one can argue that american cities by and large are all the same, but when i see palm trees i know i'm on the west coast. as any new england gardeners will know, boston is in frost zone 5 (or even lower, depending on how freezing occurs in our coldest season) but in san francisco it's zone 9, the same as florida and the texas gulf coast. you can say it's downright tropical if it wasn't so dry during the summers. this warmer climate means greater biodiversity, and i'm seeing plants growing here outdoors that would never survive the new england weather, much less the winter. plants that need to be carefully nurtured with artificial lights and nutrient supplements back at home grow like weeds here in san francisco (i'm looking at you, jade plant!).
walking down 14th street i smelled osmanthus before i could even see them. the whole street was lined with these trees, which i've only ever seen growing in small pots back at home. the scent of osmanthus can be overwhelming and they start to given off a slight stink like rotten fruit once they finish blooming. there was another interesting tree, had wispy red flowers that resembled silk tree blossoms but the leaves were different.
the alamo car rental office was below the bridge of the interstate 110 onramp. they seemed to be in partnership with national car rental as well, which shared the same office space. there was nobody there when i arrived. a man was making coffee in the employee lounge and told me somebody would be right out to help me. the person who finally did help me was a real character. he seemed so overly nice that being i'm from new england, i immediately found it funny, like this was all an act he did for customers. he made me sign a bunch of consent forms, and tried to get me to upgrade. "we have a miata convertible, if you're interested." at $65/day, it was a little bit out of my price range. "how about a GPS? we can provide one for a fee." i told him i brought my own. we ran into a snag when i tried to pay, they don't normally accept debit cards, but because i had my flight itinerary with me, that was proof enough that i wasn't just going to rent the car and not return it.
"we have a prius for you today," the man told me. i paused. the car i rented was a chevy aveo, the cheapest one in their fleet, for $27/day. i'd never even heard of the aveo before. i said nothing, hoping that they made a mistake. what probably happened is their aveo wasn't available, and they just automatically upgraded me to the next available vehicle, for the same rental price. so i lucked out, because not only was i getting a better car, but since it was a hybrid, i'd save on gas money as well. the guy showed me how to start the car (it doesn't use a key, there's actually a power button instead) and waved me good bye as i slowly left the parking lot. i'd only been in a prius one time in my life (as a backseat passenger), so i was excited to be able to drive one. too excited actually, because i was already nervous about renting a car (never done that before), but with all the digital bells and whistles of the prius, it took a lot of test driving before i could get my bearing. by that point i'd already attached the GPS to the windshield, but was seriously disregarding its directions, while it kept on calculating a new route.
getting absolutely lost in san francisco is a good way to see the city. with the garmin GPS as my co-pilot, i had no worries though. i finally got a sense of how hilly the city was, climbing up one hill before reaching the summit followed by a scary sloped descent. we don't have hills like these back in boston. in fact, if we did, they'd be death traps during the winter with all that snow and ice. i made my way north via van ness avenue towards the golden gate bridge. the problem with sightseeing while driving is you really can't do too much of it. and being that i was a new driver in a strange town, i had to focus more on my driving than my sightseeing. i basically saw a lot of stuff, but very quickly and in passing. i was tempted to pull out my camera and take some snapshots but a little voice inside told me that was probably a very dangerous idea.
i was making my way to muir woods, just 12 miles north of san francisco. it took a bit longer because i got lost and ended up driving through a hilly residential area along the panoramic highway. i saw some amazing houses with even more amazing views. the windy road did make me a little car sick though (i started to get a headache). by the time i finally made it to muir woods, it was close to noontime. after purchasing my ticket ($5/adult), i ate my turkey sandwich outside before heading into the woods. i noticed i didn't get any reception on my cellphone, but forgot to turn it off. i'd contacted my grandmother (who lives in freemont) earlier about meeting up sometime this week, but now i wasn't able to get in touch with her.
