City Portrait: San Francisco Fascination

Text: Christian Neuhauser • Photography: Christian Neuhauser

Eleven in the morning when the plane drops through the clouds, I can see the first sparkling outline of San Francisco below. A special feeling always overcomes me, arriving in this breathtaking town. People from all over have chosen San Francisco for their home and so have I - but, sadly, only for the next three days.

"Bus number 293 brings you close to Bryant Street," a young lady explains when I ask for directions. An hour later, I step into the EagleRider store where Michael Baroy waits.

"Hi, Christian, a Fat Boy is waiting for you!" he yells over the counter.

"Oh! You're providing a tour guide this time out? You don't trust me, right?" I ask, in mock surprise. "So Michael thinks I need a chaperone." He grinned and laughed. Lord of the Harleys in town, Michael handles sixty of these chargers and all of them are kept in very good shape. It is always a pleasure to ride one of his horses. I start the Fat Boy; she bangs and we circle around the next corner toward Ghiradelli Square.

I'm sitting on the little patio outside Sourdoughs, a famous bakery, having some cappuccino and studying my San Francisco guidebook.

Recorded history could have start earlier here, as in 1542, when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo made his journey to the Strait of Anian; but he couldn't see the bay. Perhaps a thick morning fog covered the opening the Golden Gate Bridge traverses now. At any rate, Cabrillo passed by and missed a "golden" opportunity to be the first to explore and moor in one of the world's greatest natural harbors.

In 1776, the Spaniards discovered the beautiful and strategic area and built the mission San Francisco de Asis, known today as Mission Dolores. Sixty years later a handful of settlers founded the nearby village of Yerba Buena (also known as Treasure Island), which means "good kraut." The area remained quiet and peaceful until 1848, the year California became a part of the USA. Seemingly overnight, with the discovery of gold along the American River, gamblers, ladies of the evening, and adventurers of all stripes invaded California. Throughout the intervening years, San Francisco has never lost this force of attraction.

"How true," I thought, closing the book to saddle up. I ride my Fatty into the financial district, heading for Sutter Street, number 168, home of the The Metropol Restaurant, a great place for lunch, dinner, or coffee and cake. The owners Albert and Klaus Rainer have lived here for 18 years and happen to be very good friends of mine. Both are riders. Albert loves his Softail Heritage and Klaus is an enthusiastic "mudhopper." Plans call for Albert to share his favorite ride in the Bay area tomorrow. Meanwhile, we catch up and celebrate my safe arrival.

The next morning begins humorously. Banging along Lombard Street up to Hyde, with many parked cars on either side, we discover our loud pipes emit frequencies that set off a caterwauling chorus of alarms. "Good morning to you, good morning to you!" Honestly, I couldn't help tweaking the situation by opening the throttle a few times more, just to see how many extra sirens would join the choir.

Presenting the morning challenge, the wet cobblestones and tight turns curving down to Leavenworth quickly shake the sleep from our eyes. Alertly, I follow Albert through the Marina and Presidio areas to the Cliff House.

Immersed in blue sky, warm morning temperatures, and a stringent, salty breeze, I watch the long, rolling waves dissolve into white-foam crowns below. Soon after, I'm transfixed again with the arrival of a thick gray wall of fog creeping over the Montara Mountains into the Pacifica shoreline like a white-satin wave. The next few miles towards Half Moon Bay we rumble through the wisps and curtains like ghost riders.

A left turn on Hwy 92 ushers us onto a nice curvy road and escape from the fog. The sun shines through again on Skyline Boulevard and, at the intersection with Hwy 84, we see Alice's Restaurant. Normally the place is packed, but we're the only ones in the lot when we stop for a second breakfast. Known as one of California's most famous biker stops, this site hosts hundreds of bikers every weekend and everyone has a story to tell, like John, who arrived after us on his extremely well-maintained BSA. "Although John is 78, I can tell you he's still tough to keep up with, and a real character," Albert confides. John pulls up a chair and launches into a madcap story about the time he romped with Steve McQueen and chased him up a hill in these parts. After much laughter and table slapping, we returned to our bikes where Albert whispered, "The last time told, that story ended a little bit differently. Especially when he was talking about their big battle in the corners."

