San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge: Musings on Beauty & Death

July 30, 2009 by

North America

Editor’s Note: Tom Downs is the author of numerous guides to San Francisco, including his most recent Walking San Francisco: 30 Savvy Tours Exploring Steep Streets, Grand Hotels, Dive Bars, and Waterfront Parks.

When I was a kid I owned a book called This is San Francisco. It was essentially a child’s large-format guidebook to the city, with illustrations of cable cars, sea lions, Dungeness crabs, Chinatown, Willie Mays, and other highlights that, to most children and out-of-towners at least, sum up the city.

My awareness of the Golden Gate Bridge, its international orange towers disappearing into the oblivion of a July fog, began with this book. From that point on, even after I was grown and had my own apartment in the city, I tended to view San Francisco through vermilion orange–tinted glasses.

In another childhood memory, late one night on the way home from my grandmother’s house near Lone Mountain, my mother turned right instead of left on Park Presidio Blvd., and soon we were on Doyle Drive, heading for the bridge, and I recall feeling terrified. The thought of crossing the Golden Gate towards the pitch-black hills of the Marin Headlands was equivalent, in my semi-urban young mind, to drifting into the back of beyond.

Bridges are meant to be crossed

I eventually grew more adventurous and spent a lot of time walking and hiking in the city and around the bay. I’ve even camped at Kirby Cove, on the Marin side of the Golden Gate, on murky nights haunted by fog horns moaning from the bridge as ships’ shadowy forms glided in and out of the bay. But somehow, until last week, I had never gotten around to traveling on foot from the Presidio to Marin County via the Golden Gate Bridge.

It had become a minor embarrassment to me. In the mid-’90s I once ventured partway across with my wife and our oldest daughter, who was then just big enough to walk if one of us held her hand. We made it to the first tower, had a look around, and turned back. But bridges are meant to be crossed, and I never felt this tentative early foray counted.

So, on an unusually sunny and cheerful Tuesday afternoon, I parked my car in the Presidio and set off on foot, with the intention of making it to the bridge’s other end. This I accomplished purposefully, pausing only once, midway across, to admire the view. Here I noticed a couple of things. One was that the view was somewhat underwhelming in the summer sun. The city skyline, more distant than long camera lenses suggest, was obscured in a smoggy haze, and although the sky was blue, everything else was a dull brown. Or so it appeared to me.

The other thing I noticed was that the water beneath the bridge, where the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay meet, is never calm. The water chops and eddies and looks somewhat menacing.

Undercurrents, wind, sharks, crabs all await

Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge naturally induces thoughts of death. I found myself contemplating the fact that so many people had jumped from spots between the bridge’s two towers. The water below appeared ever ready to receive the next broken victim, to suck him or her down to undercurrents which stream out to sea, where crabs and sharks await.

Fog, wind, choppy waters - SF's Golden Gate Bridge

As I held onto the rail and looked down, a gentle but steady breeze blew out and seemed to nudge me away from the source of these dark thoughts; and then, unexpectedly, the wind halted, and still resisting it I lurched forward a little. I’m wary of heights, and didn’t appreciate the wind’s capriciousness, so I stepped back and moved along. I made it to the Marin side, where there is a parking lot and an off-ramp leading to Sausalito, more than a mile away. I spun on my heels and moved quickly, finding the return trip to San Francisco a little redundant.

Golden Gate, Take 2

Afterward I sensed I hadn’t gotten the bridge quite right. So I returned the following Friday to walk it again. This time, I arrived earlier and had a few hours available. I parked in the same spot as before, down Lincoln Boulevard opposite a softball field. From halfway across town I had already observed the fog which hung down over the tops of the bridge’s two towers.

You might consider this poor timing, considering the entire bridge wasn’t even visible. But international orange is a color for foggy days. The color jumps out against the sky’s dull backdrop. So, in that sense, the bridge was more sharply visible to my eyes, and from my distant parking spot I already appreciated its intricate art deco lines and had no objection to the mysterious, disappearing tops, which I knew would emerge once the fog lifted.

