In late November, due to visa problems in China and tired of government propaganda there, I decided to return to San Francisco for six months. As usual these days I was not loaded with cash, so hostels appeared my only choice other than the street.
For many these days the "youth hostel" has become a cheap dormitory to weather out the depression or "great recession," if that's what you want to call it. But then I got an idea. I would turn my impoverished situation into a game; I would stay in every hostel in San Francisco and do an informal review. And when I wasn't doing that I could work on some poetry. This sounded like fun.
I returned to San Francisco on a Tuesday in November about 1:00 PM—about the same time I left Shanghai—having regained the day I lost when I went to there. I was amused at arriving back on the same day and nearly at the same hour I left Shanghai, but I was also thoroughly discombobulated from the two connecting flights that it took me and going through security twice. Security drives me, and just about everyone I know, nuts these days. I suppose it is necessary—and I'm sure somebody makes a whole lot of money from it—but it mars the travel experience for most people. Remember when flying used to be fun? That was a long time ago.
I used to live on Bush Street in San Francisco and liked that street. So the first hostel I decided to try was a place on Bush Street called Encore Express. Bush was "downtown", half way between Nob Hill and the Tenderloin. It did not have the quaint look of Pine Street, one street closer to Nob Hill, but it did not have the shabby look of the Tenderloin. Take a closer look at this street and you will find it very nice. Its architecture is old-San Francisco style, small and picturesque. Some of the buildings have a lot of features—beautiful wood railings, mirrors, marble floors, ornamental cornices ... —the kind of features you no longer see in the new buildings in San Francisco because they cost money and no one these days knows how to execute them. There are also good neighborhood bars on the upper part of Bush, such as Yong San Lounge, Summer Place, Chelsea Place ... (In the Raw: Bush, Bars & Plein Aire)
Encore Express, however, was not located on my favorite part of Bush Street but over the top of the hill, back down towards Van Ness. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a small, quaint hotel that was advertising itself as a hostel as well. Although I had booked a dorm room, I was given a private one with a big double bed and lovely furnishings. I was very much surprised. At 18 USD per night, the price was very reasonable. There was, however, a draw back: At about six o'clock in the evening, just as I was beginning to relax from a twenty-some hour trip from Shanghai, I heard loud rock music coming from the basement. It continued till nearly midnight. The next day I asked about this and was told that there was a rehearsal hall below. Then I recollected the photos of rock musicians in the office—one, I think, of Mick Jagger. And perhaps this explained the name, Encore Express. Invoking a bit of silly buzz—"hotel values"—I suggested to the girl in the office that loud music detracted from those values; but she ignored my comment, acting like she did not understand what I meant. I rather think that Encore staff was hoping the rehearsals were perceived as a positive thing, as something "hip" and uniquely "San Francisco"; but not having to listen to them—the office closes at 6 PM—they might be able to view it that way. To me they were simply a nuisance. But aside from treating guests to unwanted music—the rehearsals ended about midnight every night—Encore Express was by far a positive experience.
From Encore Express on Bush Street I moved to Adelaide Hostel on Isadora Duncan, a tiny lane off Taylor Street near Post. Adelaide is an all-around nice place. The staff is genuinely friendly, and it is well run without heavy regulation. It appears to run itself but doesn't, of course; and it feels homey, from the big front room on the main floor to the kitchen and dining room in the basement. There is "fun" to be had there too, if that is what you are looking for, but it is not overly orchestrated. "Fun" is a standard category used in hostel rating, so those who run hostels try to create fun experiences for people who don't know how to have fun on their own. Fortunately, at Adelaide they do not overdo it. But there are "pub crawls" for those who don't know how to walk from one bar to another getting drunk; there are also walking tours of the city for those who don't know how to take a walk and discover anything on their own; there are even "special nights" for those who can't think of anything special to do. But, as I said, they don't overdo it and most guest figure out how to have a good time on their own. Breakfast, however, is available till 11 AM if you are a late sleeper—many guests are—and they do not turn off lights in the public areas, urging guests to go to bed early. The latter practice is a major annoyance; nevertheless, many hostels do this to save money and make things easier for hostel staff, not you.
