Claire and I met in Flagstaff, a town in the Arizona desert which is noteworthy for several reasons:
* it’s a gateway to Grand Canyon
* it is higher than any mountain east of the Mississippi
* its cute, fabulously cheap hostel gave me bedbugs (upside: as well as my money back).
Claire rode the Greyhound bus to Vegas two days before I caught the train to San Francisco; journeys that put us in San Francisco pretty much at the same time.
Hence today’s adventure, two Aussies let loose in an iconic city on the last days of their coast to coast US tours.
You’ll note the Golden Gate bridge behind Claire in the photo above. That was an accident, of sorts.
Claire and I set out for Haight Ashbury, the only iconic thing I could remember about San Francisco. And even though I knew it was iconic for its Bohemian heritage, the bohemians themselves being the generation before me, thanks to Wikipedia we set out knowing the following:
* Hunter S Thomson called it Hashbury
* Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead all lived in the district
* it was the birthplace of the so-called Summer of Love.
What I didn’t know in all this time, and only discovered when we finally made it there – seven hours later after a small detour to the Golden Gate bridge – is that it’s a bloody intersection! That’s all. That’s right. Haight Ashbury is where two streets meet. Haight Street. Ashbury Street. Haight Ashbury.
If you look really closely you can see the signpost behind her. Haight Street. Ashbury Street.
As I said, it took us seven hours to get there. This was because, along the way, we crossed a street called Golden Gate . . . but before that I remembered San Francisco’s famous crooked street.
How did we travel before Google?
I asked Claire if she was happy to go to Haight Ashbury via Lombard Street.
‘Sure,’ she said. And so we set off, miles and miles out of our way on a bitterly cold sumer’s day, San Francisco fog rolling in over the city from the bay and Claire in shorts – because it’s summer, her only concession to the grey and windy day a thin cardigan.
We strolled along dirty early morning streets sharing Grand Canyon stories, walking walking walking into the wind until we hit Lombard Street.
I realised all the photos I have seen of the famous crooked street must have been aerial. You can’t see its crookedness for the gardens. I wanted to walk the zig zag but the cars of the tourists dominated the narrow brick roadway; the footpath was just a footpath on a hill, also filled with tourists. And so we walked down. Then up. Just in time to see a strong woman pushing a wheelchair practically running down the hill, her big, seriously adult daughter leaning back in the chair saying very clearly ‘Mom, I do not feel safe.’
Mom, with the wind in her hair, biceps keeping the chair under control, had no intention of stopping for a freaked out daughter. I might have felt sorry for the powerless daughter, but mostly I admired Mom’s spirit.
Here’s Claire at Lombard Street.
And so from Lombard Street we set out for Haight Ashbury . . . until we crossed a street called Golden Gate.
Of course! How could we leave San Francisco without seeing the Golden Gate bridge.
‘Do you mind if we go via the Golden Gate?’ I asked Claire.
‘Sure,’ she said.
And so we looked at her toy map. It was kinda backwards, but that was okay. And then and so the real adventure began. The one that put us five hours out of our way. The one that took us past the university, down a long long long street that ought to have landed us in a beautiful, landscaped park.
We hit the landscape bit: sculptured firs, massive pines. And, three steps into it, a wall. We dropped over. Onto a road. Across the road. Into the ‘park’. Which was really a woods. But in reality was a weird gumtree forest with a deep sandy track, like a river bed that hadn’t seen rain for a decade.
We giggled a lot. It was bizarre. Sudden. We asked a man with seven dogs where the Golden Gate bridge might be. While Argie, big and black, barked in our faces the man pointed down the sandy track, his directions vague and ending with something a lot like ‘actually, I don’t know’.
And so we walked along the sandy track. Until we met a woman trailed by seven children on seven bicycles (it was that kind of day). We asked her if she knew where the Golden Gate bridge might be.
‘Stopping,’ she called out to the children. I hadn’t realised till that moment we’d asked while she was riding.
This is the point where, when I was walking with my son Ben across Italy and through the Balkans, that he never, ever asked directions no matter how much I wanted him to. I didn’t remember this until Claire and I had followed her clear, precise directive: ‘follow this path until you come across a sculpture; if you can’t see the Golden Gate from there, walk about half a mile on and you’ll see it.’
Off we went into the woods. We met a golf course. We walked on. Through the woods. Which was really a gumtree forest. Along a track. Which ought to have been a sandy river bed. Past a wire fenced military base. Which might have been a water supply. Or a sewerage works. High atop a hill. On into the woods. Into what might have been project housing but was probably – being premier real estate overlooking a foggy bay – military housing.
I tell Claire why Ben never, ever asks directions. ‘This is why,’ was my simple explanation.
We spy a pair of moms in a park. No sculpture. We ask where the Golden Gate bridge might be, by this time prepared for it to be anywhere at all! See? still asking directions. Round the road. Down the road. Into the icy wind. Round the road. Down the road. Into the icy wind. Round the road. Down the road. Into the icy wind. Both of us sniffing all the way.
Sniff. Sniff. Sniff.
Until. Miracles. There it was.
It was too cold to stop. We took the photos, me still surprised to find that, even though I know it’s red – that the Golden Gate bridge is red.
Rather than return the way we came, because the way there is never the way home (ooooo, a quote from my novel, Hymn for the Wounded Man), we walked around the peninsula. Into the icy wind. Sniff. Along the road. Sniff. Down the road. Into the icy wind. Along the road. Down the road. Into the icy wind. Sniff.
Civilisation at last.
We orientate ourselves with the map.
We walk and we walk and we walk through San Francisco’s unfurling neighbourhoods.
We chat, as we have chatted all the way. We sniff. We chat. We sniff. We laugh and compare America notes. We sniff. It’s an icy wind thing.
We stop for ginger chai. We check our map for Haight Ashbury. We walk. We walk over a very high hill with a cathedral on the top. We walk inside, curious about beauty and tired of the cold wind. We walk on. And on. And on. And on.
Haight Street. Ashbury Street. An iconic intersection.
We walk along Haight Street one way, a parade of tired tourist shops selling the trinkets of bohemia past: rainbow clothes, gothic clothes and bongs. And we walk back the other way. A young man on a street corner waylays us to sell us a Greenpeace subscription.
‘Interested in the environment, love?’ he says as we pass.
I stare. He has a sweet face. An intelligent face. He’s pleased I stop.
‘Love?’ I say.
He stares at me vaguely.
He can feel something coming. He attempts a diversion.
‘Where are you from?’
I ignore this. Something about him draws me to stand right in his face. Maybe it’s his beauty. Maybe it’s his intelligence. Maybe it’s just that I’m fed up with watching the gains women in the West have made slip backwards and I’m fed up with men in the environmental movement utterly failing to recognise that the issues are one and the same.
‘Love.’ I say. ‘Look where you’re standing. Fifty years ago this place ignited a revolution that challenged the language of patriarchy and you men in the environmental movement do not even want to understand that the issues underpinning the Earth you wanna save are the very same as treatment of women globally.’
‘Right on sister,’ he says, an attempt at humour, a face save, to me a face plant.
We – Claire and I – need food. We stop at a Victorian Punch House, an establishment specialising in rum, and order snacks and a glass each of the house punch.
By this time we had walked seven hours. Me with my computer over my shoulder because the locker in my hostel room doesn’t work, the door to the room doesn’t close properly and the hostel doesn’t have a safe. Claire in her summer clothes on a wintry summer day.
We toast the walk. Our pilgrimage to San Francisco.
There are few people I know who would have met today’s adventure with as much grace as Claire . . . really, anyone else would have murdered us by now. At the very least abandoned us. With or without flowers in our hair.