muir woods is famous for the several hundred acres of old growth coastal redwoods trees. because of its close proximity to the city, it's also a bit of a tourist trap, and there are many bus tours that combine a day trip to muir woods along with a stop to nearby sausalito. i of course was here for the trees, never actually having seen a full-grown redwood tree before. the first i noticed was how cool and damp it was beneath the forest floor. there wasn't any fog, but it was chilly enough that i could see my breath (probably around 50+ degrees). seeing the redwoods for the first time i couldn't help but feel impressed by how large and tall they were, but after spending a few hours in the woods, they started to become ordinary. they were also impossible to photograph correctly, and i don't think a picture or a video could properly convey the scale of these trees. it's just one of those things you have to experience for yourself in person. most of the mature redwoods are between 800-1000 years old, and the tallest tree stands at 252 feet (that's about a 25 story building). redwoods get so huge for a variety of reasons: they're fast growing, they have thick barks that are resistant to forest fires, and they live for a long time.
most people will appreciate the large trees growing in muir woods, but i'm a fan of the little things as well. below the redwoods live shady vegetation like ferns and moss. there were also a lot of these clover-looking-things, but were in fact indigenous redwood sorrels, with their purple hairy veiny underleaf and pink flowers. in order to avoid the crowd, i veered off of the main trail and headed upwards along the hillside trail. there, along the side of the path, were all sorts of trilliums in various colors. i also spotted a lot of plants they reminded me of ladyslippers but with just a pair of juicy leaves. i eventually found the flowers that went with these plants, the fetid adder's tongue. i thought they might've been orchids they're actually a variety of lily.
i finally left the woods around 3:00, but not before taking a peek at the extensive gift shop. i was tempted to buy a redwood seedling for $7 but didn't think i could properly take care of it for the next 1000 years. there was a lot of trinkets made from redwood trees, which i thought was kind of grisly in a weird way: it'd be like selling ivory jewelry at an elephant preserve. i couldn't resist though, and ended up buy some redwood incense, so i smell these magnificent trees even back home in cambridge.
i had a conundrum: it was still early enough that i didn't want to return to the city, but late enough to make me reconsider the idea of driving out any further to visit more nature places. within the start of daylight saving time just last weekend, i figured sunset wouldn't be until well past 7:00 so decided to gamble and try for someplace else. that place was point reyes national seashore, about 30 miles north of where i was. the GPS recommended route 1 so that's the road i took. however, the GPS never warned me how windy it was as it snaked along coastal mountain paths. breathtakingly beautiful, yes, not giving me a carsick-inducing headache, no. i basically bare-knuckled the steering wheel, breaking for every turn for fear of driving off the cliff and into the pacific ocean.
i made it to point reyes' bear valley visitor center by 4:30. if i didn't get cellphone reception at muir woods, then i wouldn't get any here either. and because i forgot to turn off the cellphone, my battery was nearly drained. calling my grandmother back would have to wait. i wasn't planning on doing any naturing, just wanted to get some information, maybe come back tomorrow or the next the day for a full day's worth of exploring. i spoke with the ranger who told me they basically don't have any closing hours in the park, and that i could go explore however long i wanted. looking at my watch and seeing that i still had a few hours before sunset, i decided to do a spot of naturing after all. the destination was chimney rock, a little piece of land that stuck out from point reyes where people can see elephant seals and if they're lucky, migrating whales as well. i wasn't prepared to as just how large point reyes was, until the ranger told me it was about a 40 minute drive to get to chimney rock. i got back into the prius and started driving.
essentially i was driving down sir francis drake boulevard until i got to the very end. i thought maybe i'd be driving through miles of forests and marshlands but i was surprised to see so many cattle farms. eventually i made it to the chimney rock parking lot at around 5:20. from there i could see a lifeboat station (now used as a visitor center during the busier time of the season) and a promising short pathway that led downwards to "marine mammals." it was pretty windy out there on the peninsula but fortunately i had two layers of jacket to keep me warm. i walked down to the elephant seal overlook and i could hear and smell them before actually seeing them. they made awful muffled moaning noises and it smelled like the zoo (i was directly downwind from them). i couldn't quite make out what kind of seals they were (if i didn't already read the sign that specifically mentioned "elephant seals") until i saw a large adult with the unmistakeable bulbous snout of an elephant seal. i decided right then and there that they weren't my favorite kind of seals.
