Hitching Across America — San Francisco

JournalTravel

Rule of Thumb — Part Four

Hitching across the United States, a very different kind of travel guide. Part Four.

It’s the Pacific, the Pacific and 80,000 miles of twined steel cable, painted red beside “the consequences of jumping from this bridge are tragic and fatal.” Below I watch the black shine of a seal swimming into the San Francisco Bay.

I walk the streets, looking for the members club of a friend I’m to meet. I ask a man, walking the same way. “Battery Street?”. He tells me two blocks, they’re big blocks and we’re walking the same way. We talk, he works in electronic signatures, tells me the tech bubble is back, that cranes have returned to the San Francisco skyline.

Inside we meet. My friend and her friends, tech darlings and PR. On the wall is an illuminated stencil, the club’s profile. “Hogwarts meets Victoria’s Secrets meets Guantanamo Bay.” Hundreds of men, whose only crime was to have a beard and be in Pakistan at the wrong time, have spent a decade incarcerated in the Caribbean so as to allow a few hundred luvvies feel that bit more edgy. I’m elsewhere from the conversation anyway, I’m present in body only, in my head I can still see Vietnam veterans begging in truck stops.

I walk to where I’m staying, Mission Street and 24th, a place they used to call Hepatitis Heights. Along the way I see the face of gentrification which, contrary to popular belief, is not so pretty at all, is no La Marzocco coffee machine. The face of gentrification is a Range Rover with the window smashed-in and broken glass on the parking space. Coffee and pastries are a vision of the gentrified, once the process is complete. In the Mission, it’s still underway. I smell onions, white-light hot dogs, the Mexican vendors throw jalapenos on the hot plate. Three dollars. I watch a homeless man crawl deeper into a sleeping bag, looking for warmth. An amputee with a please help cardboard sign rolls fast towards me in a rusty wheelchair. I dodge out of his way, watch miserably. Mustard is falling from my hot dog and on to my jacket.

Hitching Across America — San Francisco

Illustrations, Will Harvey

In the morning it’s lighter, the sun rises with dawn and San Fran sure is a looker. I realise happily that the world’s most technologically advanced city has fallen head-over-heels for the nineteenth-century bicycle. The buses are fitted with racks to carry bikes, the traffic lights on Valencia are programmed to a 13mph Green Wave that slows the cars and are timed perfectly to change at a bicycle’s speed. I smell sourdough, smell coffee roasting, bikes hanging from a rack outside the café, as cheeks rosy with the cold hold expensively curated American smiles.

I take it all in. It’s nice, all very tasteful, but I know where I really want to be. I walk, I always walk. I walk an hour and reach the start of the tourists. I walk an hour twenty , pass homeless man moved from Emporio Armani doorway. I walk an hour thirty and. Chinatoawn. Then there it is. Vesuvio. The only place this journey could rightfully end.

Kerouac Alley is the name of the street, Kerouac’s words on the floor outside, gold letters in the pavement. “The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great.” Kerouac wrote here, Burroughs and Ginsberg too, the bar’s menu is on the chalk board outside. “If you want food – bring your own.”

Ordinarily I’d want to keep Vesuvio as a secret for myself, but realistically I’m already a half century too late. Inside it’s quiet, with fewer than twenty drinkers. It’s calm, like a local bar, despite its history and downtown location. It’s worth a visit, I’d recommend going… only if you do venture inside, then leave your laptop, leave your phone. Don’t take photos, but use your eyes instead. Take a friend, or just your thoughts, if both are thin on the ground, don’t worry, buy a book. City Lights bookshop is just next door. They’ll have ten different volumes of On the Road from here to eternity. If that doesn’t work try paper and pen instead. Think of Kerouac, really, think of Kerouac. Do it properly, for more than a minute. For more than an hour. Think of Kerouac.

***

Documentary project postponed for twelve months, London home rented, Julian Sayarer – former world record holder of circumnavigation by bike, author of Life Cycles and devout consumerism antagonist – finds himself at a loose end in New York. A some time travel writer, Sayarer decides the best decision for his career is to hitchhike some 3,000 miles across the vast republic. As you do. New York to San Francisco: welcome to another side of America…

Hitching Across America — New York to San Francisco