California Zephyr Part 1: San Fransisco

It’s 2:30am.

My iPhone laying next to me in bed has illuminated my previously dark, quiet, and calm room with its loud tinny jingle and I jolt awake with my heart beating in my eardrums.  The clamor is enough to rouse my sleepy pup and he squints at me as his eyes adjust to the light from the bedside lamp I’ve switched on.  He looks like he’s ready to pull a pillow over his face, roll over, and resume snoring.  Meanwhile, I pull on some leggings, a tank top, and an oversized sweater and head out to the living room where my boyfriend and his dog are both sleeping on their backs (one on the couch, one on the floor, doesn’t much matter who was where) with every light in my apartment turned on.  It’s a habit that I don’t mind this particular “morning” as I try to clear the sleep from my brain.  I start a pot of coffee.  I pee.  I brush my teeth.  I pull my electronics from their chargers and double check my bags.  Coffee is ready.  I pee again because I’m nervous.  Shoes go on.  I load up my bags around my shoulders, kiss the pups and the boy “goodbye” and I’m out the door, down the stairs, and out into the chilly, quiet, night-turning-early-morning.

The clock in my car reads 3:07.  6 hours and 18 minutes to get to Gate C16 in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.  7 hours and 18 minutes with the time zone change.  I should have “plenty” of “time”.

My nervousness as I drive is a U-shaped curve.  The further I get from Xenia the less nervous I feel, as the numbness of the dark cocoons around me and I feel suspended in time and space as I zip across Ohio’s I-70 and up along Indiana’s I-65 – until about halfway through the drive and it increases again.  The sky brightens, I near Chicago, and reality settles in with the morning light.  I no sooner start humming The Music Man as I loop around Gary, IN onto I-90 into Chicago than I am met with bumper to bumper traffic for the near remainder of the drive.  It’s 6:30am Central Time.  Two hours and 55 minutes until my plane takes off.  I’m fine.

I am not fine.  My gas light is on.  It’s nearing 7:00 and I am not nearing the airport with any momentum.  I stop to get gas and add 15 minutes to my time.  I make it to the Economy Lot by 7:45 and take the Airport Transit System all the way to Terminal 1.  United Airlines.  I’m in line for security by 8:00.  I make it through by 9:00.  Gate closes in 10 minutes.  I run the wrong direction.  I run back again.  I run down a concourse, across 3 people-movers, up an escalator and to my gate.  It’s 9:08.  I scurry onto the airplane and find my seat.  I sit down.  I sleep until we land in San Fransisco.

It’s now been a solid month since my trip.  Looking back on my day in San Fransisco is bittersweet.  It was wonderful – a truly more perfect day than I could have planned for or imagined.  But I doubt I’ll ever again be able to capture that feeling of newness, being alone far away from home with a whole day and city to myself.  And that’s truly how it felt, as if the city existed solely for me to explore it for this one day.  The city was all mine for nine daylight hours.  It was a feeling I’ve spent a month trying to put into words.  Though I still can’t quite reach it, the best I’ve come to is “intimate anonymity”.  I felt the exhilaration of anonymity when I emerged into the sunny-and-75-day from the BART’s underground Montgomery station onto Market Street in the heart of the Financial District during a crowded lunch hour, flung across the country from Small Town, Ohio, participating alongside, but not part of this new larger mass.  The immediate realization of self-reliance is what brings the word “intimate” to mind.  I’m learning solo travel necessitates sustained and persistent observation, calculation, analysis, however I wasn’t so much trapped in my brain but rather firmly rooted in my mind – in my instincts.  When I look back on that day I see it as though looking through two toilet-paper-tubes-turned-imaginary-binoculars – like a young explorer – open, but focused.  A shadowed vignette hangs around the images I recall.  Relying on myself not only to navigate a new city, but to savor it and perhaps, more arduously, to capture it, to remember it.  All mine.

Considering this was my first solo trip, I did a few things right.  I planned as much as I could and left the rest to chance.  But what I did plan, I did well.  I pre-ordered and loaded a Clipper Card which is the transit card for the Bay Area.  It’s essentially a debit card you can use to pay for the myriad public transit systems including the BART, MUNI, cable cars, street cars, etc.  I also downloaded an app called “Transit” which allows you to enter in a destination and it populates a list of all nearby departure times and routes.  It also has a GPS/map component so you can see where you are and if you are headed in the right direction.  Without having transportation costs to worry about and knowing I could find out how to get anywhere from where I was made it easier to enjoy the day with minimal logistics-related stress.

My first destination was a short walk from the BART station: Benefit Cosmetics.  Benefit was founded in San Fransisco in the seventies.  I stopped in, gave a quick explanation to the sales associate about why I was there nearly knocking over all their displays with my huge backpack, picked up a bottle of Benetint (one of two souvenirs I purchased – my memories of San Fransisco will forever be rose-scented) and made my way back out onto the sunny streets.

