Bridge Expedition

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Filbert Street steps, San Francisco.

Last night, we went on an expedition over to the city (or “The City” to conform to the old San Francisco Examiner stylebook) to watch the Golden Gate Bridge 75th birthday fireworks. It was Kate’s idea, and I was lukewarm to it at first mainly because I figured there’d be a huge crowd with attendant problems getting to and from the event. But we came up with a plan: to go to Coit Tower, on Telegraph Hill, which would probably have a decent view of the fireworks and not be in the thick of the mob. We’d be able to take BART over, walk up to the tower (about a mile) using the stairways on the eastern side of the hill. To make the evening complete, we discovered that our boat, the Oakland-Alameda ferry, is running on a summer schedule and that the last trip back to the East Bay would leave the Ferry Building at 10:45.

So: We drove to Oakland, left our car near the ferry, walked to Oakland West BART (getting stopped for a few minutes on the way by an Amtrak train that pulled across the street in front of us and stopped), raced through the tube under the Bay to Embarcadero Station, then hiked north to the Filbert Street steps, just west of Levi’s Plaza. The beacon drawing us on: Coit Tower, bathed in “international orange” light (in honor of the GG Bridge’s paint job).

I have worn out the sidewalks and shortcuts across other parts of the city, but this is a piece of the urban landscape I rarely visit. It’s one of the older settled places in San Francisco, and it feels that way, maybe because of the many fragile-seeming older masonry structures along Front and Battery streets. And when you head up the steps, you enter a different world altogether: a warren of narrow paths and alleyways crowded by garden yards and lined by a jumble of cottages, apartment buildings old and new, humble and spectacular. Every little bit, the tower would reappear, closer and redder, above us.

When we got to the drive winding up to the Coit Tower parking lot, the sparse procession of people we’d been among heading up the steps joined a crowd converging on the hill’s summit. Traffic was stopped. Around the base of the tower, people were staking out positions to watch the show. We found a space looking west toward the bridge through an opening among the branches of a eucalyptus tree. Maybe 40 or 50 people, a mix of people, were perched at the same spot: some families with kids, some younger folks, some older folks. The mood was restrained until the fireworks started with a cascade of white fire along the entire length of the bridge. “I love this city!” a woman next to me said. (Later, she said, “What a great show! She deserves it.” “Yeah,” a friend of hers said, “she didn’t go down 20 years ago (during the Loma Prieta earthquake).”

And then it was over. On the way back down the steps, I was impressed by how steep and long they are–especially the last pitch (pictured at top), which is flung down a sheer drop at the base of Telegraph Hill above Battery Street. Kate said that section made her a little nervous, and steep as it was I could see her point, especially with blackberry shoots making a bid to reach across the handrail and snag you.

We walked down the Embarcadero to the Ferry Building and waited for the boat to Oakland. It was a little late because it had to negotiate some heavy traffic with hundreds of small boats heading back to marinas along the bayfront and across the bay. The boat wasn’t jam-packed, but it did have an unusually large Sunday night crowd. We got off at Jack London Square, picked up our car, and came home.

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