This summer, Christy and I finally made it to California.  We’ve taken a big trip out west every summer since ’99, but somehow, we’d never gotten to California.  This was surprising, as we both had reasons to visit there.  I wanted to follow in the footsteps of John Muir, hiking in the Sierra Nevada and visiting Yosemite Valley.  Christy had family near Sacramento, had wanted to visit the Monterrey Bay Aquarium since college, and was eager to do a swimming race from Alcatraz to San Francisco.  We both wanted to drive highway 1 along the coast and see Big Sur.  Yet for some reason, California had eluded us.  For several years, the swimming race Christy wanted to do was scheduled at an inconvenient time.  Then, in 2005 we made firm plans to go, only to see the Sierras receive a record-breaking amount of snow that winter.  Since the high country would be buried under an unprecedented snow pack through the summer, we changed our destination to the Canadian Rockies.


Finally, this summer, the stars were in alignment.  Against all odds, it seemed like we’d be able to do everything we’d dreamed of, in a single month.  Christy’s swim race was scheduled for the last Saturday in June.  We’d spend the first couple of days in San Francisco, followed by a few days along the coast.  Then, we’d meet up with our friend Bob, who’d be joining us for the rest of the trip.  We’d spend the last couple of days of the first week being tourists, visiting Yosemite National Park.  Then the real trip would begin. 


Bob and I planned to spend the final 22 days of our vacation thru-hiking the John Muir Trail.  The JMT runs approximately 212 miles, from world-famous Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States.  Christy would join us on the trail for the first six days.  After that, she’d head off to Mexico, to spend two and a half weeks getting certified to teach yoga.  Are you confused yet?  Good, because so were we.  At times, it seemed as if the primary goal of the trip was to make it as complicated as possible.  After months of planning, the best part of the trip may have been the simplicity of getting up every morning, breaking camp, and going for a nice walk.






This trip started off like many of our trips do – by spending a solid afternoon stuffing a month’s worth of gear and clothing into 4 pieces of luggage.  Unfortunately, this has gotten much more difficult in the last year.  These days, when you check your baggage, you can count on an airline representative standing there next to the scale with a measuring tape.  Now a large duffel bag is considered oversized luggage, and is subject to additional fees.  Of course, these fees are in addition to the fees the airlines now charge to check any baggage at all.  Between all of the absurd fees and the higher fares, flying is rapidly becoming unrealistic for these trips.  We’re already talking about driving to Wyoming and Montana for next summer’s trip.


Anyway, we replaced our now-obsolete duffel bags and began stuffing.  This process was made more enjoyable by the presence of abundant beer and take-out Chinese food.  Now, packing with a beer in one hand and an egg roll in the other isn’t exactly efficient.  That was ok though.  This year, I used a different packing strategy.  In past years, I’d noticed that my pack takes up about half the space in a duffel bag.  This time, I used my pack as my carry-on.  Now, my pack is much bigger than what is officially allowed, but nobody seems to be enforcing those rules (so far).  I guess the airlines are so busy charging fees for checked baggage that they haven’t noticed that everyone is just dragging everything onto the plane with them. 


We were up the next morning before 4.  Our airport shuttle arrived early, and we arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare.  This was handy, since Christy and I were on different flights.  Remember how I mentioned that we had made this trip as complicated as possible?  Well, when we booked the flights, I needed a simple round-trip flight to San Francisco.  Christy, on the other hand, was also going to Mexico.  So, she booked a 3-way flight from Charlotte to San Francisco to Mexico to Charlotte.  Her best option for that flight was on Continental, but I didn’t really want to fly with them.  Plus, Airtran was considerably cheaper.  So, Christy would be flying to San Francisco through Cleveland, while I would be going through Atlanta.  Fortunately, our departures were scheduled a few minutes apart, and we were due to arrive in San Francisco at nearly the same time.  What could go wrong?


