Nowhere else is the up and down, both the ecstasy and agony, of the American experience so distilled as at and around San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Not at the staged, marbled Mall in Washington. Not at New York’s Statue of Liberty, unambiguously welcoming the world’s huddled masses longing to be free. Unlike these other iconic sites, the bridge and its surrounds speak to the lows as well as the highs of American life.
I moved to the Bay Area from Toronto five years ago, and have often had to show the bridge to visiting Canadian friends, pointing out where to capture that quintessential shot, what to do and eat nearby. This year, with the bridge turning 75 on May 27, there is a level of near-hysteria in the city. Big events are in the offing: a major fireworks display for the masses gathered on nearby Crissy Field on Sunday night; and for the elite, swanky 1930s-themed dinners at restaurants and the grand homes with a view of the bridge. Especially now, the walkway across is consistently jammed with people (and careening bikes), and all the purpose-built viewing areas are filled with photo-takers from around the world.
But there’s a quieter place to meet the bridge – and to get that key shot – away from the crowds and anniversary hoopla. Get onto one of the surprisingly unfrequented trails that wind along the Pacific coast, just southwest of the landmark – one leading through an abandoned Second World War bunker, past native shrubs and flowers, down to the ne plus ultra of photo sites, Marshall’s Beach. On a recent walk, I passed only three other people; the wild thyme scented the air; songbirds, dragonflies and a black bee, heavy with nectar, buzzed about; and a tailless lizard sunned itself on a sandy patch of the trail. On the beach, an avocet bobbed its long, curved beak into the sand as each wave receded, and from below more than from above, the full majesty of the bridge was apparent.
When the bridge was finished at the height of the Great Depression, it became the longest suspension bridge in the world. (It’s now No. 9.) I’m a dual American-Canadian citizen, and it has always moved my American half that at that moment in the nation’s history, various visionaries – most notably, its chief engineer, the irrepressible, hucksterish Joseph Strauss – could overcome so many financial, political and technical challenges to erect something so grand, stylish and useful. “At last the mighty task is done,” were Mr. Strauss’s simple, yet apt words on opening day. (While then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt got to push a button in the White House to officially open the bridge to traffic, it was built without federal money. And only 11 people died in the safety-conscious construction – far fewer than on other big contemporary projects and bridges.)But from the bridge, you can see two islands that speak to the underside of the American dream: Alcatraz and the less well-known Angel Island. The latter is sort of the inverse of the East Coast’s Ellis Island. Here, so many would-be Asian immigrants were interned between 1910 and 1940 for long periods and often brutally treated, while officials figured out whether they would stay or, more likely, be sent back over the Pacific.
The walk across the bridge is also filled with ups and downs. It’s somehow sweet how many people represent their home countries here by wearing their logos.
And the physical exuberance of the culture in California is evident: On windy, sunny days, you’ll see parasailers and yachters racing below as body-beautiful runners and cyclists glide by.
But, of course, midway across the bridge there’s a phone for the distressed to use, and I can’t get the footage of the jumpers from the documentary The Bridge out of my head. Mary Currie, the bridge’s long-time public relations chief, says that despite considerable local opposition, the bridge’s directors have finally decided to put a net below the bridge. “We didn’t want a barrier like they have on Toronto’s Prince Edward Viaduct – that looks ugly in my opinion – but they decided to do something.”
She swiftly moves to happier subjects, fondly remembering the day the traffic halted when a deer ran from Marin County in the north to the Presidio Park in the south. “I ran out of the office and just caught sight of it. I was glad the drivers all stopped to let it pass.”
The animal’s destination, the former military base to the south, the Presidio, has become a vast park – with some military presence. As of April, the former bachelor officers’ quarters have been transformed into a luxe hotel, the Inn at the Presidio, with period military accents. (Another sensitive conversion of former military buildings into a hostelry, the Cavallo Point Lodge, sits across the Golden Gate on the Marin County side of the bridge; the new modern suites have the best bridge views.) The nearby San Francisco National Cemetery has a forest of white headstones marking the deaths and service records of the soldiers: It is the final resting place for a female Civil War spy and the general who, after serving in the Philippines, oversaw the local relief efforts after the 1906 earthquake. On a less sombre note, in the Presidio, in front of the Lucasfilms headquarters, there’s a much-visited fountain of the diminutive oracle of the Star Wars films, Yoda – locals tend to go there for consolation after a bad day at the office. And not far away, the Walt Disney Family Museum plays old and new animated classics in a state-of-the art theatre, while various exhibits tell the story of the cultural innovator’s surprisingly roller-coaster life – the face behind the mask.