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The hills were familiar, the distances, the sheet of water below them. But no bridges spanned the waters, no cities crowded the shores. The hills across the Bay were empty but for yellow flowers and dark stands of oak, the occasional wheeling herd of feral horses.
They said this tiny, disorganized town was San Francisco, and that Captain Montgomery was in charge. The village bustled with activity in countless languages: Spanish, English, Hawaiian, even Russian.
But in newly-named Portsmouth Square, I was transfixed by a merchant mercilessly beating an Indian servant girl, while no one seemed even to notice.
I was lent a horse and we rode over to the Presidio, skirting the hills I knew only by their modern landmarks and could not now identify with their bare sides and rocky outcroppings.
The ride was but a couple miles. A 29-star flag rose over the decaying white-walled fortress. Marines in blue uniforms snapped us through the gate and we dismounted amongst adobe buildings in ill repair, a pungent mixture of horse manure and cooked beans infusing the atmosphere despite a steady Pacific breeze.
I wondered what became of the previous regime's soldiers. I soon found out.
I found Juan Paulo working hard to maintain a vegetable patch off the Presidio's southern wall. He had water intermittently off the hillside, good sun, and was out of the breeze that snaked around from the sea. We spoke in our own unique versions of broken Spanish.
He was a former garrison soldier with nowhere to go. Like all the soldiers, his native culture had been completely displaced in his parents' or grandparents' day by the Franciscans' particular importation of the Inquisition. He spoke a sort of Spanish / Ohlone hybrid, was a devout if somewhat divergent Catholic, and was miserable.
"When blue soldiers come," he said, "my friends go home. My home ..."
He pointed to the bay shore that in future would become Crissy Field but was now a desolation of scuttled boats and burnt marsh-grass. I could see where a village might once have been and his story became clear.
His village may have survived after a fashion selling fish to the Presidio and the Mission, but by the time the USS Portsmouth's Marines marched in to take over and send the Mexican authorities away there was nothing left. Now his livelihood as a soldier was gone too.
There was nobility in this solitary man. Unbelievable sadness, and nobility. He had the same Native American features and tattered clothes as the half-dollar per day stevedores I saw carrying loads up and down the mud beach at the end of Clay Street, the same unutterable sadness haunting his gaze. But his eyes were not dimmed by the alcoholism rampant amongst them, nor, it was evident, had despair beaten him into living just for the day at hand. He had hope.
I wanted to learn how, after all his suffering. But the language barrier, and a Presbyterian minister, intervened.
I felt an uncharacteristic apprehension when we went to visit Mr. Leidesdorff. Not merely because he had made himself extraordinarily rich, spoke many languages, and was nearly the most politically influential man around. I also knew what he himself preferred to hide: That he was part African -- perhaps, in the parlance of his first American home, New Orleans, a quadroon or an octoroon.
I also knew that within a year he would contract a "brain fever" -- perhaps meningitis -- that would kill him.
It could not be good, perhaps dangerous, to know too much about the wealthiest man on the coast.
San Francisco was disorienting even after several days. The familiar hills and waters bade my mind seek familiar landmarks: Tall buildings, bridges, the sounds of the City. But this San Francisco was a mud-streeted village. No buildings but a few frames and adobes, nothing over the waters but the yardarms of two or three sailing vessels.
Thus the intersection of California and Montgomery seemed quaint at best, with its dusty foot traffic, the air redolent of open mudflats, sea gulls diving and screeching about a fish vending cart. Yet here the town's largest house brought a measure of elegance.
An Indian dressed impeccably in waistcoat and top hat greeted us on the broad front porch.
"Ah," said Thomson to me. "Mr. Leidesdorff's muchacho. Buenos tardes, Bonifacio!"
"Good evening, Mr. Thomson. I trust you are well?"
Thomson ushered me forward, saying, "Leidesdorff trains these people especially well. You'd almost think they were white."
He laughed. I pretended to. I was learning to hide my feelings in service to my mission.
We found ourselves in a parlor remarkably well appointed for being half a world away from what was commonly regarded as civilization. There we met a remarkable man.
Our host was an observant man, and he observed me observing him. At dinner he sought to serve his curiosity.
"What brings you to California, Mr. Richardson?"
His voice was rich and his accent hard to place but that I knew something of the richness of his background. His father was Danish with a German-Jewish influence, his mother a Spanish Afro-Carib (depending on varying speculations), and he had spent his adult life in New Orleans. He spoke with the clarity of a man used to captaining ships.
"Fortune, Mr. Leidesdorff," I said. "Fortune."
He smiled at my answer.
"Hides? Otter pelts?"
I said no more, and he regarded me with suppressed surprise. I took a bite of the marinated beef and reached for my port, casually glancing at the others. Folsom was studiously disinterested. Bartlett and Noe seemed sincerely disinterested. I wished Brannan had joined us, just for my own ironic amusement.
"There is mineral wealth," Leidesdorff said, "but the proofs are scant as yet. Have you a special interest?"
I thought to myself,
there's gold in them thar hills.
But it was months before Marshall's discovery. I shrugged, put down my glass, and said, "No."
He chuckled and lifted his glass.
"To wise men," he said.
We all took a sip. He had decided not to waste time testing my discretion, and turned to Bartlett to discuss plans for expanding the wharves.
Folsom gave me his half smile. I knew he'd be asking me later where I'd heard the best chances were. I would have only vague answers for him. Gold was in abundance a week's march away, but no one knew about that. There was quicksilver down past San Jose and up in Napa, coal across the bay. I knew enough, I could equivocate.
We thundered, literally thundered, through the trees, galloping through the long grasses like ships cleaving the waves, like airplanes spearing the clouds. My heart glowed, a sun in my chest.
