Dates of travel: 16 April 2013 to 25 April 2013
Location of travel: San Francisco and Walnut Creek (United States of America)
Original publication date: 2 July 2013
Over the course of April and May 2013, I took a month-long meander across the USA. The main reason was to attend and report on the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, California. The road to and from there was just as memorable. This is Part 1 in a series of 5 articles.
It starts way out west. Despite three previous visits to the USA as a tween and teenager, I had yet to experience the sunny Californian coastline. It was a glaring blind-spot; a website in my mind with placeholder images and celebrity testimonials. The US is large, but to have not struck gold (and sunshine) after three hits? You need to get more Pacific with your aim.
One bold click of a button back in January set it all in motion. Bold, because:
I live in South Africa. Overseas travel to Northern climes is costly at the best of times.
I had just graduated in December, and was on a writing-focused 'gap year'. Those two life scenarios don't scream 'flush with cash' by any means.
At the time, I knew no one in my circle of influence who would be going. The event is over two weekends as well, with separate tickets for each. The chance for missed connections was high.
But we work these things out. I had under three months to make California real after a lifetime of dreamin'. Coachella may have been the primary purpose, but once I patched in all the friends and connections I could muster, a cross-country trip gradually materialised, stretching from sea to shining sea, campsite to comfy couch. If you're going all that way, you may as well make it a month?
This is the story of how my first overseas odyssey as an adult panned out.
San Fran, Pre-'Chella
The planets had aligned: a South African friend based in San Francisco had also gotten a Coachella ticket, and for the same weekend. I found this out not long after riding the initial rollercoaster of post-purchase emotions, when doubt and rationality begin to take hold like a hangover. There was a couch for before and after the festival, and a carful of friends to join for 7-hour road-trip there, where the five of us would camp together. First point(s) plotted on the map, and I had a crucial link to the festival.
I arrived in San Francisco a couple of days before the festival weekend, but first it was a jarring welcome to the States via Washington D.C.. Emerging from the 18-hour cocoon of international flight to customs, I discovered that the terrible Boston Marathon bombings had taken place a day earlier. Screens on airport TV's flashed the CNN headline of "BOSTON TERROR ATTACK". Knowing that I was to be in some major cities over the following month gave me a twinge of anxiety. As a traveler, you wouldn't want to be in the right place at the wrong time on your special trip. But whilst the tragedy dominated the news cycle, my fears were fortunately unfounded.
The Coachella weekend divided my time in San Fran in two. The first few days allowed for some sightseeing of the city and catching up with my friend, who'd recently emigrated from South Africa for an amazing job opportunity at Facebook.
His apartment was in Lower Haight Street, just east of the famous Haight-Ashbury district, known as the birthplace of the hippie subculture and the bohemian musical and social revolution known as the 'Summer of Love'. San Fran feels small for a major city, and even with taking into account its hills, I still found it relatively easy to traverse on foot, in combination with its excellent - but at times conflicting - public transport system (the main service is affectionately called "The Muni"). Haight Street is also walking distance from a lot of cosy bars, so evening sojourns to places like The Page (on my first night there, jetlagged to oblivion) and Smuggler's Cove (a shrine to rum) are safely navigable after a few drinks.
When the lads headed for Facebook HQ in the mornings, I was left to my own devices for the rest of the day. Once settled in and teched up, I truly wandered in another country alone, for the first time in my life, with a vague notion of where to go and what to do. And spring in San Fran was a perfect time to do that.
Taking the self-reliant, touristy approach, I tried to see as much of the surrounding streets and neighbourhoods on foot as possible, which saved me money and facilitated interaction with medicinal marjiuana shop owners, bike rental employees, music store patrons, homeless street preachers, and local jam bands in the park, to name a few. The city is incredibly friendly, laid-back and inviting, offering an eclectic mix of cultures and expression.
My second afternoon highlighted this spirit in action, as I headed west along Haight Street to the aforementioned Haight-Ashbury for some lunch. The array of colourful shops could've kept me there the whole day, but I had made up my mind that I needed to see the landmark Golden Gate Bridge up close.
