On the flight in, I decide to go old school, ignore the iPad lite stapled to the seatback, and read through a Stephen King novel. Wolves of the Calla, fifth in his Dark Tower series. It’s a fun mashup of westerns and fantasy genres, doesn’t take itself too seriously, feels like King wrote it as fast as it reads. But the most fascinating literary trick of the novels is how King will pull characters across time and space without much in the way of internal consistency or world building. Just plop, here’s a door in the middle of space, a heroin addict from the 80s just stepped through. This gives the characters an American colloquialism to describe and react to the gunslingers and bandits of Mid-World. But more than that, it mimics the dissociative nature of reading; and airplane travel. Eddie, that addict from the 80s, wanders through the first 100 pages of the novel, “unstuck in time.”
April had been like that for me, just a blur of days and routine. Neither high nor low, just there. No narrative to my time. I wasn’t present, I was always plugged into my headphones, tapping through code or other projects, imbibing my various media (Game of Thrones or Skyrim, etc). There was no arc to the here and now.
Travel pops you out of that. At a basic level, you have to focus to logically survive, to make it through. And beyond that, the alien nature of another place is a visceral punch. To get back “stuck” in time.
The flight itself was a literal punch, not just a vibrating choppiness, but turbulence where you felt glad to be forced to wear seatbelts. A man who looked conspicuously like Julian Assange was IMing on his laptop, in Chinese characters. Everyone else glued into their ‘tainment consoles, swiping credit cards to watch old movies for 6 bucks a pop.
For some reason we landed in the international terminal, but they delivered our bags to domestic, so we trudged through the modernist maze for 40 minutes, frustrated.
But the cab ride into the city brought out some of that raw wonder that jaded travelers crave like a drug. The cool air through the cracked windows. A foggy stream of clouds in an otherwise clear night. Hillside plantlife and geology distinctly west coast. And then billboards for tech companies – Zynga, Salesforce – all clean lines, minimalist, optimistic. Like the pervasive attitude that life, and business, is different out here.
A skyline of white light on a hill. It’s not claustrophobic and rectangular and modern steel, like Manhattan or Tokyo or Dubai, but humbler, carved of stone. We rise from the back side of the city, through blocks of graffiti and bus stops (all plastered with gleaming white adverts for Apple), up the slopes. The taxi engine revs, we’re pressed back in our seats, zoom upward for a block. Then we level off and clank over trolley tracks, just to resume beyond the intersection. It could possibly be headache-inducing if I wasn’t so enthralled in the novelty.
The Huntington hotel sits on the top of Nob Hill, on California Street, a brick apartment building from the 20s. It’s across the street from Grace Cathedral, and the Pacific-Union club. The doormen take our luggage. Live piano music fills the marble lobby.
There’s an old stairwell with decorative iron banisters, and the room is furnished in classy minimalism – black leather couches, sturdy wooden desks and dressers, art deco mirrors. We close the blinds on the city and sleep.
With the aid of jet lag we’re up at 6:30 and starving. The iPhone points us in the direction of some coffee shops down the hill. What would have been a casual stroll down a few blocks in any other city becomes a calf-burning trek. We end up in a corner diner done up in 50s style decor, chrome and neon, with table-side jukeboxes, an old Cadilac and waitresses in greasy aprons.
Over omelets and French toast we sit and flip through the songs on the mini-juke. We’re not yet in that zone of free conversation. Instead we share the iPhone, checking Facebook, eavesdrop on the conversations around to us. There’s a business meeting going on, chat of financial products, startups, big ideas, big dreams. There’s an eagerness behind the voice, almost pleading desperation.
Back up the hill, I see a biker flying down all out, racing the street cars. Instead of applying the brakes, he twists his rear wheel out, powersliding to control speed.
The trolley down to Fisherman’s Warf is packed, so we clamber on to the side, at the very front. The entire thing feels very much like an amusement park ride, from the rickety technology, to the operator, who yanks an enormous lever to affix the car to the cable running below the street. The wind comes up from the bay, cold and clean, blowing our hair, watering our eyes. We can see the rooftops, the cars parked precariously, the bay, the prison island, the gleaming sun. The morning is clear blue. Everything is before us, below us.
Walk around Hyde Street Pier, old ships and seagulls. A workhorse of the 1800s – Balclutha – made her way up the pacific coast to transport lumber and salmon from Alaska, or south around Cape Horn. We climb onboard. The hold is cramped and warped, full of dusty wood, placards, sample cargo. We pose for shots with the Golden Gate bridge in the background, cluttered with rigging.