Hosteling International San Francisco Downtown is a good example of the latter. It's the next hostel I tried. Located deep down on Mason Street, it's just a step away from the Tenderloin, something which their ads don't mention. The 'loin, if you don't know it, is one of San Francisco's troubled neighborhoods, more down and out than dangerous but nevertheless unnerving to first-time visitors.
I arrived at Hosteling International in the early afternoon. Checking in guests at the desk in the lobby were two young white male. There were short lines before each of them. While I waited in line I observed their style. Encore Express had been friendly but perhaps a bit formal; Adelaide was friendlier and informal. Here they were not unfriendly to arriving guests but did not gush; few hostel employees do, I came to learn. Perhaps there is wisdom in a degree of restraint. Here, however, there seemed to be considerable restraint. There was something in their demeanor that told you who was in control.
The young man in whose line I was standing wore a knit skull cap and black, short-sleeve T-shirt, under which muscular arms bulged. He, especially, seemed in control. But then, as he was checking me in, an odd thing happened. He asked another worker, a short Mexican woman, if she would take a note upstairs. She looked like she was part of the cleaning staff and headed that way anyway. "No" she told him and walked off.
Soon I was at the head of the line and the muscular young man handed me a copy of Hosteling International's rules and regulations for guests. Surprise: The muscular young man lowers his voice and tells me that personally he thinks the rules are excessive. Have I misclassified this "control freak" because of his muscles? Possibly.
And what were Hosteling International's rules and regulations? To be honest I don't know. The list was so long that I did not read any of it; I just signed it and put it in my pocket for future reference. However, from reading the posted notices in the rooms, surely the two most important rules must have related to alcohol and food: The former was not allowed and the later was not to be kept in rooms. In fact one notice informed guest that any food found in rooms would be thrown into the trash. That did not make me feel warm and fuzzy. As to the alcohol rule, I noticed that many guests were ignoring it. In fact that rule may have been what the young man in the skull cap had in mind when he told me that he thought the rules were excessive. He looked like a boozer to me.
Soon I was checked in and standing in the kitchen upstairs. More of the Mexican staff was there. It appeared they were cooking themselves a nice big lunch. To be fair, one guy was slowly mopping the dining-room floor while lunch was being cooked. Then, lunch over and kitchen cleaned, they promptly shut down the kitchen. It stayed shut till dinner time. Good for them, but bad for guests. I was picking up a common theme of the lesser hostels.
The most peculiar thing, however, was not Hosteling International's rules and regulations but an attitude they were trying to project about its commitment to the environment. Let me be specific: Toilets were external to guests' rooms; that is, to use a toilet you went down the hall till you found a door market "Toilet." Once inside the toilet room, however, you found there was no sink. Instead you found over the toilet a note explaining that the water coming from the spout over the toilet holding tank was "CLEAN and SAFE" for washing. While this is probably true, after all the years of association between toilets and "dirt" it is hard to feel really good washing your hands, let alone rinsing your mouth, with water coming from a toilet. The idea was of course to show how dedicated Hosteling International is to the environment by reusing water. But a little reflection reveals the fallacy in their thinking about water conservation. In particular, what if you only need to wash your hands? To do so you have to flush a toilet, wasting, what is it, five gallons of water. Is this cutting-edge environmental thinking or the lame thinking of some back-office marketeer? I think the latter. Moreover, I think that when you are on vacation or on the road, environmental concerns are not your top priority. At home, of course, it's another matter.
