tunnel view - pln

Our last day in Yosemite started out with bang. After spending weeks together in a car, in hotels, essentially attached at the hip — the stress finally crossed the threshold of human endurance. 

I’d been unsure about how to get to our stopover in Lake Tahoe that night: it’s not like there are tons of highways through the Sierras. I could drop back down into the Central Valley and take Rte 80 to Tahoe — a familiar ski trip route. I’d also considered stopping to see a friend in Grass Valley in the foothills. Both routes meant heading west to go east. In the end, we had to return to Yosemite Valley so Mtuseni could get souvenirs… probably the most meandering, inefficient way to get to Tahoe.

The dilemma over travel routes, the smoky-hazy Yosemite skies, the disappointment of the Bay Area, and general exhaustion had all coalesced into a crummy mood to start the day. So five minutes on the Wawona Road back to the valley, when Mtuseni made a snarky comment about I-can’t-remember-what… I Lost My Shit. We fought like we’ve never fought in a ten years together, screaming at the top of our lungs nonstop, all the way to the tunnel view. It was intense. Distressing. But in the end, it changed everything.

Read my New York Times essay about our brawl in Yosemite.

When we arrived at the tunnel view — for what I knew would be the last time — I was seething. We got out of the car and went in separate directions to get photos. Ironically, the smoke had cleared significantly; finally the full valley could be seen in all its glory. While the smoke was gone, the air between us was thick — but we managed to come together for a photo. 

After buying t-shirts in chilly silence, I headed toward the route to the northern gate, where we first entered the park. I felt a little sad; who knew when I’d return? Not wanting it to end, I pulled over for a last glimpse of El Cap. Mtuseni and I lay in the meadow at the base, pointing out climbers splayed all across the granite wall. We hoped to see three of them reach the top, but they took a break about twenty yards from the rim. Slackers! 

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merced cathedral

My peaceful oasis along the Merced River between El Cap and Cathedral Rocks.

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We stayed for about two hours — and the tension between us faded away. I took Mtuseni to the small beach along the Merced that I’d discovered while he was hiking the Four Mile Trail yesterday, and he understood that small things in Yosemite can be just as impressive as the monumental stuff. Finally, it was time to go. I knew there was a long drive ahead, and we’d stayed much longer than planned.

I’d set our location in the GPS and knew we’d be shooting directly east across the Sierras, but I didn’t look closely. Heading back toward the north gate, the GPS told me to take a right turn — and it all made sense. We would take the Tioga Road  through Tuolumne Meadows. I’d only been up there once, with a childhood friend in the mid-90s. It was a great trip.

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Tuolumne Dan

Tuolumne Meadows with my late friend Dan in October ’94. Best pals since second grade. Miss you, buddy.

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Most visitors to Yosemite, myself included, tend to stick around the valley. But the Tioga Road is stunning. You climb above the valley and come to a sweeping expanse of rock smoothed by glaciers and studded with boulders tossed there haphazardly thousands of years ago — with a backside view of the curving hump of Half Dome.

Beyond that, the serene grassy plain of Tuolumne Meadows. It reminded me of the caldera we saw in Los Alamos, only smaller. And colder.

After the meadow is the pristine crystal beauty of Tenaya Lake. Taken together, you get an entirely different experience of Yosemite on this route.

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mtu Tenaya

Tenaya Lake is like a sapphire along the northern route through Yosemite Park.

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On my previous trip, my friend and I turned around at the lake to head back to San Francisco. But Mtuseni and I followed the road all the way to the east gate of the park. I’d never thought about Yosemite having an eastern entry point! 

The last section of the Tioga is a steep and winding downhill route with stunning mountain views. It was hard to take it all in while keeping my eye on the road. At one point I noticed some large white patches on a mountain. Mtuseni insisted they were glare from the sun, but I knew different. When we got closer it became clear what they were, and Mtuseni got excited — it was his first glimpse of snow!

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busters mkt

After the majesty of Yosemite, the banal reality of western Nevada. Buster’s wasn’t open. I don’t think it has been for a while.

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After descending the Sierras, we drove for a while through dull flatland in Nevada. Because he slept through the drive down the San Gabriel mountains into Pasadena, Mtuseni didn’t get a “Welcome to California” photo — the gem in any American road tripper’s collection. He was happy to grab one at the Nevada crossing. 

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Cal sign

One more for the collection! He lucked out after sleeping through our entry into California from Arizona.

