A summery Christmas in Oakland and San Francisco; December 2013

My daughter Anna invited me down the coast to spend a few days with her and Brian celebrating Christmas and exploring the Bay area.  I waffled at the last minute; it’s not easy to leave a sweet wife who’s just caught one’s cold.  “Go have a beer with your daughter,” she croaked.  So I did.

Getting there

Getting thru security at SeaTac International Airport was interesting.  After emptying my pockets into a vegetable bag I had brought for the purpose, and taking off my belt due to the metal buckle, I headed into the security labyrinth.  A guy in a blue uniform stamped my boarding pass  and waved me to a particular aisle.

Next I came to the skinny gray arch of a ’90s style metal detector.  No trays were on the steel table in front of it, only little bowls for keys and such.  I was just working out what to do with my cell phone, 1-quart zip-top bag of 3.4 ounce bottles of liquid, etc. so they wouldn’t get stuck in the rollers when a TSA guy came over.  “What are you doing?”

“I’m just getting organized,” I said.  Why was he picking on me?  I started taking off my shoes.

“Leave those on,” he said.  “Don’t open that pack, just put it thru.”   He waved me toward the ancient metal detector, shoes still on.

Had I fallen thru a time warp into 1993?  On the other side, I picked up my bags.  I wandered, dazed, into the concourse, looking for the real security checkpoint.  I went all the way to my gate; there was none.  So there I was at Alaska Airlines gate D1, 90 minutes early.  I felt like going back and demanding a full body scan and luggage search.  “What do you mean, that’s it?  I went to a lot of trouble for you guys!  Couldn’t you at least wand me?”

A short, smooth flight to Oakland and a pleasant surprise.  My hardcore-pedestrian daughter wasn’t going to conduct me to the nearest BART station after all; she picked me up in a Zip Car.  We picked up Brian and went to Breads of India for a wonderful dinner; I had tandoori salmon.

SF Maritime National Historical Park

On Tuesday (Christmas eve), Anna and I traveled by BART and bus to the Maritime park near Ghiradelli Square on SF’s north shore.  While Seattle shivered in the low 40s, we were basking with clear skies in high 60s.  The main museum was closed, but there was a good small museum at the visitor center and four ships to visit at the dock.  If you don’t care about ships, skip to the next section   8) 

BalcluthaMost interesting was the Balclutha.  This 1886 steel square-rigger started its career as a freighter.  It graduated to carrying lumber to Australia for use in bracing mine tunnels, returning with coal from the mines.  This was followed by a career in the Alaska salmon fleet, ending in 1903 when the fleet converted to steam.   The Balclutha appeared in the 1935 movie “Mutiny On The Bounty” before ending its days ignominiously on exhibit as a “pirate ship.”  The park service has lovingly restored the ship, loaded it with representative cargo and furnished it with videos.  I was struck by the contrast between the spartan crew quarters in the bow with their rough-hewn three-decker bunks and the paneled and sky-lit officer’s quarters in the stern with their velvet-upholstered Victorian furniture.

EurekaNext we explored the Eureka, an 1890 wooden side-wheeler car and train ferry.  It once plied the bay between San Francisco and Marin.  Its one-cylinder steam engine rotated the paddle-wheels via an arrangement of levers and a rocking “walking beam” that protruded out of its top, behind the smokestack.  Sadly, the paddle-wheels were rusted and rotted away at the waterline.  The ferry had an interesting load of antique cars on board.

HerculesFinally, we visited the Hercules, an elegant 1907 steam tugboat.  Here again I found a contrast between the minimal galley provided for crew and the better one, further forward, for officers.  The latter had a row of portholes and a beautifully-varnished icebox.  I learned that tugboats have a “towing machine” at the stern that automatically reels out or takes in cable to maintain constant tension as the towed vessel lags behind or lurches forward.  We had a good view of the triple-expansion steam engine; steam released from the first cylinder was used to propel a second cylinder, and steam from that one propelled a third.

Land’s End

All the museums were closed on Wednesday, Christmas day.  So, Anna and Brian took me on BART and a different bus to Lands End on the northwest tip of SF.  This day was even warmer, with a forecast high of 70 F.

