thomas m wilson

Goodbye San Francisco

May 13th, 2008

Before flying back to Australia I wanted to make one final visit to the top of Mt. Tamalpais. Mt. Tam is the tallest mountain around San Francisco, and it has the most beautiful views from the ridge that leads to its summit.

The Pacific ocean is just so cold around San Francisco that even moderately warm temperatures create thick plumes of fog, plumes which curl over the hills of Marin and shroud the Golden Gate bridge and the city itself. Here I stand on the way up to the top of Tam, looking north as the fog drifts its way through the tops of the redwood trees.

The following photo was also taken from the way up to the top of Mt. Tam, but here I’m looking west, out to sea. I love the feeling of shelter this spot gives me each time I visit it. It is like a promise of sanctuary in the little wooded crease of valley below, a bonne vaux to use John Fowles’ term for such a sheltering and mysterious place.

Most of the past few weeks I’ve been based in the little town of Fairfax in Marin County. The walls of this little town have murals painted by the artist who created the album covers of the Grateful Dead, and there is a cadre of old school hippies that hang around on the main street. Apart from this though its a settled, Democrat-voting and children-raising demographic in Fairfax. It is not the most exciting place to be, but just up the end of the street I was staying on you step into the wilderness of the Marin hills, and walking and mountain biking up here, with just a couple of turkey vultures circling lazily overhead, was fantastic. Regularly getting into this kind of wooded and hilly country and leaving the trail made me determined to eventually settle in a place where I can do this again.

Of course I like the urban as well… Last Saturday night I was in the city, and walking down a lively street in Russia Hill was like a glass of stiff liquor after the diluted calm of downtown Fairfax. San Francisco is a beautiful city as new world cities go, and it is possible to exist here without driving a car. Just hit the wide and steep pavement, and go for a walk. You can also jump into a cable car or a bus. Bus stops have digital screens telling you how many minutes remain until the next bus arrives.

We walked over the hill and down for an Italian meal in North Beach, the traditional home of the beat writers in the 1950s. Later we ended up in City Lights bookstore, the literary capital of northern California. While I was there I took the following photo which I think nicely echoes the shop’s name.

I’ve enjoyed being in the Bay area. Culturally America has a lot of the same Anglo-saxon heritage that Australia has (prudery and a Protestant work ethic for example), but there is also more going on because of the sheer volume of people in this country, and there is not the distrust of cultural excellence here that Australian culture sometimes lets slip. I won’t miss some aspects of America – the tense atmosphere in some neighbourhoods after dark, the huge, polluting cars and the bland ethnocentrism of the country all come to mind – but I can say that San Francisco is one of the coolest cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of hanging out in.