It’s early evening on a Saturday and we’re winding through the mountains, heading south. We’ve just come from Crescent City, bordered by the open ocean on one side and the Redwood forest on the other. The sun is beginning to set in the distance, and our excitement radiates in the cramped car. We’ve been in here for sixteen hours total in the last two days, and we’re itching to get to our final destination: San Francisco.
We drive down the highway and it widens from two lanes into four, then eight, miles of concrete snaking off through an ever-growing number of stucco buildings and flashy billboards. We wind around corners, dodge traffic and then, when it feels like we’re being compressed by all the cars around us, the road turns and the Golden Gate bridge looms before us. Cross over, look across the ocean to Alcatraz, and soon we’re weaving through even more traffic, even more buildings and billboards. Stop and go, stop and go, up one hill and down another, pass candy-colored row houses and shops crammed together and soon, we’ve arrived in front of our home for the next three days – San Francisco’s city center hostel.
The last three months have been leading up to this moment, and now that we’re here, I feel deflated. It’s not what I expected, but maybe that’s my own fault. I fabricate romantic ideas of places based on movies, photos, what information has been passed to me over coffee. We pull up in front of the hostel and are immediately assaulted by the smell of spilled beer. Garbage litters the sidewalk. On the next street over, someone is yelling incoherently to no one.
Maybe I should have researched better places to stay, or maybe I shouldn’t have booked a week long trip fourteen hours after my last-ever undergrad class. Regardless, we’re here, and it’s the last place I want to be right now. I want to be back in Crescent City, surrounded by nature, or at home, unwinding with friends, not in an unfamiliar city, suffocated by buildings.
But this feeling shifts over the next few days. We visit the painted ladies, walk through Golden Gate park at dusk, eat soft pretzels near a pond. We stand on the beach, in awe of the massive waves crashing on soft sand – nothing like what we have at home. We drive further south, visit a mansion with 160 rooms, secret passages, and a door to nowhere. At sunset, we drive to the top of a mountain and watch the sun melt into the sea below us.
Like I said, it’s not what I expected, but I did learn some things. One: I should do more thorough research into a place before I book a vacation there based on fancy and a whim. Two: I do not enjoy big cities in large doses. An hour or two here is fine (I will never turn down a chance to get vegan doughnuts in Vancouver), but three whole days? Never. Three: despite feeling stifled and claustrophobic, big cities do have an inherent beauty, if you’re willing to look.