Walking Across the Golden Gate Bridge | Don George's Story
  • Share:

Up Close & Personal: A Pilgrimage to the Golden Gate Bridge

By Don George | June 25, 2020

Last Thursday dawned sunny and warm with a slight cooling breeze, perfect travel weather. Around mid-morning, after I had finished some crucial work, I went outside to savor the sunshine and commune with the geraniums. The deep and cloudless sky stretched overhead like a great azure invitation. The longer I stayed outside, the greater it pulled, until finally I could resist no longer—and impulsively decided to make a pilgrimage I had been meaning to make since settling in the Bay Area four decades before: to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.

We all know the saying “Familiarity breeds contempt,” but in the case of landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, familiarity breeds procrastination. When I lived in Paris, none of my local friends had ever been to the top of the Eiffel Tower. I have dozens of friends who live in New York City and have never visited the Statue of Liberty. So it has been with me and the Golden Gate Bridge. My feeling has always been, “It’s so close, I can walk across it any time.” And so the years have rolled by, and I never have.

I cross the bridge by car dozens of times a year, but that’s entirely different: Then it’s a means to another destination, not the destination itself. And yet, wherever I go in the world, no matter how remote, when people hear that I’m from San Francisco, they invariably say, “Ah, Golden Gate Bridge!” It’s one of the most famous icons on the planet, and people routinely travel halfway around the globe to pay homage to its International Orange span.

Of course, they’re not doing that now. And that was another part of this spontaneous trip’s appeal: What better time to make a pilgrimage to a local shrine that’s usually overwhelmed with worshippers?

So I grabbed sunscreen, face masks, and hand sanitizer, plus a dozen carrot sticks, a couple of granola bars, water, and a Frappuccino, jumped in the car, and set off for the Golden Gate!

I arrived at the Vista Point parking lot on the north side of the bridge at high noon. About three dozen people were social-distancing in the viewing area, composing a rainbow of Bay Area humanity. One multi-generational group was wearing brilliant magenta, scarlet, and turquoise sari-like dresses and silver-threaded headscarves. A flip-flopped family of four sported aloha shirts and cargo shorts. One twentysomething couple—he in a crisp dark blue suit, she in a flowing peach-colored gown—proudly cradled a baby swaddled in pink. A quartet of shirtless bicyclists strutted in the sun, while behind them, three tittering teenagers in crop tops and ripped jeans pranced and posed for selfies.

I snapped a few photos, then donned my red handkerchief mask and GeoEx hat, and set off for the bridge.

The first two things that struck me were the rush of the wind and the roar of the traffic. It’s often windy on the bridge, I figured, but the presence of a dozen windsurfers and kiteboarders in the water below signaled that this was an especially windy day. As for the traffic, I quickly realized that this roar was simply something I would have to embrace, the ceaseless symphony of vehicles the soundtrack of this place.

As I approached the entrance to the bridge proper, I could feel the anticipation growing in my stomach. Then, as the great tower and cables loomed larger and larger, it suddenly hit me: I’m walking across the Golden Gate Bridge! An electric surge of joy sizzled through me, and my smile grew as wide as the Golden Gate Strait.

It took a few minutes to reach the entrance to the bridge proper, and after passing that, I was surprised to find that the bridge was topped by a wire mesh fence, so that I was looking at the world through a silver-mesh filter. Happily, after a few minutes, this fencing ended.

When that happened, I stopped in my tracks and simply gaped at the wide-angle wonderland before me: from the grand green Presidio to San Francisco’s skyscraper’d skyline, to the balletic Bay Bridge, storied Alcatraz, the East Bay hills, pastoral Angel Island, and the gold-and-green slopes and pastel hillside hideaways of Marin. 

Admiring this sight, I imagined what it must have looked like to the first Native Americans who had settled here, how the natural beauty of the rolling hills and bountiful bay must have made this land seem like a sacred place. As I gazed and dreamed, the image of that distant scene merged with cherished memories from my own joy-filled decades here, and suddenly the thought suffused me: It seems sacred to me still.

I continued toward the northern tower, and as I walked, a profound transformation took place. I began to appreciate the bridge as a solid object, a manmade construction. I stopped and looked closely at the rivets, girders, and cables. I felt the scratchy-smooth texture of a girder under my hand, grasped a rough-twined suspender rope in my palm. I had already known that the bridge was an aesthetic marvel, a masterpiece of elegant simplicity and symmetry, but now I began to understand that it was an engineering marvel as well, a miracle that humans had built, piece by piece, hand by hand.

I thought about all the people who had collaborated to make this wild dream a reality: the designers and engineers who had conceived it, the construction workers who had actually created it, girder by girder, rivet by rivet. At one point, I stopped and thought: Eight and a half decades ago, some human being was standing right where I’m standing, on a still unfinished bridge. Someone positioned this girder just so; someone hammered that rivet right where it is to this day.

