Sunday, July 22, 2012

California Dreamin': Day 7. -- Lights.

When the lights go down in the city
And the sun shines on the bay
Ooh I want to be there in my city, oh oh
When: June 1, 2012.
Where: Golden Gate Bridge, Palace of Fine Arts, Nike SF-88 Missile Site, Muir Woods, The Presidio, 49-Mile Scenic Drive (well... Some of it), Treasure Island.
Times I've listened to this song by Journey on this day alone: 9556473 times.
Verdict: Despite some of its flaws, San Francisco may be my new favourite city after Vancouver.
Utterly random thoughts: Driving around San Francisco, it was hard not to imagine myself in a 1967 Ford Mustang doing this all day.

Seeing how this was my last day in the Bay, I just had to make sure I've exhausted all the things I can do before moving on to LA. And that I did -- I went to seven different places on this day alone, and it was great.

Probably the 100 millionth photo I've taken of the Golden Gate Bridge.
First day of June and the fog is making its way in already.
That said, I am not going to spend too much time talking about the Golden Gate Bridge and the Palace of Fine Arts -- after all their history is well-documented and are considered a must-see for most travelers in San Francisco anyway. One note about the bridge though: I've been repeatedly told that biking across the bridge was a rather great experience -- unfortunately there wasn't enough time for me to do that on this trip. Ah well, next time I guess.

I did drive across it though. Interestingly the infamous Bay Area summer fog was making its way into the city so I didn't see much of the bridge when I was on it (that said though, driving through the fog on the bridge is about as spooky as a David Fincher movie). Another side note: Apparently the bridge is a rather popular destination for suicidal jumpers. So if that's your thing then...
The Palace of Fine Arts.
One of the reasons I was pretty excited about this day was because during the planning of my trip I came across a website that recommended this small, mysterious decommissioned Cold War military base about half an hour north of San Francisco, something called the Nike SF-88 Missile Site. It is one that even the locals know little about -- can't blame them really, as a search on the GPS hasn't really aided me in locating its whereabouts. Hell, the official government website for the base doesn't even have an address for the location either. All I knew is that it is within the Golden Gate Recreation area and that the missile base is located on a road perhaps appropriately named "Bunker Road". So I went in that general direction and hoped for the best.

The Nike SF-88 Missile Site.
After about a 45-minute drive across the bridge through some obscure tunnels and back roads, I was there. Camouflaged by the surrounding hills, it looked like just another small military base with a patrol station in an area about as big as a Safeway parking lot. From the outside, it didn't seem like it was once the launching pad of six Nike Hercules nuclear warheads, ready to pick off any incoming Soviet bombers.

I was just in time for a guided tour of the missile base. When I got there, there was only one missile above ground in the middle of the base -- the only visual clue that suggested this was no ordinary military base. The missile itself is about as long as a semi-trailer, which as it turns out could be stored in an underground bunker by an elevator-esque trap door, which is so obscure that you wouldn't know until the pad you're standing on sinks into the bunker, revealing five other nuclear missiles (now decommissioned of course) underneath the ground you were just standing on.

The underground bunker itself wasn't big at all -- it had room for six missiles, and that's about it. A small tunnel led to a small, windowless room about as big as a washroom, and in the centre of it was a machine about as big as one of those old Sony TV sets, with some indicator lights, dials, and a red button marked "FIRE".

"The whole point of the doomsday machine
is lost if you keep it a secret..."
It was probably just me, but while I was in the room, I couldn't help but keep playing scenes of Dr. Strangelove in my head. The reality at the time during the Cold War though was probably not as funny.

The site was the last line of defense against a possible Soviet invasion, and was in operation from 1954 until 1976. Small wonders really -- at the height of the Cold War during the Cuban Missile Crisis the city of San Francisco (and most major cities in the United States did at some point have missile bases similar to this one too) was a launch button away from being the centre of an all-out nuclear war.

