, mostly due to a spot-on imitation of the Pixar character that the girls just loved. Hey - it keeps him from being confused with me. Because we look so much alike, you know.

After that we felt the need to walk, so we hiked pretty much all over town (in between trolley rides). We visited a carousel, went to an arts and music festival (those things just crop up like mushrooms out there) and ended up at some sort of art museum that we didn't go into because there was just so much Art outside to see.

Tabitha has a meeting of the minds with Art

The next day we decided to go on a picnic at Angel Island, out in the bay. The long ferry ride out to the island passes right by Alcatraz, which was fascinating to see up close. The island itself was full of all sorts of scenery and, like most of the area, steep hills that we climbed about upon. We had a nice lunch, most of which we had picked up the day before at the store where Geoff bakes. Uncle Geoff took the girls out to the beach area to quest for, well, whatever it is one quests for on the beaches out there.

Lauren and Tabitha with some of the native flora of Angel Island

On the way back we stopped at Fisherman's Wharf (because we're Tourists, that's why - see above) and spent a pleasant hour trying not to be overwhelmed by the smell of the sea lions. Sea lions are not the cute animals that they appear to be in cartoons. No, they are fat, bewhiskered and smell like a mixture of old fish and sourmash. Normally you have to go to a Civil War re-enactor camp to get this experience but we got it in San Francisco without having to wear a lot of itchy wool or eat hard tack. So bonus points for us, I say. There was also a bungee-machine there for Tabitha and Lauren to bounce around in, so the day was complete.

On our way home that night we took the cable car, because you have to take the cable car if you are a Tourist in San Francisco - there's a law about that. You wait in a line that is almost as long as the airport security line, though it is surrounded with coffee shops that you can duck into for sustenance and you get to keep your shoes on. Your turn comes and you pile in, and the cable winches you up what San Franciscans will tell you with an utterly straight face is a hill. It is not a hill. Hills do not require rappelling gear for public transportation. Hills do not require you to have oxygen at the top. Hills do not have falcons nesting halfway up. San Francisco is a triumph of geometry over geography - there is no way a city should have been built on those hills, and even if you concede the city there is still no way anyone should have slapped a grid-system of streets on top of those cliffs. But there it is. We rode all the way up and all the way down, and it was wonderful.

All they need is Rice-a-roni!

That night while Uncle Wall-E and I went out on the town in search of used books Geoff and Kim taught Lauren how to play Uno. She nearly beat them. Next year we're taking her to Vegas.

On our final day in San Francisco, we got out of San Francisco and headed up to Muir Woods. On the one hand, the redwoods there are really impressive - tall, wide, stately, and surrounded by lesser trees as a queen is surrounded by all of the king's mistresses - and trying just as hard to choke them, too. On the other hand, they're trees, and after a while they start to blend together in your mind. The fox pelts and animal skulls that the ranger had out on display were cool, though. No matter what you learn in Disney movies, the forest is full of things that will eat your sorry butt - if not before you're dead, then certainly after. THAT never gets old.

Lauren in the depths of the trees with Uncle Wall-E

After we left the forest, we went to the beach.

Why is it that so many things in the San Francisco area involve precipices and high winds? It's not enough that towers and bridges make you feel that you are only moments away from free-fall - you also get this feeling with trolleys, light-houses, and - yes - beaches. It's astonishing how much of the San Francisco area is just one wide-opening fence away from reading about it in the papers.

We went to the beach in two stages. First, we drove to the nearest handy precipice (never more than 15 minutes by car from any point). We got out to inspect the abandoned WWII military gun emplacement overlooking the coast, and from there we wandered down the almost-Japanese-style walkway that followed the ridgeline and led to the overlook (irony being a specialty of ours). This was a wildly Romantic spot, full of sound and fury, wind and gravity. And fog. Lots of fog. But pretty, in a way. Then we got back into the car and drove down to the actual sandy beach, where we had a picnic lunch and the girls got to dip their tootsies in the Pacific Ocean. That they were willing - nay, eager - to do this was somewhat surprising, considering the stiff breeze and 60-degree temperatures, but they loved it.

The path overlooking the beach

One ocean down, one to go

After the beach, we went to the lighthouse on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge - you look east toward the bridge from there. It's awesomely cool, which is a good thing since you have to be a left-handed mountain goat to get there and part gecko to believe you won't fall off the cliff and into the surf. You park your car along the access road, which gets you about half a mile away. You go on down the path, which gradually turns into a narrow ledge with a cliff on one side and a hundred feet of nothing on the other before plunging into a rough-hewn tunnel. When you get out of the tunnel, you head toward the bridge to get to the actual lighthouse itself. Now this bridge can only hold two people at a time, and there are National Park Service Rangers stationed there to make sure that you follow this rule, and presumably to notify the Coast Guard to collect what is left of you if you don't. And then you're at the lighthouse. It's tiny, but the view is amazing. The fences have wide openings, and the winds are high, so you know you're in San Francisco. I kept a firm grip on Lauren at all times, and would have done so for Tabitha if I thought she'd let me. There was one two-year-old on the island with us who just ran around as two-year-olds do - I don't know what their parents felt, but I certainly aged noticeably just watching him. And then we reversed everything - tiny island (check!), narrow rickety bridge (check!), long rough tunnel (check!), ledge (check!), path (check!), restroom (oh, yes yes yes, check!), car (check!). It's a beautiful place, but not recommended for the faint of heart.

Hanging on for dear life at the lighthouse.

And then we left.

One of the odder side-effects of this trip is that now the girls just adore Bill Cosby's "Driving in San Francisco" routine, which is one of the ones that I memorized as a child from the one album of my parents' that survived my childhood. Uncle Keith gave it to me as a CD a few years ago, so now we listen in the car.

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