Have I said it? Hostels these days are a business, pure and simple. Once upon a time they were a grand idea, a novelty; there was even something idealistic about them and seeing the world and meeting fellow international travellers. These days they fill a need for cheap lodging—both for travelers and others. Owners have profited heavily from the "Great Recession." Many people, both young and old, can no longer afford to stay in an expensive hotel. But for the hostel owner it is much the same business equation as before when people could afford to say in hotels: A small room that once lodged a single traveler or perhaps a companion at a large price now lodges X number of travelers, and at times non-traveling, down-and-outers, at the same price, now simply divided between them. Nothing has changed from the owner's or bank's perspective. It is from the customer's perspective that things have changed. He or she is now crammed into a small room with four or six, and sometimes even more, beds and guests to put up with the bad manners and loud snoring of fellow travelers; he or she is also forced to lock up valuables in a locker, supplying his or own lock, if he or she wants to retain his or her valuables. In most cases the traveler also gets to make up and strip down his or her bed. Service is virtually a thing of the past along with a reserved, customer-isn't-always-right attitude of the staff, in most cases. There are other little differences too. Bed bugs, once cause for alarm, are now just bed bugs and nothing to get upset about, at least from the perspective of the staff. And cockroaches? Who cares! They're everywhere these days, according to urban reports.
But given all this negativity about hostels, there are some good ones, or at least ones that rise above the others. The Green Tortoise on Broadway in North Beach is of that type.
So what is good about the Green Tortoise? Partly it is what they don't do. They don't try to regulate you. The don't turn off the lights in the public areas to get you to go to bed at a "proper" hour. They assume you know the proper hour for you to go to bed. And they do not close off the kitchen late at night when you may be hungry because you have been up late. Also, if your bed is ready, they let you check in when you get there; they don't make you wait to some official check-in time. They also have a large ballroom, a leftover from another era, with a stage for musical performances, though it is sad that few of the guest-performers are even able to tune up their instruments. Sad, too, that the guests' preference in music is of the low order: rock versus jazz or classical or even folk. Youth, both local and international, has been pretty much brainwashed by American culture.
One sad note: I don't know what got into the owner's head the other day but apparently he or she ordered that the old upright piano, occupying only a humble corner of the ballroom, be destroyed. The evening before it was a grand old instrument with a big tone; in the morning, when I came down for breakfast, I saw it in a heap of scraps waiting to be hauled away by goons.
"That will be seven years of bad luck," I said to the guy who did it. He laughed nervously.
If the owner was feeling destructive, why not destroy one of the out-of-tune guitars on the stage waiting to be picked up and plucked at random by any non-musician in the ballroom? Why not destroy those bongos pounded by any aggressive male who wants to beat something? Why not destroy anything other than a fine old instrument that took up almost no space?
The three foot-pedals were still attached to a scrap on the floor. I pushed one. It was still springy. But the body of the instrument to which it had been attached had been murdered. All-in-all, however, Green Tortoise is a fine place and still full of much of the charm of the old San Francisco hotel.
But this brings up an issue independent of the Green Tortoise: Who are the guests these days, and what are they like? Most hostels in San Francisco are old hotels that have been converted to a somewhat altered purpose. The new guests are not the dignified people with money who came to experience the elegance and charm of San Francisco in the old days. They are not the people who put on their best clothes, dressing for the occasion. Rather, they are, for the most part, a younger crowd that permanently dresses down, the guys with a few days growth of beard or a goatee as they have seen some actor in a movie wearing—Matt Damon or Johnny Deep?—and a baseball cap worn backwards, or sometimes now, backwards and skewed to one side or the other. Damon or Deep? Who did that? And in what movie, starting the trend? In short they are imitations of something once fresh and original, and I will leave it to you to decide how original that is.
And their ladies? Angela Jolie in what? Jennifer Aniston in? You be the judge. Conversations between these combatants are typically primitive, employing but a single adjective or exclamatory phrase with two variations: "fucking" or "what the fuck?" or "why the fuck?". Never do you hear the genuine swearing of the old days: "shit-ass bastard," "cocksucker," "motherfucker" ... I guess those words or phrases have not been approved by the Motion Picture Association of America and so have not become part of the popular culture.
A typical conversation runs something like this:
She: Hey, dude, are you going to wear that fucking shirt out to dinner?
He: Why the fuck not?
She: It's fucking dirty, dude.
He: It's not fucking dirty!
She: Shut the fuck up.
