After graduating from college in Australia, I decided to delay the whole ‘getting a job thing’ and move to San Francisco with nothing but a one-year work visa. I arrived in the city, fresh from summer, on a freezing cold January day, and faced the daunting task of setting up a new life.
The first weeks were spent trudging all over the city handing out resumes while religiously checking Craigslist for jobs and houses. Incredibly it worked, and by the end of January I had both a job and a house. Craigslist, it turns out, is a goldmine for anything and everything, and I also ended up buying a van to road-trip around in when some other friends came to visit.
My friend Britt, who had spent the past five months hitchhiking around Central America, decided to come visit me before she headed back to Australia at the start of February. Armed with little more than a mandolin and an assortment of colourful sweaters and vests, Britt bounded into my life with an insatiable energy and passion for adventure. The days sped by, hastened by gallons of tea, countless burritos, late nights, and early mornings. Over a cup of chai one night it was decided we needed to get out of the city for a few days and explore the area around San Francisco.
Waking up early on Saturday morning, we hastily shoved together a few supplies: a bag of dates, a thermos of tea, some apples, a sleeping bag, and my tiny, coffin-shaped, one-man tent. With Britt’s mandolin in tow, we left the house and headed off to find my elusive van. The problem was that my van seemed to have vanished. We wandered around Sunset for fifteen minutes, looking like two lost gypsies rugged up in our warm and obscenely colourful sweaters, long draped pants, and oversized beanies. It soon became apparent that my van was not going to be found. (It turns out it had been towed).
“Let’s just hitch,” I said turning to Britt. “We have a tent, some warm food and I am sure there are plenty of people going north.”
Five minutes later, we were on a bus to Golden Gate Bridge. “Let’s walk across the bridge rather than cross it on the bus,” Britt said, and we immediately got off and joined the hoard of camera-carrying tourists.
Crossing the bridge took a surprisingly long time, and we were both struck with the sheer enormity of this gargantuan feat of steel and engineering. There’s definitely a reason it’s renowned across the world. Extending across the abyss, partially obscured by the mysterious fog that occasionally just appeared, it looked every part the mythical feat of American brilliance that we’d heard about growing up. With the freezing wind whipping at our hair, and the tendrils of fog chilling us through our layers, we felt absolutely alive as we walked the mile or so from one side to the other.
Once on the other side, we pulled out a shabby and crumpled piece of paper and, after scribbling a sign that said NORTH, set up just outside the parking lot. Our attempts at conning people into giving us a lift north seemed to be futile. Many a bemused face would flash us an apologetic looking smile before continuing inevitably toward the road without us. Eventually Paul, in his middle-of-the-range Honda, pulled over and welcomed us in. We seemed a strange fit. Paul was a dentist who made a modest wage and lived in a modest village an acceptable distance north of San Francisco. He held modest views and lived a very controlled and seemingly orderly existence. He didn’t seem the type to pick up hitchhikers – especially two bizarrely dressed Australians with nothing but a mandolin and a small bag of clothes.
Having said that, Paul was very, very friendly and dropped us off along the way. We walked a little further and then found Scott, who drove a 1980’s Mercedes with a plush leather interior. He also had a passion for travel, and he drove us to a small village in the hills surrounded by towering redwood trees.
After Scott sped off into the distance we disappeared into a local supermarket to grab some last minute supplies. A very chatty and friendly old man told us about some cascades further up the valley that sounded like a perfect place to pitch our tent. Chiding us to “be careful,” he set off on his jolly way, whistling and occasionally breaking out into song as he left the store. We soon followed him out the door, pleased to leave the town centre behind and begin walking toward the mountains that hugged the small village. As the houses became less and less, the road turned to dirt. The trail now veered toward the forests and began following a small but energetic little stream that cackled happily away beside us as we walked.
Before we knew it, we were surrounded by the tallest trees I had ever seen in my life. The towering redwood trees were so tall, and the canopy so dense, that they seemed almost to block out the sun. We kept following the track until it led off into a beautiful glade.
We decided to set up camp in the small clearing in the forest. The stream flowed along beside us and all around us were the stunning redwoods, standing like protective giants above us. A gentle mist settled over the forest, and it felt like being in the Lord of the Rings. I half expected one of the trees to come alive, or for Gollum to creep up from the stream and offer us a freshly caught fish. Lighting a fire to stave off the biting chill and provide some light with which to read and play mandolin proved more difficult than I had imagined. Because of rain the night before, everything was damp, and it took ages to dry it out and get the fire going. By the time it was a small blaze, I was mildly proud of my achievements.
The perfect nature of the day couldn’t continue unfortunately. As the night progressed, the fire went out, and without its gentle warmth there was no respite from the arctic night (bear in mind we are from Australia and not used to such cold!) Our comfort levels were also hindered by the size of the tent – the designers weren’t lying when they said it was a ‘one man tent.’ Shaped like a coffin, it was not only morbid lying there in the tent – we also felt there was barely left any room to breath. This was further compounded by the fact that we had only one sleeping bag and the ‘soft ground’ turned out to be a mirage as it felt like sleeping on a bed with about five large, pointy nails just primed to poke you when you lay down.
Suffice to say that the early morning light was a welcome sight.
Walking back down the path to the same town, we had coffee and cake as our reward. Although actually, the real reward was the freedom and absolute joy that comes from setting out one day and not knowing where you are going to end up that night. The distance or location doesn’t matter; rather it is the people you’re with and the people you meet that make a journey memorable.
I travelled around America a lot after this jaunt with Britt, but there are few trips quite as memorable or joyous as this little weekend adventure north of San Francisco.