Gerard and I are on the California Zephyr, the train that travels from San Francisco to Chicago, almost all the way across the US of A. We’re in a superliner roomette, a tiny cabin of our own, two seats facing each other that turn into a bed with another bed that pulls down from above our heads. We can’t keep our luggage in here because it’s just too cramped – only room for the essentials. But we are comfortable. There’s a little fold out table in the centre, power for my computer, air con, a remarkably slim closet for our coats, reading lights, bottled water and some brochures and maps. Our steward is Gwendoline. She makes announcements every now and then over the broadcast system in which she reminds us that we must clean up ‘behind’ ourselves after using the bathrooms or showers, in consideration of others, but she will do all the heavy work and fold down our beds at night. I feel supremely relaxed, which is so very welcome because I was quite anxious for the first few days of this adventure – but as each day passes, I feel more and more settled – the little wound up motor inside has stopped whirring, for a while at least. There is something about train travel that grounds you in the present and lets all your worries and irrationalities slip right away. We just passed through Sacramento.
Our journey started five days ago in San Francisco which, from various distant observation points, such as the stunningly minimal De Young Museum tower, the cramped and rather grungy Coit tower, or from Alcatraz or any of the extraordinary bridges including the remarkable fog enveloped Golden Gate, is kind of pale all over – a beige, whitish, greyish, stone-coloured city – a light city – light, but incredibly dense. It’s also reminiscent of Sydney – the water views, the ferries, the hilliness, the housing… And people seem so very relaxed, friendly and tolerant – tolerant of difference, in particular.
We stayed on Geary Street, in the Handlery Hotel, diagonally opposite Union Square, which is directly opposite Macy’s. When you take the lift to the 8th floor of Macy’s, you leave the bright world of department store shopping and enter a huge, dimly lit, pseudo art deco bar and dining room with people milling in the foyer, lining up to reserve dinner seats, waiters appearing and disappearing with trays of food between the two sides of the long dining room and others, like us, gazing at the overwhelming display of just about every cheesecake imaginable, trying to decide which one to buy. There are also people moving in and out of the outdoor area, a giant balcony overlooking Union Square where the lights of the Starlight Ballroom start flashing at dusk and it all feels like a scene in a movie. Below, on the corner of Geary and Powell, a fabulous busking trio of older Afro Americans start setting up for their nightly gig, featuring the Beatles, the Stones, jazz, rock and blues…
Back in our hotel room (which is very nice, really, with a bay window overlooking Geary street and the very glamorous Westin hotel) our toilet becomes seriously blocked. Housekeeping come with plungers and temporarily fix the problem, but it starts threatening to overflow again in the middle of the night and, in the morning, after breakfast in the Daily Grill, the hotel’s classic American diner with leather and timber booths, silvery oxidizing mirrors, big circular opaque marbled glass lights, and Mel Torme crooning in the background, we are moved to a massive one bedroom suite.
On that first morning, we also meet Christine and Csaba, travellers from Sydney whom we run into again several times – over breakfast, at dinner and in the Japanese Gardens in Golden Gate park – before our individual journeys separate. They are one day ahead of us, and seem to have all things touristy in hand in a way that makes me feel rather envious. We get along well and share some travel adventures and our emails. On our final night, we run into each other in the big Irish pub they recommended that’s just two doors down from our hotel. The walls here are covered with images of baseball players, a small band plays Irish music, everyone is exceedingly happy and friendly, and we enjoy a very hearty and inexpensive meal.
On our second day, we are booked on Dylan’s famous tour of San Francisco, joining 10 other people in a mini van that takes us to all the key areas in the city, across the Golden Gate bridge, into Muir woods where we walk amongst the stunning redwoods, back over the bridge and down through China town. We visit city Hall, the Mission, the Castro, Dolores Park, drive down a long alley famous for its murals, learn why there are so many homeless in San Francisco, drive along Washington Square and the Italian district, along various streets in billionaires row, stroll along Haight Street and photograph the corner of Ashbury – and so on. Our guide is good – personable and intelligent. We see Janis Joplin’s House, the various houses occupied by the Grateful Dead, Danielle Steele’s and Liza Minelli’s mansions and, there is a special, unexpected bonus, when we witness a group of secret service agents hovering outside Ann Getty’s house. Barrack Obama is arriving later in the day and he will be having dinner with Mrs. Getty the following day. According to our guide, it’s mandatory for all dignitaries and powerful people to have dinner with the billionaire-ess when they visit San Francisco. In the evening we explore the wonderful world of shopping along Market Street, in Macy’s and at Westfield. Everything seems bigger, brighter, better and more varied than in Australia.
