Tuesday, March 10, 2015

California, Part 1: San Francisco

California is easily my favorite state for road trips. It offers a bit of everything, including world-class cities, beautiful beaches, and a plethora of national parks. I've had friends and family living there my entire life, which has allowed me to explore the state on a variety of occasions. I'll be writing about my birthday trip to Joshua Tree and my many visits to Los Angeles, but I'll start in the captivating and complex city of San Francisco. It's going to be a long, bad-ass trip through California, so buckle up!

Haight-Ashbury and the Beginning of My Inaugural Cross-County Trip

My first visit was during a cross country trip in the summer of 2000. I flew into SFO, where my friend Cein picked me up in the Audi we'd be driving all the way to his new home in Vermont. Our first stop of the day was at a beach in the vicinity. I am not sure which beach it was. If anyone has a guess based on the photos, please let me know. 

The beach was lined with large rocky cliffs - very different than the flat sandy beaches I was used to back home in New England. The water seemed different too. I remember remarking that the foam that made its way to our toes looked like cappuccino foam. 

After a brief stay at the beach, it was off into the city, where we hoped to check out the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (sometimes referred to as SFMOMA, though that really doesn't roll off the tongue). It just so happened that the museum was closed that day. Ack! Our plans foiled, we headed over to Haight Street, a popular hangout for hippies in the 1960s and 70s anchored by the intersection of Haight and Ashbury. Hippie culture's influence was still very much in full swing in this area. Funky coffee shops, bars painted in flowery colors, wall murals, and anarchist bookstores line the streets, as do young, dirty people with dreadlocks and mangy dogs playing guitars and asking for change. This part of SF is as seedy as it is significant, but I was quite pleased to see the attitude of this famous counter-culture hangout still intact. It didn't seem unnatural, commercial or forced, it seemed like the area was successfully clinging to the past while still thriving.  

After some wandering, we got back in the car and headed to Cein's home in Truckee, where we would buy some supplies and plan our route. Truckee has its own kind of charm. It's a ski town that's close to Lake Tahoe. The hilly streets feature views of stunning snow-capped mountain peaks. We stayed the night at Cein's parents' house, where we planned our route and loaded up on supplies. The next morning, we were off. 

The view as we left Truckee
First stop was Donner Pass, which is just outside of Truckee. The Donner Party was trapped here for several months and eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive. Now everything around the area is named after them. Donner Pass, Donner Lake, even Donner Convenience Store. Despite the odd name, the place was beautiful, with great views at the peak. We took them in and got our last few whiffs of the California air before getting back in the Audi and heading east.  

A tunnel near Donner Pass. It was probably called Donner Tunnel.
The winding road around Donner Pass
For more on this journey:


North Beach, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Drive from LA to SF

My second trip to San Francisco was just six months later. My whole family flew to Los Angeles to visit my Uncle Steve for Hanukkah, and I ended up staying a few extra weeks to explore while I was on winter break. After much pleading, I finally convinced my Uncle Steve to take the drive from LA to San Francisco. We planned on leaving in the morning, but were delayed because it happened to be the day of George W. Bush's presidential inauguration. My uncle is a big George W. Bush fanboy, so we had to stay and watch the ceremony as I paced the apartment, anxious to get on the road. Steve cried a few tears as Bush was sworn in and I cried a few for having to wait. We hit the road once the ceremony ended.

The drive from LA to San Francisco is a classic. You can take the shortcut and get there in five hours, or you can take the more dramatic route - the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) which takes you up the coast and through Big Sur. Somehow I convinced Steve to take the dramatic route, a total win. We drove Steve's Saab down Santa Monica Blvd to the coast and then went north on PCH. After fighting through LA traffic, we got a good cruise going once we got a bit further north.

As we drove on, the elevation rose. Before we knew it, were were hugging jagged cliffs. The views were gorgeous, with huge California redwoods and dense forest to our right and the massive, sparking pacific ocean to our left. The route was sparsely populated, with only the occasional fruit stand, fish taco joint or gas station breaking the pristine views. We watched the sun set over the ocean while we debated whether a picturesque sunset was dependent on some level of cloud cover. It was a cloudless day so the sunset was pretty but not spectacular compared to the rest of the surroundings. It was also rather blinding for the driver. 

As darkness settled in, we realized we still had a long way to go, so we cut away from the shoreline and met up with the five, which took us the rest of the way to San Francisco.  

