We head out of Santa Monica along the coast and I feel I’m struggling beneath forces more pervasive than the damp Pacific air. The highway is hectic past Malibu where we become snared in our first major traffic jam as we cut in from the coast. It takes a long time snaking past Pasadena and eventually we stop on the outskirts of Santa Barbara at an empty, rustic restaurant.
There’s pleasant rolling countryside all the way to San Luis Obispo. The atmosphere of Steinbeck Country is suggested in sun-drenched farmland strung between the coastal hills. We leave the main road for Morro Bay to find the dingy Motel 6 just south of the town.The view is a strange combination of industrial and scenic – El Capitan, the giant rock dome in the bay is visible and we’re also in the lea of an impressive power station with its phalanx of chimneys. The route to town bisects an unpromising wilderness where we surprise a courting couple (oops), before finding ourselves at Morro Bay’s Embarcadero. This really is Californian coastal quaint, the wooden buildings on the wharf housing plenty of restaurants, cafes and bars with live music. I’m not feeling too well and I go back to collect the car while the others go for food. The walk back along the coast is not so straightforward as I had imagined but the falling sun lifts the spirits before sinking into darkness.
The night is bad and herself handles the driving chores for the run up to Monterrey. We wind along the bulky coast with the temperature skimming the low sixties. There are few cars on the road and very little by way of houses or pitstops off it. By midday we reach Monterrey and the motel looks good with a curvy Hockneyesque swimming pool. The Missus goes in search of a chemist while I bed down. She is met with sympathy as the chemist girl wonders if the holiday has been spoiled. It’s not really like that. It is unfair to be struck down on a journey I had been looking forward to but that’s the way it goes – better near the end than at the start.
After medication time (don’t ask) it’s down to Fisherman’s Wharf for a slice of Monterrey. There’s loads happening here and, if a bit touristic, it’s bright and cheerful. We spend some time with a man displaying his colourful menagerie of parrots and macaws. Most places offer the local delicacy of seafood chowder served in a bread bowl. Later we wander on towards Cannery Row although we don’t have time to investigate the Steinbeck connection further. There are pelicans aplenty in the cove, very much the pet bird of the town. At the harbour too is the site where the Americans first came ashore to claim California in the 1840s. Monterrey was the regional capital then but by 1849 all eyes turned to San Francisco.
I attempt driving but can’t get back into it so herself takes us into San Francisco. There’s a rollercoaster entry into the city from off the freeway as the centre lane goes airbound before hooking up to the grid. The grid itself never took account of the hills of the peninsula so the rollercoaster continues through the streets heading downtown. Leaving the boys and the baggage off at the Hilton, I take the Cadillac the last few blocks to the drop off. Fun, in a mildly terrifying way, as streets disappear into the sky and the skyline plunges up and down over the bonnet like a wave. I follow a cable car – a no-no, apparently – before getting blasted for sawing across two lanes in my last on-street manoeuvre. The garage hands are impressed with the car but as nonplused as we by the plastic thingies which have taken up space in the boot since Denver. We say our fond goodbyes to 300 OXT.
The cable car terminus on Market street is only a couple of blocks away and after life on the road it’s a pleasure to take public transport. The boys are on the runner board as we take the trip over to Fisherman’s Wharf. This proves to be our main centre of exploration for the duration, with boat trips and bikes for hire while shops, restaurants and panhandlers abound. Regarding the latter, it’s best to keep eyes averted or purposefully focussed to avoid parting with your cash to the many needy, and probably not-so-needy, beggars that infest the city. At the cable car terminus the couple ahead of us in the queue asked directions from a passerby and found themselves charged for the privilege. At the Wharf a beggar basks in the honesty of his pitch with a sign asking for money but admitting that he’ll probably blow it all on booze.
Oran is briefly snared by a panhandler with the line – ten bucks says I can tell you where you got your shoes. Oran knows he’s got them on his feet – “You’re the guy who got money off my Uncle Brendan last year,” he says. Your man still wants payment but we think he should invest in a new line.