Sutro Baths 2Our first stop was the ruins of Sutro Baths, a 19th century bathing and swimming palace that burned down in 1966.  I like to photograph distressed and crumbling buildings, and my indulgent hosts allowed me to clamber all over it.

Beyond the ruin, we walked around the point to SF’s Pacific beach on a thin strip of fine sand, backed by the cliff on which sits the renowned Cliff House restaurant.  Jagged rocks offshore broke the waves from a passing container ship.  At the museum Tuesday, I’d seen a map showing hundreds of shipwrecks around the mouth of the Golden Gate due to just such rocks and chronic fog.

lands endWe hiked trails on the cliff edge and top east toward the Golden Gate Bridge, until we came to a washout and had to walk back south into civilization.  We had a picnic on a park bench at the edge of a golf course.  It was 70 degrees, clear and sunny, unlike Seattle which was around 42.  Strolling south, we found ourselves in the ritzy Sea Cliff neighborhood.  Anna reeled off names of movie stars who live there, while I wondered how many maids and butlers were regarding us with distaste from behind the lace curtains of the compact but plush-looking mansions.  We crossed El Camino Del Mar and found ourselves in a normal middle-class neighborhood of small apartment houses, as if a magical land had ejected us.

Piedmont neighborhood

On Thursday we walked about a mile to the Piedmont neighborhood to peruse the used bookstores (I love nosing about in old books).  The first one on our route was Owl And Company, a classic hole-in-the-wall shop with a laid-back owner behind the counter and towering shelves that ran far into the back to embrace a beloved old desk and credenza.  It had a wonderful history section.  Despite saying a reluctant farewell to several excellent books, I ended up buying four of them.  I pleaded that we visit no more bookstores, foreseeing that I would only feel sorry for myself, looking at books I couldn’t transport back to Seattle.  We did look into a magazine shop but fortunately I didn’t see any good ones.  We went on to Temescal Alley, a clump of little boutiques; and ate wonderful “east coast” pizza at Lanesplitter Pizza across from there.

We strolled up to Mountain View Cemetery, a hot sunny walk with rewarding views of Oakland and the bay and the misty outline of SF for a backdrop.  Elaborate tombs, mausoleums and statues crowded the lawns; avenues of miniature Greek temples, pyramids, little stone gingerbread houses, etc.  Looks like lots of people did really well for themselves in the process of settling Oakland.  Several tombs had Masons themes or emblems; here lie the Illuminati.

magnoliaI noticed fallen leaves underfoot and blossoming trees; not all plants seem to observe the same seasons.  Anna said that Oakland’s winter is warmer than its summer (during which fog is common).  This tree was blooming in December; this Seattle guy thinks that’s just not right.

BART

Boys like trains.  And I like BART–Bay Area Rapid Transit, a reasonably modern and dependable system with long and frequent trains.  Riding it is one of my favorite parts of visiting the Bay area.  BART is easy to use once you get the hang of paying attention to the signs, ignoring the unintelligible announcements, staying on the right on escalators (unless you’re walking on them to ascend or descend even faster), and jumping thru a sliding door while it’s still opening because it’s not going to wait forever.

On our BART excursions we observed some colorful characters.  On one trip into SF, we were joined by a black man who was wearing an iPod.  As the train proceeded, he started humming along to his music and finally burst into song.  On another train, this one bound for the east side, we noticed a man with a bicycle standing near the doors.  A plastic crate on the back of the bike was full of aluminum cans, bound for some recycling center.  On top of this rested a fishnet and a plastic bag that possibly held fish he’d caught.  We wondered whether he’d caught the cans the same way.

Anna reserved another Zip Car to deliver me to the airport.  As we neared it, I noticed a set of tracks on pylons being built down the middle of the road.  This will be the Oakland Airport Connector, a small shuttle train to the BART Stadium station.  It won’t use the standard BART rail cars; so passengers will need to transfer to a BART train to proceed from Stadium.  Still it’s a much-needed alternative to airport shuttle drivers whose language and map-reading talents vary widely.  It’s scheduled to begin service in the fall of 2014.

Good-bye (sniff)

At the last minute, I realized I’d forgotten to pack my iPad.  It was on Anna’s coffee table by the front door, where I would be sure to see it as I left.  So much for that plan!  Next time I’ll tie it to myself with a string.

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