Our destination that night was the North Beach neighborhood, another counter-culture hot spot. This was a popular hangout for the beat poets in their day - including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, my heroes at the time. The most famous beat hangout that's still around is the City Lights bookstore, which is owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, another famous beat. He still makes occasional appearances at the bookstore, but we had no such luck on the night I visited. Still, City Lights was a real treat for this beat poet wannabe. The top floor houses entire collections by writers of the beat generation. I purchased a copy of Ginsburg's Howl, which I found appropriate because Ferlinghetti was arrested on obscenity charges for publishing the book, and the store famously refused to stop selling it despite the censorship. I also bought a zine put together by a local author. They were still a popular medium at the time, and City Lights proudly displayed them. It provided lots of amusement during the rest of the trip, as I poured over the strange, dark stories and tattoo-like art inside. With the shop about to close at that point, we left and wandered the street a bit, grabbing some fish tacos and checking out a coffee shop before calling it a night.  

When we arrived at the hotel that night, we got news that would alter our plans. I will skip the details, but the result was that we'd have to leave the next morning and cut the trip short. Despite the change of plans, we managed to squeeze in a bit more fun the next day, waking up early to grab breakfast at a greasy spoon diner and then trekking over to the Golden Gate Bridge. There's a sense of being somewhere special as you gaze upon this bridge. We were lucky that day, as there was only a subtle covering of clouds as we drove over the bridge and snapped photos. As I'd learn during later visits, the full view is blocked by clouds and fog more often than not.

We cruised across the bridge, turned around and cruised back over it again. I felt a sense of accomplishment then, knowing I'd experienced something so iconic. 

From there it was off to Santa Cruz, where we'd visit the Mystery Spot. I read about this place in my Road Trip USA book and had to check it out. Within the wooded grounds of this tourist attraction is some sort of odd magnetic force that makes gravity work in strange ways so that you can't really stand up straight and balls roll up hill. 

The tour of the Mystery Spot brings you over wooden bridges to different crooked tree house-like structures. At each part of the tour, the guide would demonstrate a different gravitational oddity, usually involving standing in certain spots and having your center of gravity shift so much that the only way to feel upright is to lean very far forward. It's easy to surmise that the strong angles of the tree houses lead to the illusion of odd gravitational forces instead of believing you're experiencing some sort of exceptional phenomenon. However, Stanford mathematicians have tried to prove this notion and failed. Personally, I think it's more fun to believe that this area really does feature gravitational exceptions. I've since learned about other areas of the world making the same claim, and when I combine those with the fact that I've now witnessed it myself, it makes it easier to buy into the concept that this area offers some sort of exception to physics.  

I definitely felt like I was standing up straight. Check out my feet.  
After defying gravity, it was back in the Saab for our trek back to LA. On the way out of town, we noticed several people pulling off the beachside highway. Curious, we investigated and found a beach lined with seals. It was birthing season, and hundreds of seals had made their way to this beach to give birth and nurture their young. These were huge beasts and the beach was covered with them. They were stacked on top of each other in some places. There were some adorable baby seals in view, as well as some aggressive, fat seals that were fighting for territory. They didn't look threatening to us humans, but signs around them informed us that they were actually quite dangerous so we should keep our distance. We marveled at these huge beasts for a while and laughed as they flopped around, grunted and barked. 

After several photos, we re-boarded the Saab and continued on. We managed one more interesting stop on the way as we grabbed dinner in Castroville, the Artichoke Center of the World. This amused me to no end.   

AT&T Park and an Impromptu California Road Trip

My best friend Jon and his wife Katie moved to San Francisco in 2012. This was great because not only was it a great opportunity for him, it would also give me an excuse to visit San Francisco again. Mrs. Tires and I took advantage of this over Memorial Day weekend in 2013. We flew Virgin Airlines to get there, the second time we had used this airline. My first time on this new-age plane was mediocre, but trip number two made up for it. I was in heaven as I enjoyed a baseball game, sipped a beer and watched the sun set out the window. I decided then to take back everything bad I'd ever said about the airline.

The next day, we were off to visit a few of Mrs. Tires' old haunts from when she attended San Francisco State, including the campus, her old apartment, and the sight of her first job. Some crafty maneuvering around campus during commencement allowed us to jump out and take this shot at the theater where she used to perform.  

After concluding the episode of This is Your Life, we headed over to Dolores Park, where we set up a blanket and snacked as we observed the swarth of hippie kids in the park and enjoyed the sweet, smokey odors that swirled around there. The weather that day was quintessential San Francisco - sunny, but windy and a bit chilly. Warm enough to be outside, but too cool to shed layers for very long. We took our jackets on and off about twenty times as we sat.  

