A month had come and gone since I had left Portland, Maine to travel out west. The last four weeks were a blur of overstimulation. The daily sensory overload was starting to take its toll and I began to think about how I would need a vacation after this vacation. I was glad to be taking this trip alone because I am convinced the pace I was moving at would have killed anyone accompanying me. This was not a relaxing trip, it was a mission to see everything worthwhile on the western half of the United States in the least amount of time possible. I would drive to a location and bike or hike to everything I deemed worth seeing before getting in the car to do it all over again. I had nothing other than the next destination planned, only figuring out where I would sleep when I became too exhausted to continue. There is a certain sensory overload you get when exploring a new place. Your senses are at their sharpest, taking in each little detail and working overtime to piece together every new thing you are seeing in order to create an overall picture of an area. Physically being somewhere is the only way to accurately piece together this puzzle and no amount of pictures can replace what the senses create in the moment. This sensory overload quickly diminishes over a day or two until you are not working nearly as hard to process what you are seeing and you begin to have a comfort and understanding of your surroundings. It is at this point, right before my brain could relax in a moment of familiarity, that I would hit the road for my next destination.
I left Las Vegas, Nevada behind and drove the four and a half hours to Grand Canyon National Park. As I entered the park I noticed it looked oddly unassuming. I had spent the last month travelling in and out of the mountains with constant fluctuations in elevation and I must have become accustomed to this. The flat pine forests appeared unremarkable and I found myself surprised by this. I drove along the south entrance road until reaching the visitor’s center. The visitor’s center was nestled along the Rim Trail, a long trail system bordering the canyon. I parked the car and made my way to an overlook at Mather Point. I was immediately taken back by the grandeur of it all. I guess I had not given much thought to the topography of the Grand Canyon before I arrived. The uninspiring drive into the park lowered my expectations and then I was shocked by the massive void in the earth I had found. It was as though I was staring at the exact opposite of a tall mountain range, both being equally impressive. The big difference between a mountain range and the Grand Canyon, aside from the obvious, is you see a mountain range coming from a long way away. You know it is coming and it slowly builds in size as you approach it. In contrast, the Grand Canyon is surrounded by nothing particularly spectacular and you are hit with the canyon’s brilliance all at once as you suddenly arrive at the earth’s edge. Without having given this much prior thought, it took me by surprise.
The red rock juts downward abruptly adding to the vertigo inducing view. Several miles stand between either side of the canyon, making any journey across a very long one. The canyon’s width is only dwarfed by its length as it snakes through the desert for hundreds of miles. Smaller peaks and valleys lie below and shoot up and down throughout the canyon until reaching the Colorado River at the base of it all.
Being time constrained, I forewent the multi-day hikes and rafting excursions and decided to hit the easy highlights. I headed west along the Rim Trail to Hopi Point. While all the vantage points I passed along the way were good, this one is a well-publicized favorite. After leaving Hopi Point I headed back east to Yaki Point and Grandview Point. Each stop was a unique, breathtaking view of different sections of the Grand Canyon. I continued east to the Tusayan Museum and Ruins where the remains of an Ancestral Puebloan settlement said to date back to 1185 A.D. sits preserved. With the remains of Native American settlements dating back hundreds of years and only a small percentage of the canyon surveyed, there is a lot of artifacts and history left undiscovered. Many tribes including the Havasupai, Hopi, Hualapai, Navajo, and Paiute once called this area home.
My last stop in the park was the Desert View Watchtower. This perfectly executed re-creation of an Indian watchtower was envisioned by architect Mary Colter. Colter was so demanding in the building of this watchtower that any sign of a modern tool mark on the outside of the stone structure was inexcusable. The tower sits seventy feet high on a cliff side overlooking the canyon and the Colorado River. The circular interior spirals up leading to several different floors. Murals painted by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie cover the walls and add to the authentic feel.
I finished off the day by finding a campsite right outside the park entrance and taking some time to relax. I followed a dirt road up into the forest until I decided on a secluded site deep in the woods. A stone fire ring had been placed in the clearing where I parked and it sat begging to be used. I took what daylight I had left and walked around collecting firewood. I fashioned the wood in a teepee-like structure utilizing various layers of both kindling and larger pieces of wood. My preparation paid off as night fell and I brought the glowing beast to life. I could feel the heat radiating off the fire as I sat in the back of my SUV eating dinner. I stared at the mesmerizing flames until I got tired and shut my eyes for the night, leaving the fire to eventually burn itself out.
