West Coast Wander, Day 6: San Francisco, California

The day I hit a wall.

We had a two-week vacation, and decided that it would be fun to drive down the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California and then drop off our rental car and take a train back home. I’m calling this journey the West Coast Wander, and plan to blog about it every other day so as not to totally alienate those who have no interest in travel, and yet allow those who do to travel vicariously with us. Here’s the first in the series, if you want to start at the beginning.  I hope you enjoy it, dear reader.

There comes a point in every long-ish vacation when I sort of hit a wall. I get tired and cranky and frustrated and homesick. It’s usually triggered by the fact that nothing is going according to plan. Today was that day. My notes on what we did today are full of expletives that I don’t feel the need to share.

We actually did do a lot of fun things, despite my foul mood, but I’m not going to whitewash the day, because I think it’s fair for people who don’t travel as much as I do to understand exactly what it can be like, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Travel can be exciting and invigorating and fun, but it can also sometimes be stressful and disappointing. So, fasten your seatbelts.

We woke up this morning to discover that due to COVID, our high-end hotel was no longer serving continental breakfast. And the restaurant across the street had a line stretching down the block. Oh, joy. So we set off to explore San Francisco on an empty stomach. (I should never, ever, ever do anything on an empty stomach.)

We planned to catch one of those iconic trolleys and find something to eat, but eventually found out that, due to the pandemic, no trolleys were running. So I wouldn’t even get to see the trolleys, let alone ride on one. That was a disappointment, given this was my first San Francisco visit.

Well, now what? Even though we already knew that the ferry to Alcatraz was booked solid through early August, we decided to go see if we could get standby tickets. Maybe they’d have cancellations. And sure enough, they sell them, without a guarantee of passage, but with a full refund if you don’t get on. Worth a shot.

We purchased our tickets and wandered around the dock, looking at the extremely cool Alcatraz diorama and the other informational displays, along with some amazing California succulents that were as big as my head. It was a great way to kill time while waiting for the ferry to show up. And then waiting for all the passengers to board. It turns out they had room for 6 additional passengers, and we were tickets number 10 and 11.

Rather than get our refund just yet, we decided to try our luck with the next ferry. We’d now be 4th and 5th on standby. But that was an hour out, and by now we were really hungry, so we decided to run down the street and grab something to eat.

But every restaurant in the area was shut up tight. We had to walk all the way down to the IHOP, which was quite a hike, and my feet and back were already killing me. I felt like kicking puppies (not that I actually ever would, no matter how out of sorts I became, but such was my mood).

We ordered a rather unpleasant take out breakfast sandwich and practically ran back to the ferry as we ate it, which made me feel slightly queasy. I already knew we weren’t going to make it, and the running was stressing me out. Dear husband even paid a cycle rickshaw to haul me the last 2 blocks. But yeah, we missed the ferry.

The ticket taker told me that if we had been there, we’d have gotten on. I wanted to cry. You have to understand, I’ve wanted to see Alcatraz ever since seeing Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz when I was very young. And getting out to see the city from the water would have been fun, too. Can you imagine the photos I would have taken?

The clerk did say that we’d be first on standby for the next ferry, but we already had parking reservations for Muir Woods, and my husband really wanted to see more trees, so we got a refund. We really did give it a try, and it’s his trip, too, so I tried to swallow my disappointment. It was quite filling. It stuffed me.

But we had a little time to kill before heading out for the parking reservation, so we went to check out the very cool wave organ. Here’s a Youtube video of what it should sound like. But naturally, we came on a day with very little wave action, so we didn’t hear much of anything. A long, long walk out to the jetty for pretty much nothing. But the organ itself was interesting and the view was amazing. We did get to watch the fog roll in on the Golden Gate Bridge, and a sailboat regatta, so there’s that.

