13 February 2011

The fog comes on little raccoon feet

Having put the conference and its lousy coffee (no biscuits on the side, mind you...what in the world is this uncivilised land?) behind me, I afforded myself two whole days to take in the parts of San Francisco that I had not seen during my first two days or the evenings during the conference. For purely geographical reasons, this was mostly the western part of the city, the famous parts being the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood, Golden Gate Park and its little-known namesake Bridge.

On a rather overcast---but not cold---Friday, I set out to gawk at the ruins of the Hippy Empire in the Haight. I caught a bus from Market St at about 9 and got to the Haight about 15 minutes later, to find that nothing at all was open, with the exception of the grocery. I was truly the only person on the street. I grabbed some provisions from the grocer and headed toward the sea, through the Haight proper and into Golden Gate Park, where I was immediately offered "buds" from a solicitous but grubby youngster. Given his besmirched aspect I took him for a flower monger and assumed he was offering roses, but thought it was odd since Valentine's Day was another three weeks away. "Timing is everything, my good man," I chuckled, as I waggled my finger at him, tipped my cap and briskly trotted on my way.

The GGP, built in the last three decades of the 19th century, is the world's largest developed park (take that, Frederick Law Olmstead), at 1.59 square miles (412 hectares or 1017 acres), 20% bigger than Central Park. It has no physical relationship to the Golden Gate Bridge other than being on the west side of town. There's heaps of crap to see in this park, including an old windmill and a bison paddock, but I didn't know about either of those at the time, dammit. However, those things pale in comparison to the monument to reluctant US President, avid reader and strict recreationalist James Garfield, Nija's---if I may---spiritual hero:

Near the science museum, I found this charming and weird monument to Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, aka the guy who wrote the book that the movie Lost in La Mancha was based on.

The park also features a Japanese Tea Garden, which I hear is lovely, but is the kind of lovely that I didn't feel like paying for to take in. As a consolation, I did come across this gazebo on Stow Lake---

---the mention of which allows me to segue into the continuation of my long-running photo series Water Fowl of the Northern Hemisphere:

Have a gander at those cheeky fellows!

Ahem. So in the middle of the lake there's some kind of island/hill, so, you know, I climbed that thing, and it looked something like this:

and it was good.

I had an otherwise unphotogenic, though pleasant, stroll around the park, but eventually decided that coffee sounded about right so I made the short, one-hour hike back to the Haight. The Haight was, supposedly, once the Mordor of the so-called Hippy movement, and I'm sure it was much more interesting and diverse than Ben & Jerry and the vile Deadheads with their stupid bears would have you believe. (I am aware that I might have just implied that the Grateful Dead were themselves better than the Deadheads would have us believe, and I might just keep that one an open question.) Ever since then the place has featured in the American imagination somewhere between Oz and imperial Rome. It's the kind of place my Dad says he should have gone instead of joining the Air Force in 1966, you know, to freak out and join the revolutionary youth army to take on the pigs. If only!

The funny thing about the Haight is that, while it was most likely a unique and possibly inspiring place in its heyday, a quick swoop through was enough to convince me that it was more or less the same thing that you can now find in almost every big American city: a bohemian district with coffeeshops, record stores, drug paraphernalia, souvenir crap, arts and crafts, heroin, crusty street kids, and nice, charming houses. Nothing to write home about (though, apparently something to blog about). The corner of Haight and Ashbury is now graced by Ben & Jerry's flagship store, as much a part of mainstream American culture as California rolls, New Belgium Fat Tire and adho mukha svanasana. I wondered what it would take for the Haight to be astounding to outsiders again. Then I wondered if we can even be astounded anymore.

Down the hill from the Haight is the Lower Haight (which technically makes the aforementioned the Upper Haight), the edge of which is graced by a street art gallery not unlike the one I saw in the Mission:

How excellent is that last one? (You can see more of this stuff, as well as lots of other SF photos, and more still, on our Picasa page: just click on that picture of me and Nija staring off into the Jamison Valley at the top right of this page.)

Down Haight and onto Market I sallied, and cut through the Civic Center district, a highlight of which is this massive Vishnu in front of the Asian Art Museum:

Given that awesomeness, I was very disappointed I didn't manage to visit the museum itself. Just caddy-corner to the Civic Center is the Tenderloin People's Garden, which I feels bears mention simply for pulling off a community garden in an unlikely spot, like my fellow Alexandria gardeners half a world away:

Afterward I headed back to the hostel for another evening of socializing with my fellow backpackers at one of the fine $5 dinners they put on (may I recommend the Hotel Adelaide to any potential travellers to San Francisco? Tell Nick I say hello!)

