To get from my house to the beach you need only travel a few mostly-flat miles, but you also pass through at least 500 years of human history, including arguably the oldest remaining building in the city of San Francisco (the present-day Presidio Officers’ Club; the contested “second” oldest building in SF being Mission Dolores a few miles south.) Though the Spanish established the military/religious outpost known as El Presidio in 1776 (which subsequently passed into Mexican and then Californian/American hands before finally being ceded from the U.S. Army to the National Park Service in 1994), the local indigenous people, the Miwok, were the first to call the sandy dunes and coastal scrub home at least since the 1500s (when Sir Francis Drake’s men first accounted for them) but possibly as far back as 4,000-5,000 years ago. Many people don’t realize that Miwok descendents still reside in the Bay Area.
After driving down Greenwich, turning right onto Lyon (the infamous Lyon St. steps are now a few blocks behind you), and left onto Lombard you pass into the main artery of the military post. On the right are recent, but historically evocative, office buildings comprising the Letterman Digital Arts complex. Its main tenant, Lucas Film, is largely credited with making the current Presidio financially viable. Lucas (who named his Star Wars Ewoks after the native people) was the first major tenant of the park, helping to raze the defunct Letterman military hospital and putting in its place a group of office buildings, beautifully manicured landscaping, and a Yoda statue and fountain that many unknowingly pass by each day in their tour busses and rented bikes.
As you curve deeper into the Presidio you pass by remarkably competitive residential flats and the main post’s long-standing hospital, which now houses non-profits and an incredibly tasty (and, again, hidden) cafe. The original post hospital is just down the road–on the left, after the newly daylighted stream through Tennessee Hollow and the YMCA–and is self-proclaimed as the oldest modern building in the park. The closest outcropping of the building is shaped like a hexagon; it was in this relatively well-lit part of the building where surgeons operated by daylight. At the bottom of the building, sticking out from the natural hillside, is where the morgue used to be.
The Main Post is next, which is what many largely consider “The Presidio” for all intents and purposes. Its large grassy area is the old parade grounds, and was all asphalt and concrete until just a few years ago. Now it hosts film showings, weekly food truck gatherings, and ongoing archeological digs as it’s sheltered from the strong winds coming through the Golden Gate by 100-year-old barracks.
After passing between one of these red buildings, the only remaining cemetery within city limits is on your left, housing soldiers and their families from Civil War times on. Cemeteries once dotted the city, but following the 1906 earthquake, only this one–later deemed a U.S. National Cemetery–was allowed to stay. That, and, of course, the nearby Pet Cemetery that still remains.
You then pass briefly through the man-made forest of the Presidio. Home to at least a dozen major trails, the forest–mostly Monterey Cyprus and Pine, and Tasmanian Bluegum Eucalyptus–is entirely man-made. It was part of the single biggest conservation effort in U.S. history, and is what many locals even today still consider to be “natural.” The truth is, this outpost was naturally so barren (with only scrub, low-slung native oaks, and blowing sand dunes) that the U.S. army planted the forest first out of necessity for protection from the elements, and only secondarily to separate the post from the nearby city, and to beautify the surroundings. It was never really meant as a long-term solution, and so the Monterey Cyprus in particular, which have a lifespan of about 100 years, are all set to come down at any moment. Fortunately, the park is aware of this, and planting more to strike a balance between what’s natural and what’s “natural.”
Onward past Fort Scott (actually a completely separate fort from the Main Post) and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge that is so close you feel as if you’re practically on top of it, you curve left and finally get some views of the Pacific Ocean. Even though it’s just a few miles from my house (and from the city, in general) the ocean can feel far away and foreign. Now, with it on your right, just below the batteries installed for land defense between the Civil and Cold Wars, it feels like a natural extension of the park’s beauty. You drop several hundred feet now, passing trails and more contemporary barracks on your left, and toward the entrance of Baker Beach.
The beach here is nestled within its own small cove. At one end is Land’s End, a excellent trail (and where I proposed to my wife), that towers over breakers where surfers sometimes take the plunge for a short and choppy ride. Curving inward past the Mediterranean vibe of the Sea Cliff mansions you cross over the only remaining natural spring in the city that still flows to the ocean year-round. A young Ansel Adams lived nearby, and supposedly honed his love of nature and perspective near this spot. The actual beach then runs until it hugs WWII-era bunkers on the right, a kinda-sorta nude beach, and giant cliffs that rise to meet the Golden Gate Bridge. Foggy and confused ships once wrecked here. The original Burning Man was held here.
Though this past May, on the morning of my birthday when I drove out here by myself (a present I’d given to myself), none of that was on display. In fact, alone, with a coffee, pastry, and journal in hand, none of the history explained here was on my mind.
Happy Birthday to me pic.twitter.com/qNb9RE1Y8d
— Chris Gerben (@cgerben) May 3, 2014
Instead, I was able to take a seat on the cool sand and look out over the gently lapping waves of the Pacific and into the Marin Headlands, still primordial like the clouds and sky above them. It was then as if time had stopped, or as if time had never existed. What, really, could anyone ask for beyond that for a birthday? To be alone and timeless. At peace with memory and with looking forward?
The entire way out to the beach that morning I listened to Ray LaMontagne’s “Ojai” on repeat. Its fuzzy, bouncy bassline rolling like a story being told back to me. Its honkytonk piano and outlook suspended like a hopeful pragmatism. Its joy like a promise I was making to myself.