Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize

Original posted in London to New York blog, June 7, 2010

San Francisco, California

“ARE you going to San Francisco?”
WELL yes actually, just not for bloody long enough.

Not that any time we spent there would have been long enough to explore this mesmerising city, although it’s not a place built for walking around.

We had around 36 hours from rolling in to rolling out, complete with change of bus and a fresh pair of drivers, and between us we only scratched the surface of the city in the bay.

We weren’t helped by arriving on the shores of San Francisco bay in not exactly the best state of health, courtesy of the short, but intense, celebrations of my 40th birthday the night before.

Golden Gate
The Golden Gate Bridge. It’s there somewhere. Honest.

My head was shrouded in a fog similar to that which enveloped the Golden Gate Bridge as we woke to what should have been one of the iconic views of the whole trip.

And things were not helped by Mike’s decision to climb off the Green Tortoise and head back to Wales where he can enjoy some more mist-obscured views on a regular basis.

Why he opted to head back two weeks from the end of the line is down to Mike, but his absence has been felt, particularly by those at the back of the bus.

Mason Street
Down The Slope – The hill back down to our hostel in San Francisco

With Mike’s final decision still hanging in the air and fortified by a proper American diner breakfast, a group of us set off to explore the city – straight up a bloody big hill.

You would have thought that our decision to head for the water might have meant a downhill walk to sea level, but San Francisco has water on three sides and one huge crest in the middle.

Eventually, having hauled ourselves up the hill and down the slope, our select little band found ourselves down by Fishermen’s Wharf and Pier 39, both Class A tourist traps.

Despite that, and sizeable crowds on a blisteringly hot Sunday, they are not oppressive or too tacky and there is plenty to catch the eye.

Sea Lions, Pier 39
The sea lions do a passable imitation of the back of the bus at Pier 39

Phoebe was like a kid in a candy store. Quite literally as she stumbled across The Candy Baron store and, added to the slurpee she had just downed, went on a bit of a sugar rush.

Not that you need any form of artificial stimulant to enjoy the sea lions who have made their home on the pontoons alongside the pier.

They are hugely entertaining and you can watch on for ages as they climb over each other to find the best place to sleep.

They reminded me of travelling on the bus as they are smelly, noisy, spend hours sprawled out asleep and one of them was the spitting image of Phil when he heads back to the sleeping area on the bus and crashes out among our feet. He makes a similar noise as well.

Golden Gate Bridge
The Bay Bridge – albeit from a distance on the boat to Alcatraz

Sad to say, the exertions of the previous couple of days had caught up with some of us and having let a streetcar take the strain for part of the return journey, we made maximum use of the hostel to catch up on some kip – and showers – before bidding farewell to Mike with a couple of quiet beers.

Refreshed and with final farewells said, we headed out (via the flatter outside route) into an even hotter day on the bay to visit Alcatraz, military fort turned infamous prison turned Hollywood setting (via another trip to the Candy Baron, where Nick took on the role of Pied Piper with an array of sweets).

And a mighty interesting trip it was too.

If it wasn’t for its less than salubrious history, Alcatraz would probably now be a coveted plot of land with spectacular views in the middle of San Francisco Bay, albeit reached via a treacherous mile and a half of water.

Welcome to Alcatraz
Welcome to Alcatraz

But for more than three decades up to 1963, this was the most notorious prison in the States, housing the likes of Al Capone and Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud, who for all his

kindness to birds – albeit, never during his time on The Rock – was a bit of a bastard to human beings.

He had a tendency to kill them, while even his winged friends were largely a cover for an illicit

Cell at Alcatraz
Cell at Alcatraz

still he was running in his cell before being transferred to Alcatraz.

Our brief introductory talk from Ranger Al debunked his myth and several others – including the tale which inspired the Clint Eastwood movie Escape From Alcatraz, although the three-man breakout did happen with none of the bodies/escapees ever found.

San Francisco from Alcatraz
Tormenting view – San Francisco seen from Alcatraz

You get to see the cells occupied and tunnelled out of by the three men, plus other infamous and bloody spots throughout the prison on a fascinating audio tour, voiced by former wardens and inmates.

Not sure the stabbings and prison riots need to sound quite so realistic, but well worth the admission fee it all is.

Sadly, we got to see very little of the rest of San Fran, just managing to get back to the hostel, pick up our gear and cram an all-you-can-eat-for-just-a-few-dollars Indian buffet down our throats before being collected by the new bus for the next leg of the trip.

Lower Yosemite Falls
Lower Yosemite Falls

The new wheels come complete with a fresh two-man driving team, Matty being replaced by Lucas and Charlie, who had actually climbed aboard in Seattle and had his eyes well and truly opened by the chaos of Arcata.

It also witnessed another change of pace from our whirlwind tour of the west coast’s city sights to the grandiose settings of the big American National Parks.

And we started with a biggie, waking up the next morning on the banks of a swollen river in Yosemite Valley.

What followed was a glorious day sweltering under a roasting sun and walking the miles of trails around the valley in the shadow of great granite buttresses which rise vertically around you – rather like walking around a huge, open-air cathedral, only with more running water.

One of many stunning views around the Yosemite Valley

Eschewing some of the more ridiculous sounding trails (“keep going up the hill for four hours…”), my more sedate day’s walking opened up with the short trip to Yosemite Falls which are quite spectacular.

From there it was a quick trip to the visitors’ centre (where Pam had to prod me awake during their film on the park) and a walk up to Mirror Lake for lunch before branching out on my own for the three-mile yomp back along the valley to the bus (via a swimming pool and its much-needed showers).

The Yellow Brick Road
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – The plan for the final leg of the trip

It was no surprise that we turned in early that night, partly because the bus was already on the road, but not before enjoying the spectacular route out of the park and a quick bout of the new obsession sweeping the group – cribbage.

It’s a far cry from my days learning how to play in the cutthroat sessions at family gatherings, which have helped establish a bit of a reputation as a shark.

Long may it continue…


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