Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Presidio: military history and graveyards

Sunday February 9 (Part Three)

The tour bus can drop me back at the hotel, but I’m not about to go back to my self-imposed prison while the sun is up. Especially when it's my longed-for Californian sunshine. Instead, I vaguely plan to explore the Presidio, an old military base that is now a National Park, and its own lawn-covered district overlooking the bay.

The Presidio, like the city itself, has a rich history. It became a Spanish military base in 1776, then belonged to the Mexicans after 1822, when Mexico won the territory from Spain (along with the rest of California as well as contemporary Mexico). In 1846, the United States took over the territory, and the Presidio became a US military base, where it was headquarters for Pacific operations during World War II. It became a National Park in 1994; its buildings now used for a variety of purposes, from the community arts centre at Fort Mason, to George Lucas’s headquarters for (his special effects company) Industrial Light and Magic in another set of buildings, and a tourist information centre and café in another – the former Officers’ Club.

Quite apart from the historical interest, the district boasts a handy walking trail and magnificent views. I enter from the border of Pacific Heights and Marina, where a laminated sign and map greet me: ‘Welcome to the Presidio’. I walk by a series of red-rooved white stucco buildings, through a stretch of park navigated by a thirsty-looking creek marked by a sign: ‘Recycled Water’. A group of teenagers sit atop a cluster of grey boulders by the creek, shouting excitedly as they share a picnic lunch.

Soon, predictably, I am lost. I want to see the military cemetery I passed in the tour bus earlier, so I’ve made that my goal, my destination. I’ll see what I see along the way. The cemetery looked spectacular from the road: a forested hillside lined with identically sized white tablets, the sunlight reflecting off them through the trees.

I stand atop a hill, frowning at the latest tourist map I’ve picked up. It folds out to poster size, and I have it fully unfolded, turning it one way, then back, looking for both where I am and where I’m going. A passerby, a young guy with a Northern accent (ie. not Californian, not New York, not Midwestern), stops to help. He’s probably my age, in jeans, a black band t-shirt and jacket, and a beanie with sunglasses. Maybe Seattle? He looks like he could have auditioned for Pearl Jam or Nirvana.
‘Where are you going?’ he asks.
I tell him I’m looking for the cemetery.
‘Hmmm. I’ve just moved here, so I’m not sure but …’
He looks at the map with me, standing beside me to see what I see.
‘Ohhhh, here. If you follow Lincoln you’ll find this Visitor’s Centre.’ He points. ‘They’ll have a better map for you. And it looks like the right direction.’
I thank him.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Well, have fun.’

A few steps on, I’m feeling lost again. I pick my way through the soggy grass, taking a shortcut, then to stone steps that lead to another pathway, a likely-looking one. I pass a row of tall eucalypts on the way. Gumnuts litter the ground, along with fallen leaves of varying shades. I smell them like I’ve never really smelt eucalypts before, in Australia. At home, they’re just normal. Here, they’re like a letter from home. I bend to inhale them. When I straighten, I see two middle-aged women in sweatshirts, jeans and sneakers heading my way.
‘Excuse me’ I start.
They look a little annoyed at being interrupted.
‘Um, I’m wondering where I am and if I’m going the right way.’
‘Well, where are you going?’ snaps one of them, trying but barely managing to be polite.
‘To the cemetry.’
‘Ah, you’re fine. Just keep going! Bye.’
And they gratefully walk on.

Of course, I quickly wander off my path again, but it’s okay. I find other treasures I wasn’t looking for. Plaques along the path telling the history of the Presidio, including one marking the site of the original Spanish Presidio. This walled-in cluster of buildings served as the northernmost outpost of Spain’s New World colonies for almost fifty years. It was from this spot – and Mission Dolores, a church still standing three miles away (appropriately, in the Mission district) – that the city of San Francisco was built. I stumble across a beautiful old chapel (or, at least, one built to look old) next to the site of the original chapel, in the process of being excavated. And the views …

The forest I’m drinking in was planted by the US military in the late 1880s. It’s hard to imagine a government or military planting a forest in the midst of a city today. The forest, which grew from 400,000 seedlings of eucalyptus, cypress and pine, was intended to provide contrast between city and military post. Formerly, the windswept area was covered in scrubland and sand dunes. Eighty-nine per cent of the Presidio is open space. It’s odd to think that this wealth of public space and natural beauty is here as a result of the area’s long military history.