The next day was my favorite of the trip. We were going stadium chasing, and this time we wouldn't be visiting just any ballpark. It was my first trip to AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. This park is often referred to as the best ballpark in all of baseball, and I intended to put this claim to the test. I had a thorough exploration planned, so we got an early start. Our first stop was at Momo's, a bar and restaurant across the street from the stadium. Mrs. Tires relived memories of going there as a college student while I enjoyed the hell out of their buffalo chicken sandwich. I consider myself a bit of a buffalo chicken connoisseur, and I must say that this was among the best I had ever tasted.  

After filling up, we walked a lap around the stadium. I like to do this when I go stadium chasing, but results are varied. AT&T Park's outside stroll was the best I had experienced. It was clear they made a serious effort to make the area around the park pedestrian friendly and accessible to ticket holders and passers-by alike. The entrances featured their own unique blend of retro signage, player statues and huge palm trees.

Giants fans for a day
Our stroll around the stadium also brought us along the waterfront, where we encountered a climbable statue of Lou Seal, the Giants' old mascot.

We also enjoyed the crash course in Giants history provided by several golden placards in the sidewalk.

Further down the way, we came to an opening in the fence where the public is invited to see through the outfield wall and right into the stadium. One could watch the entire game from here without a ticket. The view wasn't great, but the concept of letting people look on for free was delightful and novel, a testament to the achievement that AT&T Park really is. 

We also visited the wharf where boats and kayaks sit outside the right field wall and wait for home run balls that clear the park and land in the water.  

Eventually we made our way into the stadium and found our seats. They were behind home plate but very high up in the upper deck. This is my favorite vantage point for stadium chasing, as you can see the whole place and you get a bird's eye view of the action. 

Little did I know that our seats would be in the very last row. We snapped some photos and took in the Memorial Day ceremony that went on before the game, then settled in to our seats. Immediately we realized the magnitude of the wind up there. It was really whipping, and it was counteracting any warming effect from the sun. I remarked that I'd love to go to a night game sometime and see the stadium lit up, but Jon told me it's usually too darn cold and windy at night to enjoy the game. 

We didn't wait long before we left our seats to take a lap around the stadium. This turned out to be the most feature-rich and enjoyable lap around a stadium I have ever gone on. The first stop was the Ghirardelli trolly in right field. There is no truth to the rumor that it displays a sign reading "No Dodgers Fans Allowed." 

Next, we wandered to center field, which featured a food court and an open bar. This is where I tried the Crazy Crab sandwich, a staple of the park. It was tasty, but the bread was greasy and it was one of the few things in the place that didn't live up to the hype. We were equally disappointed with their signature garlic fries, which were limp and cold. 

After that we wandered to left field, where we got an up close view of the giant baseball glove statue and the giant coke bottle, the latter of which is actually a slide for children. 

The Coke bottle and baseball mitt from afar
Up close and personal with the glove
Overall I was very impressed with AT&T Park. It offers so many fun features, they're all very contextual to the area and the team, and they're not distracting. The fans are loyal and knowledgable (three World Series championships in five years will do that) and there are many food options. If anyone wants to make a case for this being the best park in baseball, you won't get an argument from me.

More Stadium Chasing:

Kauffman Stadium
Great American Ball Park
Progressive Field
Camden Yards
Fenway Park
Busch Stadium
Dodger Stadium
Angel Stadium

On our third day of the trip, we set out for some hiking. All geared up and ready to go, we hit the road, and as soon as we got going, we encountered another San Francisco staple - dense fog and rain. Our dim hopes for hiking faded even more as we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and couldn't even see most of it. We changed up our plans based on weather and instead headed out to a seaside town called Tomales Bay. The drive there was amazing, as we passed forests full of California redwoods. They were skinny and extremely tall, and we were encapsulated by them as we cruised up the road. 

Eventually we got to the Tomales Bay Oyster Company. This seaside shack is special because it sells oysters that are fresh out of the bay. They're sold by the bag full, and schucking knives and gloves are available for purchase. We schucked, rinsed and slurped our oysters right there by the water. They were meaty and delicious. The schucking was no easy task, but we got the hang of it. Many people had taken up residence at the surrounding picnic tables, where they set up coolers and grills and seemed intent on staying. It looked like a sterling way to spend a day. Overall I'd say we had a schucking good time at Tomales Bay.  

