San Francisco

This article first appeared in 
The Yacht Magazine

"The trouble with Kerouac back then was he didn't get high enough. He went up the wrong hill. He should've come up here!”

The manic ghost of Dean Moriarty, fictional Beat philosopher, haunts these hills. He speaks sometimes atop Tamalpais, the 2,600-foot mountain which dominates San Francisco Bay: "It's not ‘white, like wash lines,’ it's blue ocean and sky and green hills and up there," he says, then, pointing above us, "It's rainbows."

Indeed. Above us, above me, writhing in the air is a tethered dragon--a 40-foot piece of multi-colored mylar -- my kite.

“So what are you saying?” I ask him. “Is San Francisco like a rainbow, or like a kite?” No reply.


I’m thinking about the essence of San Francisco, trying to whittle down my experience to a single concentrated nut of truth. Because I live here, I’m having a hard time getting at it. I know too much. It is all around me and has thus become invisible.

And so I’ve resorted to climbing mountainsides, flying kites off them, jotting down random notions and consorting and consulting with ghosts. I think it’s all right to invoke ghosts. This, after all, is San Francisco -- a place with a long and weird history of literary license. Anything goes here. In San Francisco, eccentric behavior is more than a demonstration of freedom -- it is an institution.


It’s around noon on a hot, clear workday in April -- just after the 79th anniversary of the Great Quake and just before the bizarre chaos of yachting season’s Opening Day. There is a light, cool breeze -- enough to keep the kite aloft, but barely enough to rake the calm, shimmering waters far below. There are only three sails on the entire bay.

South, in the distance, across the pastoral Marin County headlands and today’s placid bay, is the city of San Francisco, wrapped on three sides by water and looking wonderfully out of place.

The huge architectural vanities of the City’s Financial District are jammed together on its northeast tip. And even though one knows how hectic that corner really is, -- the Pacific Stock Exchange, ad agencies, lawyers, Bechtel, Chevron, etc. -- the quietude of the mountain, some birds and the rustle of the kite, imposes stillness on the entire vista. From here, the buildings seem petrified, the city a repository of monuments. Even the huge freighters that push under the Gate appear slow and stealthy.

This mountain meadow is powerful. From it you not only see the Pacific, all of the Bay, and San Francisco, but looking east, past Oakland and Berkeley, you see the edge of the continent and get an odd feeling that you can discern all of America. Looking west, across the Pacific, you get the same feeling except on a global scale -- you can discern the shape of the world. Maybe it’s the height of the mountain, but I think it has more to do with being on edges (in this case, of continents and oceans) that provokes a sensation of the whole.

Once, when I was on these slopes, I heard the distant bellow of a cruise liner passing under the Golden Gate on its way out to sea. I looked at my watch and realized that at that very moment, 20 years earlier -- to the day -- I, at 11 years old, was on the railing of the Lurline, passing under the Golden Gate on my way to the unknown, foreign and frightening port of Honolulu. I remembered not wanting to go, not wanting to leave “America” behind. San Francisco was my last sight of that America. Now I watched the whole departure again, this time from shore. I raised my wine bottle in a toast to whomever had taken my place.


Some have suggested that the common denominator for the San Francisco Bay Area and its people is that they are misfits. Regarding the city itself, that is partially true. San Francisco -- its opera, ballet, symphony, museums, cuisine, Golden Gate Park, Haight-Ashbury, Chinatown, North Beach Italians, old Russians, Mission District latinos, the wharves, the gays, street artists, musicians, actors, Victorian homes, hills, junkies, derelicts, Bohemians, Beats, Hippies, punks, Yuppies, sailors, wealth, woe, and every imaginable amenity and vice -- is built on a tempest of hills and on a major earthquake fault line. It is nearly surrounded by waters of radically different temperaments -- ocean breakers to the west, fierce tidal currents to the north and a calmer harbor to the east. It has been destroyed by earthquake and fire. Topography and geology advise against the city’s location. And whenever the fog moves in (or when the Big Quake comes again), it will disappear completely, like Brigadoon.

Into such a place the people fit nicely.