A helpful bike rental employee gleefully handed me a map of the city, pointing out tourist landmarks along the way, suggesting transport options back home, as well as giving me a brief rundown on life as a San Franciscan - not once suggesting that I should hire a bike. Dumbfounded and grateful, I followed her route through San Francisco National Park, soaking in the gorgeous expanse of green. At one point, I made a pit stop by a local jam band, semi-acoustically strumming away some tunes for a gathered crowd on the grass.
The music was pleasant, and I enjoyed sitting with a random bunch of accepting people in a park one fine Wednesday afternoon - but I needed to go stare at a big red bridge. So I vaguely headed north out of the park......and entered another park.
Golden Gate National Park (San Francisco is just full of them) is a nature-lover's paradise, with rolling hills, countless trees, and many strategic lookout points (one of which gave a view of what I suddenly realised was Alcatraz Island, site of the former maximum security prison). The park is also part of the Presidio, a former military base, so military instalations on the coastline weren't an uncommon sight.
I was still not entirely sure in which direction to go, but thankfully a local hiker pointed me towards nearby Baker Beach (on the western, Pacific Ocean side of the park), and instructed me to follow the coastal trail until I found that big red bridge. Passing through old concrete beachfront batteries, feeling sand itching in my socks, watching the sun drop into the Pacific Ocean; this was not how I had envisioned my afternoon to be, and I loved every serendipitious twist of it.
101-Wandering To Coachella
The road to Coachella began on Thursday afternoon along the 101 highway to Indio, and our crew returned late on Monday afternoon via the same route, thoroughly exhausted from the long weekend of music in the desert.
Proof of this came after Red Hot Chili Peppers closed off the festival on Sunday night, and the hours and hours I had spent on my feet in the baking sun finally took its toll on me. I made my way back to our campsite, collapsed inside my tent, and began faintly weeping. The friend that I was sharing the tent with was concerned, and asked me if I was okay. Half-laughing, I requested a double-foot amputation, as it seemed to be the only solution in my sunstroked mind!
The trip was 7 hours in each direction, and we arrived in Indio to a snaking queue of cars stretching out of the festival's campgrounds. Despite the midnight wait, the atmosphere was jovial; people blasted music from their cars and cracked open beers in the warm desert night. Our crew was really international: two South Africans, one Australian, one German, and surprisingly - a lone American!
The return leg was mostly during the day, allowing us to appreciate the transition from the hazy desert views of Palm Springs and its otherworldly collection of wind turbines, to the leafy suburbs of Palo Alto and Mountain View along the way. Once back in San Fran, there were still a few days left before the next leg of the cross-country journey.
The Bay Area in Northern California is home to a sizeable eagle population, and when planning my trip, I knew that I had to take the opportunity to see a Golden Eagle up close, as they are not found in the Southern Hemisphere.
A few phone calls and emails led me to the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, across the bay from San Francisco (one of the oldest wildlife rehab centers in the USA). The volunteers there reassured me that I'd be able to see a bird in rehabilitation at one of their twice-weekly shows. Fortunately, I had some time after the festival to pay a visit to the centre, and tied it up with a lunch meeting with the US Branch chairman of my high school's alumni society, who conveniently lives in Walnut Creek. You just can't make this up.
In its own way, getting to see Topaz (a 19-year-old female Golden Eagle) was a rather emotional experience, and one that fulfilled a burning desire of mine to witness the majesty of these birds first-hand. Although it wasn't a full-on meltdown (a la Kristen Bell and a sloth), I'd be lying if I said that there wasn't a tear or two in my eye when the presentation began, and Topaz rested on her trainer's arm about five to six metres away from me.
It was surreal to watch her movements and interactions with him right up close. I was hoping to at least be able to pet her. But unfortunately the bird was unusually skittish and nervous that day, and it would've been unsafe for strangers to get any closer than we did.
A compromise was made for a photo opportunity though: she was to be fed and bathed in a see-through enclosure in the middle of the museum hall, and her trainer would be able to bring her up to the glass. I gladly accepted.