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Mountains and Sea - The Lyorn's Den

Sun Oct. 15th, 2006

06:26 pm - Mountains and Sea

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It's strange how things you learned as a kid shape your perception of how the world "should" be. Germany rises North-to-South, from the sea to the beaches, marshes and flatlands, then hills and higher hills and finally mountains. And that's still how I expect things to be. Mountainous seashores never cease to amaze me. So, as a glimpse on any map can tell you, in California I find a lot of amazing places.

The problem with the place where I currently am is that it is surrounded by water and cities in all directions but east. To go to the northern part of the Golden Gate, one has to cross the bay twice, and drive through a lot of urban areas. In most of them, the freeways run more or less right through. They don't in San Francisco proper. But if you want to cross the Golden Gate bridge, you have to go through San Francisco, there's no helping it.

So I expected some challenging driving when I set out on Sunday, and allowed myself to sleep in a little -- stop laughing, you there in the last row! I got up at nine, and was on the road as a quarter to eleven. My plan was to take the Bay Bridge from Oakland, find the 101 Northbound, which would inerrably lead me to the Golden Gate Bridge. I did not use the navigation system, because if the Bridge has a street address that one could enter, I didn't know it.

All went fine until about a mile before the toll gates of the Bay Bridge. You need to pay toll on the Bay Bride and on the Golden Gate Bridge to enter into the city, and this is done by the road splitting into about 10 lanes (from it's original 5). Some of those are carpool (= a certain number of persons in a car) or Fasttrack lanes (like TollCollect in Germany, you need some device in your car), so you have to find the ones with the longest lines, where you can pay in cash. You roll up to a small yellow booth, hand the guy sitting there the cash (USD 3, in this case), and continue on your merry way. Little wonder that this arrangement leads to traffic jams. Maybe this whole TollCollect implementation wasn't as stupid as it seemed. Fortunately, there were next to no trucks on the road. There rarely are, now that I think of it. I don't know where they are all hiding.

The Streets of San Francisco

After paying, I crossed the bridge and actually found the 101 (highway? freeway? not sure), only to lose it at the next left turn. A detail from which you can conclude that freeways, despite being somewhat like Autobahnen, aren't, not really. They might have easy-to-follow signs, and clearly-marked exits, and be free of traffic lights or crossroads, but then, they might not. The 101 in SF most decidedly hasn't. So I found myself slowly driving up Mission Street, contemplating the nature of U-turns. Fortunately, Sunday traffic in SF is very tame, the roads are wide, with nothing unexpected springing at you suddenly, and the grid layout of the city makes it easy to know where you are in relation to where you want to go. Finally I made a U-turn and found the 101 again.

When you first see the Golden Gate Bridge from the 101, you believe that you are going to miss it. It's that high up. But then the road starts climbing, and before you know, there you are, and everything around you just opens up as the city comes to an abrupt end at the shore, and in fronnt of you is only the road and the hills. And other cars, of course, and the sidewalks are full of people taking a walk over the bridge. I have to do that one day, too.

Once you crossed, there is a vista point, where you can enjoy the view of the Bridge, the City and the Bay. The day was cloudy and a little hazy with some wind and not-too-warm temperatures, and everything was in blue-grey, green-grey and grey-grey, still with that warm undertone. I took a few pictures with my cell phone, and I would link them here if I could get to my homepage. (Maybe I can, but I need to figure out how.)

ETA: Marc kindly uploaded the pictures, so here:

Golden Gate Bridge, seen from Vista Point to the North

Muir whatever

I had marked a bunch of interesting spots that I wanted to visit. First was Muir Woods, where some of the last redwoods on that part of the coastal mountains can be fond. For that, I left the 101 for the Highway 1, which was as I remembered it, wide enough for two cars but barely, and winding through some breathtakingly beautiful scenery.