Finally, the Visitor’s Centre. I try to remember why I’m looking for it, then realise I don’t really need another map (though a lesson in reading them may be another matter!) Oh well. By now, I’m interested in seeing what’s there, anyway. There’s an exhibition centre, more historical information, the promised map (which is really very good), free information booklets. Some really very tasteful souvenirs, including some art deco prints of San Francisco. And some fascinating books. I consciously decide NOT to browse. Free stuff in hand, new map in jeans pocket, off I go …

I must be doing something right, because I am asked for directions a few times. (‘They think I’m a local’ I beam to myself.) A few times, I’m actually able to help. Maybe it’s my new purposeful stride. Well, if there’s one thing I know, it’s navigating a city on foot. I am utterly seduced by the sunshine, the hills, the ocean below, the glimpse of The Bridge. Even the angles of light are impressive.

At the cemetery, I realise that I just wanted to see it up close, not wander the graves. I am alone, it’s deserted – and I only have today to see the city. I venture through the gates a little way, then turn back and stand admiring it from the outside. It really is a beautiful sight. All those symmetrical white gravestones illuminated by the sun, lined up along the grassy hillside beneath a canopy of pine trees. It’s like a giant has sown a vast field of teeth in the forest. While I am admiring the graves, a car pulls up and a pair of blondes in big sunglasses ask me the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. Maybe they think I’m pondering a dead relative.

This is the only cemetery within San Francisco’s city limits, due to the high value of real estate here. San Francisco’s major cemetery is in Como, a nearby small town. Approximately 2500 people live in Como; a million or more are buried there. The local police cars bear bumper stickers that read: ‘It’s nice to be alive in Como’.

Confidence blazing, basking in the warmth and sunlight, I stride my way into … getting lost again. This time, I misread the map and veer off the walking path that leads back to the waterfront, and onto the main road. All of a sudden, there is not only no walking trail, but no footpath. I am edging along the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere – at least no houses, no shops, no casual passersby – wondering how to find safe ground again. Cyclists and the occasional car clip by. The abundance of nature is no longer soothing, but slightly confronting. Finally, I come to a corner where a bus stop materialises, outside what looks like a gated community. Seemingly out of nowhere, a woman appears and stands beside me. I ask her if she knows how to get back to a footpath, but she looks annoyed.
‘I’m just catching the bus,’ she says, in a heavy French accent.
I stand and examine my map. When I look up, she has disappeared. A sixtyish man in a polo shirt tucked into casual trousers trails past the ‘residential area’ sign and stops near me. I try him. He is visiting, but looks at the map and tries to help me nonetheless. He says he had the same problem earlier, where the footpath suddenly disappeared on him. We work out where I can go, through the stables across the road and over another road to Crissy Field, and Golden Gate Promenade. He wishes me luck as I leave. The bus pulls up, and the French woman unexpectedly reappears from the bushes.

At the stables, a lone mother and son are squabbling about the son’s proximity to the horses. The smell of horse manure mingles with the scent of eucalyptus. Dirt gives way to ankle-deep flowering bushes, a field of them separating me from the road. A path winds its way through them, but only wide enough for one foot. I trudge through, one foot in the bushes and the other in the path, until finally I’m back on track.

I have reached a bizarrely formal pet cemetery, located under the freeway and marked by a small wooden sign. Once again, it is strangely beautiful in the shifting sunlight, with its tiny handwritten stones and snarl of wildflowers. It turns out that this is where military families buried their pets. Another sign reads: ‘The love these animals gave will never die’. Mostly cats and dogs are buried here, but also a few goldfish, iguana and parakeets.

The path across the road, at Crissy Fields, leads to Fort Point, at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. Cyclists, joggers, tourists, families savouring the last of the weekend: it seems that half of San Francisco is here. It doesn’t feel crowded though; it feels pleasantly companionable. Soon I hit a beach, along with public toilets (hooray!) and the Warming Hut Café and Visitors Centre. (Coffee, I think.) It turns out that the Warming Hut has burnt down, so instead of drinking coffee and eating my first food of the day as planned, I walk the jetty awhile and then settle on a stone wall along the sea, admiring the views (the bay! the city skyline! the bridge!). Couples walk hand in hand or picnic on the sand, children wade in the shallows, and an intrepid few surfers are in the waves, minimal though they look.

I’m too tired to walk to Fort Point. Instead, I hook up my iPod (for the first time this trip), firmly put away my camera, and decide to enjoy the scene like a local on my way back to the Marina, and the bus back to the hotel. I only break the rules and pull out my camera a very few times.

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