We rent bikes from a little shop off Hyde Street. The bayfront is split between grassy parks, thin strips of beach, and corroding docks. A paved bike trail winds it’s a way towards the forested Presidio, and always the Golden Gate.
The bridge dominates our view, the focal point of every picture we snap to the North West. We pedal up a crest and can look down into the bay, through framing cedar branches. Straight west is the dome of the Exploratorium, both ornate and pristine, like something from a set of Hollywood fantasy epic. East, the way we’ve come, Alcatraz.
Back down along the water is a wide field, sprinkled with yellow and white wildflowers. Herds of family dogs gallop around, fetching tennis balls. A private marina sits across from rows of boutique houses, pastel masonry and decorative awnings. There’s an outdoor crossfit gym, done up in blue tile. Couples read beneath crooked cypress trees.
The bike path is flat and straight here, and we begin to see the true size of the bridge. The audacity of human engineering, connecting the two rocky windswept bluffs, like the Colossus of Rhodes.
There’s a strange curiosity to wonder what it would be like to jump. That if I wanted to die, there would be no better place. I breathe in the height of the bridge and the water far below, the city shimmering, Sausalito like a naked green hump, the Pacific a deep purplish shimmering horizon.
We return the bikes, get lunch at an In N Out, after waiting in a long line for greasy tasty burgers. We giggle and make fun of a kid with a hideous rat tail, combing it absentmindedly. Then Ghirardelli for sundaes, chocolate churned by old machinery and big granite rollers.
We hop another trolley up the hill to Union Street. Walk over to the boutiques. Steph gets some jeans and a shirt. These are classy little shops, Maseratis and Ferraris driving by, hipster fashionistas walking their little dogs, art galleries and sidewalk bistros. A trio of Canadian couples are getting dragged shopping as well. I commiserate with the guys out on the sidewalk, all the girls inside breaking the bank.
Back at the top of the hill, we go across the street to Grace Cathedral. I only do it for the Decemberists song. Steph walks the labyrinth. I read the plaques about the AIDS epidemic.
For dinner, we get a heaping home-style meal at Tommy’s Joynt, turkey and beans and mac & cheese and huge fountain drinks, cheap cafeteria style food, surrounded by bikers and locals.
Back at the hotel, grab a seat at the bar, the sharp bartender chattering baseball trivia. Steph has a white Russian, I have a Jameson on the rocks.
We change into swimsuits and robes for a quick dip in the pool. It’s all marble and mosaic tile, water in a horizon pool so it spills out, hot tub, windows that look out on the city lights.
We sit in the hot water, transfer to the cold pool, then back.
Steph chats with some Canadians, I make a cup of tea and walk out on the outdoor patio. It’s in the basement level of the hotel, but due to the hills we might as well be on the fifth or sixth floor, looking out over rooftops. There is an adjacent apartment, the windows and back porch door open in the balmy evening. Just through the corner of the window I can see the interior of the apartment, the furnishings, the decorator’s touch, the subtle shifting blue and yellow light of a television out of sight.
A woman sits down, facing the television, her back to me. Her hair is in a bun, she wears a polar fleece, sips a glass of wine. She is this person, who can afford a breathtaking apartment in Nob Hill, who sits alone on a Friday night, and watches a movie or the news with a glass of wine.
She lights a cigarette. Her personality deepens – a smoker – in this bastion of hyper liberal sensibilities.
There are just a few stars visible in the night sky.
We return to the room for a beer then sleep.
Through the crack in the wood slat blinds I can see the twinkling lights of the city and a tiny line of them moving steadily closer, white, downward, a highway artery into the city.
In the morning we’re up early, grab Starbucks, then cab it down to the Alcatraz Ferry terminal.
We wait in line for an hour, board the boat, snap gorgeous shots of the bay, skyline, Alcatraz and Golden Gate in the rising sun. Lots of foreign tourists are snapping all the same photos. In a way it seems wasteful – all of us with the same photographs. But are they really the same, or different in a nuanced way, a slightly shifted angle and time, like a synapse?
Alcatraz feels tropical, covered in lush vegetation, thousands of nesting birds, old signs warning away incoming boats. The place is rusting apart, the archeological layers revealed: bricks from the 19th century, dank and claustrophobic, concrete and steel from the mid-20th, corroding much faster.
We watch an info film, get herded along with the other tourists to view artifacts. I was not aware of the Indian “occupy” movement of the island in 1969 that lasted 2 years.
The audio tour of the cell block is very detailed and thorough. Imbibing all the horror of being locked up. The cinematic Clint Eastwood escape attempts. Thoughts of Shawshank Redemption, etc.