With the help of my Clipper Card and Transit app I hopped on the first of several MUNI busses I would use that day and made my way down Market Street out of the Financial District to Steiner Street along Alamo Square to the Painted Ladies.  Truly as beautiful as the pictures, the Painted Ladies were a wonderful sight to enjoy while I rested in the grass at the park for a moment to re-center and collect myself (“I’m really here.  I’m really doing this.”).


Cue the “Full House” theme song

A few wrong turns, an extra half mile or so, and a probably unnecessary Metro ride away, I made it to the Powell-Market Cable Car Turntable and got in what I’m finding after a little research was a relatively short line.  Because the cable cars only go in one direction, when they reach the end of the line the operators jump off and turn the car on a wooden turntable until they’re facing the direction from which they came.  I got to the front of the line and hopped on, I was lucky enough to secure an outside seat.  We went, somewhat gruelingly, up and down the hills of the city, passing Lombard Street (more on that later), finally reaching our destination within walking distance of Fisherman’s Wharf.


There are two cable car lines – I took the Powell-Hyde line

My plan before getting on the cable car was to ride it to the end and then walk to my hostel to check in and drop my things for the evening, but when I found myself crossing over Lombard Street on the cable car, I decided to add another stop: the famous “hairpin turn” east-west brick street.  It was a short walk from the cable car stop back to Lombard Street, but a challenging hike to make it up to the turns.  The road is steep.  Steep enough that the sidewalks are decorated with signs warning drivers to park at 90 degrees, lest sheer gravity pull their car down the hill.  White parking lines jut out perpendicular to the curb.  I glanced at a red motorized scooter, one of many dotted around the city for rent, but thought the better of zipping around an unknown city on an unfamiliar scooter, alone and tired, and carrying all my belongings on my back.  I finally made it to the top.  I won’t say I was disappointed after the strenuous hike.  I will say that the pictures of the street that you see online are from a higher plane than one can see at the bottom of the eight turns.  The visibility was less than I would have preferred.  And it turns out that cars driving through the intersection are not shy about their opinions of flocks of tourists taking pictures.  Two things that made the hike worth it: 1) a surprisingly beautiful view I stumbled upon on my way to the hostel from Lombard street, and 2) a story that a guy I met on the Amtrak shared with me: a race is held down Lombard Street every Easter.  They call it “Bring Your Own Big-wheel”.


What a view!  Fransisco and Leavenworth Streets

By now, from recall, it was nearing 5 or 6pm.  I made my way back town toward the Wharf, across Ghirardelli Square, to the entrance of Fort Mason which housed my hostel.  I checked into the hostel, which was the perfect accommodation.  From the hostel I could see both the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.  Everybody was very friendly.  I took some time to make my bunk, freshen up, and rehydrate before heading down to Fisherman’s Wharf, about a mile away.

My first hostel!

It was breezy and chilly along the water and I was glad I had taken the time to change my clothes, thankful in particular for the cardigan I had thrown on as an afterthought.  It was still a beautiful evening and the Wharf was busy with tourists.  I walked along the shops and made it to Musee Mecanique, a museum of coin operated antique and vintage arcade games.  I saw Laffing Sal “laff” and touched the hand of the arm wrestling machine Julie Andrews played in The Princess Diaries (anybody else remember that scene?).  I then made it along the water further to Pier 39 and the sea lions who were so funny I found myself standing alone laughing aloud without the slightest bit of self-consciousness.  Had it been earlier in the day I would have spent more time enjoying their antics, they really were quite amusing, but the long day was beginning to wear on me.  I was beginning to feel anxious about making it back to my hostel before dark, about how and if I would make it across the Bay in time for my train the next morning.  I stopped into In-N-Out, ordered a Double Double and some fries, and trekked back once more to the hostel.

A tourist trap well worth the trip

In an attempt to be at least somewhat social with the other guests, I ate (read: force fed myself because I hadn’t eaten all day, had no appetite, but knew that were I to survive to the train the next day, I needed to eat something) my In-N-Out in the lounge area, but I was sleepier by the minute and decided on a quick shower and early bedtime.  I made small-talk with my bunkmate for the night while I gathered my shower things from my locker, and headed down the hall to wash the grime of the city away.  The showers were… interesting.  The bathroom was divided into two areas by a dividing wall.  Toilet stalls to the right.  Sinks on the right side of the wall.  Four 3×3 foot shower stalls around the left side of the wall, in front of which sat a park bench.  A thin, white shower curtain liner kept your privacy.  The logistics of me, the shower, my towel, my dirty clothes, and my clean clothes was a bit like that river crossing riddle: a farmer must transport a fox, goose and bag of beans from one side of a river to another using a boat which can only hold one item in addition to the farmer, subject to the constraints that the fox cannot be left alone with the goose, and the goose cannot be left alone with the beans.  At this point, however I would have showered naked in front of any number of people, I was just ready to be clean and asleep.  So I stripped, and walked my naked beans foxily into the shower stall, trying my best not to get goosed.

Sleep came easily after 20 hours of travel.  I woke up once to two roommates coming into the room but remember that hardly more than a dream.  I slept until just before my alarm went off.

Read the blog from the next part of my trip here!


2 thoughts on “California Zephyr Part 1: San Fransisco

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