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Let's Trip San Francisco #1:
Golden Gate Park After Dark
by Lorelei Dot
Most guidebooks direct you to look at the same old thing in the same old way. That's great if you're in a hurry and only have time for a superficial view of the City. But San Francisco is full of interesting nooks and crannies -- views and performances and museums that are off the beaten track and are not explored by any of the big guidebooks. Which is where Let's Trip comes in. It's designed as a guidebook for people looking for those out of the ordinary things which make San Francisco such a weird and wonderful place. Whether you're visiting from out of state or driving over from Berkeley, you want to know the sorts of things only a native would know: is the area dangerous? where can you park? what should you look for? what should you absolutely not miss?
Lorelei Dot has lived in SF since 1988 and devotes herself to seeking out the bizarre and the beautiful. Please feel free to contact her c/o browbeat with your reactions to her tripping suggestions, especially if there are weird places in SF you'd like to know more about or that she shouldn't miss.
Golden Gate Park is the world's largest manmade park. It was created in 1871 to be the Central Park of the West. The park was built over three and a half miles of sand dunes which needed to be tacked down by grasses before trees could be planted. Everything you see in the park, from the redwood groves to the waterfalls, was engineered for your enjoyment. Like Disneyland.
Golden Gate Park is legendary: the Dead played there and the Airplane, the Be-Ins started there -- Leary spoke and people ate acid on sugar cubes. If you come to San Francisco's Haight district, you've got to visit the park at the end of the block. But let's face it: on weekend afternoons, Golden Gate Park is overrun by children and dogs. It's hard to have a good time while somebody's parents watch you disapprovingly. The solution is to visit the park when it's nearly deserted.
The key is to arrive late in the afternoon. The wind comes up after 3 pm every day; consequently, the temperature drops. Mom and Dad start packing the frisbee, cooler, and kids into the car. All you have to worry about is keeping warm. Leather is good. It also helps you blend in with the San Francisco natives.
I've never explored the western end of the park after dark. The wild vistas might not suffer in full moonlight, but they'd be wasted in anything less. I've chosen to focus on my favorite areas on the eastern end of the park, from 25th Avenue to Stanyan Street, roughly a mile and a half.
On a clear day, the best place to watch the sun sink into the ocean is from the top of Strawberry Hill. The largest man-made hill in the park rises from the middle of Stowe Lake (between 15th and 19th Avenues). Climb the stairs beside the waterfall and watch the panoramic view unfold. From the top, you can see the ocean, the Presidio, downtown, and the East Bay hills. At odd times of the year, like December, small orange butterflies fill the trees. Sunset can last for hours as the colors slowly cross the sky.
Another favorite sunset view is from Lloyd Lake (almost to 25th Avenue). Silently overlooking the lake are the Portals of the Past. These Ionic columns, which are all that survived of a Nob Hill mansion, stand as a monument to the 1906 earthquake. The surrounding eucalyptus trees obscure the horizon, but the quiet lake reflects the sky flawlessly. Sunsets tend to look like that Rousseau painting with the crescent moon in the sunset sky and the tiger crawling out of the jungle. Definitely a religious experience.
As you leave the lake, notice the water in the stream along John F. Kennedy Drive. It's flowing uphill. You want to stay on JFK as you head back toward the Haight to avoid the cross traffic on 19th Avenue.
On an average summer evening, the Conservatory of Flowers melts out of the fog like a giant white wedding cake. There's something foolish and beautiful about this delicate glass greenhouse. Seeing it sometimes makes you feel as if you're in a movie. The feeling is pleasantly augmented by someone drumming or playing cello in the tunnel walkway to the Rhododendron Dell. The Conservatory was the first building put up in the park. It's still something to look at.
Fog doesn't detract from the Children's Playground either. One of the first public play areas, it was recently rebuilt and is not to be missed. A carousel waits in a large Greek revival pavilion, which is lit at night so that you can peek in at the animals. Built for the World's Fair in 1939, the carousel is designed on a Noah's Ark plan. Each animal has a mate, except for the blue and green sea serpent. There's a strutting rooster and a complacent hen, a pair of rabbits, even a couple of frogs.
Of the playground equipment, try the giant cement slide on the hillside. Usually there are cardboard pizza boxes littered around its foot. Take one up with you; you'll want it to ride down on. The steps up are designed for children, but the drop has been known to induce vertigo. Watch your fingers!
For tamer fun, ride the exer-glidesTM. Exer-glides are swings that you pump with your arms, while your feet dangle. They provide a good cardiovascular work-out and the set is anchored well enough that it doesn't rock alarmingly when you swing up high. They also have back support, so you can't fall off. I know people who go to the park at night just to play on the exer-glides. Try them during the day while wearing leather and you're likely to be considered a pederast. Bring a child for cover, if you can find one.
