A few years ago my wife Kennon and I were sitting with a group of fellow pilgrims at an outdoor pub in Glendalough, Ireland. One of our colleagues posed this question, “If you could travel to anywhere in the world, where would you go?”
The answers were exotic: Kauai, Edinburgh, Rome, Jerusalem, Marbella, Caribbean beaches, Kenya for a safari, Tahiti, Pukhet in Thailand and Goa in India. My answer was San Francisco. Why, Kennon asked, with the entire world to choose from, would I return to a place so familiar?
The answer is best expressed in this passage from my journal, written in 2011:
“When I visit San Francisco— when I return ‘home’— a vibrant energy fills and buoys my body, mind and spirit. All of my senses come alive as I immerse myself in The City’s eclectic mix of people, places, life styles, vehicles, sounds, smells, weather, and activities.
“I love the hustle-bustle and polite jumble on the sidewalks: tourists craning their necks to see the sights, business people heading to the office, food carts selling hot dogs and pretzels, street people seeking a place of shelter, and wanderers like me.
“The mixture of sounds and the blend of smells entice me–––voices speaking different languages, cable cars clanging, sea gulls squawking, traffic grinding, street merchants hawking; outdoor restaurants, fresh-baked sour dough bread, sea air, garlic in North Beach and the pungency of China Town, crabs boiling in pots at the wharf and hot dogs at the ballpark.
“I grew up in the Bay Area and now live near my grandchildren in the mountains of western North Carolina. As beautiful as it is there, I have a vague feeling of claustrophobia… of being closed in without horizons. When I am in San Francisco I feel the openness: a high blue sky (after the fog burns off) and the ocean horizons that I sense in my body even when walking amidst sky-scrapping buildings. I love climbing the hills through diverse neighborhoods, every now and then catching a glimpse of the bay and the majestic Golden Gate.
“Traveling itself gives me energy; taking to the road stimulates something in my genes. But the feeling I have when I arrive in San Francisco is different and deeper. I am nourished at the soul level.
“As I write these words in my journal I am literally (to paraphrase Otis Redding) ‘sitting in the morning sun, watching the ships roll in… just sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away…”
I know that San Francisco is beset with big-city problems. Travel + Leisure magazine rated it the 12th dirtiest city in the USA. There are too many food wrappers and other wind-blown trash littering the streets and sidewalks.
On the other hand, It should be noted that San Francisco is a national leader in recycling, was the first city in the nation to ban plastic bags, and is in the “top 10” American cities for environmental friendliness and quality of life. Travel + Leisure readers rated The City high in diversity, ethnic food, coffee, scenic neighborhoods and views.
I visit there four times a year to attend meetings of the United Religions Initiative (and to take in a couple of baseball games). I spend much of my non-meeting time — day and night— walking, meeting people in parks and squares, and exploring. I have never felt unsafe or hassled, I have never been treated rudely, and I always find a willing helper if I get lost.
I acknowledge that I love San Francisco, and like many lovers I don’t see the faults of my beloved in the way that others who are emotionally detached view them. And, my powers of reasoning are sometimes overruled by nostalgia. Even though Folgers and MJB no longer roast coffee south of the Bay Bridge, in my imagination I still smell the deep, rich aroma of roasters every time I walk under the bridge on my way from the ballpark toward the Ferry Building.
Most of the jazz and folk music establishments (such as the Matador, Hungry Eye, Velvet Lounge, Jazz Workshop, Purple Onion and various coffee houses) that once dominated North Beach are no longer there. But I can hear in my mind the sounds of Thelonious Monk, Mose Allison, Pete Seeger, The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, Barbra Streisand, and The Limelighters when I am making my way to a restaurant on Columbus.
My visits to San Francisco are part reality, part myth and part memory… but they are always refreshing–––and I am returning in May with my wife, daughter and three grandsons to take part in the oldest consecutively run yearly footrace in the world, the Bay to Breakers.