My flight to Atlanta was smooth.  The highlight of the whole day occurred at the Atlanta airport.  I was in the bathroom, washing my hands, when I noticed that the guying standing at the next sink was wearing a University of Michigan t-shirt.  I was wearing one of my Appalachian State t-shirts.  To be specific, it was a shirt celebrating a memorable football victory over a certain school from the state of Michigan.  For some reason, I could not make eye contact with this guy!  That little encounter left me in a good mood for the next couple of hours.


My connection to San Francisco was on time.  I called Christy, and told her I’d see her in San Francisco.  We left Atlanta, and everything seemed normal.  Then, an hour into the flight, the Pilot made an announcement.  Apparently, there was something wrong with the plane, and we had to return to Atlanta for repairs.  To make matters worse, he went on to inform us that the plane was too heavy to land safely.  So, we had to circle Atlanta for two hours to burn off fuel. 


This was more than just a little inconvenient.  Christy and I had purchased tickets for an Alcatraz tour that evening.  The tour was scheduled for 6:50pm, and the tickets, which weren’t cheap, were completely non-refundable.  Our flights were originally supposed to arrive before noon, but now there was no telling when I’d get there.  It seemed wildly unlikely that we’d make it to Alcatraz though.


We returned to Atlanta a couple hours later.  On the way, Airtran promised us that there would be another plane waiting for us there that we could switch to.  That claim turned out to be false.  Actually, our new plane was on its way from Phoenix!  So, I had plenty of time to consume a $10 ham sandwich for lunch.  I called Christy and left her several lengthy messages, explaining the situation.  In them, I suggested that she pick up the rental car, since the reservation was in her name, and go check into the hotel. 


We eventually got going at 2:30, this time in a plane that worked.  Our second attempt was much smoother.  By the time we crossed over the Sierra Nevada, I thought we might still have a chance to make it to Alcatraz.  However, I was beginning to get a bad vibe about the whole trip.  Several days earlier, dry lightning had ignited over a thousand wildfires in northern California.  As we crossed the mountains, the Pilot mentioned that we were passing over Yosemite Valley.  Unfortunately, you couldn’t see it, because the valley was filled with smoke.  I was afraid we might have to spend a month hiking with wet rags over our mouths, unable to view the spectacular scenery all around us.


We landed in San Francisco at 4:30.  Despite my negative thoughts, things were starting to look up.  We might still make it to Alcatraz, if we didn’t get stuck in Friday afternoon rush hour traffic.  Plus, Airtran decided to compensate us with a free round-trip flight for our inconvenience.


I got my luggage, and Christy picked me up a few minutes later.  Traffic was surprisingly light, and we made to it Fisherman’s Wharf a little after 5.  We parked the car at the Hilton, where I’d gotten us a free room.  Well, it was free except for the $40 / day parking charges.  I dropped off my luggage and changed clothes, and we headed for the pier.  Against all odds, it was still only 5:30.  It seemed that we might make it to Alcatraz after all.


The pier was a short walk away.  We arrived early, so we took a stroll through Fisherman’s Wharf.  Fisherman’s Wharf is tourist-central in San Francisco, but that was ok.  We were going to be tourists for a couple of days.  At one of the piers, we found a pleasant collection of outdoor bars and restaurants, complete with a live band.  We stopped in one for a cold beer and a light snack, and I was delighted to discover that they had Fat Tire on draft.  Fat Tire has always been one of my favorite beers, and you can’t buy it back East.  Somehow we managed to spend $30 on two beers and some wings, but I wasn’t worried about it.  We were on vacation.


Afterwards, we got in line for the Alcatraz tour.  Alcatraz Island is now a National Park, but the only realistic way to get to it is on a ferry operated by a private concessionaire.  So, we were subjected to some tourist crap.  After a lengthy wait in line, we posed for an “official photo” with a fake Alcatraz backdrop (prints for sale at the end of the tour).  We mocked the whole process by posing while talking on our cell phones.  I felt a little like the two yuppies on the Saturday Night Live skits.  I’m pretty sure the photographer was amused.  I don’t think he wanted to be there, either.