surf scoter (f)
on the water were also numerous sea birds. unfortunately they were too far away with poor lighting for my telephoto lens to get any good pictures.
walking back to the parking lot i noticed some wildflowers along the grassy slope. still too early in the season, this place must be covered in colors once all the flowers start blooming. from the lot there was another path that went up a hill and disappeared. i decided to follow it and see what was on the other side. by then there was only one other car left besides mine.
the view from this side once i reached the summit was far more spectacular, with the setting sun casting a golden hue along the sandy cliffs. in the sky, turkey vultures swooped down dangerously low looking for food. down below the cliffs, more elephant seals were basking in the sun. these ones were much more quiet and didn't smell.
going around to the other side of the curved cliff for a better view of the elephant seals, i came across a herd of black-tailed deers. they were sufficiently wild that my presence made them nervous and the whole group pranced away until i couldn't see them anymore. i could've stayed there longer but i was hungry and wanted to get back to somewhere that had cellphone reception again. i returned to the parking lot and used the bathroom before driving back the 40 minute stretch of road out of point reyes and then about 30 minutes to the city. somewhere along the road in point reyes i saw from a distance what looked to be a deer walking down the road. as i got closer, i noticed it wasn't running away and that it didn't have the characteristic long deer neck. this that a dog? turns out it was a coyote. just last week i heard that coyote lecture, and remembered it's not uncommon for coyotes to use the roads to commute. also thing is they're often not afraid of cars. i stopped the car and took a few snapshots with my camera before i saw a car come up behind me. the coyote got tired of all the unwanted attention and made a detour off of the road.
entering jesse's address into the GPS, i was a little bit displeased that it was giving me a return route that involved traveling the windy route 1 again. but since the GPS was my sole navigator (i didn't even bring any road maps with me), i had no choice but to follow. it must've been a slightly direct route because i didn't go back the same way that i arrived. at one point i drove a grove of redwoods that were so tall that it blocked out the sky and i felt like i was traveling through a primordial forest. recrossing the golden gate bridge, i had to pay the $6 return toll fee.
i finally made it back to jesse's place by 8:30. there was a message from my grandmother on my cellphone, inviting me over to her place for dinner. i called her back to explain what happened today. "it's too late now, it's too late for you to come over for dinner!" my grandmother exclaimed. we arranged for me to visit her thursday morning for lunch.
jesse already ate, so i went out on my own looking for some dinner. my lonely planet encounter guidebook recommended a taiwanese place in the avenues district on clement street. for whatever reason (maybe proximity to the university of san francisco), here was a little chinatown in the middle of "nowhere." here was what i was looking for when i walked around chinatown on my first day in san francisco: an eclectic collection of asian eateries and shops. besides chinese, i saw some vietnamese and even a burmese joint. there were also non-asian restaurants and a few noisy bars, as well a crepe shop that was surprisingly crowded for some reason. as for taiwan (the name of the restaurant), i figured since we're on the west coast and closer to asia, they must have some pretty authentic taiwanese dishes. although my guidebook said they closes at 10:00, they in fact close at 9:30. i got there at 9:20 and asked if i could still order something for takeout. "do you have any smelly tofu?" i asked the waiter. he said they didn't. "you don't because you're all sold out or you don't because you don't have it on your menu?" he said it was because they don't sell it. when it comes to chinese food i can be a bit of a snob because i have a better idea of what's good and bad. so for a supposedly taiwanese restaurant that doesn't carry smelly tofu is a very big negative. i also noticed the people who work there didn't have taiwanese accents. i ended up ordering the beef noodle soup and brought it back to the apartment (along with some boba thai ice tea from a shop down the street). i wouldn't say it was awful, but it was the blandest beef noodle soup i've ever had in my life. i would not recommend taiwan.