To add to this stellar day, it was windy and freezing cold. It reminded me of that quote attributed to Mark Twain: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

I could certainly relate to that. I was fearing hypothermia and getting a migraine. But, as befits a day of disappointments, according to Snopes, Mark Twain never said any such thing. So there’s another myth busted. You’re welcome.

Off we went to the woods, passing first through Robin Williams tunnel, which is decorated with the same rainbow he used to wear in the form of suspenders when he played Mork. I miss him. He should still be with us. What a tragic waste that never fails to upset me when I contemplate it. Onward.

I have to admit that Muir Woods was absolutely gorgeous. I highly recommend it. But given my mood, I don’t think I gave it a full chance. It was extremely crowded, and the raised pathways, while comfortable to walk on, took away from the natural feeling. I felt as though it was a cross between the most gorgeous forest in the world and Disneyland. And since we had seen so many more natural and beautiful forests in recent days, I was kind of unappreciative, although I really did try to keep it to myself.

We had a nice picnic amongst the redwoods, and then one of the staff told us we couldn’t do that even though we were not leaving garbage behind, because we’d attract chipmunks. We apologized, but the deed was already done. I was thinking I would love to see chipmunks. We visited the really nice gift shop, but all I could think was, “I wonder what Muir would think of this place, selling things made out of bits of his beloved trees.”

Oh, come on. It’s a legitimate question, even if it was inspired by my grumpy brain.

We also saw a very cool sculpture of the wingspans of various birds. Fascinating.

After having “done” the woods, and having had a nice, albeit rebellious lunch, we decided to head on back into the city, enjoying the views as we went, and then drive around the Presidio. We enjoyed the gorgeous vistas from Inspiration Point, and drove around to look at Fort Winfield Scott and the National Cemetery.

Lots of fascinating history in the Presidio. We did not get to go to the welcome center, however. Guess why?  $#@%$ this pandemic, anyhow.

I had also wanted to see the house from the movie Pacific Heights, but after a certain point you just want to pack it in, you know? Whew, but I was clearly tired. We decided to go back to the hotel and chill out for a bit, and I got a good nap in while dear husband worked. The nap did wonders for my attitude, and the meds knocked back my migraine.

That night we went out to have Crab Louie and calamari at Betty Lou’s Seafood and Grill, in the quirky neighborhood of North Beach with its many gorgeous murals and buildings. Many of the restaurants in the area had tables outside in spite of the bracing wind. The food was excellent and the vibe was good, despite the fact that for some odd reason this restaurant does not serve coffee. All in all, though, it was a great way to end the day.

I’m not going to lie. I was happy to go to bed that night, and even happier to close my eyes on the disappointments of this day. I hope we get to come back to San Francisco again in healthier and more fortuitous times.

The seventh day was much better. Check it out here.

Now is the perfect time to stay at home and read a good book. Try mine! I promise it isn’t as complain-y as this post was. http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

West Coast Wander, Day 5: Bodega Bay to San Francisco, California

I can’t believe this is my life!

We had a two-week vacation, and decided that it would be fun to drive down the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California and then drop off our rental car and take a train back home. I’m calling this journey the West Coast Wander, and plan to blog about it every other day so as not to totally alienate those who have no interest in travel, and yet allow those who do to travel vicariously with us. Here’s the first in the series, if you want to start at the beginning.  I hope you enjoy it, dear reader.

I woke up rather sleep deprived because of the noisy mini-fridge in our little cabin, but nevertheless I was excited, because that night we would be in San Francisco, a place I have wanted to visit all my life. Open your golden gates, baby, here I come!

But first things first. We arrived so late in Bodega Bay that we had yet to explore. After making breakfast, we said good-bye to our little blue cabin with its life-saving hot tub. we drove around. I was looking forward to seeing where Hitchcock’s The Birds was filmed.

The exploration didn’t take long. Bodega Bay is a tiny little town. We had no trouble at all finding the church that had been in the movie, along with some other Bird-themed places, like the Bird Café. That’s Bodega Bay in a nutshell.

