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SF Curtain Call

Sunday, August 7 2022, SF Airport

After a filling breakfast with my friend, I pointed my car to San Francisco, ready for a free-form day. Beyond a ticket to Alcatraz at 3:20 and my red-eye flight at 10:50, I had no demands on my day.

Ron had encouraged me to avoid the pricey parking near Fisherman's Wharf by parking near a BART station and taking public transport to the waterfront. Good idea ... but that would require research to figure out where to park, how to access BART, navigating a return, scheduling my travel. If I'd had several days there, I would've done the work, but for a one-off, I just parked near Pier 39 and paid the exorbitant fee.

After two weeks in National Parks, the kitsch gave me a culture shock: Buskers. Food carts. T-shirt shops. Tourist traps everywhere, vying for my attention. And, of course, wall-to-wall bodies, people pushing back and forth. I followed, carried by the press of the crowd, past Fisherman's Wharf to Hyde Street Pier at the edge of the commercial section.

Strange what can trigger a memory. As I hit Hyde St, I remembered a robotic busker making mechanical moves on that exact corner. Today no busker claimed that spot, so I proceeded onto the grounds of San Francisco Maritime NHP. I wanted to stop for park pamphlets to plot out my day, but the Visitor Center was closed (add that to my list!). Instead, I wandered through the park, past the Maritime Museum (also closed), by the beach, and onto the shady Bay Trail

leading into Golden Gate NRA and Ft. Mason. After a few photo ops,

I ambled back.

At Hyde St. Pier, I noticed a park ranger standing by the gate. OMG, the facility is open! He guarded the entrance to the pier, which required a fee (or my pass) to enter. I collected a park pamphlet and proceeded to the historic boats moored at the pier.

The Balclutha steals the show. This wooden square-rigger sailing ship, built in Scotland to transport California wheat to Europe, rounded Cape Horn 17 times during its career. When the grain tide dwindled, the ship switched to a coastal itinerary, supplying Alaskan fisheries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, you can board the boat, wander the wooden decks from aft to stern,

imagining the life its crew must have had, spending months at sea between ports.

Across the pier, the Eureka caught my eye. Originally intended to ferry trains across the bay, authorities repurposed it in 1922 to move cars and people across the Golden Gate.

Until the late 1930s (when the Golden Gate Bridge opened), it served as a movable length of US101 - the road I plied while in the Redwoods. The ship even comes with vintage vehicles on deck.

Several other vessels called the pier home: an open-water tug; a coastal schooner; a scow schooner. Other displays littered the pier, such as the one where you can how different block-and-tackle setups make it easier to lift loads. The call of the high seas echoed loudly on the pier.

I strolled a ways down the Municipal Pier, looking back at the public beach. (As I walked along, a Segway tour passed me.

Never done that.) Working my way back down the waterfront, I had to stop for clam chowder for lunch before braving the crowds again. Slowly I wandered east as notes from musical buskers provided a soundtrack. Though I still had nearly an hour before my scheduled Alcatraz sailing, I approached the ticket-taker - "Could I take an earlier boat?" Yes - hop right on!

I'd seen its crumbling ruins from afar on previous trips to SF, but had never crossed over to tour it. Now I got to hear of its history.

This monument to punishment - housing the most incorrigible prisoners from 1934 to 1963 - was named "Isla de los Alcatraces" ('Island of the Pelicans') when first mapped in 1775. In the 1850s, the U.S. build a fort there to defend the bay. When the Civil War broke out, Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston commanded the fort. He rebuffed Confederate supporters who hoped the Southern-born general would help secure California for the Confederacy. (Johnston soon resigned, joined the southern army, and died at the Battle of Shiloh.)

Though it served military purposes, from 1861 on, it also housed prisoner. The penal population grew over the years; in 1907 it was officially designated the Western U.S. Military Prison. The army grew tired of supplying the island with food and water, and in 1933 they gave it to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Soon they filled the prison with such notorious criminals as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Creepy Karpis.

An audio tour (included in the boat fare) provides you with details as you wander through the cell blocks. To see the tiny cells they confined the men to -

no wonder they tried to escape. One cell block held the 'treatment cells' where they transferred prisoners that broke the rules. Those cells were actually zxlarger than the standard cells - but those prisoners were only let out of those cells for one hour each week.

After touring the prison, I walked around the island, looking at the ruins.

Wives of the officers stationed here, with little else to distract them, nurtured gardens. Of course, being a rock in the bay, Alcatraz had no soil, so they had to import soil to grow anything.

It seems that everywhere I walked, the gulls, cormorants, and other seabirds raised a cacophony. This was breeding season, and parts of the island were closed to protect the nesting birds. (This island, originally named after its pelicans, had no birds during its time as a prison. Robert Franklin Stroud, the 'Birdman of Alcatraz', had no birds at the prison - his nickname came from his raising birds while at Leavenworth before his transfer here. Since the prison closed in 1963, the birds have returned in force.)

Back in the city, I grabbed an early dinner from a food vendor, then reclaimed my car. Driving west, I visited Fort Point (Visitor Center already closed for the day) for the views of the Bridge soaring overhead. (They nearly tore down the fort when they built the Bridge, but a public outcry convinced them to preserve it.)

Just above the Fort, I parked at the Presidio (established in 1776 by the de Anza expedition)

and hiked a short distance on the coastal trail (again, part of the NRA). Catching the view of the Bridge and watching the sun sink toward the horizon provided a soothing way to bring the Closed Tour to a close.

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