Telling someone to shut up has become very popular. It used to be very insulting but not after someone in a movie told someone else in a movie—a friend, I suppose—to "shut the fuck up!"
There are, however, some swell kids who stay in these hostels, but they are a little hard to spot these days.
My next stop was Hosteling International - Fisherman's Wharf. It is a curiosity. It advertises itself as being at Fisherman's Wharf but it is not. It is at Fort Mason to the west. But how is an out-of-towner or a foreigner to know that? Once at the hostel they kind of figure out they are not really in Fisherman's Wharf and resign themselves to walking there if that is where they want to be. If not they can resign themselves to looking at the last canon that once guarded the Bay from the Confederate Navy that never showed up during the Civil War. And they can have a look at the lovely trees and grass at Fort Mason and the fine views of the Bay and save themselves a lot of money. Fisherman's Wharf is, after all, a tourist trap and not cheap.
San Francisco International Hostel makes the mistake of trying too hard. It's manager, a tall Korean fellow who goes only be the initial "Z" and claims to be one of the owners—it's possible, I suppose—thinks that you are incapable of having fun on your own. "Fun" is an odd concept in the first place. What is fun for one person may be inane to another. Fun is in fact a funny word; it implies something superficial. But fun as a marketing concept can mean sales, and it is one of the rating categories that every hostel survey includes. So if you are determined that your hostel is going to get a high rating for fun, what do you do? Have pub crawls every day? Have nightly beer busts in your hostel's basement rooms with strings of colored lights twinkling on and off? Turn up the bass volume in your movie room to the point of causing damage to the inner ear? If you are desperate for a high fun rating, I guess so. And what don't you do? If you are located in or near the Tenderloin, you don't mention this to would-be guests. You let them discover this for themselves, as they surely will. But San Francisco International Hostel does provide you with one unique experience. It allows you to imagine living in a classic San Francisco hotel before it becomes a hostel and goes straight to hell—a "fun" hell, of course. Only Dante Alighieri could depict such a fall from grace.
From such hellish fun I wandered to Pacific Tradewinds on Sacramento Street near Kearny. Pacific Tradewinds is a solid place—clean, well run, small but in a location that may not be a big attractor. But in fact the location is great. It is right across the street from Chinatown; a safe distance from North Beach; a little walk to Union Square; and right on the line of the most solid transportation in the City, the California 1 bus, that can have you on the top of Nob Hill in just minutes or down to Van Ness in just a few more. But all this is in a quiet neighborhood just off the business district and history-rich Montgomery Street: Portsmouth Square is just up the street, the place where Captain John Montgomery, sailing into the Bay a year before the discovery of gold in California, declared San Francisco and California part of the United States without a peep from Mexico.
Dan, the manager of Pacific Tradewinds, knows San Francisco well but he doesn't force fun upon you. When a hostel chum and I came back one night from a "one-pub pub crawl at Tosca's", he said only "good choice" and asked us if we know about Spec's around the corner. If you are willing to contribute something to dinner, you can get it nightly there for no other cost than the contribution; the staff at Pacific Tradewinds cooks almost every night. At Pacific Tradewinds you are likely to have fun without even knowing it. Better yet, you may even have a good time.
I had been avoiding the really bad hostels in San Francisco, but after Pacific Tradewinds I decided it was time to take the dive and see how those with ratings under 70 really were. By reading guest's online reviews, you could get the gist of the worst problems—"I could smell urine throughout the whole place" or "the staff was hostile"—but I wanted the first-hand experience. I wanted to smell the urine, feel the hostility ... And indeed I got what I wanted and more.
Amsterdam Hostel was my next stop. It is a place run by an Indian staff and manager named "Randy". I had heard something about Randy earlier but will not repeat it.
The first two nights were okay. I shared a room with a Frenchman and a guy form Austria. Both were leaving in two days. I was somewhat surprised when I asked the Frenchman what he thought of San Francisco and he said that he was disappointed. He said he didn't find people that friendly.
"Sure, they say, 'Hi, how are you, but they don't mean it.'"
His "social experience"—meeting people—had been poor. But he was a friendly guy. I didn't get it.
