Saturday, July 18, 2009

California Part Two - San Francisco

"... suddenly the vast expanse of a bay (it was just before dawn) with the sleepy lights of Frisco festooned across….I was rudely jolted in the bus station at Market and Fourth [San Francisco] into the memory of the fact that I was three thousand two hundred miles from my aunt’s house in Paterson, New Jersey. I wandered out like a haggard ghost, and there she was, Frisco—long, bleak streets with trolley wires all shrouded in fog and whiteness.” (54)

“There was the Pacific, a few more foothills away, blue and vast and with a great wall of white advancing from the legendary potato patch where Frisco fogs are born. Another hour it would come streaming through the Golden Gate to shroud the romantic city in white….That was Frisco; and beautiful women standing in white doorways, waiting for their men; and Coit Tower, and the Embarcadero, and Market Street, and the eleven teeming hills.” (71)

“And before me was the great raw bulge and bulk of my American continent; somewhere far across, gloomy, crazy New York was throwing up its cloud of dust and brown steam. There is something brown and holy about the East; and California is white like washlines and emptyheaded—at least that’s what I thought then” (72).

“It seemed like a matter of minutes when we began rolling in the foothills before Oakland and suddenly reached a height and saw stretched out ahead of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness in the late afternoon of time. ‘There she blows!’ yelled Dean. ‘Wow! Made it! Just enough gas! Give me water! No more land! We can’t go any further ‘cause there ain’t no more land!’” (158)

“I was waiting for her by appointment in a doorway across the street, at Larkin and Geary …” (161).

“I looked down Market Street. I didn’t know whether it was that or Canal Street in New Orleans: it led to water, ambiguous, universal water, just as 42nd Street, New York, leads to water, and you never know where you are” (161).

“And oh, that pan-fried chow mein flavored air that blew into my room from Chinatown, vying with the spaghetti sauces of North Beach, the soft-shell crab of Fisherman’s Wharf—nay, the ribs of Fillmore turning on spits! Throw in the Market Street chili beans, redhot, and French-fried potatoes of the Embarcadero wino night, and steamed clams from Sausalito across the bay, and that’s my ah-dream of San Francisco.” (163)

(Chinatown, in case you couldn't tell.)

(Fisherman's Wharf)

“That same night I dug Lampshade on Fillmore and Geary” (166).

“It was the end of the continent; they didn’t give a damn” (167).


“It was a two-story crooked, rickety wooden cottage in the middle of tenements, right on top of Russian Hill …” (173).

“On the corner of Fourth and Folsom …” (191).

“… we absolutely must make Forty-sixth and Geary in the incredible time of three minutes or everything is lost” (192).

(46th was a hike, one I didn't make, but see above for "Geary")

“… Dean and I both swayed to the rhythm and the IT of our final excited joy in talking and living to the blank tranced end of all innumerable riotous angelic particulars that had been lurking in our souls all our lives” (197).

(Both pictured and not pictured: IT)

Miscellaneous San Francisco:

(Japan Town)

Jack Kerouac Alley and City Lights Bookstore, which is right next to the alley.

(This reads: "The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great...")

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I left Palo Alto at 7:30, retrieved my morning coffee, and drove for half an hour until I came to San Francisco. I was happy to step out into a cool morning fog—the kind of temperature that gives me boundless energy, which I would need as I had planned on squeezing all I could out of Kerouac’s favorite city. Not much to tell, really—I passed most of the morning walking around, exploring. I trekked for a few miles, snagging pictures of specific streets from On the Road. After a few hours of semi-aimless wandering, I was drawn like a moth to a flame to San Fran’s museum of modern art. They had an exhibition of Robert Frank’s The Americans, complete with quotations from Kerouac pertaining to specific photographs. I’d call it a coincidence that the Frank exhibit was in town the same time I was, but coincidences don’t exist (plus the exhibit was at the museum for several months).

I was, as far as I could tell anyway, nearly mugged when walking to (of all places) the San Francisco Zen center. I was coming from the Museum, and I noticed the city was becoming gradually less appealing as I started down a certain street dotted with strip clubs, liquor stores, and the check-cashing places ubiquitous in every dodgy part of any city. I shrugged off that moment of hesitation, citing the fact that I’ve been in much worse areas of much bigger cities. So I kept walking (or rather hobbling, thanks to knee pain caused by shoes I had worn out while hiking back in Utah), through a seedy section that I never would have associated with what some refer to as the “Paris of the West.” Halfway to the Zen center, I came to a particularly desolate corner and stood there, waiting for the crosswalk signal to change. Not more than two seconds after I stopped, a short man shuffled up to my right side. Almost immediately after, a second, equally short and now-suspicious guy arrived at my left. Right-side guy looked both ways, leaned forward slightly, peered down the street, and saw nothing but traffic. I noticed him looking, and figured him to be keeping an eye out for witnesses. I looked at him directly, and expected a version of either two responses—a “hello,” or a “what the hell are you staring at?”—but he simply glanced away. This happened within the span of only about ten seconds, and then the signal changed. But nobody moved. I looked at them. We were three guys appearing in various states of vagrancy who looked like they just wanted to see a light change. A small, nearly imperceptible shake of the head was transferred from right-side guy to left-side guy, and they both ambled away from the edge of the road. I crossed the street and looked back, and as if they wanted to confirm my suspicions, there they stood leaning side by side against a boarded-up building.

