Today, on my 19th, I woke up to the rhythmic and ceaseless orchestra of nasal sounds, all from five complete strangers, and stumbled half-awake downstairs, to prepare my own breakfast and eat it. Not one present in sight, no card, or indeed any attempt to make my morning dining environment somewhat celebratory. It was, to everyone else, another day in San Francisco, so it was up to me to make the day as memorable as possible. Now, let it be known, that San Francisco has a whole multitude of interestingly historic buildings, and a selection of some of the most spectacular physical geography, enough to quench my thirst for cultural pursuit, but in my opinion, the only true iconic and unique item is the Golden Gate Bridge, and today I decided to set out and explore it once after all!
From the hostel, I had to endure a long walk even to capture my first sighting of the bridge. There's no direct route there, but it allowed me to soak up what Monday mornings are like for the city. Traffic certainly had risen since yesterday, and it would irritably punctuate my already indirect journey. Businesses were beginning to open, I overheard a school class whose sweet voices travelled through an almost shut window, and passed a keep fit class whose leader was reciting numbers on every beat of an uptempo song, and providing vocal encouragement. What would be known in the UK as a 'Lollypop' person, over here is offered the more military title of 'Children Traffic Guard', and the one I passed today looked even more bored than her position.
After proceeding down a whole mix of avenues and streets, boulevards and backstreets, I finally arrived at the water's edge of San Francisco Bay. A very agreeable looking harbour with some fine boats bordered a long narrow stretch of beach; the sand on the most part was in that more coagulated form, firm to the boot, and ambling across it was therefore more manageable. Providing a orderly transition between the water and the sand was a line of moderately sized rocks; not the kind you would climb on for pleasure, but large enough, if dropped onto your foot, to prevent comfortable walking for several weeks. The bay was bright blue, attracting a couple of dogs who thought it a reasonable day for a paddle, and compared to what I had expected, devoid of bustling tourists desperate to return to their homelands with a tan.
Across the bay, there it was; the mighty Golden Gate Bridge. Let's clear this up now; it's not at all golden coloured, but painted in International Orange though it has this unmistakable red tint to it, which ultimately, ensures it stands out for miles. I had a long stare at the sheer brilliance of its design and role in the surrounding landscape, before easing myself off the beach back to the guided trail which would escort me to bridge.
A small fishing platform resides just before you make a short uphill trek to the bridge, and it is accompanied by a lovely little gift shop and cafe establishment called the 'Warming Hut', and something about it (and the fact it was birthday) made me enter to purchase a hot chocolate. There's something strangely refreshing about a hot drink on a hot day; the physics behind it I have no idea, but even when I was in Morocco, we would be treated to mint tea, at a midday rest in the Sahara. I sat, legs hanging off this platform, giving the bridge another friendly glare, and I think the precarious nature of my position was the reason why three state troopers approached me. "You gonna' jump?" one said to me, and for a split moment I actually thought he was serious. "Too cold for me!" I returned, and went back to enjoying the views and my hot chocolate. (They were armed with the most extravagant selection of weapons which makes me wonder what they think they're going to find in such a tranquil location, on such a gratifyingly sunny day.) Two small vessels rocked the waves in the distance, and seagulls seemed to be tailing their foam.
I had given the bridge enough of my undisturbed attention and the moment to relish the adventure of crossing such a famous city landmark had arrived. Pleasantly surprised that there wasn't a fee to cross for pedestrians (in the UK, even people's pets would be tariffed), I started what would be a 30 minute trek to the other side. By no means is this a tedious stretch; the bridge offers supreme views of both the recreational park that is settled on the other side, and as you progress, you can turn back to view the city of San Francisco in yet another totally different aspect.
I salute everyone helped to construct this bridge; it must have been an adventure when it came to tightening nuts and working screws into intricate drilled holes at the very top. To access the very top, if I'm not mistaken, the workers have to clamber up the cylindrical supports on each side, harnessed to thick metal fibres on each side, and somehow, retain balance and control, whilst keeping hold of all their vital equipment. And what happens if you drop your screwdriver? You have to make an equally dubious downward course, retrieve it (if it hasn't fallen into the bay) and scramble back up again. (I'm sure they don't do anything of the sort though.)
Reaching the other side eventually, which is more formally mapped as 'Golden Gate Recreation Area', I decided that I wanted another view of the bridge, this time from the pinnacle heights of the surrounding hillside. For a very popular tourist location, they haven't done that good a job with trail signs and the likewise, and I spent a good half an hour doing aimless walking, trying to locate the start of the guided hike. Everywhere I went, I approached signs saying "No Entry- Cars and Bikes Only" and if there was a sign remarking "Pedestrian Access this way", the bold black arrow would always face either a field fenced with more barbed wire than a supermax prison, or the road I had just come from. Eventually, after consultation with a rather ancient map, I realised I had walked past it unknowingly, but not entirely my fault as there was no sign marking the trail anywhere. With a slight effort in the leg department, I was very soon making good altitudinal progress.
The grassy hills here that support mainly low lying shrubs and herbs, really do intersect so that the long and the possibly excessive four-laned road eventually disappears from sight. It's a shame that such a pristine environment is marred by a single road, but at least they haven't started constructing 'Golden Gate Roller coaster Parks' and high-rise office blocks.
I was extremely lucky to find on my trail one of the highest points in the whole area, and I jumped for joy when I gained sight of the views it beheld. I kept muttering "This is the best birthday present ever"; it's true. It felt almost spiritual, to achieve views that seldom are offered to the tourist, and all I had done was trek a modest distance. I enjoyed my lunch up there, and was joined by a whole multitude of nature, including butterflies and a Raven, that took a seat literally beside me.
I proceeded, passing two ladies knocking a hiking trail sign into the ground (I resisted the urge to complain about the desperate lack of them at the start) and along a creek, through what was now more thick vegetation. It was 2:00pm, and having decided it was too late for a 3.5 mile walk to Rodeo Beach, I selected, instead, a short yet strenuous climb to the Marin Highlands. I noted lots of geological activity, fold mountain formations, and hillsides with netting supports. And as this was a coastal walk, I had great views of the beach below, which I reckon, is seldom visited. From the top, I got the very best view that I would acquire today of the bridge, although I almost can guarantee that if I continued further I would find something equally or possibly more impressive. Such is the way, with exploring.
I made a long trek back, winding my way down the hillsides, following the sinuous route towards the bridge. The walk back over the bridge offered much better views of the city this time, as the Sun was in a more convenient position. Pedestrians have until 4:30pm to make their way across, after that only cyclists have the right of way, which although slightly restrictive, ensures that people don't have a sudden late night urge to go jumping off it. (This, apparently, has happened, which is why you're often approaching phones connected to a 24 hour counselling service; whilst this is effective in principal, I don't know how on earth you can hear the person on the other end of the line in the frenetic action of what I presume is almost continuous traffic. How can one calm a soul through an earpiece in one ear, whilst the deafening roar of engines is taunting the other?)
By the time I had reached the other side, relieved my pocket of the odd quarter coin on a rather disgusting lime soda, and proceeded back down to the beach, San Francisco was at sunset stage, which manifested a purple glow along the horizon, and a more fiery orange one from the distant city buildings. I took one last look at the bridge, convinced though that I'll end up seeing it later in the week, and made my way back to the hostel. By the time I had reached my dorm, it was one hour later, and city traffic was at rush hour.
Golden Gate Bridge will forever be memorable, not because of it's clear feat of modern engineering, but because I visited this internationally recognised symbol on my birthday. No present can wrap that experience up; it was simply the best birthday I've celebrated. Here's to the next year...