The jungle gym contains a series of tubular slides built from recycled plastic. Swallow your claustrophobia, but watch your head -- the biggest guy I know discovered that when you prop yourself inside a tube, you can enjoy the light show inside your mind. The jungle gym is built of hexagon shapes. If you call those up before your mind's eye, you get a nice kaleidoscopic visual. Recommended.
Finally, when you're feeling mellow or you want to get warm, take in the Laserium show at the California Academy of Sciences. A 1-Watt krypton gas laser draws images in four colors on the ceiling of the Morrison Planetarium. Pink Floyd: The Wall has played there literally for years, but currently you can choose from three other shows: Lollapolaser (music of Pearl Jam, NIN, Siouxie & the Banshees: they call it 'alternative rock'), Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, and Inside Laserium (how the lasers work and how the shows are created. Music ranges from classical to rock). The last one is billed as a family show and plays early in the evenings (5:00 PM for $5), but they caution that it may be too intense for infants and children under 6. Shows do change, so call the tape at 415/750-7138 for topics and times. Advance tickets are available from BASS. The left-overs are sold (cash only) at the Academy of Sciences box office half an hour before showtime for the late shows. The $7 admission includes holographic laser glasses. The last show starts at 10 pm. No late seating.
Inside the science museum, they may search you for bottles or knives. They don't concern themselves with Sucrets boxes, etc.
The variety and complexity of the laser patterns more than make up for the choice of music (aimed, shall we say, at the lowest common denominator). The laserists do a limited amount of figure drawing (I know it's difficult to do, but it's boring to watch). The best, as far as I'm concerned, is the full-spectrum, animated Spirograph. You will see trails, guaranteed.
Once the laser show begins, you're trapped in the planetarium. They don't let you go in and out because the ambient light would screw up everyone's night vision. Relax and enjoy the show. The secret is to look at your hands if you get dizzy. Don't close your eyes.
People live in Golden Gate Park. Keep in mind that you're playing in their bedroom, and be polite. I've never had any trouble. All the same, it's probably wise to travel in packs of three or more.
Animals also live in the park. We met a raccoon one night that let us get quite close. She was trying to lure us away from her babies, stashed in a nearby tree. Could have gotten ugly. Don't mess with any wild animal, especially if it's acting weird.
If you walk in a straight line, Stowe Lake is about a mile from Stanyan Street, at the end of the Haight. None of the paths travel in a straight line. This is a big park. Keep the distances in mind as you wander.
No one throws you out of Golden Gate Park. It has no closing time. Rangers occasionally cruise the park in cars with PAs and searchlights, so don't be out-of-hand in view of the road.
Watch out for traffic. Coming off a cozy, dark trail, it's easy to forget that major city streets bisect the park. Traffic moves very fast at night!
Most of the park is overgrown and can get very dry. If you smoke, be careful with your ashes.
The Alvord Lake entrance to the park (across from the MacDonalds on Haight Street) has been declared a "Drug-Free Zone." That means increased fines for the sale or possession of illegal substances. The "shopping" district has moved out of the park to the sidewalk near Cala. High school kids seem to buy drugs on the street all the time, but I don't know anyone personally who has performed a quality check. [ed. note: the Haight Street entrance to the park has historically been a major drug dealing area, especially for heroin.] You may be offered buds and doses, but you must ask for anything harsher. Beware of the people in the lime green T-shirts. They are neighborhood vigilantes who don't need a good reason to follow or harass freaks.
You're not allowed to leave your car in the park overnight. They will tow. Campers usually sleep parked along the Panhandle or on the southern edge of the park on Martin Luther King Drive by the recycling center. I'm not sure how safe these areas are, but there are always campers there.
By bus from downtown/Market Street: take the 7 Haight to Stanyan and walk in past Alvord Lake. This can be scary sometimes, so I prefer taking the 71 Haight-Noriega to the recycling center on Frederick St. Turn right on Kezar Dr. and you'll enter the park just above the carousel.
From the South Bay and the Bay Bridge: get on the exit to the Golden Gate Bridge and ride it til it ends. It dumps you onto Fell St. Take Fell past the Panhandle (a block-wide strip of grass) into the Park itself. Everyone will split off to the left. You go straight for a change. At the second stop sign, where you see the arrow toward the California Academy of Science, follow everyone else who's turning left. Park. (During the day, this can be impossible, but at night there's always parking inside the Music Concourse.)
From the Golden Gate Bridge: down Park Presidio, through the Park. You can't turn off, so don't worry about it. When you exit the park, turn left on Lincoln by making three rights (no left turns allowed). Take Lincoln to 9th Avenue and follow the signs to the museums.
You don't need a flashlight in the park after dark unless you want to walk the wooded trails. The streets have lights and the playground, being a wide open space, draws a lot of reflected light from the clouds. The full moon also helps. But you'd be surprised how bright a vacant area can be in the city.