Tuesday 30 October 2012

USA 3 - SF 1 Muir Woods

My first trip to San Francisco was in the mid-90s. There were many things to see and do, but it was the places away from it that were the most memorable.

In the news at the time was the Scientology religion. It received worldwide attention that year due to its star follower, Tom Cruise, who was in the limelight again because of the release of his first Mission Impossible movie.

Before my trip to SF, I had just finished a major IT press conference in New Orleans and had stopped over in Los Angeles to meet up with my girlfriend May. She wanted to visited her aunt, an elderly Chinese widow who lived in Orange County. (She's someone who could speak Tamil even and has an interesting backstory. You can read more about her here.)

I decided to tag along because I wanted to say hi again to the old lady. I had met her five years prior during a stopover. That done, May and I then visited downtown LA by bus tour. It was just a day trip that ended with Universal Studios. The following day, we visited Knotts Berry Farm (an amusement theme-park) with May's 7-year-old nephew. It was a very memorable trip with lots of novel attractions. Afterwards, we flew off to SF.

We touched down in the same morning at around 9 A.M. The weather was sunny and the sky blue, puffed here and there by some pretty, shiny clouds. It felt bright, cheery and optimistic.

I had been told by practically everyone back home that one must drive in the "big o'l U-S-of-A", so after collecting our luggage, we headed straight to a car rental counter. It was Budget and the only car available then was a small saloon, the Toyota Tercel. The good thing about the package was that there would be no mileage limit - I could chalk up as many miles as I liked. (This is important if you don't want to end up with a ballooned bill at the end of the trip.)

The drive out of the airport to the city was OK. The highway was busy but not crowded. Along the way, we looked out for outlying warehouse sales. I've been asked by a colleague to shop for her some cycling jerseys. I did eventually buy her some very professional looking ones (read: fake sponsor logos) but found out that she was a terrible cyclist who just wanted to show off. Somehow, I wasn't surprised as she was someone who had to "save face" no matter what.

However, even thought we saw quite a few warehouses from the highway, not a single one had sales banners up. In a sense, the exercise was deja vu. A few years earlier, my then-manager Andrew had asked me to buy him waterski tow ropes. He said it was cheaper in the US. I found them in a huge warehouse sports shop near a White Castle burger joint in Indianapolis, the same eatery made famous by Harold and Kumar in their very funny Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle movie.

Driving on that left-hand drive highway, I realised that it wasn't too difficult to learn to drive on the wrong side of the road. In fact, it was downright easy.

You could say I was rather "garang" to drive that distance on my second try. The first was in LA a few days earlier but that was actually quite minimal as our stay there was short and the attractions nearby. The furthest we drove that few kilometres to Disneyland.

You might think May brave to sit beside me, but we had been long-time driving partners during many long-distance adventures in Malaysia. We practically drove as one - so similar were our driving styles. May is the only one girl I would trust my car to, no hesitation at all. And she has often done the same. (I thus often give people a earful when they say women cannot drive). Both May and I drive fast but we are both defensive and safe drivers. Many still-alive cows wandering the B-roads on Malaysia's East Coast can testify to take.

In any case, I found the mental switch to left-hand side driving easy. I also realised that driving on painted, regulated roads helps: You do not have to hurry for anyone if you just keep to your lane. It's the guy at the back who has to watch your tail and be patient. Remember that.

And driving an automatic overseas (not our choice) actually helps to lessen the learning curve. Safer to not fumble during gear changes at junctions and other traffic situations. And one does tend to look around at street signs more often when in an unfamiliar place. So the auto-gear helps. (May and I both love driving manual.)

The hotel that May and I were supposed to head to was somewhere on the edge of SF. But tried as we did, we couldn't find it. We could locate it on the map but physically, it wasn't there. And there wasn't any signage indicating its street name.

What's annoying is that both May and I were both good navigators. - Me more so because of my army training. But we were both stumped. After circulating the area for the fifth time (and getting ample practice making turns at a large traffic cross-junction) it was beginning to look like Groundhog Day - that movie which starred Bill Murray reliving the same day over and over again.

Finally, we decided we should stop at the Scientology church that was marked nearby the hotel on the map and somewhat on the main road. Sure enough, our hotel was located 100m up the street.

The reason the hotel was so well hidden were 1) it was in the shadow of some tall building; 2) the street it was on had no sign; 3) Access to it was via a easy-to-miss backlane.

I don't know. The experience was like trying to locate a particular Renoir in a huge and largely unfriendly museum with no signs to show the way. The funny thing is the hotel was named Renoir. And it was similarly old.

Old but clean. The hotel building reminded me of those granite ones from the '20s era, or like our own Asia Insurance Building at Raffles Place in Singapore.

We checked into our room, left our bags there and proceeded into the heart of the city. Our first stop was, of course, Ben's & Jerry's.

This ice-cream shop turned out to be at a very nice location. It was in a turn-off accosted by a small park with benches and trees. We ordered Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia, the latter recommended by an ice cream fan in my Science Fiction interest group.

May and I then proceeded to a park bench with our treats and sat down to watch the world go by. It was one of the more beautiful moments during our trip. I remember thinking of a similar place in the Back to the Future movie: Small town/town square/park bench. It's what us folks from Asia dream about visiting: an orderly and charming '50s America; a town which included a dreamy milkshake parlour.

I also wondered if I would still be sitting on that park bench with May many years hence. She looked positively radiant, if not a little impishly greedy, caused in no small part by the scrumptious flavours of the ice cream we were holding.

Fisherman's Wharf

The first stop we made after that was Fisherman's Wharf. I know, it's a very shamelessly touristy thing to do, but it had to be done. May had been to SF before and insisted I should try the clam chowder. Ok, it was delicious but a little overwhelming with all that cream.