The next day we catch the MUNI – only $2 per trip and completely wheelchair friendly as we witnessed twice on the one journey – and head for Golden Gate Park. On the map, the park looks manageable, but in reality it covers such a huge area it’s only possible to tackle a small section on foot. The de Young fine art museum, the Academy of Sciences, the Japanese tea gardens and the Conservatory of flowers are all within walking distance of each other. When I catch my first glimpse of these places, I am overwhelmed. It is impossible to describe how surreal and dreamlike it is to stand between the de Young and the Academy of Sciences. Both buildings are extraordinary in completely different ways. The de Young is bold, angular and defiantly contemporary; the Academy, on the other hand, looks like it belongs in Brasilia, with its massive curved grass roof dotted with circular skylights. There are palms as well as plane trees in the gardens, a giant fountain, steps leading up and down, roadways and footpaths, a giant classical dome and columns in the distance and, near the entrance to the de Young, two snarling, somewhat malnourished, white marble lions with human heads that crouch on either side of a giant bronze urn created by Gustave Dore. The urn is crawling with vines, grapes, cupids, cherubs and drunken revellers that cover its dark shiny surface like big black writhing interconnected tendrils that are about to peel off and release themselves into the sky. I had no idea that Dore created such things!
The de Young is featuring an exhibition of early Dutch art – etchings and paintings by Rembrandt and his contemporaries, including the signature work of the show by Vermeer, Girl with a pearl earring. It is a stunningly beautiful painting, displayed in a room of its own, the walls painted dark grey and the work itself fitted within a wall sized panel that creates two more physical and conceptual ‘frames’. So the painting itself is framed and sits within a frame-like display box, which in turn is within a frame-like panel which is in a room that also acts as a frame. The image of the Girl is also all over San Francisco – on banners, on public transport, in papers and tourist brochures. So as well as being framed by the museum, she is framed by the city itself. Gerard admitted that tears came to his eyes when he saw her; it was not just because of her beauty but also because of the craftsmanship and the vision of Vermeer, and the fact that she is a Dutch girl, painted by a Dutch artist…
I loved the paintings (there was one of a girl eating oysters that was so alive, so real, so seductive as she gazed out of the canvas directly at the viewer with a truly coquettish smile) but I was most intrigued by the prints: the shells, the flowers, the tiny revolutionary landscapes in which the image is two thirds sky, the bizarre portraits of travelling performers, and the predominance of images that reflect the dark side of life – death riding a horse, thirty men hung from one tree for treason, skulls, blackness, printers ink applied thickly and wiped back sparingly, a world that seems constantly on the verge of the ominous. These works captured my eye the most.
We climbed the de Young tower afterwards, a futuristic oblong wing of the museum, covered with a punch hole design that characterises the whole building. Its observation deck has superb views of the city from every direction. The foyer area that leads to the tower lift is also remarkable, decorated with spiky, other worldly hanging sculptures by Ruth Asawa that look like creatures from Klee drawings come to life. There is also a fabulous series of shops and a café that spills out into a sculpture garden.
We had wanted to visit the Academy of Sciences building to see just what you would see through the domed skylights in the grassy roof, but as the entry fee was $35 and there was only 1 hour to go until closing time, we headed for the Japanese Gardens instead, which are just stunning, and where we ran into our Australian friends Christine and Csaba, and then caught the MUNI back to Union Square.
Our final two days were taken up with more visits to tourist meccas, including Alcatraz, the small island prison just 20 minutes ferry ride from Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s just like in the movies – incredibly bleak and reminiscent of Port Arthur in the way it treated its prisoners. My favourite part of the trip was hearing the National Parks Guide explain how to navigate the island. She stood in her uniform and hat on a platform where she called out clear, precise and slightly ironical rules and regulations about how to move about the island. Alcatraz is quite small but also quite steep and offers fabulous views of the city. It is also teaming with birdlife that nest in the various ruins of the prison. Before we caught the Alcatraz ferry, we wandered around Fisherman’s wharf and found ourselves magically drawn to Pier 39. You can hear Pier 39 well before you reach it – it’s the home of hundreds of seals that gather on an arrangement of interconnected floating wooden pontoons. The seals bask their heavy silky bodies in the sun, play-fight with each other, dive about in the water and languidly scratch themselves with their elongated finger-like flippers, all the while calling out to each other with honking seal voices that you can hear from hundreds of metres away.
