Saturday, September 18, 2010

Did I Say Done?

Well, actually there was just one more last stop - after Burning Man, I chose not to return straight to Seattle, instead I headed to San Francisco for a couple of days of recuperation

Looking happy, but exhausted, dusty... mind blown; want sleep, need shower

Now, San Francisco is beautiful, it's exciting - it's full of interesting places to see, fascinating people to meet, I've got a bunch of friends living there...

View onto San Francisco from the bay

The iconic Transamerica Pyramid defines the San Francisco skyline

And as a result, this wasn't going to be my first time in San Francisco - most recently I'd been here just about a year ago, on my great railroad journey up the Pacific Coast. So between being relatively familiar with the place, and still trying re-integrate myself into the real world, I didn't particularly feel like playing tourist was to be my primary goal here - it fit in safely somewhere right behind resting/showering/catching my breath and meeting up with friends. However, by Day 2, I was feeling mildly recovered (physically anyway - mind remained a bit cloudy for at least another week), and the little tourist voice in the back of my head started singing its song again... it actually just kept saying one word over and over: Alcatraz!

The Rock! It may be the best know of San Francisco's attractions, and I'd kept missing it on each of the previous visits

Not sure how much I need to say about Alcatraz - it's only the most famous (and infamous) of American prisons, and it was in operation for a mere 29 years (1934-1963). It housed some of the most famous and notorious convicts of its day - starting with Al Capone back in the 30's. Noone is known to have successfully escaped. If you are curious to learn more, I recommend a trip to San Francisco and a visit to the Rock - the audio tour gives you a pretty good account of the island's history, including the times before, after, and of course, during its time as a Federal prison. The tour is quite well put together, and I actually found the narrative a lot more interesting than most audio guides of this sort. Some things I knew (life in America's most secure prison wasn't a whole lot of fun, but nobody is known to have successfully escaped), some I suspected (the island started life as a fortification for the San Francisco Bay back in the mid-19th century), and some I'd been completely oblivious of (The Rock was a site of an intense native American protest back in the 70's, lasting over a year, and while the Native Americans failed to get custody of Alcatraz, the incident did, apparently, accelerate the programs to transfer more tribal lands back to their original, tribal owners... who have since proceeded to erect gleaming, shining casinos on said tribal lands... but I digress...).

So, as I said, if you want the full history of the place, I recommend a visit, or you can at least start with the wikipedia page. I'll just do pictures and highlights of what I saw:

The main penitentiary building was a large, if fairly bleak-looking structure

Life inside was, well, rather spartan

I had chosen to spend my second day of recovery in San Francisco at a four star hotel downtown. The inmates here got a 5x9 foot cell, including a toilet, a sink, a table, and a cot

Even the lighthouse on Alcatraz somehow looks dramatic! It could just be dramatic bits I remember from The Rock, the movie (does it seem like Sean Connery's career is coming up a lot on the blog?)

The man's watching you! Did I mention noone had successfully escaped? There were inmates who had made it to the fence (and were promptly shot for their troubles). Others had made it all the way to the water (and drowned). I think there are two whose whereabouts are unknown - presumed drowned... or escaped to South America!

These days, Alcatraz is actually the domain of the National Park service, which surprised me, as there's not much of a park here. They do maintain and protect the Rock's greenery, and apparently the island is an important nesting habitat for several species of birds in the Bay...

All in all, I spent about three hours on the island, roaming about, taking in the narrative, observing the very multi-cultured collection of tourists on the island, and watching the weather undergo a dramatic transformation from standard Bay Area gray to sunny, with dramatic blue skies. By 6, I was back in the comforts of my hotel, living the high life some more - they provide a Napa Valley wine tasting every evening... but still somewhat in between the dusty mirage of Black Rock City (most of my clothes still covered in a thick layer of dust) and the real world (I did have a wonderful shower, and was excited to be less than 24 hours away from being back home in Seattle). That evening, I went out to meet Eric and Kristine for dinner nearby

And documented said encounter using the camera on my iPhone... which left quite a bit to be desired in terms of photo quality

The following morning, it was time to complete the last leg of the journey and fly back to Seattle... or so went the plan anyway. I examined my tickets again in the morning - they definitely said I was departing from the Oakland airport at 1 PM. I should arrive an hour early... I checked the BART schedules - it would take an hour to get there. I should also get some lunch beforehand - there's this great little sushi boat restaurant just nearby in Union Square... mmm, sushi. Well, somewhere in the middle of all that, my mind clearly flipped back into Burning Man mode, where time doesn't exist (and I avoided wearing a watch as much as I could) and an hour was lost. Because if your flight's at 1, you should be at the airport 12, and so, you should get on the subway at 11. Instead, I scouted out a train schedule for leaving the city at 12 and settled in for lunch at 11... Lunch was delicious! And at 11:45, I arrived back in my room, stared at my ticket, then at the clock, then at the ticket some more... forced brain to do some basic math... Oh Fuck! Well, the subway/bus was going to get me there in an hour for about $7, time to see how a $70 taxi will do! I told the concierge I needed a taxi to the Oakland airport. He went outside, rounded up a taxi, and told the driver to take me to the airport... Note the slight discrepancy there... Starting to drive towards the San Francisco airport instead of Oakland cost another ten minutes, which I didn't really have... Finally, we pulled up at the Oakland terminal at about 12:35. At least the ride was interesting - the driver had been in Vietnam during the war, as a civilian contractor and had fascinating stories from the time that he was getting published... He also complained about all the Pakistani cab drivers in the Bay Area... I chimed in complaining about the drivers in general all over India. We had a good rapport... and then I paid and took off on a dead run into the airport. Skipping the details, but I made my flight with, oh about 2 minutes to spare. How my bags managed to get onboard, I have no idea, but there they were looking at me on the carousel back in Seattle, just as I was asking the Southwest claims agent whether or not he thought they'd be on the next flight... So, all in all, disaster averted - delicious lunch eaten, interesting conversation with a cab driver had, and Seattle successfully reached! Just a bit of stress mixed in along the way...

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