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Having been to Lake Tahoe on past ski trips, I knew it was in the mountains. But we were still in the Nevada lowlands. I couldn’t figure it out. Suddenly, we turned off into a small subdivision — with a mountain dead in front of us. Sure enough, the road headed straight up in an endless series of long switchbacks. We must have climbed 3,000 feet in ten minutes! It was wild to look down and see the small town we’d just left — now just a scattering of tiny lights in the darkening dusk. It felt like taking off in a plane.

After checking into the hotel, we headed out for a quick dinner. It was probably in the low 40s, the coldest temps we’d hit yet. The native New Englander in me was happy to have that first feel of cold fall air. Mtuseni, the South African, was not enjoying it. Lightweight!

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tunnel view - pair

Finally a pic with a clear view of Half Dome! We managed to smile after having spent a half hour arguing in the car.

tunnel view2b

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Driving back into the park from our hotel, I’d hoped the smoke from the Merced wildfire had cleared. But the fire was still burning, and our second day in Yosemite seemed just as hazy, if not more so. How I wanted to be dazzled by a crisp, blue Sierra sky!

One of the most breathtaking views in Yosemite is from Glacier Point. Mtuseni had to see it. But I didn’t want to do the hike. (I’d done it before, and based on yesterday’s hike to Vernal Falls I knew wouldn’t be able to keep up with my young gun son.) And it felt like driving up there was cheating.

So we split up for the day. Mtuseni took the Four Mile Trail up from the valley floor, while I explored the valley itself. Aside from my sick day in Los Alamos, this was our first day apart on the trip. We’re both somewhat solitary people, and I think we needed the break from each other.

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Yosemite Valley river

I could have chilled by this spot all day… a new discovery in the valley for me!

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I was excited to poke around the valley, which I’d not really done on all my past visits. Yosemite’s superstar waterfalls and rock formations and trails tend to grab all the attention. Finally I had a chance to follow the river as it meandered through the valley.

I discovered some sweet spots and views that I’d never seen before. I was so relaxed and content — and it gave me a chance to recharge. I even treated myself to a nice burger at the new commissary — a major, impressive upgrade from my visits in the 1990s!

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el cap

The majesty of El Capitan. I never say “awesome” unless I truly feel awe. El Cap fits the bill. You can’t see them here, but there are climbers on the wall. Just little specks. Lunatics!

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meadow pines

Another valley discovery… this view of a rock formation across from El Cap.

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oak selfie

Me, my spirit oak, and a hazy Half Dome. I hope my oak is still there on my next visit to Yosemite.

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Meanwhile, Mtuseni headed up the trail to Glacier Point, sending me occasional updates. I warned him that it was a pretty aggressive hike, and that he’d be tired on the way back down. I would meet him at the trailhead at 5:00 and told him to plan accordingly.

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mtu 4 mile trail

Along the Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point. Note the hazy smoke in the valley.

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mtu trail mrkr

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He zoomed up the trail and was quite proud of himself. Mtuseni doesn’t do any hiking in South Africa. When you don’t have a car and you push a wheelbarrow three miles each way to pick up a canister of propane for the house, as he said, “You don’t take walks for pleasure.” He got great photos from the summit. I was jealous, but I loved my little discoveries in the valley.

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mtu glacier pt summit

The Grand Canyon… Yosemite… not bad for a kid from Drummond settlement in South Africa!

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mtu half dome ptr

I can barely take a normal selfie, and Mtuseni’s doing perspective tricks. Damn younger generation!

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As our rendezvous time approached, he texted he was on his way down and it was “steep.” I laughed. It’s no more steep than the way up — but after a strenuous hike with a 3,000-foot rise in elevation, your knees are quivering coming down.

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steep text

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I waited and waited by the trailhead, as many hikers emerged. It was past 5:45. I was starting to get nervous — maybe he fell and was hurt. Then I saw him talking and laughing with two other people. They stopped and took selfies, then the others peeled off to continue down the valley. Mtuseni had met a couple from Austria on his way down. I told him people come from all over the world to see Yosemite.

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mtu self trio

Mtuseni’s new hiking pals. The world comes together in Yosemite!

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I joked to Mtuseni that he looked a little tired, and he was 45 minutes late. He pointed out a park sign that said the original Four Mile Trail was redesigned to add some switchbacks — making it easier, but almost a half mile longer. Oh… okay. It was those three extra switchbacks. Right. Whatever you say. (It’s a tough trail for people who’ve never hiked.  Plus add in the elevation — not to mention the smoky air!) 

