I picked up the bike at the rental store on Pier 39, upwind of the sealions, and pedalled along the Embarcadero past the crab and clam chowder stands of Fisherman’s Wharf and dropped down to Beach and joined the trail which cut through Fort Mason where I was staying in a hostel in an old wooden building which used to be part of an army base dating back to the Civil War.
“The coldest winter I ever spent,” said Mark Twain, “was a summer in San Francisco”. The city is often shrouded in what Kerouac called “an advancing wall of potato-patch fog”. But it was clear and bright the whole time I was there and warm until late afternoon when you all at once needed a coat.
I rode alongside the marina and took a slight detour to poke around the Palace of Fine Arts, built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Then I rejoined the trail and cycled under palms along the shore at Crissy Fields, past pretty wooden buildings which were once a coast guard station and further along, at the opposite side, century-old seaplane hangers.
The Golden Gate Bridge was centre stage in the distance and I headed towards it, navigating around a professional dog-walker with a fleet of dogs of various breeds and sizes and a family riding bikes three abreast.
The trail ran alongside the Bay and water lapped against the rocks. The stanchions and chains of the fence beside it were rusted where waves had lashed them. Fort Point came into view. It was built about a century before the bridge which now towers over it, just before the Civil War. It was there in Vertigo that Kim Novak’s character faked an attempt at suicide.
I pressed on towards it then found my way up to the carriageway onto the bridge and, though I had crossed it before on foot, still felt a slight thrill passing under the iconic towers. I crossed the Bay into Marin County and wound down the hill to Sausalito.
It is technically a city in its own right but it is hard to see it that way when it only takes up two square miles and has a population of just 7,000. Kerouac wrote of it in On the Road as a “little fishing village”.
It was a bohemian enclave in his day and still was in the Sixties when Cosmopolitan wrote of:
“Sausalito, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, a lovely stretch of land resembling the French Riviera, is an artists’ colony that can best be described as Barge Bohemia. It’s a pleasant place that looks a little like Monte Carlo, with gaily painted houses hanging on the hillside and a harbor crammed with the strangest flotilla I’ve ever seen: ferry boats, broken-down barges, houseboats and, here and there, a sleek yacht or two.”
It has gone steadily upmarket since then and is home now to Isabel Allende and Dave Eggars. There are big houses among the trees in the hills and Porsches and Ferraris parked in the street and delis and designer shops along the main drag. But the modern-day affluence has not bought out the atmosphere.
DimiTalen / Wikimedia Commons*
I cycled through the middle of town and alongside the harbour. There have been houseboats in Sausalito since at least 1906 when the earthquake left San Francisco in ruins. A shipyard was built at the edge of town in World War II and. after it closed, old ferries and landing crafts and barges were moored there and ramshackle living quarters built on them from scavenged materials.
One boat had sash windows reclaimed from a house, another repurposed a railway carriage. As they rotted they were set onto concrete platforms. There are about 400 of them now and, at least from a distance, they still have a freewheeling, hippy aesthetic, but can sell for $2m.
Leaving Sausalito, the trail continued along the Bay and over Coyote Creek and into the Bothin Marsh Preserve. Wading birds tottered through the wetlands and the sun glistened on the surface of the bay and ahead, in the distance, loomed Mount Tamalpais.
Stas Volik / Shutterstock.com
I had been on a bike just three times in the best part of six months since I left home and this was the first ride of any length, but it was a perfect day for cycling and I felt as if I could go on until nightfall.
I rattled over the bridge and through Bayfront Park and over another bridge onto the opposite side of the Bay and traced the headland round. I rode through quiet and comfortable residential neighbourhoods until again confronted with the expanse of the Bay. The houseboats of Sausalito were on the opposite shore now, in the distance ahead the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond it Alcatraz Island and to its right the skyline of San Francisco.
I climbed up Strawberry Drive and descended into Harbour Cove, round the marina and onto the road towards Tiburon. Somewhere along the way I had picked up a slow puncture and the tyre was properly flat by the time I got into town and bumped and wobbled towards the pier for the ferry back to San Francisco.
© Richard Senior 2021
*By DimiTalen – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31166480