With the notable exception of car chase scenes in the movies, San Francisco isn’t known as an especially car-friendly city. Bicycle advocacy groups actively campaigned to close off streets to motorized traffic, we have a mostly-adequate public transit system, and, ultimately, the city is simply not that large. And while a car is a matter of necessity in Los Angeles or Houston, it’s almost easier to get by here without one.
The golden age of the automobile in the U.S. is long gone, and with it has vanished the host of car-related conveniences that once dotted America’s landscape – drive-in movie theaters and diners, race tracks and demolition derbies, drive-thru safaris and bank tellers. The remnants of America’s car culture now seem to be the exclusive province of the rural South (drive-thru liquor and ammo stores) or have become so banal as to cease being of any note (10-minute oil changes, 100% brushless car washes).
Still, I imagined that there might be some romance yet to be squeezed out of the automobile in our city. In this greenest and most progressive of towns, was there a reason to own a car beyond the merely quotidian? I decided to embark on San Francisco’s 49-Mile Scenic Drive to find out.
I woke early (I’ve been off the booze) and headed down to Union Square, which is home to a smattering of car rental agencies catering primarily to tourists who’ve somehow avoided renting cars at the airport. Underneath O’Farrell Street waits a battalion of PT Cruisers, Altimas, and those ubiquitous yellow three-wheelers we all fantasize about upending when we find them idling at red lights.
With the nostalgic notion of American cars in my head, I’d reserved a “Cadillac or similar” that I’d planned on spending as much as possible of the next 24 hours inside of. I wanted big; an overstuffed couch strapped to eight cylinders. At Thrifty Car Rental I was given a set of keys and chagrined to discover that instead of the Cadillac, I’d been saddled with or similar – a Mercury Grand Marquis.
The Grand Marquis is a staid and grandfatherly automobile; its lack of modern amenities and any hint of sex appeal tie it irrevocably to weekend trips to Civil War battle sites and 4 p.m. early-bird dinners. And though possessed of considerable horsepower, it’s hard to imagine it emulating anything out of Bullitt . What the Grand Marquis does boast is space.
The back seat wouldn’t just let me comfortably impregnate my lady, it would allow me to do it in all my weird splendor. The trunk, meanwhile, could accommodate several dead hookers. Or luggage. Whatever.
Luckily enough, the drive from Union Square to my house takes me directly past Java Detour on Van Ness, which, so far as I know, is the only drive-thru coffee shop in town. And while I still had persistent visions of 1950s roller-skate diners that nothing could ever quite live up to, I must admit that the act of being served coffee while sitting in my car filled me with a lazy sort of joy. That’s when I first half-understood the appeal of jumping in the GMC Yukon on a Sunday morning while still in jammies and driving three blocks to get a venti something or other. Convenience is, well, convenient. Sue me.
After picking up four friends an hour later, and with a map of the city on the dashboard, we began our road trip. Our main objective was San Francisco’s 49-Mile Scenic Drive, perhaps the only activity in the city that actually requires a car. But first we needed some food. If you google “drive-in” or “drive-thru” food for San Francisco, you’ll be directed to a number of Jack in the Boxes, seconded only by those obscene Taco Bell/KFC conjoined twins that would be a much better off serving crossover foods: gravy burritos or salsa mac ’n’ cheese. We found the nearest one, fueled up, and moved on.
From Third Street we skirted the border of the city and, taking up the 49-Mile Scenic Drive route, drove up through McLaren Park, which, if like me you had no clue about until today, is the second largest park in San Francisco. Its 300+ wooded acres are spread casually over an expansive hill and contain the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater. I’d never heard of a Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, but if I were told one existed I’d have imagined it would be in Golden Gate Park. Makes more sense, doesn’t it? After all, why not place a memorial to Jerry Garcia smack-dab in the middle of the drum-circle-infested wasteland that is his greatest legacy?
Descending McLaren Park’s hill and heading toward the ocean, we stopped briefly at Lake Merced, which is something I wish I’d known about years ago. The lake, apparently, contains trout. For trout fishing. How does this even exist? It’s forehead-slappingly retarded that I haven’t spent each weekend of the past half decade there casting out my line. (Quick aside: Does anyone want to come fishing with me?)