After Alcatraz and Pier 39, I suggested we go to Coit Tower, which we could see from Fisherman’s Wharf. We meandered through the streets of Telegraph Hill up some 400 incredibly steep steps that run alongside densely packed houses and apartments, most with quite beautiful but small gardens, to reach the tower. It’s a rather bizarre 64 metre high concrete deco tower that offers fabulous views over the city and was built in 1933 to honour volunteer fire fighters. The ground floor is covered with distinctly socialist murals that feature working men and women from all walks of life painted by the Public Works of Art Project and probably highly influenced by Diego Rivera. Right in the centre of the tower is a cramped circular shop and ticket office that is almost impossible to navigate because it is so completely and utterly packed from floor to ceiling with souvenirs. Your ticket allows you to take a lift to the top of the tower to admire the fabulous views, but the whole experience is a bit cramped and a little bit grungy. From Coit Tower we walked past Little Italy down Grant Street, which features a wonderful stretch of unusual designer and second hand shops and a great little Antique Print Shop where Gerard bought a print of a Green’s Parrot. Further along, just before hitting China town, is the famous literary landmark, the City Lights bookstore – I can honestly say that every book I look at on the shelves was a book I wanted to read. Upstairs they have a great collection of work by Beat writers but I didn’t buy anything because I’m trying so desperately to keep down the weight of my luggage. We then ambled down to Union Square through colourful cramped China town.
On our final day we visited the fabulous San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, home to the Logan collection, which represents just about every great artist of the twentieth century including Duchamp, Brancusi, Rothko, Rauschenberg, Warhol, Pollock, Richter, Kiefer, Emin, Hirst, Gober, etc etc etc! One of my favourite rooms was devoted to paintings by the abstract expressionist Clyfford Still. I was stunned by how utterly contemporary his work is – large expanses of thick flat paint interrupted by jagged, electric moments of completely unexpected colour. And I was mesmerised by a miniature pair of children’s shoes – found objects by Sherry Levine. There was also a great exhibition of photography, much of it from a previously unprinted archive of film, by Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) who took superb images of everyday life during post war America. And, I should also mention the starkly minimal café and sculpture garden on the top floor of the museum, where we had coffee watched over by a giant bronze Louise Bourgeois spider.
A few blocks from the Museum, at the end of Market Street, is the beautiful Ferry Terminal Building where you can buy all kinds of wonderful and exotic food – cheeses, mushrooms, oysters, fish, breads, fruits. This is also where you catch the ferry to Sausalito, a suburb nestled down a hillside on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. When we arrived we were greeted by an aging hippy in a wheelchair (possibly a Vietnam veteran?) with a tiny pet dog under his jacket that was wearing blue sunglasses. I gave a donation and was allowed to pat the dog’s head which prompted her to howl a funny little doggy song, but all of a sudden she started snapping and snarling, no doubt sick of having to perform for the ferry passengers. We strolled along the waterfront, a relaxing place to have a coffee or an ice-cream and browse the shops, dominated by small boutiques that sell high quality but very kitsch art objects and clothing – paintings of angelic doe-eyed women hovering in fantasy landscapes, colourful blown glass earrings and necklaces, frilly floral pastel dresses. We shared a pecan and butter ice-cream and then caught the bus back to the other side of the Golden Gate to walk some of the way across the bridge. Gerard was super keen and went a few hundred metres but I didn’t venture far because I couldn’t cope with what was now peak hour traffic roaring by. We took lots of photos and then attempted to reach the magnificent Palace of Fine Arts – a huge, dream-like classical folly that was built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. Our map suggested it was just around the corner, but in reality it was kilometres away. We walked and walked and eventually asked directions from a local, who lives in one of the Presidio’s Pilot’s Row Houses, cute white two story cottages, all in a row and all exactly the same, looking suspiciously like they were designed by Walt Disney. We were directed to a free shuttle bus that dropped us off directly next to the Palace. The Palace itself is massive, set in lush grounds with an artificial lake and little pathways that take you amongst towering Corinthian columns, arches and domes. There are elaborate decorations – cherubs and Grecian maidens that gaze into huge urns like ancient soothsayers. The Palace was originally built to display art works, but now hosts theatrical events and is understandably a favourite venue for wedding photography.
We had an endless wait for the MUNI back to Union Square and then met our Sydney friends, Christine and Csaba, in the Irish pub two doors down from the hotel. The next morning we were up at 5:30am to catch the bus to Emmeryville where we boarded the California Zephyr, the train that takes us to our next stop – Salt Lake City.