Postcard from Highway One #47: Exploring Atlantis

7 November 2005 (posted 30 November)

After all the good intentions in the world of getting an early start, when my alarm went off at nine, I flipped it off and went back to sleep! About eleven, consciousness finally won and I left the room a little before noon.

My first stop was the visitor’s centre which, as it turns out, is just a block from my hotel. I bought the requisite travel pass and did a bit of further research into Ed’s list. My friend Ed from Sydney is a San Franciscan native and in response to a quick email from me, he sent me a quite detailed checklist of places to visit that are not necessarily in the guidebooks.

For my planned first stop at Fisherman’s Wharf, I took the cable car from above the visitor’s centre on Powell. None of the street signs here say “street or avenue or road”. It’s just the name of the street, which is all that’s usually spoken too. When I arrived at the cable car stop, there was already quite a queue, so I added myself to it, and watched as the car rolled onto the wooden turntable and was spun around.

It rolled to a stop in front of the waiting masses and I watched as they swarmed all over it, but also saw that one guy made a beeline for the far side of the car. I followed. By the time I got there, all the seats were taken, but the driver invited anyone that wanted to hang off the side of the car. In a split second decision, I leapt on as the car moved off. Not only had I leapt on to a moving conveyance, I was now hanging off the side of it as it moved at speed through traffic! What an experience!

As we climbed the incredible slope of Powell, I watched constantly for other vehicles, the sort of thing you want to be aware of when dangling from the side of a tram! I got a little nervous as we passed another cable car heading in the opposite direction with passengers adorning it too like christmas decorations, but all was good. I kind of noticed the Disney Store as we passed, but it didn’t really register anything more than the vaguest glimmer.

The higher we climbed, the more comfortable I became with my perch. As we neared the top of what I later found was Nob Hill, I glanced along a cross street. I thought to myself, it has to be! And sure enough, the cable car lines intersected just there at California and Powell.

	“High upon the sacred rock,
	the Rose Incarnate shines,
	Upon the mountain of the Flood,
	At the meeting of the lines.”
Grace Cathedral! Having spotted it so accidentally, I was determined to come back later to explore, but that's for another postcard. I will record my day chronologically.

As it turned out, I’d taken the wrong cable car, not realising that more than one route left from Powell and Market. I worked this out when we didn’t take the turn I was expecting into Mason, but just kept rolling down the hill.

I wasn’t particularly concerned. I had no time constraints, so I just let the cable car take me where it would. We crossed Leavenworth and then finally turned into Hyde where we passed over a subterranean expressway I later worked out was the Broadway Tunnel, site of Beauchamp’s barbecuing. Yay for getting on the wrong tram!

Alcatraz came into view as Hyde crested Russian Hill and at the first cable car stop, I pulled out the camera and snapped a couple of shots off. One of the many pleasures I'm discovering about this city is the sudden and surprising vistas it offers up at each intersection. In spite of the topography, rather than following the contours, the streets are laid out in a standard grid pattern, so the slopes can be pretty extreme.

Alighting from the cable car at the bottom of Hyde, I explored the Hyde Street pier a little before finding a seat and examining the damage from my cable car misadventure. It turned out fairly well, as I’d arrived just a few streets east of where the Powell/Mason car would have dropped me and closer to the waterfront; Rather than exploring Fisherman’s Wharf and retracing my steps for the reverse journey, my error left me to wander with a purpose, back towards the other cable car line.

Among all the American accents, an Aussie stands out like a dog’s breakfast, so it was surprising indeed that by the end of the day, I’d heard at least half a dozen, the first at the Hyde Street Pier.

Following the waterfront around, and with no intention of doing any such thing, I found myself at a kiosk selling tickets for a bay cruise and, checking the schedule, found that a departure was imminent so I made a split second decision and boarded. After ninety minutes, described in detail here, I was returned to the wharf.

I pulled out my map to get my bearings and discovered I’d actually passed the Powell/Mason cable car line in my wanderings, so I backtracked a little and then wandered up to the terminus along a souvenired street, succumbing occasionally. Taking the cable car up Nob Hill, I alighted to undertake my Tales explorations before returning to take the cable car back to Market, only to have it sail straight past after a ten minute wait because it was already full to overflowing!

With every subsequent cable car likely to be just as full at this time of day, I considered my options. Having bought both a public transport guide map and a pass to all forms of Municipal public transport, a “Muni passport”, I quickly glanced at the guide in time to see that the bus which was just stopping at the same corner was the exact one that I needed to get me back to the hotel, which it did, via North Beach, Chinatown and the Stockton Tunnel. Might have to catch that bus again for a closer look if I have time!

As an aside, most of the buses in San Francisco are electrically powered via overhead cables and are therefore as quiet as a Melbourne tram when stopped at an intersection.

The bus dropped me at Stockton and Geary so that I might have a bit of a look at Union Square. I was surprised to discover both Macy’s and Neiman Marcus on this corner and, though my pulse has never quickened upon sighting a Department store, I did venture into Macy’s just for the sake of it. It took roughly two minutes to establish that it was, in fact, a Department Store like any at home, though on the way out, I did manage to snap a great aerial view of Union Square!

On the way back to the hotel, I considered dinner options and finally convinced myself that being bad was actually being good when I again saw the add in the window of Carl’s Jr (a burger chain) offering their “Big Burger” for $1.29. It was okay, round about whopper size, and was at least a cheap dinner!

By this time it was raining quite heavily so when I got back to the hotel, a hot bath was definitely in order and went down VERY well after all the walking I did today.

Cheers, Rob ;)

In case you were wondering, references to Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" in this postcard will be explained in another dedicated to the great man and his work. The title is taken from one of Maupin's most beloved characters, Anna Madrigal's comparison of San Franciscans with Atlanteans because of their enthusiasm for life in spite of the constant threat to their city of "the big quake", and because of the pyramid which towers above both cities with its glowing beacon.

Alcatraz came into view...

The Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory

Hyde Street and its cable car line from the pier.

Fisherman's Wharf.

A disturbance at the wharf

Beatle-esque view of the Bay Bridge.

Perhaps she's pretending to be a tram before the Transamerica Pyramid?

On the cable car.

Off the cable car.

I don't think any shot I took in the city better demonstrates its sheer vertical scale than this one.

PG&E, local electricity & gas supplier and villian of Erin Brokovich fame.

A fine example of the ornate beauty of San Franciscan architecture.

A detail of the same beautiful building.

I had to snap the U-Haul van, having seen similar vehicles on American programs so often, most recently in the Seattle episode of Six Feet Under.

A beautiful, pink, wooden San Franciscan.

Bank of the West...  Not quite our own Bank of Scotland owned BankWest.

Union Square from Macy's with Tiffany and Saks opposite.


© Rob Morgan 2005