Our next stop would be Bolinas, California, but on our way there we stumbled upon a pretty little church with stained glass windows that reminded me a lot of the plastic church with a lightbulb attachment that we used to put beneath our Christmas Tree. I wonder what became of it?

And then, in the tiny town of Tomales, we saw a little building with “Not A Bank” written on the front. That kind of made me laugh because it had clearly been a bank at one point. It has that iconic, Western, “please rob me” look about it. All the windows were curtained off, and there was not much indication of what it currently is. There was a car out front. I’d have dearly loved to knock and ask, but based on the signage, I’m guessing they have been bugged enough.

This is definitely farm country. And we saw a lot of sheep, along with our daily deer. It is a quiet, mellow stretch of coastal California, and it was a pleasure to ride through.

There was an abrupt transition to Bolinas, which is an artsy, hippie, touristy town. I was gratified to see many Black Lives Matter banners there. I also saw a sign that said, “May this virus be our teacher,” and to that I say a hearty amen. I bought a really cool handmade facemask covered in California Poppies, and some handmade postcards. Their gas was a lot more expensive than usual, but that was because they were raising funds for the homeless. I also saw a sign in front of a restaurant that said if you need a free meal, knock on the side door. California Partridges were wandering about. I liked this place. I wouldn’t mind living there if I could afford it.

Bolinas was an unexpected bonus, because we had really only originally stopped there to get directions to nearby Duxbury Reef, which has the reputation of being the best tidepool area on this stretch of the coast. We got those directions from a really friendly store clerk, and set off for our next adventure.

And naturally we got lost again. And that was greatly exacerbated by the fact that the clerk had said, “You’ll start feeling like you’ve gone the wrong way, but then you’ll crest a hill and there it will be.” That kept us on the wrong road for a lot longer than we would have otherwise. But it’s pretty country, so it was just part of the journey. Of course, time had been an ever-present factor on this trip, so in that way it was mildly irritating.

But Duxbury Reef was worth the effort. It’s got really amazing rock formations, and an abundance of snails and barnacles and seaweed. I was hoping to see starfish, but wasn’t surprised that I didn’t, because Starfish Wasting Disease has pretty much devastated the population.

The wind was howling and bitter cold, and that seemed pretty appropriate because the first signs we saw were ones indicating that there was a dead whale on the beach, and that we were not to approach it or touch it. But clearly someone had ignored the signs, because the only thing left of the poor creature was a cleanly chopped off pectoral fin. (I’ll spare you the photo.) No bones, no nothing. It felt like a tragedy that had been taken advantage of. It was a sad reminder of how harsh the world can be.

As we left the area, we went through marsh lands. And then we saw seals or sea lions sleeping on a sandy stretch of Bolinas Bay. We were so far out in the middle of nowhere that the mailman makes people consolidate their mailboxes at the only intersection.

We took a steep, winding road up to Mt. Tamalpais, where I got my first glimpses of San Francisco. From there, we had hoped to visit Muir Woods to continue our love affair with the redwoods, but it was not to be. It’s so crowded these days that you have to make reservations for parking, and we had none. We decided that instead we’d head into the city, do some of that today, and reserve parking at the woods for tomorrow. Sometimes on a road trip you have to be flexible.

When we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge I was so excited! All I could say was, “Oh my god, oh my god, omigod, omigod…” I was in San Francisco! Little ol’ me.

Sometimes I can’t believe this is my life. After all its hardships and struggles, I took a chance and made a change and it made such a huge difference in my trajectory. I could have never afforded to visit San Francisco before moving to Seattle and getting this great job. I certainly couldn’t be checking into the Hyatt Centric Fisherman’s Wharf for two nights when I was struggling to survive in Florida.

I was thinking about that as we stood in the lobby waiting to check in. So when I looked over and saw a sculpture on the wall, made of butterflies in the form of a peace sign, with a quote from Picasso that said, “Everything you can imagine is real,” I had to wipe a tear or two from my eyes. Tears of joy. I love my current reality, despite having a healthy dose of imposter syndrome.