The scenic drive, though obviously meant for tourists, is one of those things that even SF natives would do well to visit. It takes you through miles of wonderful landscape that, via overexposure, most locals barely take the time to notice anymore, which is a shame when you consider that, wow, we do live in a fairly beautiful city. Familiarity breeds contempt, or if not contempt, then at least boredom, but when was the last time any of us walked up to Cathedral Hill or Lombard Street? Yes, sheer spectacle! But, man, what a view!
The drive has been in place with few changes for over 70 years, originally intended as a canny promotional device for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. Although its 49 miles are more of a nod to San Francisco’s square-mileage than a necessary measure of distance, the route nevertheless wends past just about everything that the city is known for – North Beach, Chinatown, the Presidio, and the Golden Gate Bridge, which first opened to traffic two years before the World’s Fair.
We zoomed down past Ocean Beach where kite surfers were bounding over the choppy surf and I thought to myself, Man, how fucking California is that? Past the Cliff House and Fort Miley and through the Presidio where we circled the Palace of Fine Arts and drove slowly along Crissy Field watching the kites cutting sharply across the sky. I took in the sights that I’ve spent years living alongside of and until now had little opportunity to marvel at.
Fort Point, at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, is an especially excellent vantage point that I regret overlooking with such regularity. Fort Point is a popular surf spot and boasts a weird angular break that wraps around the point; surfers have the rare pleasure of dodging barely submerged boulders as well as the occasional shark and/or violent seal. We’d chosen an unseasonably sunny early spring day for the drive, and sitting in the Grand Marquis along the bay, the bridge was bathed in a hopeful glow.
From there, we made short work of the Marina and sped through North Beach on our way to Lombard Street, an attraction best experienced by driving down it. It was here that one of the hazards of driving reared its head – road rage. I like to think of myself as an even-tempered fellow but contending with a steady stream of drivers, not only unfamiliar with the city’s thoroughfare but hell-bent on taking in the sights at a dead crawl, I began to feel a bit harried.
Once we made it through Lombard Street’s eight turns my mood had fouled considerably and I didn’t think I could stick it out through the trek up to Coit Tower. Over in that direction we saw a line of cars at a virtual standstill and so decided to forgo the tower in favor of Chinatown, the Tenderloin, and China Basin. By the time we’d navigated past AT&T Park boredom was beginning to set in. I was longing for either the open road or to simply get out of the car, but undeterred we pressed on.
San Francisco is more than a stunning tourist destination – backwaters dot the city that most people won’t ever visit. But isn’t that just as true a measure of a place – those areas overlooked and neglected? With that in mind we drove through the ghost towns and hidden enclaves of industrial San Francisco down by the waterfront, the tiny streets still lined with shotgun shacks, and the mellow hills of SF’s suburbia with its well-tended lawns.
Finally, as the sun dipped low in the sky, we drove leisurely through Golden Gate Park heading once again west. I piloted our barge past the De Young and the California Academy of Sciences, past the Japanese Tea Garden and the waterfall. We stopped briefly to admire the mangy buffalo and saw a solitary fox dart across the field. We emerged back at Ocean Beach, almost where we’d started, just as the sun was setting.
I don’t suppose, at the end of the day, that having a car in San Francisco is all that different from having one anywhere else. For the most part, convenience and practicality have trumped adventure and nostalgia. But the novelty of seeing your city from a different perspective is, to me, the thrill. To look at San Francisco in a non-pedestrian way (pardon the pun) is something I ought to do more often.
If you haven’t seen San Francisco by car, I’d recommend trying it at least once; stop by Thrifty Car Rental for your Caddy (or something similar) and drive the entire 49 miles. It’ll cost you $40. Take a whole day and look at your own city as a tourist would. Start out with a coffee from Java Detour, but skip Taco Bell – pack a lunch instead because drive-thru food here is seriously the worst. If you’re averse to maps, you can find the 49-mile drive by keeping an eye out for the dozens of street signs scattered around the city.