Discover more from An Ordinary Disaster
Chapter 8 — A guerrilla mission to scale San Francisco's most iconic landmark
An Ordinary Disaster — chapter 08 — The Golden Gate
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Working on the Sausalito waterfront in my late teens, the Golden Gate was always in sight. My friend Des and I both lived in the city and drove across the bridge most days to the one of the last remaining shipyards there, where we dragged fishing boats out of the water on old rails and scraped and painted their bottoms and sides. Northbound in the blue dawn, my motorcycle blown sideways in the wind, hammering across the grated roadway through which I could see the tide washing in, far below. Southbound at the end of the day, the tall deco towers painted dusty madrone-skin orange and lit by the warm yellow-orange of sodium vapor streetlamps, strings of orange-red tail lights—and often, a technicolor sunset glowing in the west.
It was a good place to grow up, and I had sailed beneath the bridge many times, staring straight up at the huge weight of metal. Seen from that perspective, at not much more than walking speed, the bridge could have been a starship moving slowly into space, its engines roaring, pushing up and away from Earth’s gravity. Crossing the Gate framed each day with perfect catenary arcs, the subtle bend of the bridge deck mirroring the curvature of the Pacific horizon. The bridge was the center of my world from early on—it was the center, it anchored everything as a perfect symbol of place and of connection, and of the gold that’s here, the gold that brought people here from the beginning and the gold that’s been here for me, an echo of the gold laid up in the geology of the Sierra, the golden dry summer grass of the California hills, the golden poppies of spring, and the gold that’s always in the West. A symbol for the city, an artifact of discovery and civilization, and something beautiful for its utility—a bridge to cross on the way to work each morning.
The bridge glows with the guarantee of good fortune—and—also with danger, and loneliness. As much as I loved that bridge, it could also feel like a threat, a dark mass casting its gargantuan shadow far into the bay. Its arms looms over us, inescapable. Even darker truth, the bridge is also a monument to suicide. We can’t avoid knowing its popularity as an end-of-life travel destination. I’ve seen the stiff bodies of jumpers after they hit the water, and although I’ve never been tempted to join them, I did often have the feeling, driving over the bridge on those grey mornings, that I might suddenly shrink and slip through a gap, drift sideways in the salt air on the way down, and then be washed cold by the waves, on my way to disappearing.
Des and I, we’d been to Yosemite together, climbing at Glacier Point and below the Royal Arches. I taught him the rope-work I’d learned from my father—how to tie in and belay, how to use slings and carabiners, how to place protection. Back in Sausalito, looking up at the bridge, we put two and two together, and we began to wait for one of those long late-summer nights when the heat of the day is slowly released from the land, an out-breathing of soft, warm, clear and calm air. Even at eighteen, I knew the patterns. I had my eyes open. I knew when to go.
A few weeks later, straight from a late shift welding and sandblasting out in the yard, another friend who’d agreed to drive dropped us in the north-west parking lot, dark and quiet in the odd hours of the night watch. We stepped out of the car and I watched the door swing closed with a heavy thump, moonlight glinting off the bright chrome handle. Committed, we turned to the bridge. A concrete ramp brought us to the western sidewalk, and then we were at the bottom of the twelve-foot section of fence that guards the massive main cable as it descends at an angle past the horizontal bridge platform.
We saw that the lanes were empty for a moment, vibrating black and white with the energy of cars sure to be coming again along any second. We knew we had to move quickly to avoid being spotted. The bulk of the cable confronted us, thick as the trunk of a redwood, as I grasped the hard diamonds of woven cyclone fencing wire. We both wore work boots, coveralls and climbing harnesses, belay slings already attached and threaded through locking ‘biners. I had my old manual Pentax slung over my shoulder, the plastic film canister in my pocket pressing into my hip.
My vision was clear and fixed on the top of the fence. I took a breath of sea air and launched myself upwards, making three quick moves, mantled over the roll of wire, swung around and placed my feet one, two on the wide cable—nearly three feet in diameter. Clipping a sling around one of the handrails, I took several quick steps upwards to get above the reach of any approaching headlights. Securing the second sling and glancing back to see Des in position behind me, we moved easily along the slope of the cable, swapping the belay slings in alternate fashion as we passed smaller vertical cables every few yards. Something about climbing that’s not so widely known is that despite the exposure, the practice of the sport is very much about safety and security. The culture and skill of climbing with proper techniques and equipment negate our natural fear of heights. Tools and experience make it possible to navigate the unknown.