So here we were, against all odds, in San Francisco, earlier than expected. What to do.

Alcatraz, perhaps? No way. You also need reservations for that, and it was booked through August 5th. I was crushed. I really wanted to see Alcatraz above all else. Really. Instead, we went to Fisherman’s Wharf and ate at the Franciscan. What you’re paying for at that place is a great view and superbly presented, but really, really disappointing food. I’d say give it a pass. It’s definitely not worth the expensive prices. Lesson learned.

From there we walked to Pier 39 with its many topiaries and fascinating tourist shops. But the main attraction, for me, anyway, are the “sea-lebrities”. The sea lions were great fun to watch. Most of them were just trying to sleep in peace, but then another sea lion would come along and attempt to jump up on their crowded floating dock, much to the sleepers’ consternation. Much barking and shuffling would ensue. And then everyone would settle down and sleep, until the next sea lion came along. And so on.

After that we went back to the room so dear husband could do a little work. That bothered me not at all, because I took it as an opportunity to nap after last night’s fitful sleep. We decided we would explore the city some more after dark.

That turned out to be one of the best trip adaptations we would make on this journey, because San Francisco, after dark, is gorgeous, and the traffic is amazingly light. It was actually rather peaceful.

The first thing we did was cruise on over to Lombard Street. We zigzagged down that iconic street a couple of times, because we could. We had the entire place to ourselves. Here’s a video I took of one of our descents. Such fun!

Next, we went to see the painted ladies, that row of Victorian houses with the city in the background that we’ve all seen in about a million movies. As I’ve said, I do love Victorians, and I had been seeing these all my life. It was really exciting, standing in the dark field in front of them, and gazing at the city lights behind. That’s quintessential San Francisco to me.

And where do you go after that? Haight-Ashbury, of course. What boomer hasn’t dreamed of going to Haight-Ashbury? And since we really aren’t into stuff and didn’t feel the need to shop, going there at night was the perfect solution. Not a single tourist in sight, and we still got to window shop and enjoy the cool signs and artwork.

I’ve been to Haight-Ashbury. Wow. Just… wow.

Our last adventure of the night was tracking down a huge dachshund statue that was purported to be right across from the zoo. My dachshund would never forgive me if I skipped that.

Again, we got lost. But that was a cool way to explore San Francisco. Eventually we found it, though. The Doggie Diner head is a remnant from a local fast food chain that existed between 1948 and 1986. When they tore down the restaurants, they left the doggie heads behind. This one was refurbished and installed in its current location, and it has been there ever since.

It’s not lit up at night. It doesn’t rotate like it used to do, so it would be easy to pass right by if you weren’t specifically looking for it. But we still managed to find it. And fortunately, dear husband packs for all contingencies, and had a huge flashlight (more like a mini spotlight) in the car. So we pulled to the side of the road, parked illegally, and he trained the spotlight on Doggie. I got several pictures. I’m surprised we weren’t questioned by the cops. I was giggling the whole time.

Our obligations to our dachshund having been met, we went back to the hotel and settled in for a good night’s sleep. I had trouble falling asleep at first because I was looking forward to our San Francisco day tomorrow, and enjoying the prospect of staying at a hotel for two nights in a row for a pleasant change. The last thing I remember thinking was, “I can’t believe this is my life…”

Here’s where you can find Day 6.

The best way to travel vicariously is through books. Try mine! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Misconceptions about California

It’s a weird feeling to discover your views have been warped all along.

In all my 56 years, I’ve spent a total of 15 days in California, so saying I’m no expert about that state is putting it mildly. But I didn’t realize just how many silly misconceptions I had about it until driving nearly its entire length this time around. And the only source of these ideas has come from TV and movies. I’m sure I replaced a lot of those old misconceptions about it with some brand new ones, but I hope they’re slightly less idiotic.

