A few months ago, I started listening to Augusten Burroughs’ memoir. He has this incredible passage about when he first moved to San Francisco that made me want to see this city for myself:
San Francisco will give you the longest, hottest bath you have ever had…And once you are sitting in an overstuffed armchair that has been warmed for you by a cat, San Francisco will muss your hair. You will have some milk and one of those thick brownies with a shiny top that shatters when you bite it. And then, as you walk down the long hallway toward your bedroom, San Francisco’s fishnet stocking-clad leg will suddenly rise up and block your way. San Francisco will smile and say, “Hon? Either brush those teeth or donate them to the pointy end of my boot.” And you will brush your teeth and never have another cavity. Until you’re forty. Then San Francisco will tuck you into bed like you are a baby, and this will not embarrass you at all. And even though you’re nineteen, San Francisco will leave the light on; you won’t even have to ask. And when you wake up, San Francisco will be the first thing you see when you open your eyes. And it will say to you, “You know it. And I know it. Get out there and make them see it.”
The funny thing is, before I heard Augusten describe San Francisco in this way, I didn’t really have a significant desire to visit. Now that I live in a big city, I’m less interested in visiting other bigger cities. Give me trees, mountains, oceans, trails, deserts…but traversing from one metropolis to another just seems draining. It’s true I’ve wanted to visited California for a long, long time but I wanted to see its rolling hills and skyscraper-sized Redwoods and waves crashing along the rocky shoreline. I didn’t want to go to a specific place, I just wanted to engross myself in its beauty. I’d sort of forgotten there were actual cities in California and not just a plethora of wilderness.
Augusten’s description piqued my interest. I’d long heard that San Fran was unlike anywhere else in the world, but I didn’t know what that meant. It’s still a city, right? So how different can it really be?
Spoiler alert: San Francisco is unlike anywhere else in the world.
My coworker and I spent an entire day walking around San Francisco with little guidance. I’d spent the morning adding some saved locations to my Google Maps (a pro-tip from Bri Emery), but I didn’t necessarily plan on hitting them all. Plus, since it was my first time in the Bay Area, I had zero sense of scale or topography. San Fran is notorious for its steep hills, but looking down at a map of all my little “saved” stars, there was no way to tell what was at the top of a hill or the bottom of a hill. Maybe they were all hills? And if it says something is two miles away…well, two miles isn’t too far in Chicago.
Armed with my Google Map of stars, a camera bag, plenty of sunscreen, and a voracious appetite to explore, we took the BART train into the city from Oakland and began our day trip.
Our host in Oakland advised us to start in the southern part of the city, further away from the tourist locales, so we could get a better sense of what the real heart of the city looks like. I’m so happy they suggested this, because after looking at my stars, they were pretty much located in the northeast part of the city. In other words, every guide pointed us towards the places where all the other tourists were told to go, too.
As we climbed the steps out of the 16th Street train station in Mission, squinting into the bright sunshine, my heart overflowed with joy. I knew our hosts had pointed us in the right direction, because Mission reminded me of our neighborhood in Chicago. It shared all the same qualities that I love about our Wicker Park / Logan Square / Humboldt Park quadrant of the city. Doused in street art, competing Mexican restaurants, dozens of thrift shops, and hipster-chic dive bars, Mission is a bustling bohemian neighborhood currently going through rampant gentrification. Younger crowds are moving into this historically ethnic part of town, drawn in by its artistic flair and creative vibe.
We tried gathering our bearings and figuring out which way was what and where we wanted to go. One quick turn lead us into a fantastic alley, filled with murals for the entire length of the block. I went a little crazy taking pictures, but I couldn’t contain my excitement. The artwork here was unbelievable, and I wanted to take it all in. We probably spent a solid 15 minutes just trying to make it to the next street, because I was way too captivated by the abundance of colors, designs, patterns, and messages.
I was finally dragged out of the alley and we wandered through Mission on our way to the Castro District. Castro is notorious for its gay pride celebrations—it’s often dubbed the birthplace of the Gay Rights movement, dating back to the 70s—and the neighborhood fully embraces this title. Crosswalks, flags, streetlamp banners: all rainbows. All flash and color. It was one of the most joyful places I’ve ever had the pleasure to stroll through.
Men decked out in tight tank tops, leather boots, and rainbow-embellished cowboy hats lead a dance lesson on how to do a hoe-down square dance in the middle of one plaza. I wanted to join in but my coworker shooed us along, reminding me that we had a lot more territory to cover. (I think he was also slightly embarrassed by my unwavering enthusiasm, but whatever.)
