Thursday, 26 July 2007

Week 24 : Lake San Andreas to Mission Bay

Amy and I start the week walking north along the final few yards of Skyline Boulevard, heading for the city of San Francisco. Skyline Boulevard is quite some road, which cuts through the backcountry of Silicon Valley and runs along the ridgeline of the Santa Cruz Mountains. For a while it is like being back in the country again : to the right are the city streets and houses I have become over-familiar with but to the left a mountainous green wedge digs into the fleshy under-belly of San Francisco. I almost wish I had walked the length of Skyline, creeping into the metropolis by stealth rather than taking the digital route via Silicon Valley. Pointing south, I tell Amy that just a few miles up the road is the famous Alice’s Restaurant. Her tail wags from side to side. She likes restaurants. But we head north. “It’s the streets of San Francisco for you girl”, I say. The phrase rolls easily from my tongue.

But there again it would do. “The Streets of San Francisco” are part of my heritage – I spent hours watching the TV series thirty-odd years ago. And when I wasn’t keeping up to date with the events in the lives of Detectives Stone and Keller on television I was at the cinema feeling slightly travel sick as Steve McQueen (aka Lt. Frank Bullitt) crashed and screeched up and down the same streets. San Francisco, like Los Angeles I suppose, is a “World Heritage Site of the Imagination”. The United Nations hasn’t started designating such places yet, but when they do they could start with San Francisco.

San Francisco is, of course, built on a promontory and as this narrowed, Amy and I were overwhelmed with indecisiveness. Should we turn left and walk up the Pacific coast or turn right and hug the Bay coast? In the end we tacked from side to side like a sailing boat in search of a decent breeze. And as a result we saw neither the sea nor the Bay. We saw a lot of houses, however. We saw big houses and small houses, square houses and oblong houses. And we saw shops. We saw long shops and short shops, fat shops and thin shops. And then we turned a street corner and saw …. a mountain.

San Bruno mountain is a shock. You don’t expect it. Right in the middle of the urban sprawl that is San Francisco there is this dirty, great big mountain. Amy and I were halted in our tracks. We looked at each other but didn’t need to speak. We both knew what we were going to do. We were going to climb it.

San Bruno Mountain is the largest urban open space in the United States – a total of over 3,000 acres of undeveloped open space. Its highest point - Radio Peak – is 1,314 feet above sea level. The mountain provides a habitat for several species of rare and endangered plants and butterflies. If you turn to the
San Bruno Mountain Watch website you can find detailed descriptions of the endangered species. You will also find a list of 91 bird species that are regular visitors to the mountain. As we walked up the path that would take us from Hillside on the south of the mountain to the splendidly named Cow Palace on the north, we decided to see how many of the 91 species we could spot.

I managed just one – a starling (although I gave it its official name of Sturnus vulgaris in order to impress Amy) whilst she also claimed a score of one – a chicken. I was tempted to discount her score on the basis that (1) a chicken was not on the list of 91 birds, and (2) it had been fried and battered and left by someone at the side of the path, but I thought that was perhaps uncharitable and therefore I said nothing. Getting bored with that game, we moved onto another : how many regulations of the San Bruno State Park could we break at the same time. We did a lot better on this game. The very fact that Amy was on the mountain was in breach of one regulation. I picked a passing daisy and claimed a point. Amy let loose a large bark and reclaimed the lead. I pulled a small bottle of Lagavoulin Single Malt out of my back-pack and picked up another point. It was only when Amy squatted down amongst the scrub and brush proclaiming “beat that” that I called an end to the game.

When we eventually got down the other side of the mountain I tried to explain to Amy why Cow Palace was not the home of some bovine deity. “It’s a convention and exhibition centre”, I explained. “The home of events such as the Grand National Rodeo, Horse and Stock Show, the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show, circuses and music concerts”. “It’s where the annual Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show is held”, I added, hoping this would impress her. She was a bit dismissive, saying something about Size 0 models with fake hairpieces.

We were back in the urban jungle and now we entered San Francisco proper : we crossed the County Line. San Francisco is both a city and a County. As far as I could make out from reading the
SFGov website, the City and County government structures are totally integrated : there is one mayor, one set of departments, one Police Department, that kind of thing. As a city it is the fourteenth-most populous in the United States, and the second most densely populated major city in the country. As a County it must be the smallest in California and one of the smallest in the country. It is a new city which hardly existed at all before the 1840s gold rush. More than most cities, its history is dominated by one event : the earthquake and fire of 1906.

If you want to get a good overview of the great earthquake and the subsequent fire you can go to the excellent on-line Exhibition hosted by the Bancroft Library. To get an idea of the scale of the devastation, make sure you have a look at the amazing panoramic view of the City taken from Nob Hill shortly after the fire. The fact that the city has been able to rebuild itself, the fact that it retains its thrusting optimism in the face of the constant threat of renewed destruction : these are all part of the attraction of the city. The City By The Bay is a good place to visit.

Amy and I made our way north through the old docklands area. Candlestick Point, Hunters Point, India Basin and Lash Lighter Basin : we drank in the evocative names. Many of them are old industrial areas which are rapidly being re-invented as the most desirable places to live. “Contemporary living hits a high watermark at Candlestick Point – The Cove”, trills one
website, “the latest development that’s fast becoming one of the City’s most desirable addresses”. “This exclusive gated community is located on a secluded cove overlooking San Francisco Bay”. Amy and I pushed our noses through the bars of the gate. Very nice … but not for us.

We finished our week in the Mission Bay area of downtown San Francisco. Again it is an old industrial area which is undergoing rapid regeneration, in this case driven by the new Mission Bay Campus of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). The view looking north from the new Genentech building gives an impression of how close Amy and I were to the end of the first part of our journey. In just a few days time we would reach the Golden Gate Bridge and reward ourselves with a short (non-virtual) holiday.

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