The ferry pulled out of the dock and we were on our way to San Francisco, one of my favorite cities on Earth and our last stop after 14 months on the road. As we entered the widest part of the bay, we could finally see the Bay Bridge stretching out like a door to welcome us. Passing under it, it was only a moment later that we were pulling in, getting a wide panorama of the skyline before we docked at the Ferry Building. We eyeballed the farmer’s market out front, but we definitely needed a substantial meal to prepare us for a day’s exploring while carrying our heavy packs. Avoiding the hills, we headed straight to Chinatown, where we spotted a veg*n place with a huge menu. With tea, piles of food, and plenty of China nostalgia, we felt satiated and ready to really explore.
Cutting through the backside of Chinatown, we made our way up the thigh-busting hills toward the most famous street in the city. Standing at the base of Lombard Street, we stared up at the cars and pedestrians weaving their way down. I was happy just remembering driving down it, though…last time I was here, I drove down it in an older Buick! Thankfully, we started to go downhill, passing all the fabulous Victorian house fronts on our way towards Pier 39. Knowing my husband’s love of animals, I kept it a secret until we arrived that this is the bastion of the sea lions that moved here after the big earthquake in 1989. We spent a long time watching the antics of the pinnipeds as they dove, swam, barked, and slid all over each other.
As the afternoon wore on, we made our slow way back towards the BART lines. On our way, I insisted that we had to make a pilgrimage to City Lights Bookstore, the hangout of the Beats back in the 1950s and 60s. There’s something magical about these bookstores that have witnessed history and great writers over the years. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still one of the owners and there were signed books of his poetry on sale at the front desk. That was the most sorely my resolve to not buy a book for this trip was tested…even with a couple days left, a goal is a goal. So I compensated by going up to the Poetry Room and pawing through many of their special collection offerings. By the time we dragged ourselves out, it was time to catch the train to Oakland and meet up with Tausha, my sister’s best friend since forever, who lives on the island suburb of Alameda.
The next morning, we discovered we could walk from their house about 20 minutes down to the ferry dock and catch the boat straight into the city. From the BART station right in front of the Ferry Building, we rode the train down to the Mission District, where it kind of felt like a return to Central America for a moment. It was a short walk from there to get over to the Castro. We happened to be there the morning after the closing arguments for gay marriage at the Supreme Court and there was a spirit of positivity and joy palpable in the air. Coffee and then lunch were in order as we explored the area before heading uphill toward Haight-Ashbury and onto Golden Gate Park (not to be confused with the bridge). We crossed the park on foot, passing the Conservatory, the Memorial Garden, and the Boat Pond before finding a bus that would carry us onwards to the bridge that shares its famous name with this park.
What is there to say for the Golden Gate Bridge that others have not said more poetically? It is beautiful, stretching out over the bay with its stunning color. As we walked out onto it, we looked down to the surfers who were catching waves right in its shadow. Memories assailed me here…driving across it ten years ago to celebrate my university graduation on the other side of the country…walking right here with my sister to celebrate my tenth birthday…seeing it as two tiny dots from the Berkeley Hills as my sister and I watched a sunset during that same trip 21 and a half years ago. For never having lived there, this city has many of my heaviest and most influential childhood memories, perhaps because my sister grew up in the area. It was always nearly mythological in my mind, full of stories and freedom and promise. With my mind on that, we finally headed home for that day.
On our last full day, we started out by taking BART out to Berkeley, where we made a short walk around the downtown area and strolled the green avenues of the campus before returning to the train to finish our morning and afternoon revisiting our favorite spots, starting with Pier 39 and the sea lions. One can never have too many sea lions. We explored a bit more down by Fisherman’s Wharf, dodging the tourists and vendors. There was one typical Cali thing that I had still not subjected Sangbyeong to…In-N-Out Burger! Their menu is the same simple fare, and I insisted that he order the hamburger animal style with a chocolate milkshake, and we split some French fries.
We weren’t finished with our essential experiences, though! I had more nostalgia to relive! The next stop was Ghirardelli Square, where they still have the old chocolate machinery working in the little café (the rest of the products are obviously made offsite). Sangbyeong snagged free samples from the nice ladies while I wandered around snapping photos. I posed for my traditional photo with the mermaid fountain, to add to the ones I have from previous years and adventures. But there was still one essential adventure we had missed!
The cable car! Usually we wouldn’t spring for the ticket, but today was the last day and we were in the mood to celebrate. Besides, I was determined to ride it standing on the outside, which I had not been allowed to do every other time I have come and visited. We watched in anticipation as they turned the car around and we happened to be second in line, so we claimed our seats right away. The car set off, clanking and rattling up the hills and around tight corners…we passed another car and it is so close we rub shoulders and high five with the passing passengers. Alighting at the end of the line, me dizzy with childhood dreams fulfilled, where else would we go to spend a few last moments than back to City Lights? This time, we also had time to have a drink next door in Vesuvius, the funky bar that has always been next door and served all those Beat writers that called this area home. And I communed with the Jack Kerouac stone in the street, silently thanking him for inspiration to travel and live life freely.
That evening, we had dinner with Tausha and her family, including her parents and brother, all of whom I last saw at my sister’s wedding…and before that her high school graduation! In the morning, we said our final goodbyes to the little ones and the adults before Tausha drove us to the airport. It was surreal, checking in for our flight to Seoul. But it felt more like a “To Be Continued” as we wandered through exhibits about Chinese pagodas and Egypt-philia and sipped a final local IPA. And then…they called our flight.
“The End is the Beginning is the End…”