We eventually made it onto the boat, and chose to sit outside to take in the view.  This was a questionable choice, as the view was obscured by dense fog that would stay with us for the first 2 days of the trip.  Plus, it was startlingly cold out there.  Between the damp air and a stiff breeze, it was a rather chilly ride.  At least we got some cool views of Alcatraz looming out of the fog.  Behind us, the bright lights of San Francisco shone through the murk.


Christy spent most of the ferry ride thinking about the next morning.  She was doing the annual “Escape From Alcatraz” swim race.  She would start near the island, and swim almost a mile and a half in shark-infested, 56-degree water to Fisherman’s Wharf.  She is a strong, experienced swimmer, but she seemed a little nervous.  I thought she was out of her mind.  I was cold on the boat.  I didn’t even want to think what it would be like in the water!


Alcatraz Island was originally used by the United States as a military base.  By 1859, troops were permanently stationed on the island to protect the bay area during the California gold rush.  Eventually the base was converted to a military prison.  Finally, in 1933, the island was transferred from the military to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  For the next 30 years, Alcatraz housed some of the most notorious criminals in the country.  In 1963, the prison was closed.  In 1969, the island was occupied for by a group of Native Americans protesting policies of the Federal Government.  The group claimed the island for Indians of all tribes, occupying it for 18 months.  Although the Indians were removed in 1971, the occupation drew attention to the plight of Native Americans nationwide. 


We reached the dock and disembarked.  From there, we climbed up the hill to the prison.  Inside, we were each given headsets for the audio tour.  With the headsets, you can move at your own pace, and you never have to worry about missing what the guide is saying.  We wandered through the prison, stopping at each of the exhibits.  We viewed the cells, and learned about some of the prison’s most infamous inmates.  The highlight of the tour for me came at the end.  Everyone gathered in one of the cell blocks for the cell door opening / closing demonstration.  The cell doors could be opened and closed individually, but usually they opened and closed all of them simultaneously.  The guide pulled a lever, and opened all of the doors at once.  Then, he reversed the process, and all of the doors slammed shut, the echoes ringing throughout the prison.  If I remember one thing from our tour, it will be the sound of all of those doors closing at once.


Christy’s mom had warned us to watch out for ghosts on Alcatraz.  Apparently, parts of the island are thought to be haunted.  We stopped at the morgue and took a photo for her, but it was dark and it didn’t come out.  We didn’t see or hear any ghosts while we were there, but somehow, Christy managed to photograph one.  I didn’t realize it until we returned home and I got a chance to view our photos.  One of hers, which was taken of a restricted area inaccessible to the public, shows a mysterious, shadowy figure.  It certainly wasn’t a person, although Christy maintains that it is just an innocent shadow.  I guess you’ll have to judge for yourself.   I say it’s a ghost.  Of course, I also claim to have a photo of the Virgin Mary in Utah’s Paria Canyon .


We enjoyed our visit to Alcatraz, and I’m glad we went.  However, I doubt I’d do it again.  I think it’s one of those places where one visit is enough.


We were pretty exhausted by the time the tour ended.  After all, we’d gotten up before 4am and flown across the country.  I actually nodded off several times during the ferry ride back to San Francisco.  By the time we returned to Fisherman’s Wharf, I was ready to head for the hotel.  We hadn’t really eaten dinner though, and Christy needed some nutrition before her race the next morning.  We found an Italian Restaurant a short distance from the pier, and got some pasta for dinner.  From there, we headed back to the Hilton and crashed.






“She had rings on her fingers and bells on her shoes.
And I knew without asking she was into the blues.
She wore scarlet begonias tucked into her curls,
I knew right away she was not like other girls, other girls.”


From “Scarlet Begonias” (Garcia / Hunter)



We were up at 6 the following morning for Christy’s race.  We should’ve been exhausted, but I didn’t feel too bad.  That’s one of the tricks about flying to the west coast.  Of course, you pay for it with jet lag when you return.


