The bus rolls along the slow grey streets of a San Francisco morning. It climbs onto a ramp and suddenly we’re floating above the warehouses and somber pastel neighborhoods at the city’s southern end, then winding along a leafy hillside dotted with houses up above. We’re on the 101, headed south.
The hills pivot west, away from the road, and we find ourselves at the mouth of a great valley. San Francisco Bay sits lazy to the east, perfectly flat. In the early morning, with the sun burning off the overnight fog, it’s a Turner painting: all oranges, blues, greys and hazy purples bleeding into each other, no demarcation between the sky and the water. Candlestick Park can be found in this clearing too. Deemed — more than twenty years ago — a “rotting whorehouse of a ballpark,” the stadium recently completed its final year of service as home to the 49ers football team. Next season the team will move to a new park almost forty miles down the road, in Santa Clara, and Candlestick will be demolished.
Further south is San Francisco International Airport, which everyone calls SFO, and a surrounding galaxy of airport hotels. Then, in no particular order:
a marble store, a mini golf course, a plumber (Smelly Mel), home goods suppliers, auto body shops, various storage facilities, a small airport for personal aircraft, the National Aviation Museum, go-kart tracks (three), fast food restaurants, a trailer park, a sign-printing shop, Medallion Rugs, Boardwalk Nissan, Putnam Lexus, Autobahn Motors (Mercedes Benz), the Good Nite Inn, Northern California Fence, San Francisco Blinds, Orlando Trujillo Painting Contractor, WAG (a hotel for dogs), a waste management facility (public tours offered on the third Thursday of every month!), and a beauty supply store featuring a lovely purple-pink neon sign that reads — Peninsula Beauty.
Many tech companies are located along 101. At night you can see employees in the windows at Evernote, walking and working on those treadmills with desks built into them. Oracle, the enterprise IT behemoth, has its headquarters in Redwood City, near the Aviation Museum. The Oracle complex consists of six massive, gleaming, all-glass towers that are taller and glossier than anything 10 miles in any direction. Compared to their neighbors, the Oracle buildings give the impression of someone that’s worn a tuxedo — with top hat and cane — to a casual family barbecue.
There are certainly better-looking highways in the Bay Area. Highway 17 dips, climbs and bends up and over a piney little mountain range; when you get to the end of that road you’ve hit Santa Cruz and the Pacific Ocean. Interstate 280, which runs parallel to 101, cuts straight and wide through rolling hills that would look just fine in a period movie about the pioneers. And then there’s the queen of them all, “vast, magnificent, unpredictable” Highway 1, which curves along the sinuous, rocky coastline abutting the Pacific, through magical places with magical names — Big Sur, Monterrey, Carmel, Half Moon Bay. These are roads shaped by powers larger than the California highway authorities. On them, you experience some of what people saw when they first came to this area — the space, the possibility, the denuded, unyielding beauty. With 101, you see something different. It’s a cross-section of the various flapping, whirring parts that have powered the Bay Area’s tremendous economic engine over the years. You see what people made once they stayed.
The picture above was taken by Jarrett Fuller.
The quote about Highway 1 comes from the introduction to Stephen Bayley’s Cars.