There’s gorgeous light through the cell bars. How much a heaven – unreachable – that would have been.
The corroding concrete, bent metal, and 60s electronics and gadgets all gives the place the feeling of a set, half-real. The rest of the island has amazing plants more beautiful that any botanical garden I’ve been to. Reminds me of a shipwreck reef. Out of the decay of man’s construction, nature flourishes.
Back on the pier, we see an enormous cruise ship getting loaded up. The thing is almost comical, all these white metal and glass extensions on the deck and stern, like the creative output of some precocious kid with Legos. Steph is reminded of Titanic, groups of grungy men with “porter” on their uniforms moving luggage for crusty geriatrics.
We have lunch at a tourist trap seafood place overlooking pier 39.
The place is swarming with people, intensely colorful and lively, and has all the manufactured charm of Disneyworld. Sea lions lounge on the wooden planks, lazy dogs with flippers.
Our Mini Cooper S is fire engine red. The engine and handling is tight and muscular. The interior design is full of protruding knobs and buttons and very chic European motifs.
I drive through the streets of San Francisco, clicking over street car tracks, revving in low gear up and down the 45 degree inclines.
We load up our bags from the hotel, and then make a detour to hit Lombard Street.
We twist down the brick road in first gear, looking out over the shining white city, hundreds of other tourist snapping our photo.
Then we drive through downtown, through big city traffic, aggressive lane changes and racing the countdown clock on the crosswalks.
Get onto the bay bridge tunnel and over to Oakland. Then we drive through Steph’s childhood neighborhood, her old house, church, school, grocery store. She is ecstatic with nostalgia.
It’s 3:30 so we head onward to Napa. The country opens up and there are rolling hills and solitary windbreak tree lines, a few scattered ponds and rivers. We start seeing rows of grapes.
Our first winery specializes in sparkling wine. It’s right off the highway, a hulking French style chateau, nearly gaudy, overlooking the rolling hills
Steph and I sit out in the sun and taste 4 sparkling wines. All are very subtle, without that supercharged carbonation and sugariness of New Year’s bubbly. They are paired well with some with some excellent cheese and dried fruit. We buy a bottle and headed onto the hotel, feeling cozily buzzed and smiling in the sunshine.
In the early evening, I Google a place to eat. We get some Italian takeout from a place in the corner liquor store. The owner tells us tales of getting kicked out of an old house in Napa and how the old cook was an Italian rowing champion in the 60s Olympics. The gnocchi and ravioli is great, but they forget the minestrone soup we ordered.
We sit on the patio behind the hotel, eating and drinking a bottle of cheap wine. It’s a little chilly. There are beautiful old trees alongside a creek and walking path. Other clusters of couples are drinking and laughing.
Afterwards, we drive into town for desert. Go to Trader Joes for some breakfast supplies: cereal, milk, and an orange. Grab some ice cream sandwiches and some cookies from a little cupcake place.
Back at hotel we have a few more glasses of wine, watch some TV, and pass out.
We wake up leisurely, eat cups of cereal in bed, watching TV. The day will be bright with blue skies, cloudless.
Drive up to Yountville for brunch at Ad Hoc, one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants.
The place is clean, modern rustic architecture, lots of bright natural light, young staff in jeans. The food is rich but fresh, savory but not stuffy, served family style on stainless steel platters. There’s salad, fried steak, biscuits, ice cream sundaes, great coffee, mimosas.
Stuffed, we take some photos of the garden and picnic area around back.
Then we drive slowly through Yountville. The town is much cleaner and more exclusive then Napa. There are nicer restaurants, lots of simple architecture, covered in ivy, lush vegetation and flowers.
Our first winery is on a gravely side road off the main grade. It’s gated and appears closed.
We figure we are early, so kill some time by taking the Mini Cooper into the hills, up steep windy turns at full speed, “sport” mode engaged. On the way back down we see the entire valley spread out, green, divvied up in to vineyard rows.
The winery is invitation only. We buzz in. The estate is composed of a charming little house, a gravel yard, potted flowers, and dozens of birds chirping and feeding at hanging feeders and flowers. Around the side is the wine making equipment – stainless steel pipes and tubes and tubs
There’s no one else here so we get a one-on-one tasting of all the wines. There are very subtle flavors and lots of education. The owner comes out, a happy old lady in a sweat suit. She talks about her fondness for the south. We buy three bottles and a case.