The drive from Redwood National Park in Northern California to San Francisco was beautiful. It started off along the coast with the ocean and mountains funneling me along. The landscape slowly changed as the roadway diverged inland and vineyards began to fill the green rolling hills. I got lost in the drive, opening the sunroof and rolling down the windows, realizing why people suggest a convertible for a drive through California. The pleasant landscape continued as I arrived in San Francisco. Large hills butted up against waterways, rocky coastlines seamlessly blended with residential developments, and grand bridges linked one otherwise inaccessible piece of land to another. It became glaringly apparent why so many people love California. The area appeared to be nothing short of a paradise. Temperate weather, stunning landscapes, hills, ocean, lush vegetation; a combination that is hard to beat.
The somewhat darker reality hit me the first evening I was in town. I followed my GPS to a Holiday Inn somewhere in the outskirts of San Francisco in an attempt to find a place to park my car for the night. I stopped at an intersection at one point and had that feeling you get when someone outside your field of vision is looking at you. I turned my head to find two Hispanic males in a lowered pickup truck inspecting me and my vehicle. After spending several years as a cop I feel as though I have a pretty good sense to know when something is off, and something here felt off. I continued to the Holiday Inn several miles down the road, pulled into the parking lot, looked around, and drove right back out. It was one of those areas that looked just rough enough for me to know immediately I was not comfortable staying there. I plugged in the next closest Holiday Inn which showed to be located in the middle of downtown San Francisco. I choose to use Holiday Inns for a couple of reasons. First, Holiday Inns are generally the most common hotel and are usually grouped within close proximity to several other decent hotel choices. Second, Holiday Inns typically fall in that sweet spot of nice enough to where you feel safe in the area but not too nice to where someone will notice if you park there for the night. I forewent my usual checking of the freecampsites.net website at this point, automatically assuming there would be no good options within reasonable driving distance from such a large city. As I arrived downtown at the next hotel I found there were electronic gates blocking anyone without proper access from entering the parking lot in order to keep unwanted guests from taking advantage of the prime location. Before completely admitting defeat I checked one other hotel nearby hoping to find a different outcome in the same location. Not surprisingly, they all had a similar parking barrier. Defeated and tired I decided to check the freecampsites.net website on the off chance there was an option somewhere within driving distance. I was surprised to find one location, rated well, that was right at the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge. I plugged the coordinates into my GPS, headed away from downtown, drove over the bridge, and immediately turned off into a large viewing area with ample parking. I looped around the long semicircle drive and pulled into a spot between two RVs that appeared to be staked out for the night. I proceeded to settle in for the night and before covering the large rear window of the SUV I took a minute to admire the illuminated Golden Gate Bridge that was literally steps away from where I was parked. I was thankful as I thought to myself how it would be difficult to find a better view anywhere in San Francisco for any amount of money, and this was not costing me a dime.
The next morning I awoke with a sense of purpose, knowing I had a lot of city to cover. I had a general itinerary planned out from suggestions I had previously received and articles I had read online. I drove into the city and parked along the waterfront around Pier 33. Having already spent some time driving around the city, I had an uneasy feeling about leaving my car and bike unattended for a prolonged period of time. This unsettling feeling of the city having more than its share of crime was more pronounced than anywhere else I had previously stopped during this particular trip around the country. I paid a relatively large amount of money for all day parking in an open lot across the street from the pier. After parking my car, I walked across the street to the ferry that would bring me to my first stop, Alcatraz Island.
I took the short boat ride across the bay to the notoriously inescapable prison that had housed such infamous criminals as Al Capone, “Machine-Gun” Kelley, “Whitey” Bulger, “Creepy” Karpis, “The Birdman” Stroud, and several other convicts with less interesting nicknames. After picking up a handset for a self guided tour, I walked around the prison for a couple of hours as the recorded voices of previous inmates and guards spoke to me through the padded headphones. The voices recounted stories of life at the prison, how riots happened in certain rooms, and murders took place in certain cells. The colorful history was fascinating as I heard the stories and could touch the very walls of where it all happened. On the lighter side of the island’s history, it was interesting to learn that the American Indians confiscated the island for nineteen months as a way of protesting unfair treatment. This happened right around 1970, several years after the prison had been officially shut down due to repairs being too costly to keep up. Many politically charged statements written by these American Indians can still be seen today around the prison walls.