We picked up bagels in the hotel restaurant for breakfast.  Luckily we had free breakfast coupons, which was nice since bagels there normally cost $7 each!  We then walked about a ½ mile to the race site, where Christy checked in.  While Christy raced around getting organized, I hung out in the bleachers and tried to stay warm.  It was a chilly, foggy morning that reminded me of the chilly, foggy evening we had endured a few hours earlier.  Is it always like that in San Francisco?


There were quite a few spectators for the race, which was surprising, since it was hard to see much.  While I waited, I was forced to endure the pre-race music.  It was mostly annoying, with the exception of “Scarlet Begonias”, which is one of my favorite Grateful Dead songs.  It seemed appropriate to hear it there in San Francisco.


Escape from Alcatraz is a swim race of about 1.5 miles, from near Alcatraz Island through shark-infested waters to Fisherman’s Wharf.  The race is considered challenging, due to the distance as well as the cold water.  On this lovely summer morning, the water temperature was in the mid 50’s.  Although there is only one race, effectively there are two.  Some swimmers elect to wear wetsuits, while others do not.  Since wetsuits provide a competitive advantage (due to buoyancy as much as warmth), the competitors are divided into two divisions.  I could call them the wetsuit and non-wetsuit divisions, but that’s rather wordy.  Instead, going forward, I’m going refer to the wetsuit wearers as “crazy”.  Those choosing to forgo wetsuits will be called “crazeeee”.  Can you guess which group Christy was in?


Anyway, I could write a trip report about the race from a spectator’s point of view, but I don’t think that would be very interesting.  Following is Christy’s account of the race:


I didn’t sleep well Friday night.  I kept thinking I’d forgotten to pack something important in the bag I was taking to the race.  We were up early the next morning, and walked down to the aquatic park.  I registered there, and picked up my swim cap and t-shirt (which was the real reason I was doing the race!).  While I nervously waited, I noticed there were very few competitors without wetsuits.  There was also quite a variety of athletes present.  There were two sisters, ages 10 and 12, on the bleacher in front of me that were doing the race with their dad.  They at least had the sense to wear wetsuits!


As the “swimmers parade” to the boat started, I noticed that my swim cap was missing.  I ran and found another one just in time to get in line.  In the past I’ve had problems with motion sickness on boats, so I took some Bonine.  I didn’t have any problems, so the medicine must’ve helped.


At orientation, I found out that the water temperature was somewhere between 55 and 57 degrees!  That was a bit lower than the 62 degrees that was advertised when I registered.


On the boat ride out, I stayed on the top deck to try to get acclimated to the cold.  After only a few minutes, we reached the starting point, just offshore from Alcatraz Island.  Time to jump in!  I waited until the middle of the pack to get in, because I didn’t want to be hanging around treading 55-degree water without a wetsuit. 


Finally the line ahead of me began to dwindle.  Two teenager girls jumped in ahead of me, and came up cursing something fierce.  I immediately took the plunge, before I could think about bailing out.


As soon as I hit the water I started moving.  The shortness of breath wasn’t as bad as I feared, but putting my face in the water hurt like hell!  It took several minutes before I could keep it submerged.  I started swimming with my head up, and before I reached the starting line, they began the race!  Even with the race underway, I could barely stand to lower my head.  It felt like a million needles were sticking me in the face.  I didn’t have much choice though, but to GO!  So I went – and for once, I actually kicked.  I was afraid if I didn’t, my legs would become giant shark popsicles. 


I settled into a pace, with my normal 4-2 breathing pattern to the right.  This was a problem because the water was choppy, and the waves were coming from the right.  I think I ended up drinking about half of San Francisco bay! 


Aside from the cold, my biggest concern was staying on course.  That’s more difficult than you might expect, because of the current.  As I settled into my pace, I used the two identical apartment buildings in front of the Ghirardelli Chocolate store as sighting landmarks.  That strategy worked perfectly!  I passed dozens of swimmers as I swam straight into the aquatic park next to the left break wall. 


In hindsight, I probably could’ve gone faster, but it was hard to determine the ideal pace, since I’d never swum this course before.  I certainly didn’t want to go out too hard and not be able to finish.