The next day my plan was to hire a bike and ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. A sign on a bike outside the hostel advertised all-day rentals for $15 from another hostel nearby. I found the place, went in the front door and knocked on the door to Room 1, which had a sign reading "Bike rentals please knock". A big, middle-aged guy in a tie-dyed shirt was pulling his pants on as he opened the door. "Hey, man! Need a bike?" he said, extremely gregarious-like. I confirmed his suspicion and he kindly set me up with a bike suited to my stature. I told him where I wanted to go and he suggested a route, and after some minor adjustments to the bike I was off, reminding myself to ride on the right side of the street and trying to find the bike's...shall we say...idiosyncrasies, before I got to the climb to the Bridge. Nothing worse than trying to go up a steep hill and having a gear slip under your weight: face-planting is a sure thing when that happens.

The route took me down to the Embarcadero and around the eastern side of the city, retracing my route from Day 2, through Fisherman's Wharf and up to the foot of the Bridge. This was a fool-proof and relatively flat approach and I was glad to have been counterintuitively pointed in this direction. The long stretch of the Bridge lay before me, awaiting my conquerization, but agenda point 1 was to hit the Exploratorium, the world-renowned hands-on science museum opened by Frank Oppenheimer, Robert's little brother, whose personal story would be as tragic as his older brother's if it weren't for this museum, a successful elaboration of the idea that kids can learn more about science if they're engaged in it in a direct and involving way than if they're just subjected to a bunch of rules and equations. I was excited about this museum ever since Nija told me about it way back when, and I was waiting for the doors to open with a bunch of families that morning, trying to look cool and not creepy.

When opening time came and I made my way in, I was almost confused by the simplicity of it. The Exploratorium is little more than a bunch of stations that you can visit, sampling scientific concepts. Here's a super-strong permanent magnet and iron filings. Here's a piece of heat-sensitive film and a lightbulb. Here's some cornstarch solution in a rubber diaphragm on top of an acoustic transducer:

Some stations are better than others, but taken together they add up to a thrilling wander through almost all realms of science. Statistical mechanics? Got it. Automotive engineering? Check. Biology and genetics? Affirmative. Electric power conversion? Yes. The demonstrations are simple and artful, without much explanation; the idea here is that kids are guided to their own explanations based on what they observe, given a few basic presented facts. Or they demonstrate an application of some principle from another display. I was riveted, but after four hours in the place I realized it was time to move on.

After visiting the Wave Organ (for pictures see the Picasa page), which wasn't functioning since it was low tide, I headed toward the Bridge, but for the first time in my time in San Francisco the weather was turning in a foul direction:

The climb up to the bridge was brief but sharp, and as I spun in a high gear, I had visions of myself walking my fixed-gear bike up the nasty little hills. Riding across the bridge with the spray on my face was a blissful experience:

When I reached the other side and began the descent into Marin County, a glance back at the bridge confirmed that I had been inside a cloud:

Sausalito---something like Sydney's Manly without the beach and, as far as I know, the gangs of nationalist thugs---is a little upscale village retreat surrounded by marinas, with lower-profile fishing villages beyond. When I got there, I met a guy with a medical marijuana prescription and an affinity for boats who recommended I ride up the shore a bit to check out the marinas and said there was a village up the way that would make a good destination. I headed out of town, stopping at a marina up the highway where a bunch of houseboats and skiffs were hunkered down in the unceasing drizzle and sulfur stink of low tide. Here's yours truly at the dock with my gallant steed:

Nice as the marina was, the weather dispelled any interest I had in exploring the coast. I wanted to sit in a cozy bar with a beer and wait for the ferry that would take me back to the city. So I headed back to town and found the bar after a long trudge in what can only be described as rain. Eventually the ferry came, and I stood in the cold, wet wind and watched the city across the bay glisten and grow in the distance.


  1. What does the cornstarch teach us, though? I don't think I'm as clever as those little kids who just need a few basic demonstrations to draw their own conclusions about science. To me, that just looked gross and somewhat sexual.

  2. Mighty good question, Little Nija. The label on that display says:

    A mixture of cornstarch and water does surprising things when shaken!

    Cornstarch and water creates a funny kind of liquid that becomes hard if you try to make it move too fast but is completely liquid when moving slowly.

    Known as Oobleck to many elementary school students, cornstarch and water is what is called a "shear thickening fluid." Here, vigorous vibration makes parts of the mixture hard while other parts are more fluid producing this strange (creepy?) blob behavior. It is really the opposite of "liquefaction," the softening of some types of soils during earthquakes that allows buildings to sink. Cornstarch and water is liquid at rest and becomes harder when shaken.'

    That, or God is a big perv.

  3. I've done that experiment at home. It's lots of fun.