After I returned from Alcatraz I made my way back to my car to make sure my bike had not been forcefully removed from the locked roof rack it sat on. I was glad to find all my belongings intact but was not surprised when I noticed the car next to mine had a smashed out rear driver’s side window, and from my experience, I would guess a missing bag. Thieves typically use a small piece of ceramic taken off a spark plug which they throw at a car window to shatter it. This takes only seconds and allows them to quickly reach in your car and grab the bag you left sitting on your back seat. Most car alarms don’t sound if the door itself is not opened and it allows for a quick and easy payday for the thief. My car was likely left alone because the locked bike was too bulky and attention grabbing to mess with out in the open and I had such a confusing array of belongings strewn about the car, it would be too time consuming to figure out what was worth grabbing. The single bag out in the open, empty or not, is the usual target for these sorts of smash and grabs. I contemplated whether or not I should move my car and I ended up deciding to stay. It was highly unlikely anymore cars would be burglarized at this exact location again on the same day it had already been hit. In reality, parking next to the car that was just broken into is probably the safest bet because the police will be showing up at some point once it is reported and the thieves know this. I took my bike down and covered all the windows on the off chance that any other prying eyes might pass bye. Considering I had paid for all day parking, I decided to leave my car here and cover the city by bike.
Lunch time was rolling around so I biked over to the Ferry Building in search of a particular restaurant I had read about in Time Magazine. The writer strongly suggested The Slanted Door for a great meal and highly praised the shaking beef in particular. Being known for its great food, I was excited to taste what San Francisco had to offer, as the battle for the most restaurants per capita is a close one with my own Portland, Maine. I had barely glanced over the menu before the waiter came over to introduce himself. I asked him about the shaking beef and he enthusiastically explained that it was one of their most popular dishes. “Sold,” I said before considering anything else. While I waited for my meal I soaked in the atmosphere. It was nice, without being stuffy. I was rather casually dressed but did not feel completely out of place, at least during the lunch rush. I felt a little awkward about leaving my hat on inside, as I generally consider this rude, but I was afraid the unkept mess lying underneath would be somehow less acceptable. Once the food came out I immediately noticed the well thought out presentation and I hoped it tasted as good as it looked. The struggle with a pricey meal is you want it to meet the lofty expectations the price tag creates, and more often then not it doesn’t. This meal, for me, for the price, just barely missed the mark. While it was very good, I have had other meals, oftentimes for less money, that have been better. The filet mignon was accompanied by spinach, red onions, and some sort of lime sauce. There was no significant complexity of flavors building off each other, just a slightly overbearing zest from the lime sauce.
After eating lunch, the torture began. I spent the day covering San Fransisco by bike. Although much more efficient than walking, the effort climbing all the steep roadways became excruciating after several hours. I biked from AT&T Park on the east side of San Francisco all the way to the Great Highway on the west coast. I stopped at many of the notable neighborhoods dotting this area and explored the surprisingly beautiful Golden Gate Park. I would consider the thought of not going to Golden Gate Park while in San Francisco as being equally absurd as not going to Central Park while in New York City.
I eventually made my way north along the water passing long stretches of sandy beaches and eventually coming back around to the Golden Gate Bridge. I continued around the bay until I was stopped in my tracks by the sight and smell of a large gathering of food trucks. The day was disappearing along with my dinner plans and I had many miles left to bike to get back to my car. I followed the sound of live music as I road up to the entrance of this intentionally laid out circle of food truck deliciousness. Off the Grid organizes food trucks in various parts of the city, using a variety of great food to bring the community together. With all of the choices, I had to limit myself to only going to the trucks with the longest lines and what I theorized would be the best food. I started off with a tent called Happy Dumplings and decided to try the pork belly along with the spinach and chicken dumplings. Both were fantastic, but the pork belly took the win. I migrated over to Bombzies BBQ looking for a main course and the Korean BBQ with kimchi and green onion over a bowl of jasmine rice was suggested. The flavors were outstanding and the dish did not disappoint in any way. Before I could escape this circle of temptation, the Johnny Doughnuts truck reeled me in and the cashier could not give me a definitive answer as to whether the cinnamon sugar doughnut filled with pastry cream or the cinnamon roll was a better choice; so I went with both. Living around what I would argue are the best bakeries in the country, my expectations are high. These sugar filled balls of goodness were tasty, but not nearly as exceptional as the food I had experienced right before them. Of course this pastry mediocrity did not stop me from finishing them off though.
Having a full belly and a long rest, my legs were shocked when I returned to the bike and began tackling more hills. Apparently they thought I was done for the day and had began their post workout tightening and aching. I made it around the north end and entered the Fisherman’s Wharf area. Pier 39 was nearby where I could hear the sea lions barking at each other as they all tried to squeeze on top of the small floating docks in the bay. I road along the remainder of the waterfront and finally made it back to the car. The sun had just about completely set, my legs were screaming, and my car windows were still intact. It was a good day.