Golden Gate Bridge

the last time I was in San Francisco, I was still very new to the idea of “running” and certainly didn’t consider using the descriptor on myself. but I’d brought my shoes with me and one morning a couple of us headed out from our hotel for (what now seems remarkably) an easy out-and-back run to Ghirardelli Square. I distinctly remember thinking, when my friend quipped “I’m going to sprint the last block!”, that she was completely nuts.

three years later, I proposed a run across the Golden Gate Bridge as one of our pillar sightseeing activities. what better way to see one of the most impressive engineering feats in American history than on foot! at slightly-faster-than-walking pace! the journey to get to the visitor’s center proved its own adventure and gave us a more street-level introduction to the city than perhaps anticipated (riding local public transit will do that).

prior to the construction of the bridge, getting from the city across the bay to Marin County required a ferry ride, which was subject to certain weather-related travel constraints and ultimately hampered the growth potential of the city. as the city and area grew, the need for a better means of travel became increasingly apparent as the growth rate of comparable cities outstripped San Francisco. ferries began running as early as the 1820s and regular service began in the 1840s, eventually becoming an extension of rail service. discussion of a bridge began around the same time but did not bear fruit until the 1930s.

for a long time, engineers held that, due to the depth of the channel, strong currents, persistent fog, and winds, building a bridge across the strait was impractical, if not impossible. in 1916, the City Engineer estimated, while theoretically possible, the cost of constructing a bridge could exceed $100 million – a prohibitive price tag – but allowed that a project might work, should it prove possible to do it for less. engineer Joseph Strauss (who designed a 55 mile railroad bridge over the Bering Strait) presented a plan for a cantilevered system joined by a suspension in the middle, the price of which came in at $17 million. the city assented to let him proceed on the condition he consult additional experts, who determined a suspension system the most practical for the site.

it took quite a few years of litigation and negotiation, however, before the project ultimately began construction. the Department of War feared a bridge could interfere with ship traffic or be a target for sabotage (terrorism); the railroads litigated because a bridge would compete directly with their ferry business. eventually the Department of War came around, even granting necessary land for construction on the San Francisco side; the fledgling auto industry supported the project, providing a useful counterbalance to the railroads, and serious design discussions began in 1923.

while Strauss was officially the chief engineer on the Golden Gate project, his initial design was both impractical and visually unappealing; in later years he spent a good amount of time downplaying the contributions of his collaborators, with an eye to posterity. Leon Moisseiff, who designed the Manhattan Bridge, championed the suspension design, while Charles Alton Ellis did much of the technical and theoretical work for the design, including figuring out how to preserve Fort Point at the foot of the southern end of the bridge. in 1931, Strauss fired Ellis from the project (for “wasting money” sending telegrams to Moisseiff for consulting purposes) but Ellis, who could not find subsequent work during the Depression, continued to work some 70 hours a week on calculations for the project. as a result of this dispute, Ellis received no credit for his work when the bridge opened in 1937 (that snub was corrected in 2007 in a governmental report, which gave Ellis major credit for the design).

funding for the Bridge, once it was ready to go up, proved challenging. after the crash of 1929, the Bridge & Highway District incorporated by the legislature to see the project through, was unable to raise funds for the project; they lobbied for a bond measure, which voters approved in 1930, but the bonds didn’t sell. ultimately, the founder of Bank of America (Amadeo Giannini) agreed to buy the lot in an effort to boost the local economy.

construction began on January 5, 1933, under Strauss’ supervision, and was completed in April 1937 (ahead of schedule and under budget. at the time of its completion, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world; today it is second only to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. until 1998, it was also the tallest, with the span towering 746 feet high and the span some 220 feet above the surface of the water. steel in the bridge was fabricated by Bethlehem Steel in plants in New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. it contains some 1.2 million rivets and over 80,000 miles of wire (with some 27,572 wires comprising one cable).

during the project, eleven workers died; one in October 1936, and ten in February when a portion of scaffolding fell through a safety net that hung below the work area. by contrast, the net saved the lives of some 19 men who fell from the work area; they became members of the informal Half-Way to Hell club.

proposals to install netting or higher fences to reduce suicides from the bridge in recent hears have not yet borne fruit. impediments to such measures have included cost, aesthetics, and concerns about what kind of effect additional weight might have on the structural integrity of the bridge. in 2008, the Bridge’s Board of Directors voted to approve a plastic-covered stainless steel net beneath and extending out from the bridge, but cost has prevented that from being installed. instead, information about a suicide helpline is installed at frequent intervals along the bridge, have trained volunteers and law enforcement officers to watch for people in distress, and closed the bridge to pedestrians at night. despite those efforts, however, the number of suicides each year remains high.