We eat at a Rainforest where the waitress is keen to regale us with details of her workbreaks. “Hi, I’m Debbie, I’ll be your waitress this evening;” but then again – “Hi, this is Brenda, she’ll be standing in for me while I take my break;” and then – “Hi, I’m back from my break….” This is all very well, but any chance we might get a break, some food, even?
The lads discover a sudden yen to see Alcatraz, the mothership is, I suppose, calling them home. We get tickets for three from a laconic Hispanic in a sidewalk stall who enthuses about Frisco’s chill and fog. It’s part of the city’s charm, he says. In fact the only time we see the notorious fog is picturesquely from the comfort of our hotel room. It is spectacular, rolling in and rolling away, taking bits of the city with it, illuminating other parts against its soft backdrop. I am happy not to be caught in it – I have improved but still feel a bit foggy myself.
Next morning we hike up through Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach and on down to Fisherman’s Wharf for the boat. Chinatown is everything you would expect, bustling and bright and entirely Chinese. The financial district forms a jagged, incongruously modern backdrop to the area which was the original settlement of Yerba Buena, holding its old world soul within the ethnic brashness. As is often the way, Chinatown segues into little Italy (viz New York, Bray etc.). North Beach takes the top of the rise before falling away to the coast by way of Columbus Avenue. There’s a pleasant collection of Italian restaurants near Washington Square where we eat later.
Meanwhile it’s time for the trip to the island. Alcatraz is the city’s big tourist attraction and tickets are at a premium in high season. It’s worth it. The bay is blustery and the fortress forebodingly dramatic, its haunting familiarity due to Hollywood’s pervasive heritage. Oran and Davin get into some serious posing here as we follow in the footsteps of the Bird Man and other badguy heroes refracted from reality through the silver screen. But this was a real place with real stories stained into its walls and fittings. It’s eerie and moving. Strange that, on this of all islands, a sense of freedom prevails.
We return to North Beech and a sleekly traditional Italian restaurant, Volare, where we eat excellent pasta by an open window. That’s not necessarily the best idea in San Francisco as Davin is manhandled by a passing tramp, albeit in a reasonably goodspirited way. The event breaks the social ice with our dining neighbours and we fall into conversation with them for the evening. Joe Donohue and his wife were here before back in the halcyon sixties and they’ve returned from their home in Farmington, New Mexico, to touch base with those good old times. They’ve been coast to coast in the US throughout their lives and he travels extensively worldwide too. He tells me he does business with David Hay of Celtic and Chelsea fame. He is ‘Irish’, you can tell, and I had seen them giving us the eye before we fell into conversation.
On the last day of our summer vacation we rent bikes and cycle across the Golden Gate bridge to Sausalito. The cycle route is well delineated and mostly flat. It passes through the Praesidio, an extensive parkland along the north of the peninsula. The place is packed as this is the 4th of July and all of Frisco, his wife and kids are out lounging, playing ball and barbecuing. There’s a sweaty climb up to the bridge and the cycle track is too hectic with that serious breed of cyclist who make car drivers seem comparatively relaxed.
The signage disappears on the far side of the bridge causing a bit of speculative exploration through a village in the cove before a policeman points us on the rocky road to Sausalito. This is a pretty but packed seaside town and we just manage to get a table on the cramped veranda of a snack bar overlooking the water. We take the ferry back which is a welcome relief from pumping pedals. It’s pleasantly cool and blustery on the bay after the exertions of a hot afternoon. You can’t get a trolley bus back from the wharf with all the holiday crowds so we hail a cab and get another switchback tour of the streets of San Francisco. The driver senses our tourist desires and takes us to the base of Lombard Street before the breathtaking plunge back to O’Farrell Street and the Hilton.
Tonight we have decided to go out in style, dining at the Hilton’s rooftop restaurant on the fortieth floor. We’re dizzy up here in the spires of the city and the fourth of July fireworks are all set to go off by dessert. A group of Americans nearby is getting emotional. As the sun goes down and fireballs burst out over the skyline they launch into a ragged version of God Bless America.