Our second tasting is at a working farm – Frog’s Leap. There are beautiful grounds with flowers and vineyards and a few animals – goats, chickens. We sit on the porch and try five wines, then walk around. Buy a bottle and some blood orange marmalade.
In the late afternoon, we stop at an authentic Mexican joint for some tacos and hydration.
The sun is setting, everything cast in yellow, golden, and then fading behind the silohetted hills.
We eat outside at Rutherford Grill, an outdoor fireplace giving the place wood smoke smell.
I get a roast chicken, Steph gets an enchilada.
We drink wine and feel stuffed. Over dinner, we talk big plans – adding an extension to the house, starting my own business. We always talk big plans on these trips.
We can barely finish desert, and get back to the hotel and just lie in bed, farting like fat royalty after a feast.
Then we fall into an intense deep sleep for 10 hours.
It’s a beautiful morning and we drive into Yountville, all the familiar roads and landmarks along the way. The vineyards, the distinct architecture of obscure wineries, a big old tree with an enormous “wart”.
We have breakfast at Buchon Bakery, another Thomas Keller place. Raspberry cheese Danish, pain au chocolat, ham and bacon scones, coffee and steamed milk. Greedy little black birds eating the crumbs.
Then it’s over to Inglenook for the first tasting. The vineyard is just an address – 1990, unmarked without a sign.
There’s a long tree-lined drive up to a massive old ivy-covered estate. It’s solid pink stone, old gnarled trees, and row upon row of grape vines.
I take some pictures of the gazebo and fountain out front. There are bronze placards explaining historical significance of different things, like a national park.
Inside the house is all dark polished wood, a grand staircase, stained glass of a bucolic vineyard scene, an invented crest. There is memorabilia of early film making history.
We meet our guide, Ken, an erudite wizardly old man with a flowing gray beard. He first tells the history of the original owner, a fascinating sea captain from the 1800s who made his fortune in Alaska.
Another couple joins us and we walk to the rear of the property, up a small ridge that overlooks the back side of the vineyards, all the way back to the mountainside.
Francis Ford Coppola’s mansion is just a gleam of white roof through the distant trees, but it’s a three story “sea-captains” Victorian.
Ken explains the origin of Inglenook – an old Scottish word (from Watson, the previous owner of the back lot) for a cranny next to the fire place, thinking the mountain ridge was volcanic.
We look out over the rows of grapes, the intricate workmanship and labor to maintain their delicate growing conditions. Looming over the leafy lines are windmill contraptions, used to circulate air in case of a freeze.
We march back down into the historic building. The walls are lined with old casks from the 1800s (and one from 1560) imported from Germany. There are Tapestries and smooth stone, prepped to allow everything to flow via gravity.
Upstairs there are more artifacts, old projectors, ornate metal and glass from the dawn of film. A mint condition Tucker car from the 40s. Original copies of books by Isaac Newton, Ben Jonson, Walt Whitman, James Joyce. Everything creates a picture of Coppola as an extremely wealthy renaissance man. And aristocrat, a nobleman.
Ken leads us onward, to view some of the modern winemaking equipment, then into the underground caves.
There are hundreds of yards of tunnels, dug out by the same enormous driller that dug the English Chunnel. Echoing chambers, under the dark earth, coated in rough concrete. Rows of casks, stamped and waiting, biding their time. There’s a distant fan. The place smells of cut wood.
Into another ornate room filled with all sorts of luxurious items, these with price tags affixed, to a table set with five place settings, everything arranged perfectly. The tasting.
We start with a white “Bucolaix”. It’s very subtle, smooth, light.
Then three reds: zinfandel, cab, cab blend – called the Rubicon, apparently made with grapes that grow nowhere else in the world, having been imported by the captain in his time, then wiped out in Europe by a fungus blight.
Everything is explained in encyclopedic details by Ken, and the paired cheeses emphasize all the flavors and characters of the wine.
We buy the three reds, and a white we tried when we arrived named after his daughter, Sophia.
I chat with Ken for a few minutes about Coppola, film, even George Lucas.
In the afternoon, we head over to the next winery, Mumm Napa, which specializes in sparkling.
We sit out on a patio facing Coppola’s mountain (St. John), under yellow umbrellas. Try six types – three made in the methods traditionally used in France – DVX – much tangier, more carbonated. The other three are more subtle, some with even a pinot noir grape to give it a flower nose. One is “designed” by Carlos Santana.
We get one of the pinot blend bottles. Pack up our box and seal it – 11 bottles and some jam
I joke to Steph as we walk out: “How much you think that box is worth – 1k?”
As soon as we load it in the car, I get a call from my boss, Jeff.
