The suspension of disbelief begins as you descend from the sky toward San Francisco International Airport. The plane drops and drops again, closer and closer to the sea, never revealing the land it is aiming for until you're right above it. And then, after so much anticipation, it is over and you are taxiing nonchalantly along the runway. The airport personnel are as warm as the temperate climate, such a change from the false, frozen grimaces of those in the North. They may have forgotten how to smile, but in San Francisco, you remember.
Your first sight of the surrounding hills, some rising 1,000 feet on the way into the city, is impressive. Everything is unexpected for someone who has never spent much time in the desert or the tropics. It is so arid the few sparse trees and buildings cling to what’s left of the sandy turf. You can imagine the houses to be made of dried clay.
The hotel is as eclectic and cluttered as it appeared in the ads. There is a doorman, but you get the feeling it may be something less than a part-time job. He’s wearing a uniform and he helps you into the ancient cage of the elevator with your bags, but later you see him down the street on a stoop, smoking a stogie. This is somewhat characteristic of the place – the intermittent yet frequent experience of surprise. And the danger is real. People do literally swing from cable cars, jumping on and off with a certain reckless abandon. You have to make it quick. The cable car may grind to a stop at an intersection on the crest of a hill, but the traffic around it continues. They descend like hungry gulls after a fish head.
This is the place to see Wicked: the Musical, if ever oh ever a Wiz there was. Or to explore the Musée mécanique, a collection of mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines at Pier 45. A stroll through the district of Haight-Ashbury, locus of the 1967 Summer of Love, is the perfect antithesis to lunch in one of the city’s classic retro diners.
The ever-changing weather only adds to the place’s mystique. In the harbour, while you commune with sea lions flopping and bellowing on the docks, Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge are elusive. One moment they are there. The next, a rolling bank of fog obliterates them.
The size of San Francisco is a secret, because most of it is folded up into the pleats of the hills, but step outside of it to the beaches, and you are met by the infinite flatness of the Pacific Ocean. Much has been said of this charming city, but never enough to adequately describe the dramatic contrasts you eventually realize are its signature.
In town, locating a specific Hill named Nob is a kind of baptism by fire. Vastly underestimating the weight of your over-stuffed carry-ons and drag-throughs, you navigate the impossibly steep slopes. Hangers-on in not-so-savoury neighbourhoods seem alternatively helpful and menacingly inquisitive. On one block, you feel curiously entertained. On the next, threatened. This is a city you have to respect, for beneath the juicy lipstick there are pointed teeth.
The climate changes with the neighbourhood. There is so much variety. And everywhere you witness the struggle to keep native plants alive. The red-flowering gum tree, with its outlandish blossoms and stout trunks, performs a proud chorus line in the narrow streets, while tall palms assert their supremacy along the avenues.