On Taking the Sausalito Ferry to San Francisco

In primary school, my favorite scientific experiment was the one in which we were asked to fill a glass of water at home, sprinkle a hefty helping of salt into it, place an ordinary piece of string in the mixture, then leave it overnight. Once all the water evaporated, you were left with a clutch of salt crystals clinging to the string at all kinds of improbable angles. That’s what San Francisco looks like from the pier of the Sausalito ferry: a jumble of white buildings clustered around the thinnest of peninsulas. The prominence of Coit Tower and the TransAmerica building with its sharp pinnacle gives to the whole an oddly crystalline appearance.

San Francisco is unusual, and unusually beautiful, because there are so many vantage points within it from which to see the whole city in panorama. The pier of the Sausalito ferry is just one. The Golden Gate Bridge is another. And Tank Hill is still another, one I had never experienced before despite having lived not far from it for several years. The view from Tank Hill is simply amazing. It’s also amazing that it’s a natural feature. If you’re actually in a city, most aerial views of that city are provided from the tops of tall buildings. In San Francisco, the geography itself is always offering fresh, lofty perspectives. Wherever you are—Nob Hill, the Haight-Ashbury, the Mission—you can find some grassy knoll from which to view the city at a distance while still being right in the middle of it. You get the long view and up close and personal simultaneously. Higher planes, elevated states are always within easy walking distance. You can lift your head into wide open spaces—so high and so wide open that it’s dizzying—while keeping your feet firmly on the ground. Kind of reminds me of Michel de Montaigne’s bracing observation:

Upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses.