April 13, 2008

Things I learned in San Francisco

In Part II of my west-coast journey.

- Golden Gate Park is beautiful. You could probably kill half a day or more there, if the weather's nice (California, duh), and there do seem to be plenty of things to look at. I had little time to spend on my visit, but did stop through the Japanese Tea Garden, which in addition to providing some excellent photographic scenes, allowed me to get the cherry blossom fix I was missing back home, minus the throng of underfoot tourists that clog the pedestrian arteries of our fair city this time of year. Points for that. There is also a rose garden, although apparently early April is not precisely the height of bloom season, as there was exactly one rose among the approximately seventy gajillion rose bushes in that part of the park. All of that said, it is a lovely place, and there are many more picture-worthy spots there than I had time to see, but would like to at some point. The DeYoung museum, for example, looked fascinating. There is also a flower conservatory which includes a butterfly house, if you're into that sort of thing.

- Maps are helpful. There are, to my mind, two major flaws in San Francisco's design, based on my short time there. First, and this is minor once you know your way around, is the signage. I'm very grateful for the Powers That Be for telling me the name of every cross street I pass; I think that's a wonderful idea. What would be brilliant, though, would be to occasionally tell me the name of the street I am currently on. This is important to know when you've just taken a poorly labeled turn that you think is the one you're looking for, and you travel a half-mile or so wondering about it but can't be completely sure because every signpost is blank. Big signs for cross-streets, roughly zero for your current street. Last time I checked, signposts could accommodate at least two signs, one for each direction of street; it seems reasonable to suggest that they be used in that manner, much like every major city on the planet. Except, of course, San Francisco. So knowing how the streets are laid out puts you at least in a moderately advantageous position.

Except for the one-way streets (Issue #2). I don't think it's too much of an exaggeration to say that sorting out the one-way streets in San Fran feels somewhat akin to trying to decipher sanskrit using an Ovaltine decoder ring (and yes, finding out that the secret message is, in fact, "Drink more Ovaltine" is less than satisfying). I've never been so grateful for DC's user-friendly, intuitive urban design. At least here, you are fairly assured that if the street you're crossing won't let you turn left, the odds are at least 50/50 that the next one will. Over there, if you miss one left turn you might be in Sacramento by the time you get another chance.

(And before you say it: GPS is for wimps. Either that or I couldn't expense it. Pick the rationale that you like best. Wimp.)

- Thanks to the BART, I now have an appreciation for just how phenomenal the coverage of our local metro system is, in terms of access to different parts of the city. The BART has four lines, which all pass through the exact same dozen stops downtown, in a straight line across the city.

- The cable car is worth a ride. Because you're there, and that's what you do. Plus, it's a relatively cheap and easy way to get over to Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli Square, etc. It is a fun, scenic ride, and you can hang off the side all the way across town if you want to (which I did). Humming the Rice-a-Roni theme song optional but encouraged (or not). And if you're riding across town in the evening, it's entirely possible that your driver will stop the car in the middle of an intersection, hop off and run into a corner pizza shop to place an order.

The truth is, San Francisco is a very manageable size, and is generally walkable (or at least, don't-have-to-drive-able); you can get most places of interest other than Golden Gate Park or the Bridge without riding a municipal bus or getting into a cab. But given that,

- I am in lousy shape. Not that this is a surprise, but it was brought into uncomfortably stark focus on this trip. I was out and about in San Francisco for about eight hours or so on my one free day, with the total time spent sitting still (driving or riding the cable car) accounting for between an hour and a half and two hours of that time. The rest? Walking. Sure, a lot of stopping to take photos and that sort of thing, but mostly walking. And of the walking, there was a significant amount of climing. Not like rock-climbing or anything, but climbing hills and stairs. Because San Francisco? Not flat. Not even a little. It has hills. (Correction: make that hills).

