This blog welcomes all curious bears. All lazy, wise or industrious bears. Right now we especially welcome grizzly bears, because I’m in California. San Fransisco, to be precise, where the buses are (nearly) all electric and have been that way for years, though the actual service is pretty shoddy, overcrowded and infrequent, and will have you waxing positive about Transport for London. This is the hilliest city I think I’ve ever been in, so a big thumbs up to all the cyclists who take on the challenge. Two weeks of commuting by bike here would whip you right into shape. The last thing I will say about transport is that I was pleasantly surprised to discover that pedestrians here have much greater right of way than in London; it is easier and quicker to cross the road and drivers are much more deferent to those on foot. Not what I expected in the land that spawned car culture, though I fear it may not extend to Los Angeles, where I will be in a week’s time.
I landed in SF last Friday and the timing has been serendipitous, though no thanks to any foresight on my part. I’ve arrived in Indian summer, the finest weather they get all year here ‘in the Bay area’, which is shrouded in sea mist for much of the summer proper. The skies are clear and luminous now though, showing off in all its self-assured glory the Golden Gate Bridge and glinting off the heads of the sea-lions playing in its vicinity.
It’s also been a weekend of festivals. City of contradictions, the off the grid counter-culture spirit of SF was fed by the development of silicon valley technology, and this community of peaceniks lives in what used to be a massive military base. So on Saturday I was watching the equivalent of the Red Devils – the Blue Angels – looping over Baker Beach in hair-raising formation as part of Fleet Week. And then on Sunday I was at the Burning Man Decompression party in the Dogpatch area of the city. Burning Man – the now legendary festival of the alternative in the Nevada desert – actually started on Baker Beach (no-one seems to know exactly when), until the health and safety moved in and the crowds got too big. Of course, it was all free back then…
Now Burning Man takes place each August and is the focal point of the year for many Californians who are prepared to buy a ticket to get into Black Rock City, a car-free temporary community of 60,000 colourful and often more than semi-naked souls. The party is built on music, art, sustainability (again, contradictorily for a festival that takes place in a water-starved landscape that everyone has to drive many miles to get to) – and alternative technologies, or alternative uses of existing technology. Oh, and yes, maybe a recreational drug or two. Decompression was a chance to get just a little glimpse of the Burning Man spirit, transferred to a mile of tarmac and a small park. Floats and stages playing techno, bangra-influenced electronica, live hip-hop, heavy punk or gypsy rock were interspersed with amazing transformed vehicles, chillout camps under canopies, sculptures of mirrors, water, rock and iron, bikes blowing bubbles, Tesla energy devices, and many people in all conceivable states of costume and undress.
Volunteering on the entrance gate for a couple of hours was the ideal way to drink in some of that spirit. I had the extremely arduous task of clicking people in on a bouncer’s counter; also essentially arbitrary since no-one actually cared about the numbers. Manuals on gay sex and the path to enlightenment sat on the welcome desk, and a tarot-reading viking sat behind it, while performers and wonky-eyed kids passed through, getting stamped on any available bit of flesh by a man in a bowler hat. I use the term ‘man’ here in full knowledge of its rather restrictive ability to encapsulate the fluidity of gender that is part of that Burning Man spirit.
So that was fun. And then last night I had a breath of the intellectual side of this counter-cultural atmosphere at an independent bookshop in the Mission district. Dave Eggers and Jordan Flaherty are two writers who have just published books (Zeitoun and Floodines respectively) about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the politics of race and social injustice in New Orleans. A big crowd of students and community activists turned out to hear them speak and eat free houmous and discuss, exchange, organise. Eggers, whose You Will Know our Velocity is my current travel read, has his pirate shop and social education project, 826 Valencia, just down the road. I was very pleased to shake his hand.
Next week: dispatches from the open road as I head to Yosemite, Sequoia and Death Valley, on the lookout for bears.
Check Maddington Bear’s brand-spanking new blog holding more photos of Wander & Wonder… and more!