travels

Notes from abroad………..

(California)

Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf
If you are unfamiliar the area, Alcatraz Island is located in the bay area of San Francisco; it was initially used for its lighthouse and military fortification, but is really known for its now-abandoned federal penitentiary. Via a ferry ride or desperate swim from Fisherman’s Wharf, you can reach Alcatraz in a matter of minutes.

My dad, Sonja, and I took the audio tour of the prison and the surrounding ruins, a few of which were victim to fire some decades before.

The prison is actually not very large; it can house, as a maximum, around 360 prisoners, but was never full. It contains the corresponding number of cells, staff and guard accommodations (including some small offices and lookout points), a library, cafeteria, communal bathroom, and modest recreation facilities. Aside from this, the island has no permanent residents.

I found the entire island to be really spooky. First, there is the cragginess of the buildings that continue to decay; they are exposed to the elements of the bay, and the wind is super fierce. Further, the accounts of prisoners and guards are really chilling; the efforts to escape involved decoy body parts, starvation, and supposed drowning at the hands of the bay. In the most elaborate of instances, three men successfully fled the prison by stealing spoons from the kitchen and using them as drills in the decayed, softened drains of their cells. The three somehow managed to construct rudimentary decoy body parts using papier-mâché; jarringly (get it? like body parts in a jar), the body parts fooled the guards for long enough. Also this was the least violent attempt to escape.

The location of Alcatraz is probably the most eerie part; it’s very possible to hear city-happenings and voices drifting from the bay from the inside of the cells. The barred windows did not conceal the prisoners from the bitter weather of the bay, and the sound travels easily. The isolation cells were located in this area, but were also almost completely dark and dank. Prisoners were released and fed once or twice per week in this part of the prison.

Eventually, the prison was abandoned for the maintenance and living costs of the building and prisoners (respectively) became too high to continue; the prisoners were dispersed to other high-security federal prisons. The adjoining gift shop had a ton of prison tchotchkes, almost none of which I would like to have brought home, with one exception – the Escaped Inmate sweatshirt. It was a flattering orange. That said, there were plenty more opportunities to buy such items in the shops at Fisherman’s Wharf, which was depressingly commercial, but really scenic on its periphery. Hoards of sea lions were sat upon docks afloat the bay; they barked, brayed, and snored in the direction of eager onlookers, I among them (the onlookers, not the sea lions).

From the piers, it is also possible to see the Golden Gate Bridge, and beyond, the Pacific; on the other side is the skyline of San Francisco, when the fog is mostly dissipated. Note: rampant fog anyway.

Muir Woods, Sausalito, and the Golden Gate Bridge
So, I’m a huge fan of nature walks and fog, but not mountain driving. Anyway it’s all really close to San Francisco, making it the most geographically diverse city that I’ve visited. Just across the Golden Gate Bridge is Muir Woods – and a harrowing mountain-driving experience if you decide to visit. Peering over the single-lane roads, one can see steep drop-offs that imply certain death if road conditions worsened to a light rain. There are also few guard-rails. I think I prayed and insisted that the radio be kept at a barely audible volume. My dad swerved the car to “shake things up.”

The wooded region is actually a national park and a serious conservation project. The lush vegetation and abundance of redwoods is largely due to the coastal fog that shrouds the entire area; it feels like a perpetual misty rain as you approach the apex of the hiking trails. In response to the large volume of visitors, the wildlife tends to be very shy, with the exception of the occasional fawn and a few benign growths on fallen trees.

We decided unanimously to hike the more vigorous of the two known trails. Bam. With a steep ascent and no loops in the trail, it was kind of strenuous, but still doable. The temperature remained under 60° for the entirety of our three-hour hike. The conifers dripped with dew; the ground crunched softly beneath our shoes; and the trail was magnanimously fit for inexperienced hikers, even with its sort of sharp inclines. (The trail, named “Ocean View” was actually a misnomer, we discovered, as we reached the peak. Due to some recent sectional closings of the trail, hikers were actually only able to hear the ocean.)

After a second harrowing mountain-driving trip back, we drove through Sausalito (which is an extremely quaint and seaside-y area), and on to the Cliff House, which sits atop the Pacific. Now I’ve seen two oceans.

The Cliff House is now a posh restaurant dating back about a century. Parts of it have been renovated and entire sections have been demolished, but it once overlooked a bathhouse and amusement park during a time when that was all anyone had to do for fun, I think. The wind is nearly unbearable and was extremely harsh on the building; only its foundation remains; they are filled with salt water and some grasses. It was actually pretty sad. I got a poster.

-Valerie

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