Best of all are the lingering Indian summers, when sunlight is tangled like antique gold filigree in the thick, dark foliage of Golden Gate Park. The tourists are gone; the slashing rains of winter, the frigid summer fog, the dazzling light of July noon: all gone. Now in this burnished late October stillness the sun is warm enough to bring a fine sheen of sweat to those walking in the park. But there is also a faint autumnal chill in the air, especially poignant because it is so subtle, evoking other times, other weathers.
Almost all the people you meet in San Francisco, it seems, have come from somewhere else. They are the seekers, the adventurers, the people dissatisfied with things as they are. Most have brought with them something of the '49ers' spirit, the crazy optimism of the men and women who traversed a continent in covered wagons questing for gold, then kept going west to transform a small, rough seaport town into a fantasy of elegance, opulence, and eccentricity. All the clichés—the cable cars, the foghorns, the celebrated restaurants—are here for the taking. But this jewel of a city is also a place of exuberant rebelliousness where nothing is accepted merely because it has been in the past. It is a place where the inhabitants keep trying out new ideas about health and nutrition, hidden human potentials, spirituality, and sexuality in the laboratories of their lives, then spread these ideas to the nation and the world. It is also a center of innovation in the arts and sciences and in technology. There have been 33 Nobel Laureates in just two of its nearby universities, Berkeley and Stanford, more than in most entire countries. And the city's godchild in the South Bay, a meta-city called Silicon Valley, has become the most powerful engine of industrial innovation ever known on this planet, a place where the inventiveness of seekers barely out of their teens can shake the world economy.
It is late afternoon with the promise of a full moon. You take the trail along the city's rocky northern shore westward from the Marina Green to Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge. Glancing across the bay to the north, you admire the wild Marin County headlands, their autumn grasses turned a deeper gold by the sun's last rays. As you near your destination, the sun hangs beneath the span of the bridge, barely above the sea's surface. When you reach Fort Point (the bridge looming hugely above), its final burning sliver is sinking into the Pacific.
You turn to go back. And there, eastward across the Bay, directly in front of you: a full moon rising over the distant Berkeley hills. You suffer a moment of vertigo, a feeling that you are intimately involved with the turning of the Earth, the orbiting of the moon and of the planets. It is almost too beautiful to bear.
Later, sometime after midnight, you are awakened from a deep sleep by a sensation that your house has been jarred by something shockingly heavy. A second later, the familiar motion begins. Now the objects in your room—the bed lamps, the clock, the shutters—begin to rattle and creak in perfect rhythm. You hold your breath. It keeps getting stronger. Just then, crescendo becomes diminuendo. You start breathing again. You lie there in the stillness, and it seems the moon is drifting ghostly music down the starlit sky into the room, turning the bureau, the chair, the mirror a pale silver. The sounds of the city float in to blend with the moonlight's silent song, and the darkness is filled with unseen things and things transformed. Deep beneath the Earth, two enormous tectonic plates have shifted slightly. But the tension between them still exists, and there will be more such shifts, more earthquakes—maybe the Big One. But it's worth risking all this and more to live in such a lovely city on the edge of a continent, on the edge of history.
GEORGE LEONARD, who has written for Esquire, Harper's, and The Atlantic Monthly, is the author of 12 books, including his most recent, The Way of Aikido.
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.