When the subject of living in the San Francisco area comes up, it’s pretty much a given that two points will be made within the first minute. One, how loveable the city is. I’m not exactly sure what the common denominator is to the universal appeal of San Fran, but my hunch is it has nothing to do with anything related to the people or culture, the history of the place or things the inhabitants have put in place here. There’s plenty of color in all of that, but that’s still not it. It’s just simply the place itself, the where of San Francisco. If you ask me, you could not select a more unlikely patch of land upon which to build a city of almost one million people. The hills of San Francisco are insane, insanely steep, that is. That we clever monkeys went ahead anyway and built a city upon them, despite the nausea inducing declines you experience driving around, the aerobically challenging demands of walking from point A to B, the wickedly devious nature of the microclimactic weather patterns created by the confluence of these hills, that ocean, and the vast central valley to the east—this in my mind is the basis of the charm that is San Francisco.
I love the idea of going back in time to an imagined moment when two discoverers stood atop one such hill, looking all around, and the one guy says, “It is here! Here we shall build a city in which verily one million people shall live!” And the other guy, taking in the same view, says, “Are you fucking daft?”
The second point, of course, is how bloody expensive it is to live here. And that just is what it is, and every one of us who chooses to live here is at fault for that fact. But consider these numbers: Los Angeles is composed of 503 square miles. Manhattan? 304. Chicago—234. San Francisco? 47. Forty-seven measly square miles! That pretty much means if someone sneezes in Potrero Hill, someone in the Outer Sunset says, “Gesundheit.” The cost of this place is the simplest and harshest reality that can be supply and demand.
I’ve always had one rebuttal to the complaints that come up around the cost of living here, and it’s this: arguably one of the greatest things about living in San Francisco is something that is immediately available to everyone, includes truly exceptional experiences of an almost one-in-a-kind nature for our country, and doesn’t cost a nickel: we are surrounded here by a ridiculous wealth of natural beauty that is free for the taking in to all. And you can escape the urban grip of this place and access that natural beauty literally in minutes. Downtown San Fran to the nearest beach? Two miles. Downtown to standing in the majesty of a redwood forest? Half an hour. You don’t even need to leave the city, for that matter, to get lost in nature, given the nooks, crannies, and expanses of Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, or Lands End. You live here and don’t take advantage of these things? I must ask you the proverbial, wtf? This also explains why Manhattan transfers to our city are almost always underwhelmed. New Yorkers don’t know diddly about escaping a city for natural beauty, or doing it as part of a regular lifestyle.
They also can’t get over the fact that you can’t get Indian takeout at 2am. Whatev.
One of my personal favorite escapes in this area is not so much a place but a way: Highway 280. (If you’re a local I bet a small smile just crept upon your face.) 280 is this sublime “highway in the sky” that represents one of two options for the north/south traveler along the peninsula, the other being 101. Talk about a tale of two cities: it is almost unimaginable the extent of the differences in experiences to be had traveling these two highways, made all the more remarkable by the fact that they coexist all of about 1-2 miles apart in their runs up and down the peninsula.
101, simply speaking, is god awful, a true ghetto of a highway, a triumph of function’s oppression over form, a grinding slog through endless commercial parks that took their aesthetic inspiration from Legos and fired their maintenance crews years ago, a suburban set piece for Bladerunner that didn’t make the final cut. I remember driving 101 for the first time in 1997, feeling caught up in some falsified-moon-landing surreality and thinking, this is Silicon Valley??
280,on the other hand…aah, 280! It’s not so much a highway as a gently undulating ribbon in the sky, dipping and soaring alongside the pristine forests of the Santa Cruz mountain range to the west. The sky arcs azure over 280, the clouds, they scuddle gently overhead. While your sightlines on 101 are mostly restricted to the rear ends and tail lights of the many cars which entrap you, on 280 you are afforded expansive views of the road playing out ahead, of the shimmering waters of Crystal Spring Reservoir, the hillside forests to the west unmarred by even an instance of development, tendrils of Pacific fog often creeping finger-like over the crest. And when the area’s technological heart reveals itself, it does so in quiet yet monumental fashion via Stanford’s iconic radio telescope, lovingly referred to as The Dish. Heck, 280 even affords a few moments of unexpected whimsy along the way, what with the “Flintstones House” in Hillsborough, and just a bit further north, the perfectly goofy “First Down Father Junipero Serra” statue. Simply put, 280 is a priceless and largely unheralded gem for commuters here in the wise.
Perhaps the best part of all of these enchanting escapes from San Francisco (warning: blatantly boosterish ending fast approaching)? Is that, when they’re over, you’re back in San Francisco.