It's a smooth ride down to La Honda and our next skills test begins on Alpine Road. Narrow, bumpy, and extremely windy, the road snakes back to the Skyline Blvd. My Fat Boy scratches often, the footrests tattooing hieroglyphs on the surface. We leave the woods behind and steadily gain on a series of golden hills glowing against the deep-blue sky. That's worth a stop for photos any day. Camera stowed, we reel through the asphalt ribbon back to Hwy 35 and later on Hwy 9 towards Saratoga. Another twisty road. Now we dive into snarly traffic for the next couple of miles. We cross the bay on Dumbarton Bridge and take Hwy 84 to Palomares Road. This little canyon road is another twisty highlight where time flies by too quickly. In a heartbeat, we roll into Castro Valley. A right turn onto Redwood Road and we motor back into the country. The beautiful, burnished hills on one side and tree shadows on the other escort us along the winding road to Berkeley. Great asphalt with a lot of grip allows us to spur our rides and the bikes respond with a satisfying roars. They can really breathe now. Some good loud bangs underscore that impression.

Berkeley still has plenty of Sixties, flower-power ambiance. Sure, it's a little more commercialized. That's a given these days. But it is nice to see the Age of Aquarius hasn't entirely faded from the scene. Albert and I stop near Telegraph Avenue and walk to Sproul Plaza for a closer look at the Sather Tower, which soars 282 feet. Some 32,000 students keep this town hopping and the intelligentsia meets in coffee shops or the many crowded bookstores. Today's discussion focuses decidedly on the cons not the pros of war. Forty years ago it was the one in Vietnam; today it's Afghanistan. But Albert and I aren't drawn in. For some reason (wink, wink), only after sunset and well into the evening do we turn philosophical and indulge our penchant for political debate.

Crossing the bay a second time on a massive steel structure, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, a bi-level thoroughfare (one for each direction), we swim along like leaden tri-athletes in the afternoon traffic jam that's homing in on Marin County. Tiberon, our next destination, a community of very well-heeled residents, sits in the soft hills of the bay's shore. Some of the houses nestled in the rocks high above the water are so vividly and whimsically colored it's downright overwhelming, and hard to describe. But impressions gathered while touring the French or Italian Rivera are pretty much the same. Once our inner dinner bells rang, we dined on the deck at Sam's restaurant in Tiberon and packed our stomachs with oysters and Spaghetti Carbonara. With the sun sinking and the skyline of San Francisco splayed before us, the first lights turn on and the sky cycles through an ever-darkening palette of pastel colors. It's a spectacular view.

Crossing The Golden Gate Bridge always causes a giddy feeling in my gut, and at night it's even more pronounced. Hundreds of bright spots and the down-falling fog dip the Gate in a numinous light. I roll slowly and some of the car drivers inured to the scene honk with annoyance. Sorry fellows, unlike you, I can't see this spectacle every day. Relax, be patient.

When we arrive at the motel on Lombard Street it's nine at night. A wonderful day ends and I'm thoroughly pleased by the new impressions it brought. To our readers who expected more in the way of the sights a tour through town provides, my apologies, and my thanks - you've given me the best excuse to return. Let's see. I'll need to make a list: Chinatown, Mission Delores, Union and Alamo Squares, Coit Tower, Golden Gate Park... On the other hand, I think it's important to document some of the other great rides surrounding the city. Even though the entire bay area is populated with approximately five million inhabitants, gorgeous spots with very little traffic abound.

Albert points up the street, "There, on the corner is the Black Magic, a nice neighborhood bar. Klaus is waiting to welcome you with a couple of beers." I thanked him for his guidance and wished him well until the next time. Ten minutes later Klaus cheers me with the first drink and plans and dreams with me about new trips to take in the world and others around the San Francisco Bay until the wee hours of the morning.

The next day a brief bout with melancholia set in when my plane departed, but I managed to shake it off almost as soon as it arrived once I considered how quickly I could return.