First of all, the entire state is NOT full of 10 lane highways with bumper to bumper traffic. There are actually stop signs and stop lights and everything. And there are vast swaths of rural areas. It’s not all urban sprawl. Imagine.

And here’s a big shocker: Not everyone is beautiful and thin and young. Not everyone surfs, and those that do wear wet suits, not bikinis or swim trunks. And I’ll hazard a guess that more than half the beaches are NOT wide and sandy and easy to access. And I didn’t knowingly see a single movie star. Not one.

And guess what? Californians are human like the rest of us. They require grocery stores and pharmacies and mechanics and hardware stores and gas stations. The California in my mind was devoid of all of these things. It makes me laugh to think of it now.

I thought that in San Francisco I’d see trolleys everywhere. I don’t know what it was like pre-pandemic, but they’re not running right now, so mine was a trolley-less experience. And I seemed to be wearing the only colorful face mask in that city, which made me despair, but in other places I saw some colorful ones, so I guess I didn’t have to fear the face mask police after all.

I will say that one belief I had about the area is painfully true. It’s freakin’ expensive. Gas is expensive, food is expensive, the sales tax will make you blink in astonishment, and we saw thousands of houses that were anywhere from a million to 9 million dollars, so I don’t know how anyone but the ultra-rich can afford to live there. We saw one hovel of a house that was only 800 square feet, in a rather scary neighborhood, going for 2 million dollars because it was in a beach town and only a few blocks from the water.

I did feel a tension between the rich and the poor that was more extreme than I’ve felt elsewhere. It’s got to be hard to be a poor person who has to scrub the toilet in a waterfront mansion. It must stink to have to mow the lawn for some rich jerk who should be xeriscaping due to the drought. There were a lot of tent cities in the more populated areas, just as we have around Seattle. At least those people aren’t having to cope with the rain, but it’s still tragic and heartbreaking and wrong.

The number of rich people flitting about is also wrong. While dining at restaurants, I heard several ultra-privileged conversations that would make the average person gasp. One was about how eating the types of healthy, organic, expensive foods (that most poor people can only dream of) is actually “a gift from your higher self.” Another was about having to fire someone because she couldn’t grasp the proper way to fold her son’s sportswear, and how that was “simply beyond the pale.” I wanted to barf in her endive.

Rich people, in general, seem pretty clueless, but it’s even harder to take when they are so dependent upon poor people who can barely survive in that economy. I kept thinking, “Let them eat cake.” Lest we forget, that perfect farm-to-table salad is the result of a lot of backbreaking toil in the hot sun for someone else.

The Los Angeles area stressed me out completely. There were a lot of amazing things to see, but traffic there was a total nightmare. I’m glad my husband did all the driving, but I still felt the need to sit in the car with my eyes closed on the freeways so as not to become a nervous wreck.

The area is so crowded that I felt this constant buzzing tension and a low-grade claustrophobia. It’s one of those places that I’m glad I visited, but would never want to live in. It’s also very dry and very brown. Northern California is a lot more lush and green.

But California flora is pretty amazing, I have to admit. Redwoods, of course. I’ll be writing a great deal more about them. And kelp in the ocean. And Pride of Madeira plants in the north, and Jacaranda trees and succulents the size of your head and Bougainvillias in the south. And everywhere, the California Poppies that I adore.

So, yeah, I’m guessing that most of us who haven’t been to California have a warped view of the place without even realizing it. Give it a visit. It might surprise you. It frequently shocked the hell out of me, but mostly in the best of ways.

The Jacaranda Tree. I sure wish they thrived in colder climates!

The ultimate form of recycling: Buy my book, read it, and then donate it to your local public library or your neighborhood little free library! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Sympathy vs. Empathy

The other day I witnessed something awful. I was working on the Fremont Bridge here in Seattle. It’s 30 feet off the water. Right next to it is the Aurora Bridge, which is 170 feet off the water. Before they put up the higher railing on the Aurora Bridge, the only bridge in the world more known for suicides was the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Fortunately the higher railing has reduced our statistics dramatically, but some people are extremely determined.