As we were getting in the car, another couple approached us. They were from Germany, had just finished the trail and asked me when the next shuttle bus was. I said they’d just missed it, and the next one wasn’t for a half hour. The light was almost fading. They’d parked near Vernal Falls and walked to the trailhead. They misjudged how long the Four Mile trail would take.

I could see they were exhausted, it was a long hike back to Vernal Falls, and they had dinner reservations — which they’d never make at this point. I offered to drive them back to their car. They were so grateful, and we all had a cheerful chat in the car.

Mtuseni was shocked that I gave them a ride, but I said that hikers tend to be nice people — and Yosemite makes everyone happy and friendly. So Mtuseni not only got to stand on top of the world, he got to meet several people from Europe. It was a good day.

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mtu glacier pt wide

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And it was topped off by dinner at the Hotel Wawona. I was so happy to be back in that classic old dining room, awash in memories. Sometimes I would go to Yosemite by myself to get a taste of real fall — I loved having breakfast there.

My dinner was just okay — it was probably dumb to order pasta primavera in October! But Mtuseni had one of his best meals of the trip: a massive hunk of pot roast with gravy, potatoes, and veggies — a perfect autumn dish.

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wawona dinner

The classic dining room at the Hotel Wawona. And a well-earned hearty hiker’s meal!

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I was kicking myself that I didn’t order it. He dug in heartily — though with his refined South African use of cutlery — and finally offered me his very last bite. I laughed and declined. After that hike, he’d earned it. 

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four mile trail sun

Another hazy sun view from the Four Mile Trail. Would the skies clear for our final day in Yosemite tomorrow?

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valley sunse

After the disappointment of the Bay Area, I was excited to get to Yosemite — one of my favorite places in the world. I went there often during my San Francisco days. But I hadn’t been in over 20 years. I couldn’t wait to bask in the magic of this natural wonder — and to share it with Mtuseni.

I love the drive from the Bay Area to Yosemite. On the southern route from San Jose, you cross the flat farmland of the Central Valley. After a couple hours, you notice a few rocks and some grassy bumps — then bigger rocks and small hills. You’re gradually, almost imperceptibly climbing into the foothills of the Sierras and then into the mountains.

Along the northern route from San Francisco, you also drive straight across the Central Valley. But then suddenly you come to a steep, narrow road of hairpin turns, where you quickly rise in elevation, like a twisty elevator. Bye-bye valley; we’re in the Sierras now! 

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sno whites

I was so happy to see Sno-White’s is still around — so many memories of stopping in for a thick cheeseburger and classic crinkle-cut fries.

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That’s my preferred route. Not only because it’s more fun and familiar — but because you get to stop at Sno-White’s… a classic car hop from 1952, with perfect cheeseburgers, thick shakes, and crinkle-cut fries. So. Damn. Good.

I discovered the place in the 1990s on a ski trip to Yosemite with a kooky friend who’d been there before. As we walked in for the first time, she inhaled deeply and happily announced, “Ahhh, smell the grease! It’s fresh grease!” I will laugh about that ’til the end of time.

Unfortunately, this time we were there too early; it wasn’t open. But in this era of nostalgic old places closing left and right, I was happy and relieved to see that Sno-White’s is still there.   

Driving across the Central Valley I could smell smoke; there were fires burning everywhere in California. I didn’t think too much of it… until we were descending into Yosemite Valley and I could see the haze. It wasn’t thick, but it was there. We pulled off the road for a quick photo by the Merced River. Out of the car for five minutes, I slipped off a rock and got one of my shoes soaked. I’ve never been an outdoorsman, but that was pretty ridiculous. Luckily I had multiple pairs of shoes!

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merced river 1

Less than five minutes inside the park, I slipped off this rock and submerged my shoe. Nobody has ever mistaken me for an outdoorsman!

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Following my itinerary for everyone I’ve taken to Yosemite, we first headed up to the famous tunnel view of the valley. And, sure enough, the smoke from a fire in the Sierra foothills obscured that iconic view. You could barely make out Half Dome. That introductory “Oh, wow!” factor was not to be.

mtu valley view

The Merced wildfire filled the park with smoke, spoiling the iconic tunnel view of the valley. Half Dome is in the center — lost in the haze.

We then headed down to Bridalveil Falls — which I knew in October would be a wisp, if anything. Still, Mtuseni was excited to see a waterfall. And just being out in the grandeur of Yosemite … you can’t not be swept up in the natural beauty. 

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bridalveil duo

Bridalveil is always a wispy waterfall. We were lucky to see any water in October!

