Straight to the Top (20061019)
Growing up in San Francisco, I can't say that I never thought about what the world looked like from the top of the Golden Gate Bridge. But I considered it in the same mental breath that I thought about, say, taking a weekend to the moon. I can't tell you jack about the view from the moon, but from the top of the Golden Gate Bridge's South Tower, the world is both narrower and a whole lot wider.I was lucky enough that my Dad knew somebody who could get him to the top, and probably even luckier that he asked me if I wanted to join him. (As opposed to my mother, sister or my Financial and Menu Adviser.) When he asked, it wasn't like I had to sit there and think long and hard about whether to go. The only question I had was, "When?" That turned out to be its own little debacle. There's no point in visiting the top of the Golden Gate Bridge if it's foggy, and it's foggy quite a lot around here. So the original day of the visit got cancelled at the last minute, and we rescheduled. What a boon that was - the new day of Our Elevation, October 19th, started not only with a cloudless blue sky, but it was warm and windless as well. We got to the bridge and met Amorette Ko, our guide to the top. We crammed into a tiny golf-cartesque vehicle and trundled along the bridge's pedestrian walkway. When we got out, she opened a door in the side of the tower and we crammed into a tiny elevator installed when the bridge was under construction in 1934. Made by the Otis Elevator company and designed to hold one man at a time, with the three of us squished in there it was like riding a Tokyo subway train vertically at rush-hour. The view from the top was vertiginous, but it's not like rides to the top of the Golden Gate are common, so there was nothing for me to do except swallow my pride and my breakfast and not think about the fact that I was around 750 feet above the bay. There wasn't a breeze or a cloud up there, although I did see one hawk swoop and rise on the invisible thermals. The platform is narrow and long, about 40 feet by ten feet. The catwalks around the edges of the towers were nothing more than corrugated metal and a one-bar handrail. Looking down, cars were zipping by on the 101. Tour boats and tankers chugged under the orange superstructure, leaving foamy white trails pierced by the blue-green water behind them. We could see Mount Diablo off in the East Bay, and the mountain behind it as well. The whole world seemed to take on an airplane perspective that you only get when you're far above everything else; even the thin line of orange haze on the horizon became something more than airborne toxins. All of reality tends to flatten out as the brain struggles to process being so damn high in the air. The symbolism of standing on top of the Golden Gate Bridge also struck me as being important. One of the least-articulated aspects of the bridge, any bridge, is the role of its design. Aesthetically, the Golden Gate is instantly recognizable, simple and yet full of little flourishes that make it unique, charming and memorable. The shape of the vertical support cables that hold the main ones in place, the ridged fronts on the towers - it's all essential. To change or remove one aspect of it would be to diminish the whole. Any bridge, though, is more than merely a crossing: they are living, functional symbols of humanity's attempt to integrate itself into its surroundings, not just dominate them. We could dam a river, but that irrevocably changes the entire environment, flora and fauna be damned. A bridge is something more, a literal and symbolic connecting of two disparate halves that seeks to become part of a landscape. So standing on the top of the bridge initially struck me as being a defiant posture, an arrogant middle-finger pointed at a man-made contruct that wonderfully transcends mankind, but that I was greedily taking advantage of. The longer I was up there, though, the more I changed my mind. Atop the bridge that makes not just every San Franciscan's heart, but everybody's heart skip just a bit whenever they approach it, I realized that we were still part of it. At the very top, with nothing preventing us from falling to our deaths except a decades-old metal rail, blessed with a unique view that very few people ever get to experience, we were still part of the bridge and part of its experience, as much as it has now become just a bit more a part of mine. I can only hope that travelling to the top becomes something that more people get to do.