Not too long ago I read something in a newspaper that current car design makes it harder and harder to actually see what is outside the car. Now I could experience that first hand. On every stretch of road that wasn't horizontal and straight, I had to do contortions to actually see anything beyond the next ten metres of pavement. Either the A-pillar was in the way, or the rearview mirror, or the roof. When I buy my new car (may it be a long time from now!) I'm going to go over the windshield with a tape measure. And check the windows for any shading in the glass. No more disembodied headlights!

Soon I had a van in front of me with a driver who was either more stunned, less experienced or more nervous than I was, which made for very slow going. You cannot overtake anything on a road like that. Every mile or two, there are places where the road widens for a few dozen metres, and it is recommended that slower traffic keep right and slow down further to let other cars pass by, but if slower traffic thinks it owns the road, you are out of luck.

Muir Woods looked nice, even if the van wanted to go there, too. It was, however, full up. At least the parking place was. I had no patience with that and just continued to drive, until I came to the sea. Or within a hundred metres or more of it, all vertical. That place is called Muir Beach, but is completely beach-less. The shrub-covered hills just drop not-quite-straight into the ocean. The sea looks calm from this height, but then the waves you do not see crash against the rocks down below and water and form rise. There are picnic tables there, and some observation bunkers from WWII. In a way, it's very quiet, despite the sound of the waves, the wind and the birds, or because of it. I took a few more pictures, which are bad, but not too bad. A cell phone is not made for landscape photography. When I get here next time, I'll bring the camera.

Muir Beach, looking down

I continued northwards (and if the signs say "rough road ahead", the mean it) until the road led down to a long, straight beach. Another nice place to stop. Also, my stomach seemed to catch on to the fact that I wasn't, actually, on holiday, and I felt a little hungry. And where beaches are, there should be food somewhere close by.

Stinson Beach

The place was Stinson Beach (take a look at the satellite images in Google maps, it's worth it. And then image where the San Andras fault may be on that picture), and the town looked nice. Lots of cafes, and shops with surfing equipment. There were surfers at the beach, too, wearing neoprene suits and trying to do something with waves that, while occasionally impressive, weren't quite high or long-lived enough to actually ride. Still, they looked as if they had fun. Signs along the beach warned of riptides and white sharks. The sand was coarse and two or three shades darker than postcard beaches, and the dunes were tiny, but near the end of the beach were large rocks (which I would have attempted to climb if people hadn't been watching). On the south side, the beach ended at a mountainside. The slopes were covered with trees and shrub, palm trees and, quite unexpected, reed. The flood was coming in. The waves of the Pacific always give me the impression of being quite unamused at the sudden presence of land. They rise high, and long, and break in a round, crashing motion. I walked to the south end of the beach and back, maybe a mile and something, then had some fries and a soda at a kiosk. The fries were good.

Stinson Beach, looking away from the sea

Stinson Beach, some rock

And back again

By then it was half past three, and I didn't want to return after dark, and I very much didn't want to drive through the mountains after dark. So I considered whether to drive farther North, or start my way back. If you look at Google maps, that might seem strange since I still was pretty much within spitting distance of the city, but it had taken me three hours to get here. I decided to go on.

I must have driven this route before in the other direction with Ceridwen, but I do not remember, and that is strange. I can only imagine that my brain had been overflowing with images then, and I didn't have place to store any more. If you drive north from the beach, you drive along a long lagoon, wide and flat and wet, surrounded by hills and dotted with birds. After the lagoon, the country becomes quite sweet, with dairy farms and avenues with large trees to both sides. I went up to Point Reyes, and then North-East to get back to the 101. Soon the land became golden-brown again, with mountains like felt caps, and easy driving. Some of the towns looked a lot like Sunnydale, only without the vampires. (But then, how can you tell? It was still daytime.) Shortly before the 101 I activated the navigation system and told it to get me home, which it did. In fact, it did well: not only did it avoid any toll bridges, but I skirted the North side of the Bay: miles and miles of wetlands in autumn colours and dark blue water.

I passed the aquarium in Vallejo where Ceridwen and I had spent a nice day in '93, and found it had turned into an amusement park, and much sooner then I'd have had expected, I was home.

And hungry again.

Fortunately, I had some fudge.

ETA: Now with pictures!