Going the Wrong Way on the Golden Gate Bridge
An excerpt from My Year in California
Ingrid Hart sensed a big change when her two college-bound children grew up and left their home outside of Sacramento. So she packed up her belongings and took off in her Lexus coupe for a one-year journey across the big state of California. I met her just before she was to make this big journey, and she showed me a gigantic map on her wall with push-pins showing twelve places she would live during the following year. “And I’m going to write a book about it,” she said.
The resulting book, My Year in California, takes the reader to twelve cities where Ingrid became a part of the community, from Arcata and Cedarville in the far north, to Palm Springs and beautiful San Diego in the south. In each chapter we get a glimpse of her life and how she reaches out and meets people in each place, facing the same challenge of belonging every time she uproots herself. Yet she carries on, continuing to move to somewhere completely new and undiscovered. It’s like the ultimate road trip, a year long.
More impressive still is the body of water that the Golden Gate Bridge spans: San Francisco Bay, one of the grandest mingling of fresh and salt water in the United States. An astonishing forty percent of all water from California flows into this estuary. It is a crucial bird habitat and a vital fishery.
The day I decided to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge was clear and crisp—fifty degrees. I was wearing my I’m So San Francisco black leather jacket, along with a bright pink scarf and my blue traveling hat.
It was noisy and loud. An endless river of cars zipped by at forty-five miles per hour over metal rivets that held the bridge together. The cars generated their own current, so when a big-rig truck drove by, the gust of wind it stirred made me crawl out of my skin. There was no place to absorb the steel vibration, so it sounded tinny—like the crackling static of a radio when it’s not dialed in to the station. My ears were ringing.
I’m one of these people who cover their ears when a siren-blaring fire truck speeds by. I unplug a refrigerator so I don’t have tohear the fan and write myself a reminder note to plug it back in when I leave the room.
If there is a television on while I’m conversing with someone, I’ll either ask that person to turn it off, or I’ll leave the room. I hate unnatural sound. It causes me great anxiety. So this rite of passage, walking across a noisy bridge, was harsh and brutal, and I could not wait to finish.
I stopped halfway across and looked back at the San Francisco skyline, peering through orange-colored cable lines the size of a weightlifter’s thighs. This perspective reminded me why San Francisco is the most charming city on the planet. It’s the very best of a human-made world, set in a glorious landscape of immense beauty. This artistic contrast elevates both humanity and the natural world to a new level, creating a sense of possibility.
It’s no wonder that San Francisco is the most liberal city in California. As I looked at Coit Tower, framed by the Bay Bridge, my heart said yes. When I saw the Ferry Building flanked by the Transamerica Pyramid building, and turn-of-the-century Victorian homes, my spirit said yes!
The enormity of the bay, with its endless marine water just two hundred and twenty-two feet below, filled both my heart and spirit with a passionate, resounding sense of pride. I wanted to pump my fist in the air and scream yes, yes, yes!
I looked toward the ocean and marveled at how many ships in the Gold Rush era had come through here. Each person on board held hope in their heart that they might strike it rich in the California mines. The truth is, I was no different than any of those 49ers.
I too wanted to strike it rich, but in a new way. Instead of finding California gold, I wanted to discover who I might be after finishing my California journey. Now that was something I could eventually deposit into a savings account to collect interest. One day, like a gold miner, I would extract the resources and become rich.
As I relaxed my nerves a bit and softened my gaze, I saw something that made me cringe—the San Francisco sign, on the other side of the bridge. No pedestrians were allowed on that side of the bridge— it was for bicyclists only, with warning signs posted everywhere.
I didn’t really want to walk on the bicycle-only side of the bridge, but I knew that if I didn’t get the picture of myself in front of the San Francisco sign, my collection of city signs would be incomplete.
My goal was to write a book about California. I knew that the book would feature a picture of me in front of each city sign. Even though San Francisco was only the fourth city on my journey, and I didn’t even really know if I would finish, it felt like the least I could do was to execute this small task of taking a picture in front of the city sign.
I felt that this one action would affirm my goal of living in one California city per month for a year, after which I’d write a book about the experience. I didn’t feel like it was a big thing to ask of myself. Yet at the same time, if I didn’t do it, my resolve to complete the journey would weaken, and I wanted to remain strong in my commitment to see this thing through.
I continued walking north and finally found myself on terra firma in Marin County. Once there, I took the stairs down to the underpass that led to the bicycle-only side of the bridge.
Reluctantly, I began to walk the half-mile from Marin County back to San Francisco to take the picture. As I began walking across the bridge the bicyclists at first were kind, gently reminding me that these lanes were “for bikers only” as if I were a wayward duck, lost from its mother.
Then whatever kindness they had in their hearts, quickly turned to agitation.
“Hey, you’re going the wrong way.”
I half-smiled and shrugged my shoulders.
The closer I got to the sign, the meaner they became. The ones in neon shirts and black shorts were downright surly, voicing their disapproval.
“Wrong way, asshole!”
You’re gonna get yourself killed.”
I kept on repeating I know. I know. I know.
Bicyclists were dodging me Matrix-style. I felt like a contortionist, bending and twisting so I wouldn’t get hit by these spandex-clad Kamikaze bikers, hell-bent on terrorizing me into submission, hauling ass to wherever they were going.
Finally I pulled my hat down over my watering eyes, tucked my freezing hands into my black leather jacket, and never made eye contact again. After a while, it became a suicidal game of me and the pissed-off bikers. By this point, it was almost a dare: Hit me if you want—I don’t care. I became single-minded and focused on my goal: Find the Sign.
As I continued walking toward the sign, it became self-evident that the reason I was pushing myself so hard had nothing to do with the stupid sign. This challenge was about a recommitment to the journey, at a high cost. I had the guts to do it. Then I would write a book it. People would read it and maybe take a risk that would change the trajectory of their lives.
I was risking my own life to save the life of someone else. In a way, I wasn’t doing this for myself at all, but to inspire others. I marveled at my courage and stupidity. The bikers were right—I was a traffic hazard. I hated myself for compromising their safety and my own. Still, I was breaking the law because I knew it was for a larger purpose, and I only had to play my part in it.
Sometimes, I thought, to arrive at a destination, one has to go against the traffic, paddle upstream, or struggle against the tide. In this instance, I had to walk on the bicycle-only side of the bridge with a heart full of shame for not following the rules of the road.
Sometimes one must endure the ridicule of those who would hurl piss and vinegar and call you a social deviant. Sometimes that’s the price of admission one must pay for having the audacity to do what it takes, to reach your goal.
It was out of the question to stop a biker and ask them to snap a picture of me, so I had to do it myself. The goal was to place the entire sign in the picture frame, with at least some part of me in the photograph. I was a bundle of nerves—my hands were shaking and my fingers felt thick, like they were all thumbs. It took me sixty-three times to get it right.
Victory doesn’t always look like a prom queen holding a bouquet of flowers waving to adoring fans. Sometimes it looks like a tear-stained face with a runny nose standing in front of a San Francisco City and County sign, smiling.
More stories by Ingrid Hart:
Latest posts by GoNomad (see all)
- Horses and Hills At Mammoth Lake in the Mountains of California - July 25, 2016
- The Sound of Good Fat: Macademia Nuts in Guatemala - July 24, 2016
- Tagong: The Wild West of Sichuan Province - July 23, 2016
- Cruising the Red Sea: Nose Jobs, Temples, and Ancient Egyptian Treasures - July 22, 2016
- Seattle Music, Dance and Theater Festivals - July 20, 2016