A San Francisco treat, Part 1

Posted on February 27, 2014

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Traveling is a magical thing. One afternoon of sitting in an uncomfortably small airplane seat, cramming your earphones down your cochleas so you can hear Tom Cruise whisper the plot of Oblivion over the din of a jet engine can reward you with a wonderful weekend escape from winter.

Such was the case last weekend, when I hopped on a flight after work Thursday to visit friend and newly minted San Franciscan Maureen. After a later-than-expected arrival (“United Airlines: Don’t ask if you’ll be late, ask how late you’ll be”) and some catching up, I went to bed with the mission of exploring the city the next day while Maureen worked.

Hello California! In Illinois, we've only heard about hills.

Hello California! In Illinois, we’ve only heard about hills.

Allowing me to explore a new city via public transit is like asking a tinkerer to take apart a new toy. I love it. There’s no better way to get a pulse on a city than to jump in feet first and navigate without a car. One, I think it’s safer because you’re not having to look down at a GPS while traversing (in San Francisco’s case) 45-degree hills. And two, I think you learn so much more about your surroundings because you’re in the thick of things, not surrounded by the personal space bubble of an automobile.

Starting out on the 1.5-mile trek to the train station, I revelled in the absolute newness of my surroundings. Another powerful effect of traveling is the ability to shake off all the mental cobwebs of our routines. Everything around me were sights I had never seen before, and that excitement made me want to walk all the way to the bay and back (whereas, in the Chicago winter, sometimes it’s a challenge to motivate onself to take out the trash (wow do I sound pathetic)).

I was immediately familar with the Caltrain, San Fran’s commuter rail, because it was almost identical to Metra—down to the same model of train cars. I transfered to the BART, the regional rail system connecting the cities around the bay, to take me into the city. It had some similarities to the El—namely the homeless people hitting themselves in the face and screaming about “anal tensions.” Now this was familiar.

A cable car in real life! Mr. Rogers would be proud.

A cable car in real life! Mr. Rogers would be proud.

Emerging from the BART at Powell St., a place I picked because of its proximity to both the Cable Car Museum and Chinatown, I was immediately greeted by a crowd of people gathered around a cable car as it was turning around. Being a major train enthusiast, it was extremely cool to see one of the vehicles I had only seen in museums operating in the middle of a major city. Dreams do come true. Instead of getting on the car, because it was so crowded, I elected to walk up the giant hill to get to the Cable Car Museum (a fact I reminded myself of when I had those deep-fried Oreos for lunch).

I can’t emphasize how cool I thought the Cable Car Museum was. Not only was it a small museum explaining the history and workings of the trolleys, it housed the garage and central cogs (sheaves) that power all the lines. For the uninitiated, cable cars don’t run on their own power, they operate in a type of reverse-ski-lift fashion where, instead of having cables overhead, the operators use a grip to attach and detach to the cables running underneath the street. These hugely thick cables are always running, and the museum has a below-street gallery where geeks like me can go and watch the giant sheaves turn.

Chinatown looked how I’d expected, but I certainly didn’t think it would be as jam-packed and busy on a Friday afternoon as it was. I made my way through in an attempt to get to the bay and see… something. The Golden Gate Bridge was several miles away (and my feet were already starting to ache), but I figured I’d make my way to the water and figure something out.

The Golden Gate Bridge is so close yet so far away from Hyde St. Too far, in fact.

The Golden Gate Bridge is so close yet so far away from Hyde St. Too far, in fact.

I eventually made my way to Hyde St. Pier, and discovered a place where all the famous parts of the city seemed to converge. The pier was home to a collection of historic ships. So, standing there amongst them, I could see the Golden Gate Bridge to my left, Alcatraz to my right, and hear the “arking” of the seals a couple piers down. It was a very cool experience and something I recommend all San Fran tourists visit. I had done a good amount of walking up to that point, and I figured 2 p.m. was an appropriate time for a late lunch to re-energize me into taking on the rest of the city. Boy was I wrong…

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Posted in: Lincoln Square