At Green Tortoise and Adelaide you met all kinds of people. It was overwhelming. I had learned a little trick to keep my sanity. Don't be too friendly or limit it to certain times of the day. It seemed to me therefore that the French guy's problem was due to Amsterdam. There were few guests there and the staff itself reflected an attitude of restrained friendliness and at times hostility.
On the third day the French and Austrian guys left and I made a big mistake. I decided to extend my stay by an extra day.
At the lobby desk I was told that to stay another day I would have to check out and move into another room. I wasn't completely happy about this, partly because of the inconvenience and partly because there was some nice old furniture in the room I was occupying—something rare in most hostels. Moreover the room had its own bathroom, also a rarity. Nevertheless I extended my stay, packed up and moved out of my room, and waited three hours for the check-in time for the new room.
Finally at two o'clock, repacked bags in two, I opened the door to the new room. The smell. was strong enough to make you throw up. Also there were six beds, not four.
I returned to the desk and complained about the smell. The desk person, showing no surprise, simply handed me a can of Lysol.
I returned to the room and began spraying. The result was a toxic battle between the original awful odor and the smell of Lysol. Obviously they did not like each other. At this point an Hispanic cleaning lady showed up and I mentioned the smell to her. Yes, she grinned, she knew all about it. She brought in a large canister of Lysol that advertised its effectiveness against tuberculosis, among other things, and sprayed until the contents of the room were only visible through a mist. She then left, leaving me with the canister. The smell of Lysol was now winning the battle against the bad smell but the results were not pleasant. I made my bed, unpacked some of my stuff, and walked over to Caffe Puccini in North Beach to write. At last the smell of Lysol was gone. But of course later I would have to face going to sleep in that room. I did, however, put that off as long as possible. Back at Amsterdam I stayed up late, working on a story and reading a book in the basement kitchen and dining area. But at 4 AM I could put it off no longer; I was exhausted.
I carded the door with my plastic "key," pulled it open, and there it was right in my face: the monster odor. But now it was combined with the breath and body odor of five sleepers. Lysol had lost the battle. I did not even try going to bed. Gagging, I pulled the blanket and pillow off my bed and went down to the "recreation" room in the basement. Another hostel guest was already there on one of the couches with his blanket and pillow. We yawned at each other, nodded; words were not necessary.
At 7:30 AM we were waked up by an Indian guy with a dark grizzly beard standing in the doorway of the rec room. I believe it was Randy, though it may have been an evil incarnation of the odor pursuing us down to the basement.
"You must return to your rooms and sleep there," he or it asserted sternly.
We let him, or the monster, know what we thought of that, and he backed off, giving us "special permission" to stay where we were. Clearly he knew about the odor.
Here, by the way, is a little background to the problem, as supplied by the one non-Indian employee there, a guy from Brazil who was technically a "volunteer" doing work in exchange for free rent. First, hostel policy never allows a single guest to occupy a room, even when the hostel is virtually empty. That was the reason for my move. Secondly, there were two "guests" who never bathed or changed their clothes living in my new room. They were probably there courtesy of social services and would be out on the street otherwise. The staff at Amsterdam seemed to be fully aware of the problem. It all came down to money: Provide the guests with the lowest-level service while taking money from the City. This is a philosophy of doing business in San Francisco observed by a certain class of business owners. Unfortunately it is a large and unscrupulous class. Thirdly, according to my informer, Randy never said please or thank you, something that the Indian staff imitated. Finally, he allowed only bare minimum maintenance. Light bulbs could be replaced but only every other one; the torn and peeling wallpaper of the once-elegant old hotel was not a problem in Randy's mind; nor were the deeply smudged wooden railings.
Okay, so you think I have reached the bottom, right? Guess again. From Amsterdam I moved two blocks down to Union Square Backpacker's Hostel on Derby Street off Taylor. The first thing to note is that Derby Street is not a street; it is a drab lane that dead ends in about 50 yards. Were you being chased by assailants—it could happen, the Tenderloin is but a block away—turning down Derby would be a big mistake. There are only two business with entrances off Derby, Paris Massage at the corner and the hostel at the end on the left side.