I walked up Hyde St from the end of the cable car line to the top of Lombard St, the world's windiest street. On the map, this journey is about four blocks, which seems perfectly reasonable. In fact, it may seem reasonable enough that when the cable car stops at the top of Lombard St on Hyde, on the way to the Wharf, you might actually decide against getting off right then, instead figuring that you'll ride the car to the end and then walk over to the bottom of Lombard where the pics will be better anyway. This is a bad idea. Because when you fail to find Leavanworth St, which meets the bottom of Lombard, you will just end up walking up Hyde St anyway, retracing the path your cable car just took, without the benefit of mechanized transportation. And it will suck. The street is obscenely steep. Lombard St itself is listed as having a 27-degree incline; Hyde isn't quite that steep, but it's close. Or at least, it sure as hell feels like it. According to Google maps Terrain view, the trip from Bay St to Lombard St will take you up around 200 feet. In four blocks. With no stairs. It's steep enough that the middle of the sidewalk is cross-hatched, presumably to help people with traction as they climb. So yeah, get off the cable car, take pictures, then walk down the massive nasty hill to the Wharf. Down is easier. Or wait 15 minutes and catch another cable car to the bottom. I did none of these things, because I'm an idiot. But we've long since established that, now haven't we?

And all of that was after I had spent a couple of hours at the Golden Gate, where I climbed every bit of the 220 feet from the bridge deck to sea level, but at least there were stairs involved. See, you can park right next to the toll booths at the bridge, almost, take your pictures, then head on out to do whatever's next. You can, but I can't. I'm the one who notices the path off to the side, and follows it, ever looking for better angles for the photos. Then you realize that you can make your way all the way down to the water, where there's this cool concrete pier that gives you an excellent view of the bridge, as well as the city itself and Alcatraz; all it requires is that you descend, oh, say, 33885744 stairs to get there. At which point you're probably a little less than a half-mile from the bridge, and you notice that you can get almost right next to the bridge itself, also at the water line. So you go. It is at that point when you recognize that, while you may be standing next to the bridge, there is no direct path from there to the top of the bridge where you started. Instead, you ahve to go all the way back around and all the way back up the stairs. And did I mention 220 feet? Yeah. Awesome. And no escalators.

But the good news is, the pictures came out pretty well. They would be much better, if not for the final, most colossally aggravating thing I learned out there:

- My (brand new) camera has a defect in it. There is this small collection of circles, between two and four, in the top-center of just about every frame I took on this trip. They aren't always obvious, but they are always there, and always in the same place. So the clear blue sky surrounding the architectural wonder that is the Golden Gate Bridge has what appears to be a series of bubbles in it. Not that that's distracting or anything. I had purchased this camera about a week before I left for California, from a website that shall remain nameless (although one might suspect from its name that they also sell crackers, or that they're Putting On something*), but whose return/exchange policy, I found out later, is ten days. Ten days. That's it. Even for exchanges for defects. Ten days. So instead of making it easy to get this rectified, I'm going to have to send my camera to the manufacturer to get serviced, which will take something on the order of two weeks. Because the piece of crap website can't seem to figure out how to write a reasonable customer service policy. Fuckers. I have a $50 gift coupon that came with my camera, after whose use they will receive exactly $0 of my money ever again, and roughly that same amount from anyone who I ever talk to about camera stuff.

But that said, I did find some very good pictures in San Francisco, and will get some posted here one of these days. And I had an excellent trip out west, all things considered. This is a pretty busy travel month, so there may be more stories coming, you never know. Hopefully good ones, but since Murphy and I have the sort of relationship we do, you can never really tell...

* I should point out, however, that the brick and mortar stores bearing this name are not affiliated with the website, and as such I have no issues with them. The people there have been very helpful, in distinct contrast to their virtual cousins. Did I mention fuckers? Just checking.


Carrie M said...

oh how i love SF. i have never walked more than in that city, but they're always such beautiful walks. i biked to (and walked my bike up past the Presidio) and across the bridge and into Sausalito (actually, you just careen down steep hills into sausalito at high speeds and wish you HAD gotten the bike helmet as part of your rental). California must have given me some additional constitution when I got off the plane, but I loved it!

WiB said...

carrie m - That's impressive. I agree on the beautiful-walk thing, there's just a lot of it.

I think there should be some tourist-board sponsored training program, for people planning to visit. Golden Gate Boot Camp or something. But that's just me. Either that, or I should like go to the gym. Either or.

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