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