I had some initial impressions of the place having read one review reporting the pervasive smell of urine. Another reviewer expressed surprise that the guy on the desk kept coming into her room to take naps.
If you want to get a sense of the lower side of downtown San Francisco without going south of Market or into the Tenderloin, stay at Union Square Backpacker's Hostel. On a scale of 0 to 100, its rating by backpackers hovers just above 60. But that's not the whole story because the place is more than a backpackers' hostel; it houses the down and out and is visited at times by the police looking for certain characters.
The desk is manned, alternately, by three main staffers. While they maintain at best an edgy relationship with guests, the truly amazing thing is that they fight bitterly and openly with each other. There is no shame in doing this in front of guests. Not only do they howl terrible insults at each other, they challenge each other to step outside and settle the matter once and for all. In fact the latter never occurred while I was there, but I would not be surprised to read at some later date that one had shot and killed one or both of the others.
One, I was told by an insider, is a convicted kidnapper and a heroin addict, one a crackhead egomaniac, the third, the most normal one, only a heavy drinker and pot smoker.
So why is this behavior tolerated? My inside source—another one of those "volunteers" getting a break on his rent—says it is due to the owner, an Indian guy named Shami.
"He almost seems to like it," said my source.
Shami also raises and lowers the rent on a daily basis, so that you don't know whether it will be $16, $18, $20, or $22 per day. Some days I think Shami thinks Union Square Backpacker's Hostel is a hostel; other days I think he realizes it is basically a flophouse. Shami is a short, stout Indian guy from Bombay with hair that is never combed; it sticks out in all directions as though being pulled by the many arms of the god Shiva. And of course Shami likes to yell too but no one ever challenges him to a fight. In the lowly world of Union Square Backpacker's Hostel, Shami is supreme.
Shami is in fact the reason I left Union Square Backpacker's Hostel. When he raised my rent from $16 one day to $20 the next, I went up the street to top-rated Adelaide and got a quote: $18. I moved within an hour.
But I'm not completely knocking the place. On most days of the week when Shami is not delusional, it's the cheapest place in town. And they do not pull that trick on you of trying to shut down the kitchen and other facilities at 11 or 12 PM. It would not go over with the majority of characters staying there who sleep late in the morning and drink and scheme late into the night. They would cut Shami's throat.
So that leaves me with just one other hostel that I stayed at in San Francisco: USA Hostel high up on Post Street. Here is perfection: clean, well run, organized—and totally boring. But you will be safe there, there sill be no bed bugs, and there will be plenty of wholesome activities like cheese and wine tastings. There will even be an electrical outlet inside your locker so that your cell phone and laptop don't disappear while being charged. Who can knock that? The staff will even smile at you when you arrive and depart. If you like trained smiles, give it a try.
Ultimately, however, the hostel experience was depressing. In a season of many changes, it brought me down. I met a few rare nice kids, but youth was not what it was supposed to be, vital and alive. The young-uns did not raise my spirits; they brought me down. I began to refer to them as Generation E, for Empty; also as Generation M&N for Mean and Nasty. I don't know what had produced such a depressing bunch of young people: Maybe it was economic; they couldn't find jobs or any meaningful work to do. Maybe it was the absurdity of war, terrorism, and the endless bloodshed around the world. I wouldn't blame them for a bad case of the blues over all that. Hadn't the human race been around long enough to get beyond at least some of this stuff? Whatever the reason, I didn't find much to hope for in most of the young people I met in hostels. It seemed to be a uniform culture from everywhere on an international pub crawl around the world. Same clothing, same slang, same ideas, same same. Suddenly I wanted to get away from them, it, everything. I decided to go backpacking in the Marin Headlands, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Earlier, as part of my hostel "review" I had been up to Hosteling International's hostel at Fort Barry, an old decommissioned military base on the headlands. Since it was not in San Francisco, I decided not report upon it. But it gave me the opportunity to get maps, learn where the trails and campsites were, and talk with some actual backpackers, not pub crawlers, who had dropped into the hostel for a break from the trail and a warm shower. I got a pretty good idea of the trails and what to expect.