The tour itself was only about half an hour long, but it is easily one of the most fascinating places I've ever been. If you ever find yourself in San Francisco, I would highly recommend it -- even though tours are only available from Wednesday to Friday every week only. Apparently they do have an open-house event on the first Saturday of every month though.

After the military base, I made my way to the nearby Muir Woods for a 2-hour hike in the redwood forest -- because hiking around the hills of San Francisco clearly wasn't enough for me already. Here, the trees were like skyscrapers, and sunlight made its way through the trees onto the trails. It was fantastic.

(Side note: Completing the 49-mile scenic drive in a
car sounds like a good Amazing Race challenge just to
see everyone getting utterly lost. Just a thought.)
I then spent the rest of the day driving around The Presidio -- again, one of the must-sees in San Francisco. This part of the trip was rather regrettable, as by the time I made it back to the city to start touring around the Presidio, everything had already been closed (it was about 6 in the afternoon already at that point).

So I moved on to my next target: The 49-mile scenic drive -- a stretch of roads around the city that would take me through all the major attractions in the Bay Area. Sounds tempting for a guy like me, of course. Unfortunately for me the roads are only indicated by a small sign on the side of the road, and the signs were few and far between. It didn't take long for me to be off the route completely and became entirely lost in the city. To make matters worse, none of the locals seemed to know much about the scenic drive either.

So, the 49-mile scenic drive? It was more like 5 miles of scenic drive followed by 10 miles of sign-searching before giving up completely. Ah well, next time I guess.

At the mean time, the sky was getting dark and I knew I was running out of time. So I headed for the coast and found myself on the Bay Bridge on route to Treasure Island -- a small island between San Francisco and Oakland. What's there? Well, quite literally nothing. Most of the island was a residential area with only one small restaurant. There really was no point of anyone getting there at all, except for one tiny thing -- it offers views like this:

Needless to say, I was in photography heaven -- to the point that I stayed on the island for two and a half hours snapping night shots like crazy. And I thought the view from Alcatraz was amazing enough.

Before I knew it, it was late enough for me to realize that I probably should head back to the hostel to prepare for the long drive ahead of me the following day -- 10 hours of pacific coast goodness, to be precise, before reaching the la-la-land.

So in the week I spent in San Francisco, I've driven on two of the most iconic bridges in North America, visited an old prison, had dim sum in Chinatown, trekked up and down Lombard Street, been harassed by hobos, nearly froze to death in the summer cold (yes that wasn't a mistake), been thoroughly confused by San Francisco's parking bylaws, celebrated the Golden Gate Bridge's 75th birthday, watched a baseball game, been to an old Cold War military base, and met some amazing people. I don't know about you, but I'd call that a week very well spent.

San Francisco is one of those places where you probably wouldn't appreciate if you don't like the quintessential West-Coastness of it -- the liberal politics, the hippie subculture, the "beach boys", the hobos, the expensiveness of everything, the lack of "exciting" things to do in the area. On top of that, if you love shopping, the Bay area is probably not for you either (LA is probably much better for that). Indeed, this is not LA nor New York City -- its true uniqueness lies with the city's charm and beauty. During the week I spent over here, it felt a lot like home -- and by home I mean Vancouver -- everyone was amazingly welcoming (except of course the drunk hobos), the city is filled with history, the utterly breath-taking view over from Twin Peaks and Treasure Island, the food was amazing ( expensive); and to complete the experience, the ridiculously over-priced parking in Downtown -- it does feel a lot like Vancouver. Everyone I've talked to has been fantastically friendly, and in a major North American city, that kind of friendliness is pretty hard to come by.

Despite all its flaws, San Francisco is one of the places I wouldn't hesitate coming back to. Hell, I wouldn't even mind moving here, to be honest with you.

Mind you, I will probably have to win the lottery 20 times to be able to afford living here.

For now though, I'll see you again San Francisco.

Next up: California Route 1 (a.k.a. The greatest road in California).

So you think you're lonely?
Well my friend I'm lonely too
I want to get back to my city by the bay
Oh, oh, oh oh

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