Saturday, October 17, 2015

At Alcatraz

At 7:30 a.m. the Golden Gate Bridge comes into view. (Photo by Dylan)
October 6, 2015

In order to reach San Francisco from where we were staying in Windsor, we left at 6:10 a.m. on Tuesday and drove south for more than an hour before we passed through Sausalito and Golden Gate National Recreation Area. And then there it was before us: the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge. 

We'd learned a few days earlier that there are no longer toll-takers at the bridge. It's all handled electronically, so I went to the website and paid my $7.50 toll online, which covers crossing  both south and north in a one-day period. If you don't prepay, they take a picture of your license plate and send the bill to your home. Convenient.

Our view of the Golden Gate Bridge from inside the car.

I'd never driven over the Golden Gate Bridge before, so I was pretty excited. It's sort of a "bucket list" thing for me, although I don't actually have a bucket list. I admit I was a little disappointed that our crossing was uneventful. I was half-expecting the bridge to be destroyed by massive earthquakes or tsunami (à la the film San Andreas), or ultra-violet radiation super storms (à la The Core), or giant mutated monsters or aliens (à la Pacific Rim and Godzilla). However, as of the date of this posting, the historic Golden Gate Bridge remains intact.

Entering San Francisco from the south end of the bridge.

And so we arrived in San Francisco and drove its narrow, roller coaster streets toward Fisherman's Wharf. I miss our vacations in the old days, when Mark would drive (he currently has no license) and I would navigate, leaving me mostly free to drink in the sights and take lots of pictures. While I have zero interest in living in a crowded, traffic-glutted, steep-stair, small-apartment, no-yard, expensive town like San Francisco, I still love its historic feel, eclectic architecture, and eccentric spirit. It's an exciting place to spend a day or two, or maybe more.

Beautiful old architecture in San Francisco, including fire escapes.

I've only been in San Francisco once or twice, so far back that I barely remember it. I was probably a teenager at the time. I was prepared for lots of traffic and narrow roads, but since I was not behind the wheel on previous visits, I hadn't realized how many one-way streets there were. That's always a challenge.

San Francisco Bay in the distance as we travel downhill toward Fisherman's Wharf.

Even if I had forgotten how steep many, many of the streets are in San Francisco (I hadn't), there are always plenty of movies set in Frisco to remind us. Remember Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn in 1978's Foul Play? Those streets are extremely steep and rather tricky when you get stopped at a light, whether facing uphill or downhill, as you try to get moving without bumping into the car in front of or behind yours.

Passing by Fisherman's Wharf on our way to Pier 33 just after 8:00 a.m.

Free parking near Fisherman's Wharf is pretty much nonexistent, so I researched the local parking garages and settled on one at Anchorage Square shopping center. Not only was it centrally located to our various destinations to cut down on walking (I don't doubt that ultimately we walked more than 5 miles that day), but it was slightly cheaper than other options. Parking there from about 7:45 a.m. to about 8:30 p.m cost us a cool $36.00. Other garages were closer to $50 per day.

As we walked through the Fisherman's Wharf district, 
we could see Alcatraz Island in the distance.

From the parking garage, we had to walk nearly a mile (0.8) to Pier 33, from which the Alcatraz tour ships depart. The tours sell out weeks in advance, so we bought our tickets online about 6 weeks ahead of time. They cost us $31 apiece, and the 8:45 early-bird tour was already sold out. We took the next tour, at 9:10 a.m. 

The walk was pleasant. It was early October weather, cool but not cold, and we were lucky enough to have clear skies. No fog! And we were early, so it was nice to stroll through Fisherman's Wharf, which we intended to visit after our tour.

Sarah, Dylan, Chris, and Mark waiting in line to board our ship.

Fisherman's Wharf runs roughly from Ghirardelli Square, Aquatic Park, and Hyde Street Pier all the way to Pier 45 through Pier 35. The Alcatraz Island tours set out from Pier 33, so I guess it's not technically part of Fisherman's Wharf but is rather just east of it.

My ticket (printed at home) and a brochure.

When we arrived, the early-bird tour was queuing up for their departure, so we didn't have to wait long before they boarded their boat and set off across the Bay on the 15-minute cruise toward the island. 

Our boat pulls into the slip at 8:50, after the first tour leaves.

We boarded the tour ship at 9:00. It was almost 9:15 when we backed away from the dock and turned toward the island. Although there were seats inside with a small bar selling sandwiches, nachos, drinks, and other eats, I headed straight for the deck toward the bow (front) of the ship, starboard side (right). Are you impressed? I had to look those terms up!

All hands on deck: Chris, Sarah, Mark, and Dylan.

Whether it's a ship or a train, I can't stand to be stuck inside if I can be outside with the wind in my face and my hair blowing behind me. I've never had a problem with motion sickness, and I've always been quick to get my sea legs, so outside was where I had to be!

Mary's first selfie at sea! Well, sort of at sea...

The only one in our group who had any trouble adjusting was Dylan. He found the undulating motion of the deck beneath his feet to be disconcerting at first, and it made him mildly nauseous. He kind of hugged the wall for a while. (Keep in mind that he'd also been in bed with a stomach bug the previous day.) Then I showed him how to become flexible and sort of roll with the boat's movements (also works well on roller coasters!). It can feel awkward at first, but he quickly mastered it and was fine for the rest of our ship time.

Dylan got this picture of his mom on deck.

Sarah on board.