Stuffed, we walked along the wharf a bit afterwards. It was crowded. Parked by the side was a submarine, a tourist attraction.  Elsewhere, there were human street statues performing. One was an elaborate all-silver angel with wings. Another was simpler, just a man in all white and a red cap. These 'statues' would remain unmoving until someone dropped money into their collection box. They would then come alive and strike an interesting pose. The man in white though, moved in a robotic manner.

By the side of the wharf was parked a submarine. It was meant as a tourist attraction.

Along the same boardwalk, a sign informed us that seals could be seen, but on that day, they were apparently suntanning on another jetty (Pier 34?) and out of sight. May and I joked that we should have made an appointment with the elusive critters first!

Next, we arrived at "Crooked Street" (Lombard Street) and drove down those crazy zigzag lanes. Another touristy thing done and checked off the list! We then headed back into the interior section of town to Borders, the new concept bookshop. I needed to buy something for a friend in my sci-fi group.

At the time, Borders hadn't come to Singapore yet. I had heard much about it and the way it operated. One could not only browse a book but sit in a comfy chair to finish the whole damn thing! I wondered then, given the prevailing kiasuism in Singapore, if the scheme would work in our fine city. I had faith in my fellow human beings, so I thought, why not? The most Borders had to do was replace those dog-earred copies of oft-read books. If they can bear the replacement costs, that is.

Turns out Borders did come to Singapore two years later but closed after a run of 13 years. Yes, patrons did abuse the system (not only Singaporeans though) the worst culprits being parents with toddlers. They forget Borders was a bookshop and not a library. The books in the Kids' Section were often left vandalised.

But the real reasons for their closure were financial and patrons complaining of poor title selection. Interestingly, another similar bookshop chain, Kinokuniya, from Japan is still operating. You can browse but they do not make it comfy for you.

Hilly Terrain

Driving to Borders we could see just how hilly SF was. The sheer inclines of some of its streets were unbelievable. We joked that SFsians must have big calf muscles. Or if anybody died from a dropped bowling ball incident, you know, from the top of a street and the ball rolling down at great speed. I think its kinetic energy would be so great as to knock over a tram car.

A terrorist won't need to make a bomb in this city. Just paint a few jihadist slogans on a few weighty bowling balls and let them rip.

Parking to get to Borders, we discovered SF's oldest press corp members' club along a street. As a journalist, that gave me a feeling of bon homie. It was fittingly located in an old part of town and in an old granite building.

From Borders we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge and into Sausalito; and then on to the nearby Muir Woods Redwood Forest.

Giant Redwoods

If you have not seen a giant redwood tree before, the sight can be awe-inspiring, like meeting a very fat uncle for the very first time at a family gathering and you were but a skinny kid.

But here in this forest, the experience can be even more alarming when that giant tree you encounter is a fallen one. It's as if you have suddenly found yourself at the scene where David had smite down Goliath. The exposed roots, the tossed earth, and numerous creatures scurrying for new homes makes the scene even more calamitous and biblical. You cannot help but feel small in every sense of the word.

May and I posed for a picture. We then looked at each other and contemplated making out there and then. It must have been that end-of-the-world feeling the scene evoked.

But the thought of insect-like creatures scurrying up our naked asses put paid to that. We decided it would be better done at an old hotel somewhere in a hard-to-find section of the city. One that was located next to a church that sounded scientific.

Walking round the forest trail, we discovered a small clearing where a plague from the United Nations had been placed. It commemorated a meeting that was held there in 1945. Ooh, an orgy in the forest! Haha... But I don't think so. The sombre gathering looked more like a physicists' convention than a bunch of pacifist interlopers. They were all in rather deary garb and many of the men spotted peculiar facial hair.

From Muir Woods, we drove further north and ascended a hilly region. At the top, we stopped by a lovely white inn that sat by the edge of a mountain range. From its outward cafe patio, we could look out to admire the valley that encircled around and below. The trees in there were of all shades of green and I could only imagine how lovely the place must be during Autumn when shades of red, orange and brown burst into being.

As the evening drew near, we decided to head back to the city. We had some more clam chowder and retired to our hotel room. For some reason our love-making session evoked more of the ocean than was usual.

17-Mile Drive

The next morning, we checked out of Renoir and drove south, heading into Pebble Beach and its 17-Mile Drive. The houses and lawns there were all very neat and picturesque. A section of it was near traffic and reminded me of East Coast Park. At other places, there were a few cul de sacs or coves, abutted by rocks and wave-crashed. These areas reminded me of those in Sydney or Brisbane - even their wood-slatted summer houses painted in parts marine rust-red and pastel looked quite the same.

Along 17-Mile Drive, we soon arrived at the Lone Cypress. As its name implies, it's a single cypress tree sitting by itself rather defiantly on a rock outcrop. Its backdrop was magnificent, capturing part of the Monterrey drop-cliffs and a whole lot of the Pacific Ocean. We overheard someone say that seals could be seen at certain times of the year sunning on nearby rocks.

May and I got out of the car, admired the tree and sea view and left after 20 minutes. We believed the tree was more than 200 years old and thought better to let old things rest. I told May many a poet must have gone there to pen a pensive thought or two. She smiled and suggested I write her one. I said I would.

A signboard at the viewing point warned people of suicide. That didn't sit well with us and so we quickly left.

From the Lone Cypress, we drove on to Carmel, that tourist town which was once run by Clint Eastwood as Mayor. Besides that, it was also famous for a beach that had sand of a different color.

Next story: USA 4 - SF 2 Carmel/Highway 101/Monterrey

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