When I crossed the finish line and ran up the beach, I was pretty warm.  There had actually been some pockets of warmer water towards the end of the race.  I found Andy, who wasn’t really ready for me.  I guess I finished a little sooner than he expected.  In fact, he said that I probably beat about 90% of the field, which turned out to be a pretty good guess. 


I really enjoyed the Escape from Alcatraz swim.  I’m already looking forward to going back and doing it again.  Now that I’ve done it once, I’m sure I can beat my time.  Plus, next time, I’ll be sure to be at the starting line when they begin the race!



Originally I had planned to photograph Christy at the finish line.  However, I ran into a few complications.  First, there was a huge crowd of spectators there, rendering photography impossible.  Also, Christy finished the race much sooner than I anticipated.  Christy finished with a time of 37:46, winning her age group in the crazeeee division.  She ended up being the 7th female finisher in the crazeeee division, and three of the swimmers finishing ahead of her were teenagers. 


At the end of the race, I helped Christy wrap up in blankets, as she was beginning to turn blue.  After she warmed up, she posed for a few celebratory photos.  Then we found Christy’s Uncle, Ed; and Ed’s wife, Carolyn, who had driven from the Sacramento area to watch the event.  After a brief visit to the hotel, we all went to lunch together.  We settled on a small restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf.  I had clam chowder in a sourdough breadbowl, which turned out to be the best meal I had in San Francisco!


Back in April, Christy had traveled to Denmark as part of an exchange program at her school.  While we were eating, she glanced out the window, made a startled exclamation, and ran out the door.  She had spotted someone she had met during her week in Denmark!  I followed her, and we chatted briefly with him there on a street corner in San Francisco.  This would only be the first of several bizarre coincidences during our month in California.


After lunch, Ed and Carolyn served as our tour guides of San Francisco.  We jumped in Ed’s car and hit of few of San Francisco’s many highlights.  We drove up a monster hill, before turning onto a narrow side road.  Here we had an unobstructed view out over northeast San Francisco and the bay.  We approached a distinct horizon line, and Ed gunned the engine.  We rocketed forward and caught some serious air as the road fell away below us.  Eventually rubber met the road, and we bounced the rest of the way down what must be the steepest paved road I’ve ever seen.  From there, we drove back up the hill, only to descend again, this time on “the world’s narrowest road”.  This road is apparently a popular tourist destination, because it took some time just to get in line for the slow, switchbacking descent.


Christy’s primary goal for the afternoon was shopping.  We headed to the northwest part of San Francisco, to a sporting goods store called “The Sports Basement”.  Getting there was a bit of a challenge, as it’s virtually impossible to make a left turn or a U-turn in this part of town.  We missed a critical turn, and were doomed to 20 minutes of driving around in circles before we got back on track.  We finally reached the store, which is a sporting goods store in a building the size of a Home Depot.  I went in briefly, but I wasn’t in the mood to shop.  I left Christy, Ed, and Carolyn inside, and headed across the street to Crissy Field.  Crissy Field is a small park along the waterfront, featuring a beach, walking and biking paths, and a fine view of the Golden Gate Bridge.  The bridge was barely visible, thanks to the fog, but Crissy Field is a neat spot.  If I’m ever in the area again, I’ll bring my running shoes.


After the Sports Basement, we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge.  Making that crossing would’ve been high on my “must-do” list, even if there wasn’t anything to see at the other end.  In this case though, there’s plenty to see.  The Golden Gate Bridge leads to Muir Woods, Point Reyes National Seashore, and the northern California coast.  Although we didn’t have much time to visit those areas, I was eager to at least check some of them out.


First though, Christy wanted to visit another store.  We drove to Mill Valley, which is near Muir Woods.  There, she spent a little time in a women’s clothing store.  While she shopped, Ed, Carolyn, and I strolled around town.  Mill Valley is a pleasant little community, and best of all, the sun was shining there.  Apparently you don’t have to travel far from San Francisco to escape the fog.  It was a nice place to stretch the legs, but we were disappointed we didn’t run into Robin Williams or Gary Fisher or any of the other celebrity residents of the area.