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (Interstate 80) falls behind us.
It crosses over Yerba Buena Island and connects Oakland to San Francisco.
At first the kids thought it was the Golden Gate Bridge, but I pointed out
that it's not red like Golden Gate. Sarah is visible at the ship's rail on the right.

Our ship draws closer to Alcatraz Island. 
That whole left side of the island is off-limits.

Pulling around to the dock-side of the island.

Now that's the unmistakable Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.
Beneath it on the land to the left is historic Fort Point, built 1853-1861.

San Francisco is very close as viewed from the Alcatraz Island dock.

We were able to disembark and set foot on the island just after 9:30. We didn't spend much time in the docking area because we were anxious to have a look inside the prison at the top of the island. The hike to the prison is only about a quarter-mile long, but walking the winding, uphill road is equivalent to climbing an 8-story building.

Buildings located by the dock.

Four days before we left for California, on the day Mark and I drove to Flagstaff, something happened to my right knee. I don't remember twisting it or stepping wrong, but after we came home that evening my knee became painful and swollen. I'd hoped it would go away in a few days, but it didn't, so I spent a lot of time hobbling painfully around the places we were sight-seeing and, often, hiking.

I knew I would pay if I tried to climb to the prison, so I opted to take the tram (for people with health issues only) to the top and meet the others there. It runs every 10 minutes or so, first come, first served. After the tour, though, I did hike back down on my own two feet. There were just too many pictures that needed to be taken, so we walked slow and enjoyed the sights on the way down, while I indulged my camera.

The prison's entry. That must be an old poster. 1934-2009?

Newly arrived prisoners were issued clothing and supplies in this room.

The tour begins in the cavernous intake room, where new prisoners were assigned their cells and issued their supplies upon arrival. As we walked through, in a long line of others taking the tour, we were able to look into the barred rooms where the supplies were kept.

Blankets and pillows.

Communal shower so the guards could protect the inmates from each other.
Twice a week showers (once a week if you were in solitary confinement).

The meat of the tour comes after the line has moved you around the entire circumference of the intake room and past the communal shower. That's where you are given an audio player with head phones and sent on your way to see the cell blocks at your own pace. 

The cells were just 9 x 5 feet. Only cold water from the sinks.

I wasn't too sure I would care for an audio tour, but it was surprisingly effective. The voices you hear are men who were actually wardens, prison guards, or prisoners back when Alcatraz was an active prison (it closed in 1963). As these men shared their stories, we were directed to various parts of the prison with clear instructions. And you could stop or rewind your tour as needed. 

Three stories of cell blocks.

I'm the kind of person who likes to linger. With all of us listening to the voices in our headphones, we were each in our own little world, and I was quickly separated from my family, who didn't realize that I'd wandered off to look more closely at something. Eventually Mark retraced his steps to find me, but we didn't meet up again with the kids until the final area, the dining room, where they were all waiting patiently for me. My children know how I am.

The solitary confinement block.

The solitary confinement cell was even smaller than the regular cells.
Imagine being locked in here for days in total darkness.
No bars. Just a thick metal door.

A peek inside the prison kitchen.

At the bottom of extremely steep stairs is the inmates' recreation yard.

This empty shell was the warden's house, just yards from the prison.
The guards and their families also lived in apartments down the hill,
as many as 300 civilians living on the island with personnel and inmates.

The prison was close enough to the mainland to see the city lights and traffic,
and sometimes to even hear the laughter of partiers on a quiet evening.
It was a constant reminder to the inmates of what they'd lost.

The guards' break room.

This accurate diorama really helped me visualize the entire island.

After the audio tour, which lasts about an hour, we went outside to explore more of the grounds. There is a lot to see and do. The tour website recommends allowing yourself at least two and a half hours to tour the island, including the time spent sailing to and from the island, but I recommend taking the entire day.

Because we also wanted to spend time exploring Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli Square, we left without seeing the film on the island's history or seeing the exhibits on other aspects of the island's history, such as its use as a military fortress in 1859-1907 and an 18-month occupation by Native Americans starting in 1969. We had to leave several buildings unexplored. There were also presentations, including one by a former warden of the prison, that we weren't able to stay for. I had planned to be back at Pier 33 by noon, but despite leaving so many activities undone, it was still an hour later than that when we finally got back from the tour. 

This morgue held the dead until they could be sent off the island.
The room inside is a couple of feet below ground level, probably to keep it cool.
Autopsies were performed on the mainland, not the island.

Cooperative prisoners were rewarded by being allowed to work in the garden.
Those who did said they found some peace there.

There are a lot of beautiful elements on the island,
like this incredible staircase (no longer safe) leading to the prison.

Sarah and Dylan in a building that used to house cannons.

Sarah, Chris, and Dylan take a break.

This diorama shows how the island appeared when it started out as a fort.

A remnant from the Indian-occupation days.

A watchtower near the water.

Sarah and Mary by another interesting staircase over the sloping road.

The birds of Alcatraz are protected and thus unintimidated by humans.

I thought that after this trip I'd be done with visiting San Francisco, but I find I'm rethinking that now. Someday, when it's just me (and maybe Mark), perhaps I'll come back and stay at the WorldMark resort in San Francisco. I chose Windsor this time because it has full amenities, whereas the one in San Francisco is more like a hotel, plus it has no parking, so there would be the added cost of eating out and a parking garage. However, there were so many things I wanted to do but didn't have time for in our single day. So maybe, just maybe...

Mark came away from the island with a fun souvenir cap:
"Escape from Alcatraz"!

Next up: Fisherman's Wharf!

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