it remains one of the most iconic and visited landmarks in the United States. we saw countless pedestrians and tourists on rented bicycles traversing the span as we ourselves took it in on foot. San Francisco City Guides runs free walking tours of the bridge as well, for those that want to know more about the history of the bridge and its construction.

quirky Key West

you hear it everywhere from everyone — Key West is “weird”. residents pride themselves on being weird, being counter culture, thwarting expectations.

maybe it is and maybe residents do. if you get rid of all the tourists. or get away from Duval Street and Mallory Square. when we saw what were obviously native islanders, they certainly seemed a little off — exactly what you think of when you think of someone “quirky.” mostly, though, Key West is a slightly offbeat tourist magnet with kitschy gift shops, touristy museums, overpriced sights, and plenty of street performers. I cannot imagine being on the island during the summer or in the height of Spring Break season. it must a different world.

we did manage to get slightly off the beaten path, thankfully. after our attempt to eat at a very Popular Spot was thwarted by a 70 minute wait, we walked the mile and a half to its sister restaurant on Higgs Beach. in the end we probably didn’t get our food any sooner than if we’d waited at the first place, but the walk afforded us with an alternative view of Key West that we hadn’t yet encountered on our shuttle rides or walks around the northwest end of the island.

on Higgs Beach, despite the wind coming off the water, a group of leathery-skinned locals sat on chairs in the shade of a palm tree, chatting. a sign warning of jellyfish danger greeted you on approach to rather murky-looking water. and, perhaps the best example of Key West’s alleged “quirkiness”, a peace sign composed of coconuts that had fallen from a nearby tree.

in spite of the crowds and aggressively touristy nature of Key West, there is a lot to recommend the place. the off-the-beaten-path places that are truly unique and don’t try to foist themselves on you and whose merit speaks for itself, for one thing. and the sunsets, for another.

a pedometer would be handy

after some consideration, I’ve settled on a unifying element of my trip to the Czech Republic: walking. my accidental 28km hike was just one of many foot-borne excursions I enjoyed during my travels. Czechs, I came to understand, enjoy their outdoor activities and hiking and biking trails snake everywhere across the countryside. before I left, I spotted tips in my guidebook for people looking to hike the length of either the Czech Republic or Slovakia and thought the idea absurd — what country has the hiking infrastructure to allow people to hike that far? to make an enjoyable vacation out of the activity?

the Czech Republic, I now know, for one. presumably Slovakia for another.

I went into a bookstore in Wenceslas Square in Prague looking for a standard, nationwide roadmap like the one I got in Ireland and there were nearly as many detailed local and regional ordinance survey recreational maps as there were for maps for the rest of the world. walks around Český Krumlov, around Prague, around Štramberk, around Olomouc, around Brno, around the Mikulov region … you name it, there was a recreation map to cover your needs. maybe two.

however, for those like me who don’t deem such detailed ordinance maps necessary, the trails are so adequately marked that you’ll do all right without them. as long as you know your destination, or the next town on your path, then the periodic signposts and painted markings on trees and farmhouse corners will lead you in the right direction. of course, you might be better off to have the hyper-detailed maps (or at least to consult them during a planning stage) so that you don’t end up hiking three times farther than you think you will hike and run most of the way back to town so as not to miss the last bus back to where you’re spending the night … but that adventure is for another post.

forget the map

I’m at something of a loss as to where to start with my Czech posts, to identify some theme that ties my experiences together, that might provide an underlying structure upon which I might build my posts. so I guess I’ll just dive into it as I dove into Prague; drop my bags at the door and head out to explore the city, see where my feet (or fingers) take me.

despite the interminably sluggish, dragging day of travel it took for me to get to Prague (arrived at ORD at 4:00 a.m., six hour lay-over at JFK, three hour delay on the tarmac waiting out a thunderstorm), the overnight flight had its benefits. for many years, I wasn’t able to sleep on planes, even ones traveling overnight to Europe. (on my first trip to France, I slept less than an hour over a 36 hour period and while I crashed hard around 9:00 p.m. after an afternoon of sightseeing and slept straight through to the morning, I’m sure I wasn’t much of a pleasant travel companion.) while not great, the four or five hours of sleep I got on the flight to Prague, however, was sufficient to keep me going through a full day of wandering the streets of the city — from Old Town to Wenceslas Square to Charles Square to the castle to New Town and back.

I set out without any particular destination in mind and, over the course of several days in Prague, came to understand that it’s much better to head off without the intention of getting anywhere in particular. streets curve in such perplexing ways that you won’t end up where you think you will end up, you won’t get to where you mean to get to, but you will still see some incredible things along the way. and after a full day of wandering around the city and staying out till well past dark, I slept through to the next morning with only the normal challenges associated with hostel dorm accommodation.

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