The freedom to move around, get up and go at a moment’s notice, to check out of our lives for hours and enjoy a funky day trip, is easy to take for granted. Don’t. Go have some fun.
Friday night I was kicking back on the shore of the American River, watching the sunset and enjoying a Cayman Jack margarita. “What should I do tomorrow?” I asked myself, but I didn’t answer. I’m the silent type.
I live within day trip distance of some of the funkiest adventures Northern California has to offer: beaches, mountains, Yosemite, Reno, Tahoe, Napa wine country, Stockton. Okay, maybe not Stockton. Deadlines loomed, dishes piled up, and grass needed mowing, but I made an executive decision: Tomorrow was perfect for an unplanned adventure.
The next morning I was at the train station, playing destination roulette. “Give me one for the next train, please,” I said.
“Where are you going?’ The ticket agent asked.
“You tell me.”
“There’s one leaving in twenty minutes that goes through to San Jose with stops all through the San Francisco Bay area.”
“I’ll take it,” I said.
Taking the train is the only way to travel. As airlines grow more cramped and restrictive, America’s trains remain steel wheeled tributes to the freedom of movement. You can stand, walk around, hit the cafe car for a little food and drink. I’m writing this from a rolling table with power and wi-fi, and I wasn’t nickled and dimed for the privilege. Take that, airlines!
Trains offer a unique perspective unseen in cars, too: The landscape is the same, yet it isn’t. A symbiotic culture grew around the nation’s freeway system—billboards, fast food, motels, gas stations. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but the result is a visual sameness that becomes sort of background noise. Terre Haute or Tacoma, those golden arches are going to be two miles ahead on Exit 78.
But jump on a train and you move to the left or right of that familiar highway. Sometimes you may just be a few feet from the suckers powering their way through the snarled traffic, other times you’ll be miles away, cutting through farmland you didn’t even know existed.
All it takes is a little slow, ground level travel to remind me of the enormity of the American experience: the freedom to live in country, town, or city; to walk through the sunflowers, dip my toes in the icy river, or roll up to Exit 78 for a triple bacon cheesy deluxe burger.
The train rolls past deep water and a more somber reminder of those freedoms bobs along outside the window: the ghosts of decommissioned Navy ships. The Mothball Fleet at Suisun Bay is almost gone now, but at its peak 500 rotting ships crowded next to the biggest salt water marsh in the West. Adventurous kayakers occasionally slipped between the ships and found themselves pinned in by shifting tides.
The decomposing ships were slowly poisoning the marsh, so—score one for the freedom not to die from lead poisoning—the past few years have seen the Mothball Fleet reduced to a couple of boats. By 2017 they’ll all be gone.
Fortunately, our entire naval history wasn’t left to rot in Suisun Bay. When I get to San Francisco I stumble across the USS Pampanito, if “stumble across” is the right term for spotting something as large as a submarine. The Pampanito is a World War II era sub that saw its share of action. I’m not a small guy—six feet tall and pushing two bills—but I’m not abnormally large. I couldn’t walk the narrow aisles without my shoulders brushing the racks of cots or bumping the levers, valves, and dials that operated the ship. Quarters were so cramped that the cooks stashed food in every available nook and cranny. Cots hung above torpedoes. Water had to be distilled on board, and priority went to the ship’s massive diesel engines. For two war-torn years, the Pampanito lurked around the Pacific, earning six battle stars while its crew dealt with the heat, cramped quarters, and lack of showers. How much do we owe that crew, along with all of the other men and women who have served over the last 250 years? Everything. We owe them everything.
Another military relic resides not two miles from the USS Pampanito, though we tend to overlook its military history: Alcatraz Island, purchased by the US government in 1846 for $5,000. As Fortress Alcatraz, the only real action it saw was during the Civil War. That’s right: This little island in the San Francisco Bay served as an arsenal during the war between the states, and also as a prison for Confederate sympathizers and privateers. From there the leap to full blown military prison seemed natural.
The ferry ride to Alcatraz Island offers some of the most beautiful views of the Bay you can imagine, from the stunning San Francisco skyline to the Bay and Golden Gate bridges to the sailboats and sea lions playing in the currents. The huge ferry boats that run between Pier 33 and the island mask the treachery of the swift currents and icy water.
That natural barrier is what made the island so attractive as the prison within the prison system. From 1934 to 1963 if you were too much to handle anywhere else in the federal prison system, you were shipped off to The Rock.
The thing about visiting Alcatraz as a tourist, though, is that it sneaked up on me. A boat dropped me off in the middle of the Bay and I was free to explore, to head down to the former parade grounds that now serve as a protected nesting ground, over to the remains of the old laundry overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, all around the old ruins.
Out on the exercise yard it hit me: When does the ferry leave? Only 1.5 miles separate The Rock from the mainland, but damned if I can swim them. I was stuck until I could catch a boat, but at least I could catch a boat. And I could step to the other side of the wall, too.
The symbolism of birds became clear. Birds come and go as they please, no walls, no ferries. No wonder notorious criminal Robert Stroud reinvented himself as the Birdman of Alcatraz.
I couldn’t help but imagine the noise, the joy, the lights: The excitement of Independence Day fireworks erupting over a city so close yet so far away. That was the real dastardly torture of Alcatraz—the constant reminders of freedoms lost, ringing from the other side of the Bay.
Do you know a better way to end a day trip adventure than overlooking the San Francisco Bay with a shrimp cocktail and a Cayman Jack margarita? Me either. Enjoy a drink and your freedoms. You deserve them both.
—all photos courtesy of the author