From there we stopped to gape at El Capitan. I’ll never forget seeing it loom up on us for the first time on a trip with an old boyfriend in 1991; we were awestruck. You can’t explain the sheer scale of that 3,000-foot tall granite monolith. You just have to stand in its presence. 

Then we parked and headed on the trail to Vernal Falls, completing the classic first day visit. It’s a paved trail with some steady elevation, not much. I’d buzzed up there so many times I didn’t think about it. So I was stunned to be huffing and puffing halfway up the trail. I even needed to stop and catch my breath a few times. I was disgusted with myself! How could I be so out of shape?

Then I remembered: On prior visits, I was living in San Francisco. I walked five miles … and many steep hills … every day; I didn’t own a car. And I was in my 30s — not rounding the corner to 60! Plus, I’d been going nonstop on the road trip and sitting and driving for more than five weeks. And the valley air was laced with smoke. Those are all perfectly rational, valid excuses — but I was still bummed out. It was the age thing that bothered me most of all.

Mtuseni zoomed past me and went straight up the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls and the Emerald Pool. I kicked back at the base of the falls — which was also pretty minimal compared to its roaring springtime state. I was just happy being there and remembering past visits with different people. Back in my youth. 

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Vernal Falls in Yosemite.

Vernal Falls is like a mini Niagara in the spring. But Mtuseni wasn’t disappointed by the meager autumn falls. Everywhere you look in Yosemite there’s beauty.

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View from the top of Vernal Falls in Yosemite.

The view from the top of Vernal Falls. I only made it up there once, when my boyfriend cajoled me into climbing the precarious Mist Trail. (It was terrifying, but worth it.)

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After returning from the falls, we stopped in the valley meadow to gaze at Half Dome. Normally as the sun begins to set, the flat face of the granite monument glows with gorgeous color. But not when the valley is hazy with smoke. I was disappointed, but thankfully my spirit tree was still there: the lone California oak reverently keeping watch over Half Dome.

I’ve sat by that tree so often, in various states of mind, alone and with others. There’s something sacred about that tree; we have a relationship. Like Sno-White’s, I’m happy and grateful to see it’s still there. I was surprised that it’s gotten much bigger. (Duh, it’s been over 20 years!) But thankfully the tree’s distinctive shape hasn’t changed. It’s been waiting for me to stop by and say hello. We had a nice little talk.

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Half Dome from the meadow in Yosemite Valley

My spirit oak tree in the meadow, keeping watch over Half Dome. The National Park Service may have a different opinion, but that tree is mine. Just sayin’.

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Our hotel was outside the park, past the southern gate. I’d hoped to get a room at the historic Wawona Hotel, where I’ve stayed many times. It’s part of my Yosemite ritual: having coffee on the broad porch to start the day and dinner in the stately old dining room with the tall paned windows. Alas, it was all booked up.

I stopped by to see if we could have dinner. It was full, so I made a reservation for tomorrow. Just being in the lobby, steeped in classic old resort history, I was flooded with memories and happily choked up.

But on the way to the Wawona, we encountered something I’d never seen before in Yosemite. Or anywhere. The smoke from the wildfires west of the park — the source of all that damn haze — created the most stunning sunset. Cars were pulling off the road everywhere to marvel at this breathtaking event. 

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Sunset from the Wawona Road in Yosemite.

The setting sun shone blood red through the wildfire smoke. This looks like a piece of collage artwork… but it’s real.

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As I’ve always said, Yosemite never disappoints. We may have had a hazy view of Half Dome, but the gods traded us up for an epic sunset. And we still had two more days ahead!

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sunset wawona road

 

 

mtu gg bridge

San Francisco. The City by the Bay. My old haunt. I was so looking forward to this leg — I had the best decade of my life here (so far, at least). And I’d really talked up the place to Museni. So I was stunned that it turned out to be one of the few low points of the whole trip. (Not the lowest; that accolade goes to Montgomery — aside from being able to celebrate Mtuseni’s birthday there.)

I set aside a longer stretch of days here than usual, because I wanted to show Mtuseni everything. And being so far apart, we’re continually learning about each other. This would give him a chance to witness my life in my 30s… when I was only a few years older than he is now. And of course, I wanted to see old friends. 

We parked downtown and walked to Powell and Market streets, where the cable cars turn around. Right away I felt something was off. The streets were oddly quiet for a Saturday. And they were filthy. And smelled like piss and shit. And there were so many homeless people camped out. Now, there were homeless when I lived there in the 90s; I was regularly panhandled every other block. But this was another level entirely. And everything felt flat. Even the tourists lined up for the cable car seemed oddly subdued. 