He informs me he sold the company. I’m being moved to a new employer this week. Orientation is on Wednesday.
I stand on a decorative rock, looking out over the vineyards and the sunshine settling onto the horizon, just listening. Starting to churn over the various possibilities. The dimensions of my fate. In a way, I always knew this day would come. The strange, ironic thing is that it would be on the final day of my big vacation.
Steph is freaking out a little bit. We drive back to Napa and the highway, incessantly talking and praying and coming to grips with it.
Still slightly buzzed, I decide to stop in Berkeley to check it out. Steph and I joke about the super liberalism. It looks like a normal college town, with swarming students, lots of little places to eat, green lawns, big hulking mid-century modern concrete buildings.
We grab a burrito and some gelato. Some more cash at Wells Fargo.
Then we drive back to San Fran, over the bay, the golden gate and the city just silhouettes in the haze, gray and blue and washed white in the afternoon sun.
Steph narrates the way back over the bay bridge, monologues from Full House, giggling.
At the hotel, we drop off the luggage and our box of wine to return the car.
We catch the 49 going up to North Point, near Ghirardelli, along with a family of six, the youngest boy curled up in mom’s sweatshirt against the wind.
Then we get off down by the water. Decide it’s too far to the “dome” and just walk to fisherman’s wharf.
There’s one last view of Alcatraz and the old sailing ships. I watch a group of wet-suit dudes swimming laps and I want to feel the frigid Pacific. I go down to the beach to stick my feet in.
I tell Steph it’s refreshing. More like numbing. I can see the choppy current out beyond the docks. Then I pull my shoes back on, sopping and sandy.
We step into a touristy pizza place for a light dinner, catch the end of an NBA playoff game.
Hail a cab when we step out, a Thai guy in a Ford Escape. He drives the blocks with a lead foot, and combined with the inclines, the ride feels a bit like a roller coaster. Along with a subtle wine buzz and greasy peperoni pizza, it’s a wheezy combination.
At the hotel, transfer the bags, tip the doorman.
We drive out of San Fran, south along the eastern edge of the peninsula, the city and the hills in the fading sun, the clouds boiling off, sprawls of pop-up developments all along the hillsides. The green that peaks through is too steep to build. Reminds me a Super Mario world, comically humped hills, green with grass.
We get out into the exurb sprawl, all highway, strip malls, the distinctive architecture giving way to middle class normalcy, mundane, corporatism. Billboards and fast food.
The cabbie charges us 150%, since we’re 15 miles out from the city. My cash gone, I have to ring up yet another credit card charge.
The hotel is a dive, like something out of No Country for Old Men. No indoor lobby or hallways. The room smells like old cigarette smoke, the furnishings crusty. After dark, I can hear the clop of high-heeled street walkers just beyond the door, chattering espanol.
We plop down, exhausted, draw the blinds, watch TV, sip wine, write, try to download Mad Men on the crappy wireless, and fade into sleep.
We’ve gone from the pinnacle of American aristocracy to the depths of sketchy drug dens in the course of a day, a scenic drive. That’s California for you.
This is the end of the trip, and with it all the whirlwind chaos of transportation, turning away from the city I’ve known for such a short time.
The next day is a crappy travel day: Early bus to the airport, overpriced breakfast, video games on my phone all the way home, recycled air, claustrophobia, the jumble of humanity, cacophonous crowds.
But our wine makes it back intact, and we toast a dozen times over the next year to our days in California Wine Country.
And now, sitting here, thinking back on the trip years later, finally editing these journals, there are a few images that persist.
The look of the city of San Francisco, perched on the edge of that bay, may as well be perched on the edge of the world. The Pacific so blue, the surrounding hills so brilliant in the sunshine, the streets so angular and abrupt, the energy to vibrant. Not the cocky be-suited belligerence of New York Wall Street rich guys, but the young startup twenty something, confident in his world-class skills, but wide eyed, ready to imbibe adventure, because that’s the only possibility here.
The sun dappling through tree leaves to light the rows of young grapes in a rural vineyard. Not the sprawling mechanized corporate farms, or the ultra-rich museum estates of aristocratic film directors, but the messy livelihood of a working farm, wildflowers in bloom, swallowing a rusted wheelbarrow alive.
And the cold water of the bay, the smell of its salt, the sway of its current beneath the docks, the bark of the sea lions, the prison island garden, and the sun on the crests of the waves.
The highway, the power behind the stick shift of that mini cooper, the wine-drunk laughter, the exquisite food, the beaming of the sun, the fleeting dream that is California.