You could say we were lucky. We were prepared. We were ready. Climbing rapid and steady above the city lights, we reached the top of the cable in no more than ten minutes. We didn’t hesitate to jump the fence, to make our way upwards, but here, we had to pause. Our slings weren’t long enough to allow us to climb from the cable onto the tower platform. Des caught up with me, and we faced the question without speaking. I pointed at the gap and raised my eyes. We both looked back down the slope of the cable, down to the roadway far below. We had to decide: Turn back, or unclip and step around?
To be clear, good climbers do not unclip—not ever. Many of the skills that you learn in climbing are specifically intended to avoid the possibility of ever having to even consider unclipping from the rope, or whatever else is securing you to solid ground. If you think you might hear someone say “I’ll just unclip for a second”—no, it doesn’t happen.
Thing was, we weren’t just out climbing. We were there for the tower. We’d chosen the perfect night—clear, balmy and still, even at seven hundred and fifty feet above the water. Our footing was secure, the top of the wide surface coated with non-skid mixed into the paint. I felt calm and clear-headed as we turned our eyes back to consider the two moves that we’d have to make unsecured, and my hands made the decision for me. I reached down and removed the first and then the second sling, freeing myself to climb up and over the bulwark of the tower. My heart rate increased, but it wasn’t racing, and I didn’t feel that I was making a reckless move. I don’t think I would have made the move if there had been any question of the possibility of falling. It didn’t come to mind.
In that moment, I just moved. My were fingers strong from working the brake and clutch of my motorcycle. I checked the position of my feet before giving them my weight, and then in another moment, we were together there on very top of the tower. I put my arm around my friend’s shoulders, and we stood there together in the silence.
The air swam around us, thick and slow like the ocean. We spun quietly on an island in the sky, breathing it in. My steel-toed boots securely planted in this surely secret place, I felt the city dissolve and soak in through my skin. Every hill and street corner, every bus stop and every place of memory—all the streets of my youth laid out in the sky beneath us. The dark forest of the Presidio stretching west to Lands End, where the mouth of the Gate opens wide to the Pacific. The angled hills and painted avenues, dark parks and up-lit monuments. All those lights, every little movement of thousands and thousands of people, so many buildings, the humming of engines, the swaying of trees, criss-crossing bike lanes and bus lines, burritos and and beer bottles, the giant Coke billboard and the Castro theater marquee, Chinatown bottle rockets and char siu bao. I used to keep fortune-cookie fortunes in my wallet because it seemed like bad luck to discard them—but how long can you hang onto a tiny slip of paper that says, “You are almost there”?
We were there. I’d been watching that bridge for so long, and we both loved to climb—and to break the rules. In those days—back in the late ’80’s—the consequences wouldn’t have been all that bad anyhow. A fine, a misdemeanor. Today it’d be a front-page felony. Once the idea came to mind, it was inevitable. We had to climb it, and we did.
We stayed up top for ten or fifteen minutes. I shot some photos that were lost a couple of weeks later when we drove to L.A. to meet a couple of girls, and the car was broken into in Venice, but it didn’t matter. We had to make the same exposed moves to get back onto the cable from the tower, but at that point we were moving like cats. We slipped back down to the roadway and the parking lot just as our getaway pulled up, speeding us to safety.
These days I’m often out on the water there, skimming along right under the bridge in the very same place where I’d been as a kid on our small family sailboat, watching that Imperial cruiser move out towards the stars. The bridge is an old friend now—the bridge and the entire place that it stands for. That huge, inanimate bucket of wire and bolts is alive, to me, and so familiar that it often seems not much larger than my own body. It is like a ship—a ship of home, and home is a ship for staying.
Thanks for reading, and for being part of this journey.
This is part of AN ORDINARY DISASTER, the book-length memoir about a man learning to listen to himself, and the price I paid until I learned how to do that, serialized right here on Substack with a new chapter published every week.
You can find everything from the memoir that I’ve published so far right here.
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