So that was, as far as I know anyway, the closest I’ve come in California to being in a dilemma like that. I was perpetually on my guard, protecting my wallet—the only thing that would allow me to get across the continent again. But I would later find in California that this vigilance would begin to taper. By Los Angeles, I had stopped caring. I had absolutely no desire to return East (I was hoping some opportunity would avail itself so I wouldn’t have to trudge back to suffering old familiarity), and I realized when I was at the Zen center that part of me actually wanted to have been robbed a mile or so back on that corner, just so I could have the feeling of being stranded somewhere and temporarily hopeless until I could figure out a way to continue traveling. I was hungry to have myself thrust into a situation that I very well might regret later, but at the same time I’d welcome the adversity. Because really the only thing I desired while I was traveling was a place to sleep at night; it didn’t even need to be comfortable, as was often the case on nights spent in my car, so long as it allowed for at least some form of rest. Naturally staying on stranger’s couches wouldn’t be an option if I were stranded, because there’s a difference between having an itinerant visitor and having a homeless person stay with you for a night. But this is all hypothetical anyway—all I know is that I wouldn’t have been devastated by the immensity of the situation.

This thought about how infinitely preferable it would be to be actually stranded, hopeless and alone all the way across the country rather than being back in my home state, comparatively close to everyone I know, and feeling alone, followed me throughout most of the afternoon. It was something to contemplate over a cheap lunch in Japan town, where I savored the thought of self-reliance and sushi. After that, it was more wandering, an afternoon banh mi for two dollars, and (shudder), Fisherman’s Wharf by late afternoon. I snapped a picture of the embarcadero, ate some overpriced Dungeness crab, and promptly got the hell out of that stifling tourist cattle ground.

Near the end of my day, I continued to the fringes of Chinatown, where City Lights Booksellers (owned by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti) and the adjacent Kerouac Alley are located. If I were to dramatize my literary interests, my pilgrimage had ended when I arrived at the alley; I stood on icons featuring quotes from writers whose presence can be felt through simple words on stone. The alley can be traversed in about twenty seconds, but I spent a good bit of time there appreciating something that didn’t exist a couple of years ago. In City Lights, I wandered around the shop and compared images I had in my head from Kerouac’s descriptions of this place in Big Sur. Never being able to leave empty-handed from a good book store, I bought several relevant novels and walked a few blocks to the park sprawling beneath the effulgent Saints Peter and Paul Church. I sat there for about an hour reading, writing, and talking with strangers as the nightly fog crawled in like gathering ghosts. I left the park, walked back to Chinatown for a dinner of mai fun, and started on my way back to the Fifth and Mission garage.

As I was leaving, I saw several people with cardboard signs stating that they were more or less stranded and trying to get home. There was a couple who didn’t look like they were very downtrodden saying that they ran out of money and had to get back to Denver, an older guy with a sign reading that he needed money to get back to Tulare (California), and most affecting of all—probably because this kid was closer to my age—a visibly desperate guy propped up against a trash can with a piece of cardboard that read “homeless and trying to get back to San Diego. Please help me with bus $” Whether it’s true or not (and you never know), I felt pretty sympathetic. My generosity would be tested almost immediately afterward, however, when I walked by a little kid in a tuxedo with a saxophone. Not more than thirty feet away was an old guy playing the hell out of his guitar, yet this kid had a significant amount of money in his case. The kicker? He wasn’t even fucking playing. All he was doing was clacking and releasing the spit valve, and people were swooning. In the meantime, Son House’s kindred spirit was wailing less than block away. What an allegory for America.

Thankfully, that moment of absurdity did little to diminish the idyllic quality of my day. As I was leaving the city, I parked briefly by the bay to finish writing something I had started at the park. I glanced up to think, and before me spanned the Golden Gate bridge. The fog that was rolling in had swallowed most of it, but the lower supports became visible between undulating patches. I took that to leave the city, and continued onward to Antelope (outside of Sacramento) that night. The temperature rose about forty degrees by the time I had arrived , but a few glasses of cold water and a gracious host eliminated any hint of discomfort. A shower (my first in days), a hard, starchy towel that vigorously scraped the accumulated salinity of bay and ocean breezes, and a clean, hard bed had me feeling completely rejuvenated—though I hadn’t exactly been suffering from any lull in energy since leaving Utah weeks before.