Christy concluded her shopping, and Ed took us on a scenic drive up highway 1.  Before long, we were cruising along an impressive series of cliffs high above the Pacific.  After a short ways, we stopped at an official overlook, where we could see up and down the coast.  The view included some impressive sea stacks, crashing surf, and the sandy expanse of Muir Beach.  Unfortunately, we were back in the fog, so photographic opportunities were limited.


From there, we continued north along the coast, before turning east and heading up into the mountains.  We entered Mount Tam State Park, and decided to check out the peak.  We drove to the end of the road, where we parked for a fee.  From there, Ed, Carolyn, and I hiked to the summit.  The hike is perhaps a mile each way, and it’s fairly easy.  Christy was wiped out from her swim race though, and chose to nap in the car.


At the summit, we found an observation tower that is closed to the public.  Fortunately, there are plenty of fine views from below the tower.  On this day, the best vistas were east, out over a vast bay.  San Francisco was to our south, but we couldn’t see it due to the ever-present fog.  We lingered for a few minutes, enjoying the view.  Mount Tam was worth a visit, but it wasn’t exactly a wilderness experience.  There were a fair number of people on the trail, and we could clearly hear music drifting up from a nearby valley.


We returned to the car, and headed to Muir Woods.  Originally I had planned on doing a short hike there, but it was getting late.  When we arrived, we discovered that there is a $5 per person access fee.  That, combined with the late hour and the fact that everyone was getting hungry, convinced us to save Muir Woods for another time.


We headed back towards San Francisco, but made one more stop.  Just before the Golden Gate Bridge, Ed took us off the highway and up to a small park.  This park was originally part of a military installation, but now it is open to the public.  From it, we enjoyed a grand view of the Golden Gate Bridge.  The fog had lifted enough to see it and the lights of San Francisco clearly.  We also had a good view of Alcatraz and Angel Islands, along with a rugged stretch of coastline.  It was probably my favorite part of the day.


Once back in San Francisco, Ed found a place to park, and they took us to dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf.  The meal was pretty good, although it didn’t hold a candle to the clam chowder I’d enjoyed at lunch!  Afterwards, we tried to convince Ed and Carolyn to spend the night, but they decided to head home.  They dropped us off at the hotel, and we didn’t last long before we crashed.


The next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel and check out early.  We headed out of town, but there was still one area I wanted to visit.  Christy and I are both big fans of The Grateful Dead, and there was no way we could travel to San Francisco without visiting Haight-Ashbury.  Christy drove and I navigated, and we eventually found our way there.  We took a leisurely drive, but really didn’t see that much.  It was early on a Sunday morning, and the streets were deserted.  No doubt, most of the residents of Haight-Ashbury were hungover or otherwise incapacitated at that hour.  We probably should’ve checked that area out on Saturday evening!  Plus, trying to “see” a neighborhood like that from a moving car - even a slowly moving car - leaves a lot to be desired. 


There was one memorable moment though.  At one point, we passed under a giant pair of plastic, pink woman’s legs protruding from a second story window.  Now that was the sort of thing I’d been hoping to see!  I’m sure there’s a story behind that, but I have no idea what it is.  I don’t know why I didn’t make Christy stop the car so I could get a photo, but here’s one I found on the web.


Originally I’d planned to drive through Golden Gate Park, but we missed a critical turn.  Eventually we contented ourselves with driving along the park’s perimeter.  From there, we eventually found our way out to the highway, and headed south towards San Jose.


I’m not really much of a city person, but I would like to visit San Francisco again.  We ended up spending less than 2 full days there, which wasn’t nearly enough time to see everything.  In fact, it’s almost embarrassing to think about how much we missed.  Then again, I knew when I planned the trip that we’d only be able to hit a few of the highlights.  We’ll just have to make another trip to San Francisco to ride a cable car, and visit Golden Gate Park, and the Presidio, and Muir Woods, and Point Reyes. 

Continue reading about our trip as we head down the coast to Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Monterrey Bay.

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Please remember to Leave No Trace!