When, in 5th century BC, Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote that the only constant in life is change, he must have been thinking of van life. For it is the unpredictability and immediacy of this trip that defines it – part of the thrill but also of the hassle, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Plans might stretch with daylight into dusk, but they are made and broken again with equal haste as opportunities or obstacles lay themselves before our wheels.
Our other constant is the road. Kerouac called it ‘holy’ and was on to something; omnipotent, all-seeing, all-knowing, the extent to which we rely on the road’s soothing presence ought not be underestimated. So one can imagine the repercussions when these two forces of road and change collide, melding and metamorphosing to produce the much-feared, unforeseen road closure.
This is exactly what happened when we left Yosemite National Park: 4000 tonnes of rock had the previous afternoon tumbled and slid and spread rudely across the mouth of one of the Park’s main arteries, severing it for at least a week. Fortunately, as now-practiced vanlifers, we could turn gracefully into the detour like an albatross changing course, ready to embrace our now northerly passage to San Francisco.
Our new route was to take us through La Grange at sundown, following the highway 120 through miles and miles of gold. It was memorable and beautiful, like gliding through a scene from Courage the Cowardly Dog or Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, but all the more splendid for its being unexpected. Out here, vestiges of the frontier – cattle farms encircling small houses perched atop low hills – mingle with an overwhelming impression of how thoroughly this massive land is divided up and accounted for.
When we eventually reached the coast it was in Santa Cruz that we dropped anchor, keen as we were to sample the funfair by the beach and wish ourselves students at UCSC. But for all this we could spare only one night, for our hearts were already in San Francisco.
By the time our bodies and minds had caught up it was 100 degrees and fogless in the City by the Bay, and the fantastic four were ready to paint the town whatever colour we fancied. In so doing, many of the must-dos were done: first was the Golden Gate Bridge, which the van leapt over like a fawn, restored to the naivety of a bygone youth by sea air and the city’s promise.
Next, an excessively early start and breakfast in a blurry-eyed queue of hopefuls rewarded us with tickets on the first ferry to Alcatraz, where, like a couple of ‘fresh fish’*, we scampered around imitating skate missions from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. Aside from these sunny moments, an eerie and sad atmosphere hangs over the island, epitomised by the Park’s exhibition of Leigh Wiener’s photographs taken on the prison’s final day of operation, 21st March 1963.
The last hoorah of our city break came with a visit to Dolores Park in Mission District. Here, good times abounded as people waved off their inhibitions in the late-afternoon sun; drug dealers advertised their wares with the carefree aplomb of ballpark vendors; and couples canoodled as if the world were due to end that evening. This was an apt crescendo, and drove home a building realisation that San Francisco is surely the figurehead upon the prow of the good ship USA, if not of the globe; progressive, open, technologically advanced, (counter)culturally rich – what more could one want?
Except that, with median rent for a one-bedroom apartment at $3,460 and an average monthly living cost of $3,632, San Francisco’s amorous, welcoming air feels ironic at worst, unattainably paradisal at best. This paradox loomed over the festivities at Dolores Park, along with the ever-burning question of ‘how on earth can these people afford to be here rn?’
And so it was that our time in SF ceased to be; come back next week for info and anecdotes about Oregon and our return to Washington!
*’Fresh fish’: a nickname given to inmates newly arrived at Alcatraz.