Today was our first day in San Francisco. We started our day by waking up early and heading out to the pier for our tour of the notorious Alcatraz. This was a part of our journey that I had been excited for, especially since watching Escape From Alcatraz. It’s like the Shawshank Redemption but real! After some morning scrambling, we all boarded the ferry to the island. It was much closer to the mainland than I had realized. To think, people in 1950s San Francisco could easily see the building in the bay that housed the nation’s most notorious criminals! After our relaxing ferry ride, we proceeded to the prison. In our orientation, we learned that Bill Baker, former inmate of Alcatraz (and self-proclaimed “endangered species”) was visiting the island, promoting the book he had written about his experience in the prison as well as answering any questions we had. As the history nerd I am, I was thrilled and ran up to him, asking why he had been sent there. He answered by saying that he had broken out of other prisons. He said that Alcatraz was where they sent the people that broke the rules at other prisons. He didn’t mention his original crime, but through a quick Google search, I found out that it was due mostly to his cashing of fraudulent checks. So don’t worry everyone, I wasn’t talking to a psychopath, just a con artist. I also asked him what made Alcatraz so much worse than other prisons of that time. He said that it was because of the lack of freedom and activities there. Other prisons gave their inmates recreation time or space to exercise, but at Alcatraz, they only got time out of their cells on weekends and holidays, and they were under constant watch. “We had no freedom,” he said. He was a nice, charming old guy from Kentucky, and I was happy to have met him. He mentioned in his introduction to everyone that morning that he was just happy to be meeting people from all over the world, and making money legally.
The tour of the prison was really cool. It’s smaller than you’d think, because it was a low-capacity prison for those who had, well, been too much trouble for other prisons. We took the audio tour that led us around the building with the help of a plastic recorder and some retro 90s headphones. The recordings were the voices of old guards and inmates from the prison. It was interesting to hear the contrast between the comments of the guards and the comments from the inmates. For example, one of the guards mentioned that the cells were roomy and comfortable compared to those of other prisons. This comment was followed by one from one of the prisoners, who said that the cells were so cold and drafty thanks to the wind off the bay. My favorite part of the tour was when they talked about the famous dummy head escape, where three inmates had escaped by tunneling through the walls using steel spoons, and hiding their escapes by making paper mache heads and placing them on their pillows. This of course was the subject of the movie “Escape From Alcatraz,” but it was so much cooler to see it in person. On the way out, we visited the gift shop, and I bought Bill Baker’s book (which I got autographed!) and a poster of the prison for my classroom that reads, “You break the rules, you go to prison. You break the prison rules, you go to Alcatraz.”
At the end of the tour there was a bit of transportation confusion with Memere and Grampa’s tram, but we had a nice seat along the wharf while we waited for them to get back down. Stacey and Matthew headed back to the room while everyone else waited. Eventually our heroic grandparents returned, bounding down the hill upon the tram. The whole group re-boarded the ferry and we rode back to the mainland. We walked back down the wharf and decided on Boudin for lunch. This was a famous bakery dating back to the 1850s and the original home of San Fransisco sourdough bread. Naturally we all got sandwiches for lunch. There was a little bit of a wait up at the counter, but it was worth it. The bread was delicious. We also got a seat next to the bakery, so we got to see dough spinning in the oven. There was also a bread-gator next to us. That was awesome. Look at my pictures, you’ll see what I mean.
After lunch, it was rest time for almost everyone, but adventure time for Mom, Grampa and I. Our first goal was to visit the Coit Tower and climb the Filbert steps. This was essentially a hike to the highest point of San Fransisco. It took some effort to get up there, but it was worth it (not to mention we used it as an excuse to eat as much as we wanted for the rest of the day). It started off as a low-grade hill, then a series of half-step stairs, then the steepest hill I’ve ever seen, and then some real steps. If I did this every day, I would probably have supermodel legs. Okay the equivalent of supermodel legs for a short person. We got to the monument and were planning to climb the steps to the top. Unfortunately, the only way to the top was via elevator, and the line to get on the elevator was about an hour long. We weren’t that desperate to see the top, as we had gotten a pretty view from the spot we were at. So we carried on. Downhill this time.
We decided our next stop would be the Cable Car museum, so we headed up that way. Walking around San Fransisco is an adventure in itself, because it’s all hills. A level path is rare. We were either relieved by a downhill slope, or climbing what felt like the Himalayas. Along with this change in elevation was a change in temperature. The higher you were, the stronger the sea breeze, the further down, you felt the sun more than the wind. I went from freezing to sweating about five times during the day, but it was worth it! Adventure!
The Cable Car Museum was pretty neat, even just for a stop. You could see the gears that spun the giant cables that ran the cars throughout the city. See, I dunno if I’m dumb, but I thought that cable cars were powered by the cables that are suspended over the street. Turns out that real cable cars are run by the underground cables that pull them along the track. I didn’t know that! It’s super cool (and old) technology. You can even hear the cables humming underground when there aren’t any cable cars around. Pretty neat.
We planned on taking a cable car back to our hotel, less because we were far out, and more because we wanted to do it for funsies. As it turns out, catching a cable car is really difficult. They fill up near the wharf, where people typically get on and ride them all the way around town, then get off in the same place. We stood at two different stops on two blocks and watched many cable cars drive by, full, without any room to spare. We got to see one full car having difficulty getting up a hill, sliding back down, and then having to try again over and over. It was actually really funny, because there was a sassy engineer running the breaks, and she kept making fun of the trouble they were having. Eventually Grampa and I pulled out our cameras and she noticed, saying “Oh, come on, you are NOT taking my picture right now!” in an embarrassed way, and everyone laughed. They got up the hill eventually, after four tries. Traffic was pretty backed up by then. There was a girl on a moped who was not enjoying the situation.
Eventually a cable car pulled up that was full except for a little bit of room in the back next to the break engineer. Grampa told Mom and I that we should go, so we did, quickly, with no time to question him. We hopped up and held on. It was an awesome ride. We were uphill, downhill, whizzing up and down the streets, past pretty houses and hilly roads. We were sharing the space with a nice man who spoke broken English. He kept making jokes with us about the scenery and people we passed, especially a group of tourists on bikes struggling up the hilly roads. We passed Lombard Street and saw the Ghirardelli sign. It was a great experience altogether!
We came back to the room and I took an unintentional nap, which wasn’t a horrible thing. I woke up and we had dinner. Mom and Memere got In and Out Burger. I was planning on trying it as well, until I found out that all they had was hamburgers, so I got a sandwich from subway, but then ate it with some In and Out fries. They were really good fries. I could eat as many as I wanted after that walk, remember?
The evening activity was to visit Pier 39, a famous section of Fisherman’s Wharf with shops, restaurants, and entertainment. Justin, Auntie Brenda, and Grampa had gone to see the Giants game, so it was just Auntie Brenda, Mom, Owen and I at the wharf. We were a fun group to walk around with. We popped into a few shops, sampled some mini-donuts, and got Ben and Jerry’s cones. All three of us got “the tonight dough” as our flavor choice. If you haven’t tried it, you should. Owen and I also tried the laser maze challenge, where we have to try to press buttons in a room without touching any of the lasers. He was really good at it. I sucked pretty hard. I focus so hard on avoiding one laser that I hit three in the process. Whoops.
We walked back to the hotel and calmed down for the night. I’m excited for what’s to come tomorrow!