So in early March I traded my city bag with single shoulder strap for a backpack with two. I loaded it with food, a bottle of rye whiskey, and light camping gear; then I headed across the Golden Gate Bridge on foot.
It took me about 40 minutes to walk across. Then, having walked up the right, or Bay side, I ran into a problem: I found the pedestrian underpass closed for the day—one day only, the day I had picked! Repair was in progress on the other side. I scanned the highway and tunnel ahead. It looked like there was one exit from Highway 101 before it went into the tunnel. I took a chance and walked along the edge of the highway until I came to Alexander Avenue and was able to cross under to the other side. Soon I was walking up Conzelman Road, getting higher and higher, and looking back at the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. An hour later, I was walking down a dirt road that wound down the steep hillside to Kirby Cove. At last down at the cove I sat on a log on the beach, ate a can of smoked trout, drank some whiskey, and watched the sun go down high over the hills above. I was free of the city at last.
Kirby Cove is a nice campground and I had it all to myself; there was not another person there. For the moment It was nice not hearing any accents, foreign or regional. The cove only spoke the sound of waves on a rocky shore, the sound of the breeze in the pines, and a variety of bird dialects, none of the birds appearing to be on a pub crawl.
I looked for a place to park my gear and spend the night. Since I didn't have a "reservation"—yes, that is the way the parks operate these days, just like hotels—I decided it would be smart to pick a space somewhat out of sight. I found a spot on the east side under a cypress tree with branches hugging a bluff that overlooked the cove. I did not think I would be spotted there if the ranger showed up; that is, if the ranger still had a job. Considering the state of California's finances, I did not consider that very likely.
I passed the night there with a spectacular view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge through the branches of the cypress. Later on, however, it did get very windy and cold. Even fully dressed and with a heavy-duty sleeping bag it was hard to keep warm. More rye whiskey brought some warmth.
In the morning I hiked further up Conzelman Road till I could see Point Bonita Lighthouse down below in the distance. It was as if I were on the top of the world, the green brushy slopes descending steeply down to the ocean. Then I took one of the Coastal trails north-west over to Rodeo Valley, coming out on a moist green meadow thick with flowers. Along the side of the road I had seen Indian Paint Brush and Sticky Monkey Fingers; now I was looking at Fox Glove and daffodils. The city was far behind me with all its hassle, hustle, troubled voices, noise, and noise makers. Something inside me lifted. I saw a Monarch butterfly circling a purple-blue Fox Gove in a field of lush green grass. I looked up into a clear blue sky. This was poetry, nature's poetry. It didn't need commas and periods and paragraph indents. It had form and color but not of the type I was used to fashioning. It was sufficient in and of itself. If all else failed, it would be quite enough entertainment for the rest of my life. It was a happy feeling just walking in the meadow. And was I part of it? Did the meadow need me? Did the meadow exist because I was there observing it? Or did it exist independently of me? Would it be there next week if I didn't come back? I turned around, looking the other way, then quickly turned around again. It was still there. I hadn't tricked it. But the Monarch had flown away. Did the meadow have a history? Did it have more than one? Did it have histories? I was reading a book about subatomic particles but that was on another level, wasn't it? ... In the cove there was a kind of dam structure from years ago. I didn't understand quite what it was, and the park literature says nothing about it. Clearly the park had another life in another time. So now it is in its second life, or maybe third if you count the life it had when native people were there. And who was I walking through all this and wondering about it? How many lives, how many histories, did I have? I stopped on the trail, slowed my thinking to nothing, felt the emptiness, then listened for any sounds around me. I heard nothing. Or the sound of silence. Did it contain all sounds? I'm sure someone has said that but is it true? I stopped myself, didn't wait for the answer. That was for another time. I continued across the meadow, down to the road, and from there, down to the lagoon. The lagoon seemed real. I had the impression that it had been waiting for me.