SAN FRANCISCO — When I set out on my trip along the Lincoln Highway from the East Coast to California, my goal was to make it to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor by the time the Lincoln Highway Association‘s western auto tour was going to depart for the highway’s 100th anniversary celebrations in Kearney, Neb.
Just as I was wrapping up my transcontinental journey, I wanted to see these Lincoln Highway enthusiasts off. It was early on this Sunday morning in mid to late June and San Francisco was shrouded in fog, as it apt to happen.
To reach the end point of the Lincoln Highway at the Pacific Ocean — my ultimate destination for this trip — I decided to drive along the Embarcadero from the Bay Bridge up toward the Marina District, cut south and eventually make my out through the Inner Richmond District via California Street to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, which sits within Lincoln Park, where the highway terminates.
Although I had been in San Francisco one time before for a work trip more than a decade ago, this was my first time as a driver in the city itself. But in any regard, San Francisco is built mostly on a grid — in my youth, I loved studying my fold-out map of San Francisco — so, how hard could it be?
Well, to make a long story somewhat shorter, I got caught up in the hills of Pacific Heights, on the edge of the Presidio, where the street grid is interrupted, and I had to doubleback to Divisadero Street.
This slower route, plus countless four-way stops, ended up costing me 15 to 20 minutes longer than I had anticipated. So just as I was driving up El Camino Del Mar from Sea Cliff, I saw a couple of vintage automobiles with Lincoln Highway Association placards driving away from the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Had I missed the departure of the auto tour?
I parked just down the hill from the plaza outside the large French neoclassical building, a memorial to soldiers who died during World War I which is part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and was modeled after the original Palace of the Legion of Honor in Paris.
As I stepped out of the car, I could feel the strong breeze from the Pacific. I could hear the ocean break on the rocks. But I couldn’t actually see the ocean in the sea of grey that surrounded me. It was OK, since I had already seen the Pacific earlier this winter at Waikiki, Kailua or the North Shore on Oahu.
Not being able to establish visual contact with the ocean, but being able to still know it was there, actually made this moment for more interesting, moody and mysterious.
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By the time I walked up to the Palace of the Legion of Honor’s plaza where the auto caravan had gathered, there were only a few cars left. And those final holdouts soon departed into the fog for their long journey east to the middle of the continent. So I had essentially missed them, but made it just in time to snap a few quick photos of a few cars disappearing into the fog.
I was momentarily let down that I had more or less missed the Lincoln Highway Association auto caravan, but then something suddenly clicked.
I had made it to the Pacific! At long last, after driving thousands of miles, across the mountains, plains, forests and deserts, I realized I had accomplished my mission to drive the Lincoln Highway across the continent.
Now, I just had to make my way back east.
Being in San Francisco made me regret not spending more time in the city by the bay previously. One trip to San Francisco is not enough, you see. Nor is just a second trip. This is a city, like all great cities, that is best experienced through regular visits where you have time to explore neighborhoods without any particular timeline.
This trip, I essentially only had one day to take in San Francisco since the rest of the time in the Bay Area, I was holed up in my hotel room in Berkeley trying to make progress on documenting my Lincoln Highway trip.
Alfred Hitchcock, of course, loved San Francisco and used the city as a backdrop for some of his movies, like Vertigo. He had described the city an American Paris. But San Francisco, of course, is not Paris. But San Francisco is nonetheless beautiful. This city is a feast for the eyes and all the other senses.
San Francisco directly confronts those who travel its streets. The grid defiantly challenges the city’s hilly topography. It’s a congested place, but not quite in a New York City or Hong Kong kind of way. Nevertheless, space is at a premium. In the central part of the city and in surrounding neighborhoods, buildings hug the street. Bay windows and fire escapes jut out over crowded sidewalks. Even in the city’s outer districts, front yards are either non existent or are quite petite.
Buildings in San Francisco are directly engaged with the street. The public meets the private within a few steps of the sidewalk. The streets are somewhat cluttered but there’s a charm to all the wires and utility poles.