North from Castro, we climbed up and over a few of SF’s infamous hills towards the Haight-Ashbury part of town. Along the way, we discovered a beautiful park filled with families and people of all kinds. If there’s one thing I learned from San Francisco, it’s that everyone appreciates sunshine. Maybe that’s what makes these folks more accepting of other people and radical ideas, because they just have so much more sunshine than some other parts of the country.
Haight-Ashbury was more or less what I expected. A lot of hippies and smoke shops, combined with plenty of people and stores still stuck in the 60s. I’m glad I had the chance to see this place of historical hippie significance, but it felt almost like a caricature of itself. It certainly wasn’t my favorite neighborhood, but as with everywhere else we’d walked up until this point, there were plenty of interesting things to see.
We continued north, aiming to see the Golden Gate Bridge from the water’s edge. I’m not even sure exactly what “sights” we saw along the way, since we were primarily focused on navigating around some of the steeper hills, but it was on this longer trek that I found myself captivated by the houses. To be more specific, I could. not. handle. the walls of the flowers wrapped around so many colorful homes. I stopped every few houses to take another picture of the flowers, unable to turn away from some of the historical Victorian homes with their unique color palettes and detailed trim work. I ogled and lusted over plants and homes alike until we found ourselves at the edge of the Presidio.
Let me preface this by saying, again, I really had no idea what to expect of San Francisco. I didn’t really know what it would feel like to be there, walking the streets I’ve seen only seen in pictures. I knew there were a lot of houses and that rent is really high and some streets are mind-bogglingly steep. That’s about it.
We hopped down from a stone wall, scampered across a street, and found ourselves engulfed by some of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen. I had no idea a tree canopy could be so dense, especially in the heart of a booming urban area. The Presidio won me over quickly, and I walked with my head pointed skywards the whole time. Again, I wanted to walk further uphill and westward in this jungle, but my worker advised us to stick to the schedule. I was a little upset at the time, but looking back, I’m really glad I had someone to remind me that I wanted to see a lot more things before we had to get back to Oakland. We mapped out the quickest way to the Bay and traveled onward.
I had no idea I could possibly be any more enthralled with San Francisco than I had been for the past three hours.
Then I saw the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time.
Reaching the water’s edge, yanking off my shoes, and heading straight into the Pacific Ocean is a moment I will remember for the rest of my life. The shore was pretty crowded, but for all I knew, I was the only one standing on that shoreline. The water lapped at my calves, as if greeting me after so much time apart. Looking out at the Golden Gate made me feel like there was an infinite number of adventures awaiting me on the other side, in the rocky hillside and green valleys across the Bay.
I felt almost outside of myself, like I was experiencing a moment that millions of humans experienced alongside me, a right of passage that is part of Going West. A longing I’ve felt for as long as I can remember released itself from my bones. Whatever part of history I’ve carried with me my whole life, it became the Present and I was living it.
I wanted to stay on that beach for the rest of my life, just taking it all in, but we brushed off the wet sand from our feet and headed east along the coast. There were significantly more people over here: bikers, rollerbladers, families, friends, runners, tourists, locals. Our destination was Fisherman’s Wharf and some food, since it had been a few hours since breakfast. Normally I eat every few hours, but nearly five or six hours had passed and I barely noticed I was hungry until this very moment, where suddenly I was on the verge of exhaustion.
My travel partner hit up In ’N’ Out and I found some clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl (because SF, duh), and we ate in the midst of what felt like a million other people. Fisherman’s Wharf was, honestly, kind of “whatever” to me. It was very obvious that hardly anyone here was a local, precisely because every store and restaurant as far as we could see was either a chain or geared towards souvenir knick-knackies and t-shirts. I felt claustrophobic and overwhelmed, already nostalgic for the neighborhoods south of the water.
I’m not sure we would’ve traveled much further anyway, to be honest. After eating, we checked in with our various health-tech devices and discovered we’d wandered over 13 miles in a little under 5 hours. Fatigue knocked us out once our bellies were full, and our feet suddenly felt too heavy to lift. Even though I thought I would see more of San Francisco, I did a little reality check: I’d just spent 5 hours walking over 13 miles up and down the streets of SF, and I saw a ton of things. The more I thought about it, I didn’t really know what else I still wanted to see. I felt pretty unenthused to continue seeing the rest of the piers and things I originally starred on my map—wiggly Lombard Street, Chinatown, Pier 39, the Painted Ladies houses—because I felt like they were all going to feel as overrun with tourists as Fisherman’s Wharf. We opted to take one of the cable cars around to the BART station near downtown and make our way back to Oakland.
San Francisco really did capture my heart. I don’t know if I could ever live there, and I’m also not sure I will ever return. We’ll have to see where the twists and turns of life take me, and if it will bring me back that way. For now, I know I will always remember the first time I breathed the air in San Francisco and walked its near-vertical streets. Somehow that is enough.