“I heard that people who move here are drawn by a cosmic force,” a young woman said to me after a major earthquake and after three margaritas had restored her powers of speech. “We’re supposedly the lost children of Atlantis and we’ve come here for the Big Quake, which will bring Atlantis back or something.”

I wasn’t in a mood to think about it then, having just escaped what I considered to be a deathtrap of a building. But later, after the margaritas took hold, I saw some sense to it. Perhaps shared, imminent peril, whether earthquakes or rounding the Horn in ’49, is just the sort of thing that attracted the often-shady, adventurer-types to the Bay: explorers, prospectors, smugglers, artists, and counter-culture heroes of all denominations -- people drawn by the thrill of danger. Maybe. But more likely, these people came in spite of the dangers.

San Francisco thrived for less romantic reasons. Located on the ocean, it was accessible. Its bay, vast and completely sheltered, was one of a very few acceptable ports of any kind along the rugged northern California-Oregon coast. It offered early voyagers shelter, fresh water, game, and a relatively mild climate. Also, since it lay just across the valley from the Sierra foothills, if offered . . . gold.

Today (as the song says) most of the gold in California is in a bank in Beverly Hills in somebody else’s name. But what remains is the City, and the influence of its surrounding waters, which affect everything from climate to commerce to recreation.

On any day, at any time of year, the weather can range from a warm Mediterranean sun to a cold, moody, Scottish drizzle. The Bay enjoys a natural thermostat. Inland heat draws fog into it, thus cooling the area. When the interior land cools sufficiently, the fog lifts, allowing warmth to return.

The surrounding waters influence lifestyle as well. Recreational temptations are everywhere: surfing, windsurfing, sailing, hand-gliding, fishing (ocean and fresh-water), waterskiing, river-running, or hanging out at the beaches threaten to subvert both the captains and foot-soldiers of industry. Up to a point: San Francisco is the most expensive place to live in the United States (Yes, more expensive than New York, Anchorage, or Honolulu).

Still, the most important element, the essential quality of San Francisco, lies somewhere else -- not in its amenities, not in its location, or bawdy past, and certainly not in the imminent peril of the Big Quake.


    Opening Day will be upon us soon and I wonder what the wind will be like then. I’ve been invited, along with 20 other people, to sail on Rick Niles’s 31-foot Cheoy-Lee, the Viajero. It’s a nice boat and Rick, a good friend, is a fool to risk it (though I’m glad he is). Opening Day is possibly the single most dangerous time to be on San Francisco Bay. But perhaps it says something about the area.

On O.D., a vast number of the Bay Area’s 111,970 registered vessels are on the water, each overloaded with drunken, occasionally naked, passengers, passing by Angel Island for a formal blessing, then taking off to wage a blasphemous free-for-all water-balloon war in an orgiastic frenzy that lasts all day and most of the night. Collisions occur.

Last year, we got away with a lot. I remember some tequila and mooning the admiralty, and a woman flashing the clergyman who blessed the boat as it passed, breaking the Viajero’s water pump while loading balloons, losing my Redskins cap (to the great pleasure of 49er fans), and having to make up some excuse for not going to work the next day. No hands were lost

And now, at last it comes me me that what we’ll be celebrating on Opening Day is not simply the start of the racing season, but Freedom; the freedom of sailing, of wind and water, freedom of the spirit -- and that, I think, is the essence of San Francisco. Freedom of spirit.

Perhaps because of its constant contact with wind and water, San Francisco, its great buildings and sordid reputation, is, to romantics, an embodiment of that spirit. San Francisco and its bay, the great port of the Gold Rush, arguably the most perfect natural harbor in the world, thrived by offering its shelter to anyone with the daring to sail there. It grew upon a strange reputation for civility and lawlessness. It most famous citizens were mostly eccentrics. “Frisco” nurtured them.

The ghost of Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty haunts these hills. I can watch his exuberance carry him across the fields, right to the edge of the cliff, where he vanishes. Above the spot where he disappears, my kite weaves erratically.



A gracious note from “Mr. San Francisco,” the late Herb Caen