On foot, you’re forced to ascend or descend hills. It’s all very good exercise, you see. Granted, there’s plenty of flat land in the city, but the hills still dominate even if they don’t always project above the built landscape, like they do in Pittsburgh or Rio de Janeiro. Since the slopes are usually covered in buildings, you just can’t always see the natural shape of the land. The incline of the streets are usually the only reliable clue of the terrain.
Larger buildings loom over smaller ones. But because of the hills, smaller buildings can sometimes loom over larger ones, too. Spires and other taller structures come in and out of view as you cross the street grid. Sight lines are limited. Meanwhile, all around you, Victorian architectural details mishmash with neoclassical, Art Deco and more contemporary architectural styles. There’s a lot going on here. Even if you’re not an architecture nut, there’s so much to distract your eyes.
Trying to quickly move through this city is next to impossible, especially for drivers, with so many four-way stops. With all this, San Francisco is one big invitation to amble about and look around. I just wish I had more time to do that.
I decided to get off at Powell Street near Union Square and figure out where to go from there. When I travel to large cities, I usually don’t have a checklist of the top attractions that are must-sees for me. Sometimes the simple act of walking around is much more fulfilling than visiting one particularly noteworthy landmark.
In San Francisco, I didn’t want to see the Golden Gate Bridge as I had already seen it on a previous trip and it was out of the way in any regard. I also didn’t want to see Alcatraz as I had already been through a historic prison earlier on my trip outside Mansfield, Ohio. Places like Fisherman’s Wharf or Ghirardelli Square don’t usually excite me, since they’re overly touristy.
Yet, there was one touristy thing that was on my list.
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In San Francisco, riding the cable cars is something locals really don’t do. But how could I not ride them? For a transit nerd, riding these antiquated rail cars are a must see. In New York City, I’m sucker for the holiday-time nostalgia subway trains where historic rail cars are brought out from the New York Transit Museum on Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
So I purchased a cable car ticket and as luck had it, I was was able to snag one of the two most-envied spots on the cable car: right in front, hanging off the side standing on the running board. This gave me an unobstructed view of the city streets in front of me.
The Powell-Mason cable car brought me close to a few random locations that I wanted to see. One of them was Hyde Street Pier, the former ferry terminal that brought Lincoln Highway travelers from Berkeley to San Francisco before the days of the Bay Bridge.
It was early in the evening and the pier, home to the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, was closed, so I was out of luck. The area around the pier, home to Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf, is very much touristy and is pretty cleaned up. It didn’t exactly stink of “fish and beer,” as The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy sang about in “Grace Cathedral Hill.”
I was starting to get tired and wanted to make my way back toward Market Street so I could catch a BART train back to Berkeley. The cable car I was on broke down on Mason Street — the cable car’s mechanism to clasp the moving cable under the street apparently couldn’t clasp effectively — about half way up Nob Hill.
My fellow tourists were annoyed. I simply hopped off and began walking.
Grace Cathedral from Meloy’s song, as it happens, sits atop Nob Hill about one block from the Brocklebank Apartments at 1000 Mason St., the stately building that served as Madeleine’s home in Vertigo. I tried to get a good photo of the building, but it’s hard to fit it all in from the street. Hitchcock somehow managed. But I certainly don’t possess Hitchcock’s ability to capture the perfect scene.
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This was not a perfect visit to San Francisco, but it was a nice book end for a great trip. I erred in not budgeting more time to enjoy the city. All the more reason to come back, I suppose.
Walking east downhill along California Street from Nob Hill, the evening skies were somewhat brighter. The vast expanse of the continent that I just crossed was awaiting me beyond the grey-blue clouds off in the distance.
Driving across country was wonderful. I needed this trip to open my eyes. I’m glad I did it. Now, the next journey would be the one back east.
After taking BART back to Berkeley, the next leg of my transcontinental journeys would be on Amtrak. Although I’m leaving the Lincoln Highway behind, I’ll be paralleling it and intersecting it at various points on the return trip.
So my Lincoln Highway adventures are not done quite yet.