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Welcome to the Rock

approaching Alcatrez by ferry

At my suggestion, David and I visited one of San Francisco’s most famous sites, Alcatraz Island. Although a bit pricey, I think that it was definitely a highlight of our trip. We took a ferry from Pier 33 to Alcatraz. It’s a short trip (1.25 miles) that had lots of great photo ops for David. Warning: if you choose to stand on the outside bottom deck, you will get splashed with chilly San Francisco Bay water.

After arriving at Alcatraz, David and I walked around the grounds before going on an audio tour of the famous prison. While Alcatraz is most for the 29 year period it spent as a federal penitentiary (1934-63), it previously served as a fort and military prison. For 19 months (1969-71), Alcatraz was occupied by Native Americans as a political protest against federal seizures of native lands and poor living conditions on reservations.

We had beautiful, albeit a bit chilly and windy weather walking around Alcatraz. David took plenty of photos of the surrounding bay as well as the numerous seagulls and flowers on the island. The gardens of the wives of Alcatraz prison guards have been preserved and were full of blooming irises, daffodils, and calla lilies. Wild plant life has also taken over due to the lack of human occupation so we saw all sorts of plants growing up the rocky walls and in the ruins of abandoned Mission style buildings.

Finally, we toured the prison itself with the aid of a truly excellent audio tour. Alcatraz prison was home to such famous criminals as Al “Scarface” Capone, Robert “Birdman” Stroud, and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Evidently, to become a criminal mastermind, an ominous sounding nickname is essential. The prison cells were shockingly small and grim looking- 5 feet wide, 9 feet long, and 7 feet tall with room for a twin mattress, toilet with no seat, sink, and 2 shelves. On D block were the solitary confinement chambers where the worst of the worst were confined in total darkness for 24 hours a day. A National Park Ranger had a bit of fun with us by waiting until some tourists would walk into the solitary confinement cell and then slammed the door behind them for a minute or so. Another constant source of frustration for the inmates must have been the spectacular views of San Francisco across the bay- so close and yet completely out of reach.

We finished up our tour of the prison and took the ferry back to San Francisco. After the sun set, we amused ourselves by exploring the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf area. We had a surprisingly good time at the Musee Mechanique, (quoting the website www.museemechanique.org), “one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of mechanically operated musical instruments and antique arcade machines.” For 25 cents, you could hear a player piano, get your fortune told by a creepy looking puppet, watch a ferris wheel made completely out of matchsticks turn, or test how intense a lover you are! It really gave some insight into how people entertained themselves in the days before movies, TV, records, etc.

At the end of the day, we decided to work off some of the junk food we’d eaten earlier in the day. In a quest to see the famous curves of Lombard Street, we hiked up the incredibly steep streets from Fisherman’s Wharf up to Russian Hill. Coming from the flat plains of Plano, TX, the hills of San Francisco were simultaneously beautiful, awesome, and a real workout to walk. After huffing and puffing at the top of Lombard Street (The Crookedest Street in the World), we gave ourselves a break and caught a cable car back to our hotel. If you ever visit San Francisco, the cable cars are a really fun way to see the city since they are open-air cars that travel only 9.5 miles per hour. Finally, we collapsed in our hotel room after a full day’s adventure!

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