The next day it was on to Truckee, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe, Reno, then back into California for Fresno, etc.

California Part One - Marin City, Sausalito, Oakland, Sacramento, Truckee, Manteca, Madera, Fresno, Selma, Tulare, Bakersfield, Tehachapi, Mojave

"... then up the Sierra Nevada, pines, stars, mountain lodges signifying Frisco romances—a little girl in the back seat, crying to her mother, ‘Mama when do we get home to Truckee?’ And Truckee itself, homey Truckee, and then down the hill to the flats of Sacramento. I suddenly realized I was in California. Warm, palmy air—air you can kiss—and palms. Along the storied Sacramento River on a superhighway; into the hills again; up, down ..." (54).

(Just Truckee for this quote. I spent the night in Sacramento, or technically Antelope, but left and didn't realize I hadn't taken a picture).

“Mill City, where Remi lived, was a collection of shacks in a valley, housing-project shacks built for the Navy Yard workers during the war; it was in a canyon, and a deep one, treed profusely on all slopes” (55).

(This is another instance in which Kerouac uses a pseudonym for a city. Mill City in On the Road is Marin City in reality).

“I had just come through the little fishing village of Sausalito, and the first thing I said was, ‘There must be a lot of Italians in Sausalito” (56).

“In Oakland I had a beer among the bums of a saloon with a wagon wheel in front of it, and I was on the road again….Two rides took me to Bakersfield, four hundred miles south….You never saw a driving fool like that. He made Tracy in no time. Tracy is a railroad town; brakemen eat surly meals in diners by the tracks. Trains howl away across the valley. The sun goes down long and red. All the magic names of the valley unrolled—Manteca, Madera, all the rest. Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. I stuck my head out the window and took deep breaths of the fragrant air. It was the most beautiful of all moments.” (73)


“Ponzo was a big, loud, vociferous type who knew everybody in San Joaquin Valley….we wound up in Madera Mextown …” (85).

“We got to Sabinal in the wee hours before dawn. I had finished the wine while Terry slept, and I was proper stoned. We got out and roamed the quiet leafy square of the little California town—a whistle stop on the SP” (84).

(Kerouac says Sabinal, but the town is actually Selma. He changes the names of several places in On the Road).

“We raced through the crazy streets of Fresno …” (85).

“We bounced over the railroad tracks in Fresno and hit the wild streets of Fresno Mextown” (86).

"At dawn, in snowy passes, we labored toward the town of Mojave, which was the entryway to the great Tehachapi Pass” (156).


(I've never saw so many windmills in my life. What a funny mountain).

“Next stop was Tulare” (158).

Miscellaneous California:

(to give you an idea of the enormity of those Redwoods).

“Here I was at the end of America—no more land—and now there was nowhere to go but back. I determined at least to make my trip a circular one: I decided then and there to go to Hollywood and back through Texas to see my bayou gang; then the rest be damned” (71).

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I tore through northern California at night, but parked somewhere along the coast so that I could sleep with the ocean in the background; I had intended to sleep on the beach, but the shoreline consisted of boulders where I had decided to stop. Nevertheless, I slept royally and was awoken when the cold fog rolled into my car, and I saw nothing but white. A perfect awakening that set the mood for the rest of that day.

Hundreds of miles later I was in Marin City, and then Sausalito. I drove up an absurdly steep hill which made my engine work to the point where I could smell it, barely making it to the top as I was trying to negotiate the delicate equilibrium required to keep my car from stalling. But once at the top, I observed the sailboats sitting in the harbor--from a distance, simple white triangles on a blue backdrop, with a lighter blue above for contrast. From there I made my way passed San Francisco (intending to go there the next day), and on to Palo Alto, where I would spend the night.

--San Francisco has its own post--

After San Francisco, there was a drastic change in the climate and suddently it was Sacramento for the night. I had intended to take pictures of Sacramento in the morning, but it had slipped my mind--off I rolled to Truckee, and from there Nevada. After blistering Nevada it was back to equally blistering California, where I got on the interstate at Stockton and drove south to Fresno, passing through town after town no differently than Jack and Neal had done in On the Road (almost like I had planned this trip with that in mind...)

I didn't stay longer than a night in Fresno, but t hat was enough; I was itching to get head South and on to mythic LA, etc. On my way south through all the nondescript highway towns, Tehachapi was the only one that stuck out for me. I have a feeling the windmills had something to do with it; their numbers can only be described as comically obscene. It was like someone planted hundreds of them in an attempt to make the mountains take flight. It was a welcome scene after the hot monotony of the afternoon rolling through central California.