Because everything is a lie, I didn’t complete my road trip completely using the roads of America. I did, in fact, fly from Portland to San Francisco, however, you’d be stupid not to trade an 18-hour bus journey for a couple of hours on a plane and a couple of pints at an airport beforehand. Onto a winner here methinks. Regardless of my method of travelling, I made my way from lovely Portland to San Francisco. San Francisco is a city I’d seen in films and skate videos and read about in On the Road, so I had some idea of what to expect from this place – and it’s safe to say I expected quite a bit.
After arriving fairly late in San Francisco, I was shown around the neon-lit city by a local. Though we didn’t get up to all that much as they had work to get to, they did give me a few good bits of advice. The main two: look out for bits of dog shit on the floor and don’t expect the old Chinese women in Chinatown to move their trolleys out of the way, they will hit you. The next day I chose to explore Chinatown and can confirm that these women certainly won’t move out of your way. I was blown away by the quality of Chinatown though, unlike the majority that I had been to prior to this point – this was a genuine town unto itself, as opposed to some touristy thrown up “Chinatown” that is essentially a few shops with a supermarket and a couple of restaurants on there. It’s an impressive, bustling place and it’s no wonder that Kerouac frequented the place – though I’m sure that the tea shops around weren’t selling the “tea” he wrote so lovingly about.
The city does have more to offer than just a Chinatown though and is one of the few coastal Californian towns where the main feature of the coast isn’t surfing. I explored the Bay Area, working my way from Fisherman’s Wharf down to Embarcadero. The coastal walk was long but vastly impressive. The sounds of street musicians showcasing their craft, including a rendition of Here Comes The Sun on the sitar, combined with the smells of all of the food being cooked at the food stalls along the pier (fortunately for me, there was no smell of fish). The sea views over to Alcatraz were incredible, and fortunately, I managed to time it so the weather in San Francisco wasn’t foggy whatsoever. Embarcadero is worth visiting for anyone, however, the main appeal for myself was to get far too excited seeing a place that people used to skate at about 20 years ago.
Probably the biggest attraction in San Francisco (both metaphorically and literally) is the Golden Gate Bridge. I wasn’t too fussed about seeing the main attractions in most of my previous destinations, but the bridge was one that had always appealed to me (even if at times the appeal had been for the completely wrong reasons). It’s safe to say that this was a mind-blowing experience. I can’t understate just how huge that bridge is. It offers a beautiful view of the city, and the walk along to bay offers a beautiful view of the bridge too. However, when you stop to take in the view of the city from the bridge also look down. This bridge is one of the suicide hotspots in the world, but if you stand atop the bridge and look down you get an idea of just how desperate people must feel to hurl themselves off of such a dauntingly big structure. I feel for anyone so desperate to do such a thing, and if I ‘d ever had an inkling to do that, then being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of this bridge would be enough to put anyone off.
For myself, life was worth continuing on that day in particular as the same evening I was set to go on a bar crawl. The crawl started at a place called Northstar Cafe, which seemed to be very liberal in its use of the word “cafe” given that this was certainly a dive bar. The night involved a rock-paper-scissors tournament, discount drinks, and lots of dancing with people from all over the world to music that matched. Australians, Canadians, Brazilians, and even just the occasional eccentric local came together to make an incredible night of it. We explored the Broadway/Chinatown area, avoiding titty bars (despite their vast quantity) and instead keeping to the bars that gave us cheap drinks and good times. With a sore head now full of great memories that I probably won’t dive into right now – there was only one place for me to visit. I returned to the scene of the crime, going back to the corner of Columbus and Broadway. Fortunately for my liver, I didn’t go back to the bars (well, with the exception of one) – I was here to explore Jack Kerouac Alley.
As a huge fan of Kerouac, it’s safe to say I was pissing my pants with excitement to be in an alley named after him. However, this alley has much more to offer than simply a sign with his name on it. For anyone that is interested in the Beat movement, there is the Beat Museum just over the road full of fascinating memorabilia as well as a very knowledgeable bunch of staff who were keen to talk to me about the Beats and engage me in a proper conversation – not just touristy tips. On the alley itself, there is the City Lights Booksellers who published much of Kerouac’s work, and on the other side, there is the Vesuvio Cafe. Again, San Francisco was liberal in its use of the word cafe – as this is the place I chose to get myself a beer and write a little bit. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassady, Coppola, Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan, Oscar Reed. There you go, a non-exhaustive list of people that have drunk and written in the establishment.
San Francisco is a city of beautiful scenery, beautiful buildings, and in my experience beautiful people too. It is a bohemian paradise that has attracted creatives and eccentrics for generations and continues to do so, feeding into the culture of the city. But that never takes away from the core of the city that existed in the first place, and you can’t walk around the city without having a smile put on your face by seeing a classic San Francisco cable car go past.
Whilst it wasn’t a pleasant surprise in the same way as Portland, San Francisco also wasn’t the disappointment that was Seattle. In fact, I really enjoyed San Francisco and it did exceed expectation slightly. From being overwhelmed by the daunting Golden Gate Bridge to standing the Beat Museum in awe of the writers that had gone before me, San Francisco really has something special going on, and I was sad to be leaving. However, by leaving when I did, my journey down to Los Angeles was the first part of genuine road tripping I had. Bring on the Pacific Coastal Highway, and eventually Los Angeles.