As we walked down Market to grab a car at California Street, I kept saying, “Where is everybody? What’s wrong?” Mtuseni could see how perplexed and unnerved I was — and he’s not known for being emotionally perceptive.

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cal st hill

My commute to work, which I usually walked. No wonder I was in such good shape back then — I had to climb Nob Hill whenever I went home!

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We hopped on a cable car and the familiar rock and grind and clanging bell made me feel a little better. Nothing can spoil that view as the car climbs up Nob Hill and you can see the Bay Bridge. This was my commute to work — by cable or foot — and not once was I unmoved by it. I took that ride one last time the night before I moved away, and cried.

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Mtu cable car bench

On the cable car. It took some convincing, but I finally got Mtuseni to stand on the running board. That’s the best part! Once he did, he got it.

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cal st cable view

This view down my street on the way to work never got old.

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But at the top of the hill, my local park across from Grace Cathedral seemed small. My old apartment building was covered in grime. The sweet Chinese couple who owned it back in my day never let that happen. (And I paid $600 for a one bedroom with parquet floors and stained glass!) My local grocery store with the freaky, upside down parabolic roof was gone, split into a Trader Joe’s and CVS. 

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me apt

How many times I walked through this door! It was a great apartment. It was a great life.

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LDDTrip-CalSt w-Kell_20190515_0001

My friend Kelly, our crazy host in Los Alamos, moved away from San Francisco a few days after this was taken outside 1271. I left a week later. Note how grime-free my building was!

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And it hit me — my life there was long, long ago. And by the time I had left, I was ready to go. I’d gotten everything I wanted out of the place. That didn’t completely surprise me. The last time I visited 15 years ago, I had the same “been here, done this” feeling. But the city still had that quirky, nowhere-else-but-San Francisco energy back then. Now it was gone. 

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crowbar

I loved the Crowbar in North Beach! It had great beers and a killer juke box of punk and alt-rock! Seeing this sign crushed me. You can’t go home again.

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I described the feeling to my friend Patricia in Silly Valley, who was my upstairs neighbor on Nob Hill. “What happened to the city?” I asked. “Something feels off. I can’t put my finger on it.”

Her reply: “San Francisco lost its soul.”

She captured it perfectly. And this fact combined with it no longer feeling like home, not even nostalgically, made me sad. I was in a funk and just went through the motions the rest of the visit. I barely took any photos. If we didn’t have social events planned with friends I would have left after a day. These get-togethers were the highlight of the visit. And I realize that what made my 30s so wonderful wasn’t the place, but the people. If I could carry them around in my pocket wherever I go in life, I would. 

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gang edit_2

It’s so great to be able to pick up like no time has passed — and to have a new face in the gang! Sometimes, it’s the people that make a place.

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Mtuseni and I did have a couple of nice times on our own. At dinner in a North Beach trattoria, I noticed the imported goods on the walls and remembered that I’d been there with my parents in the early 90s. As I’d just lost my father a few months earlier, it was a nice memory and felt like dad was with us on the trip for a moment. 

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north beach

It wasn’t until I looked up from my wine and saw the products on the wall that I remembered being here with my parents in the early 90s.

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And my favorite little pub on Polk Street was still there — and hadn’t changed a bit. Thank god! I had so many laughs and heart-to-heart talks over burgers and pints at The Bell. A quick walk from my apartment, it felt like my Cheers — though nobody ever knew my name. (I don’t need that. Boundaries!) I ordered a cheeseburger, which I rarely eat these days, and it was exactly the same — right down to the pickle spear! I ate every bite.

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the bell out

How many times did I walk to The Bell — and sometimes stumble home from The Bell! I love this place… so happy it’s still here.

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I told Mtuseni about all the times I’d been there — often with Annie and Kelly and other friends he met along the trip. I was able to show him a slice of my life as a young guy. He saw me in another dimension — and could possibly see a life of fun and freedom for himself in his next decade. And in the end, that made the San Francisco visit worthwhile.

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bell bar

I downed many pints, had many laughs, and talked through — and listened to — many dramas and traumas at this bar.

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When we finally left for Yosemite, I watched the skyline fade in the rearview mirror and said goodbye. I knew that chapter of my life was forever closed. But I’ll always be grateful. I learned how to be me in San Francisco. I learned how to live. Everyone should have a chance to do that.

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bay bridge

A few years ago an old friend created the light show on the Bay Bridge, which I could see from my office right on the water. I think those lights would have bugged me after a while.

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