I took my time getting to the bridge, detouring a few paces off the boulevard to inspect old military batteries, such as the Battery Boutelle, which hasn’t been in use since World War I. From here the Golden Gate – that’s to say, the narrow opening of the bay and the widening funnel of the sea cliffs that embraces the Pacific – comes fully into view.

Far to the right is Point Bonita, punctuated by its lighthouse in the Marin Headlands. To the left, the Cliff House marks Point Lobos on San Francisco’s coast. A red container ship passed beyond the points on its way out to sea just as another, nearly identical ship issued forth from beneath the bridge.

Suddenly it dawned on me that to experience the Golden Gate it is just as important to admire this rugged strait as it is to inspect the bridge and gaze upon the bay. Pedestrian traffic on the bridge is restricted to the walkway on the bay side, so to appreciate the ocean side, a hiker must venture over to these army battlements and follow the unpaved trail that leads from there to the bridge.

Hiking to the Golden Gate

The trail clings closely to the Presidio’s ragged cliffs and through terrain that’s currently undergoing dramatic upheaval as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area clears out Army landfill and nonnative plants. It isn’t pristine, but it doesn’t lack appeal. Here and there the trail affords stunning vantage points of the bridge, including a much-photographed angle from which the distant north tower appears to fit snugly within the south tower. From any angle the bridge is a majestic piece of engineering. What’s more, it is harmonious with its dramatic natural setting. It is as if the topography called for a visual tie-off, and the bridge’s builders did not fail their assignment.

The path soon dips beneath the bridge for an upclose look at its trussed and riveted underside, which is less artful than the towers and more representative of early 20th century engineering. You might spend a day simply marveling as the sheer enormity of the project, the ingenuity, the mind-boggling quantity of materials used in building this bridge, the number of men employed in its construction during the 1930s. The graceful timelessness of the towers may lead one to gloss over such statistics. But on the underside, an engineer might gladly bend your ear for an hour going over some of the more impressive particulars.

Having warmed up on the short nature hike, I reached the bridge’s walkway with my eyes keenly tuned for visual stimuli. I pondered a sign that mildly stated ANY PERSON WHO WILLFULLY DROPS OR THROWS AN OBJECT OR MISSILE FROM ANY TOLL BRIDGE IS GUILTY OF A MISDEMEANOR, and another sign signaling the location of a phone for crisis counseling. I watched a sea lion swimming with evident playfulness a few feet under the water’s surface, and a few pelicans coasting on loping wings beneath the bridge. Sailboats, cruising vessels, tankers, and tugs frequently traveled through the Gate’s narrow channel.

You’re not writing a suicide note, are you?

I wanted to live.

Yes, I wanted to live.

On the walkway countless couples strolled hand in hand, and I paused to take a photograph for a pair of happy tourists. The towers create sound barriers, offering respite from the bridge’s constant hush of traffic, and I stopped at the South Tower to inspect bronze plaques acknowledging the bosses of the men who hoisted the cables and poured the concrete and risked their lives for the sake of this bridge.

I paused again at the midway point, this time to jot down a few notes in my notebook, only to be interrupted when a concerned voice said “How we doing today, sir?” I looked up to see a CHP officer hunched on her bicycle. She followed up with, “You’re not writing a suicide note or anything like that, are you?”

I smiled sympathetically, and showed her I was merely recording my observations. She said she hoped she hadn’t offended me, then tried again: “Just thought I’d check on you. How’s everything going? It’s not the most beautiful day, is it?”

I assured her I wanted to live, and she pedaled off, still not completely convinced.

On the Marin side I continued down the road to Sausalito. It’s downhill the entire way, but there’s no sidewalk, and I trod along the shoulder and carefully manouvered around parked cars. Getting to Sausalito’s idyllic downtowntown doubles the length of the walk, and by the time I got there the restaurants appeared to be thoroughly infested with daytrippers in town for lunch.

However, I had packed my own sandwich, which I ate on a bench by the bay, and I enjoyed the early afternoon as the fog lifted and the sky brightened. I patiently waited for the ferry that would take me back to San Francisco, where I’d catch a bus to the bridge’s visitor parking lot, followed by a short stroll back to my car.

Tom Downs

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