Full of oysters, we belted "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" by Meatloaf at the top of our lungs as we made our way to our next stop: the Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma. We have been to several breweries, but this one turned out to be one of my favorites of all time.

Most brewery tours start with a long trek through barrels and packaging lines and then end at a tasting room, but this one was the opposite. We started by visiting the upstairs bar, which was kitschy and featured mismatched chairs and couches, novelty signs and decorations, leg lamps, stuffed animals and many more random and delightful novelties. The beer samples came fast and furious, and we each enjoyed sips from several different brews while a hilarious tour guide told us many stories about the brewery's history, which included inventive water filtration systems, complex sting operations and stories about getting censored by the government. 

Fully sampled out, we were then lead through the standard barrel and packaging tour, which was fine but didn't live up to our time in the lounge. Still, the visit to this brewery was memorable and delicious. We were all hopped up.  

We cruised back to the city after that and had dinner at Domo, a divine, tiny little sushi joint. Their salmon belly sushi was one of the best pieces of sushi I've ever tasted. I'm convinced there's not a bad meal to be had in San Francisco.  

We said our goodbyes the next day and headed back to Chicago. We did make one final stop on the journey - a jaunt into American Airlines' Admirals Club. We cashed in a Klout perk for the privilege and had a blast feasting off the free spread and enjoying bloody marys. The lounge was a unique and fun experience, and while I don't think I'd ever pay for the privilege, I was glad to get a taste of the good life for free.  

For more on this journey, see #baydays2013 on twitter.

Pier 39 and Golden Gate Park

I made one more stop in San Francisco just after Thanksgiving in 2013. After spending the holiday in nearby Brentwood, my entire family went into the city, where we had dinner and explored Pier 39. This place is very touristy and not particularly exciting, though there were two exceptions to my official rating of 'meh.' The first is this freaky giant puppet street performer.

The second exception is the giant heap of seals that live on a series of connected floating docks in the back of the pier. I mean it when I say there was a heap of them - they're literally piled on top of each other on these docks. While most of the seals are totally cool with this, some feel the need to claim more advantageous territory, which they do by knocking other seals off their perch. This leads to frequent seal fights, where they bark and push while attempting to force each other into the water. I could have watched this for hours. It was the highlight of the day's activities for sure.

At the conclusion of the visit, we put my grandma in a bike rickshaw, took the long walk back to our cars, and said goodbye to the family.

Bye, Grandma!
With a night and a day left in San Francisco, Mrs. Tires and I met up with Jon and Katie, who brought us along to a friends-giving celebration hosted by some new pals of theirs. This is where I met Jon's friends Matt and Doreen, lovely, inviting and down-to-earth people who were veterans of the San Francisco tech scene and were definitely the kind of people we would hang out with. Later in the night I had a nerdy tech conversation with people who work at Facebook, Twitter and Klout, which made me feel like an honorary member of Silicon Valley.

The next day was one of my favorite days in all my travels to San Fran. The weather was gorgeous - almost 70 degrees (somehow San Francisco sports higher temperatures in late November than they do in late May), which afforded us a full day outside. We rented bikes and explored Golden Gate Park. 

This park is home to many sites, including an art museum, a science museum and many public gardens. On the day we visited, the main road going through Golden Gate Park was closed to cars, meaning we were free to bike in the middle of the street. We started at the highest elevation and made our way down the hill. Along the way we stopped at many attractions, including a rose garden, a lake that hosted remote control boats, an outdoor art installation, an outdoor group swing dance arena, and a pen that houses the famous buffalo of San Francisco. 

We made it to the end of the park, where we encountered a famous San Francisco windmill.

We stopped at a restaurant for some beers and some snacks before heading back. The beer was delicious, and it kept us nice and loose as we prepared for the return trip.

Up until that point we had coasted down hill all day, and now we had to petal like crazy to make our way back up to the top. This proved difficult for us Chicagoans as we're used to flat terrain, but was made easier by a stop at the Japanese garden and tea room, where we sipped hot jasmine tea and enjoyed the surrounding bonsai trees, buddha statues and koi ponds.

Eventually we made it back to the top of the hill, where were returned our bikes and settled in for the night.  

I straight up love visiting San Francisco. The food is out of this world, the people are interesting, and no matter how many times I visit, there's never a lack of things to do. Whether I'd ever live there is a different story (and a short one: no), but as it is, it's a great city and I highly recommend that everyone visit at some point in their life.

More on California:

California, Part 2: Joshua Tree National Park
California, Part 3: Los Angeles


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