I suddenly felt a palpable connection to the bridge and to the people who had built it, something that I had never felt in all those years of zooming across in my car. Mystical as it may sound, for a few moments, I became one with the bridge.

I walked on. When I reached the north tower, I stopped directly underneath it and pointed my phone straight up, toward the midday sky. The surging orange-red spire felt like some ancient monument, like Stonehenge or Teotihuacan, a timeless temple to the sun.

I continued on, smiling at bicyclists, waving at families, stopping to admire the incomparable views, whooshed by the wind and swooshed by the cars, soul-soaring to the depthless stars.

When I reached the southern end, I found a sunny spot on the ocean side and sat to rest and reflect. To my left unfurled the coast of San Francisco, bright sandy beaches and beyond them the verdant expanse of Land’s End. To my right, the green headlands of Marin swelled all the way to the Point Bonita Lighthouse. And right in front of me, seagulls sailed and pelicans soared and the blue-gray Pacific stretched to the horizon, a watery bridge to Hawaii and Japan.

I thought about bridges and connections. Since the Golden Gate’s opening in 1937, pilgrims have been coming here every day, from all around the world, to render homage to this sacred span. And even though the winds howl through here every day, some residue of that adoration, a sacred molecular accumulation, remains.

I exhaled a deep sigh, and felt my spirit suddenly rise. I realized just how soul-roiling and heart-sinking the past few weeks, and months, have been. And I felt as if a great breeze had blown my soul-numbness and heart-despair away. I felt re-energized, refreshed, inspired to start again on my wanderlust way.

Crossing the bridge on foot, step by step, cable by cable, had bestowed an intimate appreciation of this holy place, and by extension, of my own small role on the universal stage. I was one of hundreds of thousands of people who come here to worship this shrine that lifts, inspires, and fills us with awe, this communal creation that is so much greater than us all. I was now part of this global celebration, this culture-transcending bridge veneration.

And I realized that when you cross the bridge this way, reverent and slow, you absorb the sacred energy other pilgrims have brought and left here, and you leave some of your sacred energy, too. You become a small part of this strait-spanning, time-spanning all—and it becomes a part of you. This simple rite connects the whole, the pilgrims still to come and the ones who have come before, the span under our feet and the one in our souls.

It suddenly became clear to me, looking at it in this hallowed light: The Golden Gate Bridge is one of our planet’s great sacred sites, like Notre-Dame, Angkor Wat, or the Taj Mahal. It connects much more than San Francisco and Marin; it bridges a worldly wonder without to a transcending truth within.

Yours in abiding wanderlust,

Don George

* * * * *

I truly appreciate all of your thoughts, words of encouragement, and dialogue all these weeks. Please continue to share your reflections below; it’s gratifying and inspiring to read your comments!

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
47 Comments
newest
oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Phaedra
Phaedra
2 months ago

💖

Byron Hammons
Byron Hammons
3 months ago

Hello Don, thank you for sharing your experience walking across the the bridge. I drove across the bridge for the first time and i have been here in California for quite some time. Now after reading your beautiful story, i think i might plan to walk across.

Ethan Chickering
4 months ago

I give bridge walking tours for the San Francisco City Guides and I have never gotten tired of walking on it. I have had many on my tour who have had the Bridge on their bucket list. It truly is revered world wide as an icon.

Maria Mejorada
Maria Mejorada
5 months ago

Hi Don ! Reading your stories made me plan to include in my itinerary for this love month because me & my husband with the kids hasn’t been there & we have been planning to go there after our trip to Big Bear and so it really excites me while I was finishing reading your post so I’d like to say thank you so much & till next stories you will share next time . Keep safe always .

Ilse moss
Ilse moss
7 months ago

Think you should cross the Brooklyn Bridge that inspired so many artists, authors, playwriters, views of Manhattan are awesome but the missing Trade Center leaves a wound in one’s heart!!!

Rachel Favreau-St-Aubin
Rachel Favreau-St-Aubin
9 months ago

Never been to San Francisco . I enjoyed learning about this beautiful structure. Thank you for the virtual visits. Maybe one day I will trek in this area.

Cheryl Mueller
Cheryl Mueller
11 months ago

Thanks for another beautiful shared trip vicariously. Although I’ve gone across in a car, I’ve never ventured on the bridge by foot. Perhaps one day… thanks for taking me along.😊

Judy Jackson
Judy Jackson
1 year ago

Hi Don,
I had an English grand-mother, 2 aunts and a cousin who lived many years in San Francisco… and became Americans. They are all gone now.
I did cross the bridge on one of my visits to them. Also visited the area you mentioned with the trees.
My mother was part of that family but she met my father while they were working one summer in a Banff Hotel and she became and stayed a Canadian.

charles herms
charles herms
1 year ago

Hi Don. Reading about your hike reminded me of my first walk across the bridge. It was cold & dark when I started out at the south end & I felt it wise to purchase a long wool scarf at the gift shop. Half way across the bridge, the sun came out & I was treated to one of the world’s most magnificent views! I thought about how lucky my father was every time his ship came in the bay. By the time I reached the north end, It was blazing hot & I was ready to take my shirt… Read more »

Bruce Koon
Bruce Koon
1 year ago

Thanks Don. Did you hear the new controversial hum? – Bruce

Millie Ball
Millie Ball
1 year ago

Don – Your writing is an inspiration to so many of us, but this piece is extra special. It made me remember walking on the Sydney Bridge, which was terrifying at the start, then exhilarating as we kept going and looked across at the Sydney Opera House.
A bonus today was seeing your smiling face at the end.