It had been a really good day at work. The end of my shift was fast approaching and I was looking forward to going home. Then I heard the sirens. I looked up, and there, standing on the thin, fragile railing, 170 feet above the canal, was a teenaged boy. He stood there, motionless, as the fire engines and police cars gathered around him. They didn’t get too close. Several officers were trying to talk to him, but he wasn’t acknowledging anyone, as far as I could tell. He just stood there, on the brink of death, gazing off to the horizon.

And I felt like a bug pinned to a display board. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look away. All I could do is quietly say, “Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, oh God, please don’t do it.” My heart was pounding. I felt sick. I have never felt so helpless in my entire life.

I’ve been a bridgetender since 2001. This isn’t my first rodeo. But in the past I’ve only experienced the aftermath. I’ve either heard them hit (which is a sound you’ll never forget), or I’ve heard the fire engine race up and them coax the guy down. This time I had a front row seat for the most pivotal moment in someone’s life, and I couldn’t do anything to help.

Then a woman came running up the sidewalk, her arms outstretched. An officer stopped her just short of the boy. He still didn’t move. He stood there for 30 minutes. It felt like an eternity.

Then, thankfully, he decided to climb down. But to do this he had to make a 180 degree turn on that railing and squat down. That was the scariest part for me. I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it suck if he changed his mind and now he accidentally fell?”

Eventually he got down and they were able to get him in the ambulance. They drove away and reopened the bridge to traffic and everything went back to normal. Sort of. But meanwhile I was nauseous from the adrenaline dump. I went home to an empty house and had no one to talk to about it. Oddly I was ravenously hungry, but was so sick I couldn’t eat until the next day, after having had several nightmares.

Post Traumatic Stress. That’s a problem. Because it won’t be the last jumper I witness when I work on this bridge. All my coworkers have seen several. And they say it’s worse when they actually jump, especially when they hit the ground or a building instead of the water. Clearly, I’m going to need some coping skills if I’m going to deal with this on a regular basis.

So I decided to take advantage of my Employee Assistance Program and see a counselor. I had my first appointment yesterday. We talked about suicide and what it means to me personally and what it means in general, and she gave me several things to think about.

She said that some people are in so much emotional pain and feel so out of control that they take the control of the one thing that everyone can potentially control—their death. It’s an awful choice to make, but some people may think it’s the only one they have. Others are under the influence of drugs and are making irrational choices in general and this is just another one of those irrational choices. She also said it was normal for me to feel sympathy for this person’s pain and confusion. That’s a very human reaction.

Then we discussed the difference between sympathy and empathy, because that’s what I clearly have to work on. Here are the definitions:

Sympathy [sim-puh-thee]

noun, plural sympathies.

  1. harmonyoforagreementinfeeling,asbetweenpersonsoronthepartofonepersonwithrespecttoanother.

Empathy [em-puh-thee]

noun

  1. The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

I have always taken pride in the fact that I’m a fairly empathetic individual. I can put myself into other people’s emotional shoes and act toward them accordingly. This is a skill that not everyone possesses. I get frustrated by insensitive, oblivious people. But it never occurred to me that sometimes empathy is not the best thing to have.

Because, you see, I took that young man’s emotional pain into my body. I mean, I really felt it. And because of that I had to deal with it in the aftermath, kind of like having to expel poison. Not good.

So my homework, probably for the rest of my life, is to learn to not take people’s pain on board. It’s okay to feel sympathy, pity, sadness for that person and what they are going through, but I really need to not take it into my soul. It isn’t mine. It doesn’t belong to me, and I don’t have to take ownership of it. What a concept.

Wish me luck.

IMG_0329

Sunrise, a boat race, and my view of the Aurora Bridge from work.