San Francisco diary

December 10, 2013

Before we could fly out of Dulles on Sunday night our plane had to be de-iced. I got some good shots of the guy doing the de-icing – he was in a cherry-picker. He sprayed the wing outside my window, then sprayed it again. I appreciated this man. How much does he make an hour? Does he have good benefits? I had complained all day about travel headaches, about having to make a trip in an ice storm because Virgin America would not let me rebook a day later without charging me an additional $800-plus. At some point you just throw up your hands and say, I’d rather crash. Anyway, I had it good, warm inside the plane, not much of a delay, San Francisco just six hours away. I hoped the man doing the de-icing wasn’t too cold, and would remember to do both wings.

San Francisco is weirdly cold this week. I’ve never seen a cold San Francisco, except in summer. But that’s a foggy cold, a marine-layer cold, and this is the real thing, like Boston in October. To be sure, it’s not anything like winter on the right side of the continent, and there’s no precipitation, just cold, dry air, and brilliant sun that’s blinding as I head down Fourth Street on the way to Moscone for the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting. The cold nights are perfect for hiking the hills here; last night I summited Nob Hill, which officially lists at 325 feet but is more like a thousand, I’d estimate. I ducked into hotel that is out of my budget range. Someday that’ll be me, staying at the top shelf place on Nob Hill. I just need to get a few things accomplished first. Write something meritorious. Sell a screenplay. Inherit an obscure fortune that had been loitering unseen in my family for generations.

These sorts of aspirational things used to be my Plan A, but mostly they have slipped to Plan B status, or further down the alphabet. Plan A, I guess,  is to just be myself.

That’s not ambitious or inspiring, but it has the virtue of being doable.

Every time I come to San Francisco I think of the summer of 1981, when I was an intern at the San Jose Mercury News, living in a dorm at Stanford, driving around the peninsula in a 1967 Mercury Monterey that my friend Wayne and I had bought for $400 in San Diego during the previous spring break so that we could drive to the desert and then go to Mexico. The transactional details are fuzzy, but I guess it was hard to rent a car, so we bought one.

I wound up with the car in San Jose, and although I usually had a company car when writing stories for the paper, on the weekends it was just me and the land yacht, bombing all over the place, exploring every vale and beach of the peninsula and the Bay Area generally. Santa Cruz. Muir Woods. Mount Diablo. Although I eventually made a couple of good friends, for much of the summer I was completely and sometimes desperately alone. I lacked any of the tools that lonely people can turn to today to assuage their isolation. No television, no phone, certainly no computer.

(For younger readers: Yes, we didn’t have the Internet, but it’s very important that you understand that we didn’t realize that we didn’t have the Internet. We didn’t feel uneasy because we hadn’t checked Twitter in a while. We weren’t maintaining 37 separate, running conversations on social media and by  e-mail. And it was fine. It was actually very good. We could think back then.)

No friends, nothing to do, I turned always to the car, which offered the empowerment of mobility and speed. I had little money, but gas was cheap, and I survived on Mexican food that stuck to the ribs. I had a map, and laid out before me was one of the great landscapes in America, something from a John McPhee fantasy: tectonic forces and plate boundaries giving us coastal ranges, fault zones, a Golden Gate, and all these hidden places harboring redwoods and aging hippies. At the tip of the peninsula was the jewel of San Francisco. You could nose around City Lights bookstore in North Beach and maybe pick up some lingering vibe from the Beats. Or go to Haight-Ashbury, or to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where Flower Power had long since lost its bloom and the drug culture had produced too many human casualties.

Today the whole Bay Area seems spiffier, snazzier, flush with tech dollars. You see it as soon as you step off the plane: Oh, look, a place to buy a $15 glass of pinot. The tech world has created a cultural bubble, but that’s a different story and not one I’m in a position to tell.

I can tell you about Mars, though. The AGU is the best science meeting of the year, with upward of 20,000 scientists talking about Earth science, planetary science, asteroid impacts, volcanoes, earthquakes, climate change and so on. On Monday we learned that it once got 136 degrees below zero in a spot in Antarctica (just to put our current cold snap into perspective). Of course, the world is warmer now than it was a few decades ago, something that we’ll hear about today from James Hansen. Global warming is another thing we didn’t think about 30 years ago.

None of us are as young as we used to be. Not a complaint, just a mental notation. We never know where we’re going to wind up, though in retrospect certain things seem inevitable, and logical. My plan is to keep driving. But maybe get a better map.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach | December 5, 2013