Take the A-Train

San Francisco to Santa Barbara

Rex's USA Diary

San Francisco

Nike Ajax Missile

I had a slow start this morning, breakfasted, then tried to find a rental car. However there was nothing happening at either the Railway Station desk or a nearby hotel. My plans from the East Coast had been to drive to SF-88, the only restored Nike Missile site in the US which was over near the north end of the Golden Gate bridge. During the Cold War years some 280 missile bases protected cities across America - they were the first atomic warhead-capable rockets and preceded the ICBM generation of strategic defence installations. NPS SF-88  Wikipedia SF-88

Sea lions

With that plan cancelled, I used my rail pass to obtain return bus tickets into town so I could explore Fisherman's Wharf.

What a great, busy, buzzing place! I really enjoyed wandering around checking out the action. There were break-dancers twirling around on their heads, the Pier 39 sea lions lying in heaps on floating platforms, a guy on bongo drums, some guy sitting beside a bunch of sticks eating a crab, and people everywhere enjoying themselves.

After some wandering around I joined a crowd to see what had attracted their attention. The guy with the sticks was now sitting on a box with the sticks held up in front of himself so he was hidden. A talking bush maybe? But no, it was even better! The guy would stay still, incongruously hidden in this concrete jungle by his leafy branches and would wait for someone to come wandering aimlessly past him. Then he would whip the bushes apart, stick out his head and go 'Grrrr!'.

The crowd loved it when women jumped away squealing. I had discovered 'Bush Man', a regular entertainer on the wharf - he was doing very well for himself.

Bush Man

Further down the pier a statue of a large orange skeleton would occasionally twitch, giving people the heebie-jeebies. He too was popular with the crowds and posed for many scary photos.


Later in the day I climbed aboard Chuckie's Pride and took a cruise out under the Golden Gate and back around Alcatraz (one-time alternate residence of Al Capone) - a good hour, well spent.


Alcatraz - Island Insights

Back on land I wandered through the milling crowd (past a rubbish bin with a bush in front of it) and investigated the fresh seafood department. There were steaming vats of crabs, seafood chowder served in sourdough bread bowls, tuna salad, shrimp and calamari rolls, and fish and chips (my choice). Enjoyed my evening meal to dinner music provided by a great busker on a keyboard, then hopped on my AMTRAK bus back to Emeryville.

Wild and wet

The next day dawned wet and wild - a real Wellington southerly buster was coming through! With more exploring to do in town I hitched a lift in the hotel van back to the station, get myself some more tickets and hopped on the bus. According to the driver's radio there was high winds, flooding, accidents, power-lines down, and bird watchers were having a field day out at East Bay because all the birds were grounded. Got off at the SF Shopping Center.

SF Center - Label Shops

I explored the Center (label shops - forget it), had lunch, then hiked up Market Street heading for an aquarium in Golden Gate Park. As I turned into Haight Street and began climbing, the rain started coming through in waves. Today I saw the lower end of the SF community. Street people huddled under plastic sheets, club and strip joints, XXX shops, Madame ZuZu's Palm Reading, holistic health centres, chitling, crawfish and chili cha-cha shops.

I crossed Ashbury Street (even I had heard somewhere of Haight-Ashbury) where the red light stuff gave way to trendy and chick for a few blocks - boutique coffee shops, wine bars, funky dress shops, hair and nail parlors.

Haight Ashbury Painted Ladies
Stately Painted Ladies

I followed a lady up the road for a while. She had on a little black cowboy hat, short leather skirt, jacket and cowboy boots, bright red lips, white hair, and looked well muscled. Had 'Whores of SF' and a skull engraved on her jacket. Kept my distance.

Bat brolly

It had become even wetter and I was thoroughly soaked but I had made it to the park at last. I stopped a lady walking a dog to check my bearings and we chatted in the rain for a while (Middle Earth and all that) and she recommended I go to the old Victorian botanical gardens a few minutes away - the aquarium was still some distance off. Took her advice and puddle-hopped to the gardens, but found that the place was shut. Gave up fighting the elements and headed for the nearest bust stop, caught a 71 back down Haight and Market streets to the Shopping Center bus stop and my hotel connection.

Tram turning

Back in my hotel room the TV told me that the rainfall had set a record, mud slides had killed people in southern California (there had been no vegetation to hold the ground together - it had all burnt away in recent forest fires) and that 25,000 people had died in earthquakes in Iran.

Otherwise, it had been another great day exploring the town, but I was ready to move on again in the morning.

SF skyline

On waking I discovered that 'moving on' might take a bit of effort though! Checking the weather forecast told me that while the rain had moved south, there was lots of snow in the north and in the Rockies. There was flooding in Southern California and more 'weather' was expected later in the day.

I checked out of the hotel in plenty of time, strolled over to the station and watched a few trains come and go. When I eventually checked the departure board I was a bit rocked to find that my train was delayed 4 hours due to 'train congestion'. Hmm, I would agree that something was a bit stuffed up, but not necessarily the train. When I checked with the ticket man, he rolled his eyes over Train 11 - Coastal Starlight (mine) and re-booked me onto a train going to Bakersfield and a bus connection to Santa Barbara.

Moon bird

A few hours later my train came in and took me off in the direction I had arrived from, until we veered south into the wide-open Napa Valley. Sure enough it was filled with grape vines and orchards - the output of grapes from here must be staggering. Late in the afternoon we passed through fields of large, mechanical nodding ducks - pumps that slowly rocked and sucked oil out of the ground - America's life-blood.

Bakersfield oil pumps

Soon after this we pulled into Bakersfield, the railhead at the southern end of the valley. Lined up beside the platform like suckling piglets were buses ready to take us all off in our various directions. I joined the crowd beside Bus 5 to Santa Barbara and we set off into the setting sun.

As dusk drew in, our four-lane motorway climbed up into a mountain range from where I could see that very American sight - those ribbons of red and of white lights of unbroken streams of cars on the move. Lucky they have plenty of nodding ducks!

We topped out on the mountain range and I then saw the coastal plain covered with lights - a very busy corner of the States. Most of our passengers left the bus at Oxnard, so the rest of us closed up on the driver and listened to his views on AMTRAK, the race for Mayor in SF, and for Governor in LA, and what those lights were out to sea. Lights? A closer look showed me a band of lights like squid boats a few miles off the coast. The driver said these were oil platforms burning gas and fueling cargo ships.

Just before 9 PM we pulled into Santa Barbara Station and the last three of us passengers got off the bus and stretched. A girl was scooped up by her boyfriend, a lady moved off to wait for her ride, and the bus driver went into the station. Wow, suddenly there I was in a strange city wondering which direction my hotel of choice (another Holiday Inn) was located.