Barbara MacKay
Barbara MacKay
1 year ago

Your journey brought back memories-I’m older than the Golden Gate ridge, can you imagine. I remember when it opened was almost 5, My father, mother, sister and I walked from our home to the bridge, a long walk but what a wonderous sight and an enduring part of my childhood history.
Barbara

Melissa Sutherland
1 year ago

Your writing is beautiful and inspiring and you are right, we have so much right under our noses as locals. Thank you. I have visited San Francisco twice and next time, post-Covid, I definitely plan to walk over this man made wonder.

Catherine DeVrye
1 year ago

Great article–we should never take anything for granted…at home or afar

Barbie Gibson
Barbie Gibson
1 year ago

Enjoyed reading your article…so true. If you grew-up with something, you do not pay much attention. Why? Because there lots of time to do so. However, you never seem to make that time!

Cherie Doersam
Cherie Doersam
1 year ago

Wonderful! Next time I get to S.F. I am going to do it!

Art
Art
1 year ago

How long did it take? When is the best time of year to visit? Is Alcatraz open?

Marlene Lubin
Marlene Lubin
1 year ago

Bridges
By Marlene Lubin

Thinking about bridges and where they lead
We cross them all the time and never give them another thought
How else would we get from here to there?
How much longer would it take?
What route would get us there faster?
We’d travel around lakes and rivers, forget the highways and byways
They wouldn’t take us far
Maybe our drive would take days instead of hours
Maybe next time we cross a bridge we should toast all the crossings
And the people who made them possible.

Robin Sparks
1 year ago

Thank you for guiding us on a journey through our own backyard. There is a story in this time of stillness. The chance to really see what is right under our noses.

Brady B
Brady B
1 year ago

Don! Makes me miss the wondrous GGB and reminds me of a favorite John Muir quote -> There is in some minds a tendency toward a wrong love of the marvelous and mysterious, which leads to the belief that whatever is remote must be better than what is near.”

Mona Kolko
Mona Kolko
1 year ago

Hi Don, I loved how you write and express your thoughts and feelings and sensations! My parents (who’ve been gone since 1990 and 1998) were immigrants to San Francisco from Eastern Europe (my dad came to SF in 1918 and my mom came in 1933); who married in 1936 and were at the time living in the Mission District. I wonder (and wish I had ever thought to ask them…….)if or how aware they were of the construction of this uniquely beautiful bridge. I wonder if they were anywhere near the bridge at it’s opening; for that must have been… Read more »

Carol Lin
Carol Lin
1 year ago

Such a way with words! Maybe I’ll walk the bridge!

M’Lou Christ
M’Lou Christ
1 year ago

Tho I’m not a local & have only crossed or seen it a few times, such a foot passage is on my list. Thanks for describing yours.

Diana M Chang
Diana M Chang
1 year ago

Since your on a pilgrimage, I would suggest a visit to Angel Island. Not only is it a lovely ferry ride from Tiburon, it’s an island full of a history that is so relevant to today’s events. It is a National Historic Landmark. For visitors, it offers the best panoramic vistas of the entire Bay and a car free island to explore. For history buffs, the island was an embarkation and debarkation point for troops during WWI and WWII. It was used as a quarantine station during the days of the bubonic plague to prevent infected Chinese from entering the… Read more »

Connie Davis
Connie Davis
1 year ago

Thank you! For bringing back the memory of my first walk across the Golden Gate with my boyfriend when I was a first year med student at UCSF School of Medicine! It was so breathtaking, so awe inspiring. Thank you!

Beth Hahn
Beth Hahn
1 year ago

Beautiful story of awe. I love when our wanderlust brings us home to see the everyday in a new way. Thank you.

Catherine Watson
Catherine Watson
1 year ago

Beautiful, Don. I especially love the image of “the span…in our souls.”
Thank you!
Catherine
Watson

Julie
Julie
1 year ago

So so lovely! Thanks for writing this beautiful piece!

Kathy Smith
Kathy Smith
1 year ago

This is a beautiful depiction which makes me want to come & walk also !

Travel is different now.
JOIN OUR LIST
Get the latest intel, insight, and inspiration from GeoEx delivered to your inbox.
close-link