San Francisco

In July, I boarded a plane for what feels like the millionth time to be transported to the other side of the country. I travel a lot, I’m realizing. More than the average person, at least. I travel a lot and the marks on my carryon are there to prove it; the scuffs serving as evidence of the journeys. This time, I was going to San Francisco. It would be my third time in California, my second time in the Bay Area, but my first in San Francisco. 

I flew in on Saturday afternoon for a conference that began on Monday. I was traveling for work, a sentiment that is becoming my norm. This year alone I’ve traveled to four conferences, most of them straddling a purpose somewhere between work and my academic aspirations. San Francisco is, without a doubt, the best place these trips have taken me, especially in light of the cool weather that greeted me when I got off the plane. The Bay Area offered a sweet relief from the suffocating southern summer we’ve had. That alone would make the trip worth it.

I was in San Francisco to meet with thousands of others who work for and around GEAR UP grants. I was there to learn. I’m entering my third year working with GEAR UP Alabama, so I was anxious to gather with these people and see what other grants are doing around the country. But, before I did that, I had an entirely free day in San Francisco, and I intended to use it well. 

That Sunday, the day before the conference started, I slept without an alarm. I expected, especially due to the time difference, to wake up early to start my day. I was delighted, however, to learn that sleeping sans animals and with hotel blackout curtains allowed me to sleep way past my normal time. I awoke surprised, yes, but rested and thankful. My hotel room was nothing beyond a glorified dorm room, but the sleep it offered me was priceless. I slowly woke up, rolled out of bed, and prepared to start my day. I donned my signature all black with my white sneakers, threw my hair in some sort of something, packed my bag and left the room. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I knew wherever I wanted to be definitely existed outside of the hotel’s walls.

The first item on my agenda was simple: coffee. I knew San Francisco would offer incredible coffee options, but I wasn’t sure how close they’d be to the tourist mecca I was staying in. I’d discovered the night before that my hotel was surrounded by big name shops and souvenir stores. There was also a Trader Joe’s, where I’d visited in effort to get wine and cold brew and some snacks. I feared, going into the trip, that in walking around the city I’d turn a corner to be greeted by a massive, quintessentially San Franciscan hill. Thankfully, though, that didn’t happen, and if it did, or if I knew there would be hills in my route, I was quick to call an Uber. 

I found good, impressive coffee less than half a mile from my hotel, tucked away from the big shops but still filled with the same patrons. I took my coffee and wandered through and around shops and street corners. I people watched and bought sweatpants to protect me from the freezing hotel room before returning to the hotel to deposit that purchase. All I knew that day was that I wanted to visit an Everlane store, as there are two in the country and I happened to be in one of the cities. 

I walked. The store was over a mile away, but I walked. I wanted to get to know San Francisco, wanted to see the city beyond the tourists and hotels, and so I walked. I didn’t put headphones in but allowed my senses to be fully present in the hustle and grind of the city. As I made my way down the street, finally putting space between myself and the area of town I was staying in, I ended up following a couple all the way to Everlane. The walk only involved about two different turns before the final turn into the store and I couldn’t help but smirk when I found myself holding the door open for them. 

On my way across town, I became acquainted with San Francisco’s homeless problem. I saw locally owned stores and restaurants and wondered where I’d end up for lunch. I smelt weed and garbage and let the bay breeze hit my face as it fought its way through the buildings that surrounded me. I looked for a tattoo shop that took walk ins, passing one on my left that I’d return to later that afternoon. Right before arriving at Everlane, I stumbled upon a street fair and watched families play games and sign up for events. I got to know the city, which was the goal all along, before I went into Everlane and gawked at their beautiful, sustainable clothing. And after I ordered another pair of their jeans, I wandered on, aimlessly into the city, because that’s what I do best.

My time in San Francisco was nothing special. I wandered, like I do on all my trips. I ate good food and did my best to experience the city’s culture. I walked and walked, sometimes with a plan and sometimes not. I went to the conference and learned a lot, returning to Birmingham inspired and excited. I got a tattoo. I drank wine and watching Netflix in my hotel bed. I breathed. I thought about the books I’d read, the movies I’d seen that were set in the city and wondered what kind of story I’d put in it. I ate In-N-Out on the beach and let the cool breeze hit my face. I didn’t see the Golden Gate Bridge, but that’s okay. 

The next time I get on a plane, I’ll be on my way to Copenhagen with Erin. We’ll land and explore before we leave and move on to another city, another airport, another place to add to my list. I travel more than most, I realize, and I never want it to be any other way.

Ashton Ray