No one else there would have understood the airplane reference, but it was apt. Our sixty mile trip to the Pueblo de San Jose was made at a gallop, made possible in this horse-rich country by a team of vaqueros driving several dozen spare horses. When ours tired, we left him behind to find his own way, switched mounts, and kept on riding.
Along El Camino Real, we flew.
The most stunning aspect of the journey down the peninsula was the forest of oak trees.
From memory I recalled the tightly packed urban environment between San Francisco and San Jose, the freeways, houses, businesses, buildings. But that cityscape did not now exist. Between Monte San Bruno and the Pueblo de San Jose stretched mile after mile of as-yet unexploited country, the smooth ground rich with grasses and wildflowers, countless huge and ancient oaks spreading their arms a hundred feet out, making shade and room to spare for an entire pack train.
Through this I rode, laughing with joy.
Time travel is like any other kind of travel but for two things.
1) The horrifically impoverished Third World country you visit might also be the United States.
2) You can't go back home.
Otherwise it is the same, right down to the depression that follows relentless culture shock, especially when you have no access to anything familiar.
No decent roads or cars, no electric lights or water heaters, no instant communication with friends, no cheap food or clean water.
Lots and lots of dirt and mud, and the biting insects that inhabit side streets that have become open latrines.
So it was that I found myself wandering in a lost state along Kearney Street and met Tommy.
Kearney was not as you know it, the asphalt floor of a shallow canyon of brick and steel and glass, running with buses and taxis. It was a dirt track sparsely lined with small canvas-roofed dwellings that dipped under a creek during rainstorms. The creek carried human effluence away, but also served as a magnet for the buckets of same carried away from the houses.
It was not a healthy place, and in the ordure stood a man with a shovel.
I might have kept walking to escape the smell. I had a mind to climb Lone Mountain for a glimpse of the sea. But it was late afternoon and a chill fog rolled over the town and all views were lost. I turned to the sound of a man grunting and cursing in the creek bed down from the road.
"What's the matter with you?" I called.
He scowled at me and turned away, gripping a shovel. He took a step and grimaced and gasped again. His halting step reminded me of a friend who'd been laid low by sciatica.
His clothes were tattered and filthy and under his grimy face and matted graying hair were the lines of fifty hard years. Standing in place, he shoveled like a demon, deepening the narrow creek, clearing the channel of mud and waste. But when he had to move or change stance he grimaced and swore like a sailor -- which I now understood, having encountered the village's down and out sailors, to be a particular talent. In an instant I imagined his story: Cast ashore for whatever reason, unable to travel, he now labored in this glacial economy for every scant meal.
And the meals were surely scant for someone who could barely walk. I went down to meet him. Not out of kindness, mind you. I was feeling no more charitable to the human race for having encountered yet another man suffering. Not sure why. Maybe I just wanted my pessimism validated.
"Hell of a job," I said.
"Jump off," he said, and kept shoveling. I had to watch where I stood.
"Let me guess," I said. "Captain Vioget hire you?"
The captain's house was nearby.
He looked at me sourly. "Done worse. I'm hungry."
"Why'd he hire a lame sailor?"
"Not lame," he said. "It'll heal."
"What the hell do you want?"
I was well fed. He was on the scrawny side. I didn't feel so superior. I felt like an asshole. I took out my flask and took a sip.
He watched it as a cat watches a grasshopper.
"Doesn't really numb the pain," I said.
"Numbs it enough," he said.
I pondered that and gave it to him. He took a deep draft with his hard eyes on me. I could see we shared a distrust of charity.
I thought of something he might give me.
I'm putting my little writing exercise on hiatus.
Friday the 20th ... Now I can't remember what I did. It was probably something really special and my lack of recall a sign of senility.
But ... nope ... nothing. Stayed home, I guess. Texting history suggests as much. Hopefully I did something useful.
That was four days ago anyway. No one could possibly expect me to remember that far back.
My little writing exercise begs for more historical knowledge on my part. That and some idea, however vague, of what's going on. I really don't know. Just being a one-way time tourist.
Saturday was a good day, for all that it was short.
I scrambled to get to the meeting point by eleven. Met with friends, left my phone in the car, changed into swim gear at the entry point, helped inflate the boats, launched, spent a few hours drifting.
Under the bluffs the early explorers saw just 180 years ago in this young country, the same trees grew and the same birds flew.
Becoming mellow drunk was a highlight. So were the girls daring to mud-wrestle and subsequent brief exposure thrill. But sun and beer killed me for the evening.
We spent the morning in timeless embrace -- except the clock kept ticking and things needed doing.
By the time I was loading my octahut atop my Jeep in the blazing heat it was several hours later than I had intended to be doing that and I found myself not wanting to bother.
But she had an obligation she was going to fill and I couldn't let myself get all lazy while she followed through. So I followed through too, and erected the thing at the park.
From then on it was all good times.
Sometimes, just need a little push.
In my world, the Golden Gate refers to a great orange bridge that gets into a lot of photographs rather than the strait through which much of California drains into the sea.
But Fremont understood that the Boca del Puerto de San Francisco needed a better name. When I met him, he was not humble about the fact his naming the strait Chrysopylae had led to its world renown as the Golden Gate.
Of course, he was not humble about anything, ever. But an association with that magnificent harbor entrance would surely kill the humility in even the lowest neophyte.
We rode out to the Golden Gate on a morning that crawled in slowly behind the fog. From the decrepit square walls of the Presidio ran a little used horse path, west by northwest towards the sea, lined with scrub and rolling with the low hills. At the end, a small promontory stuck out into the waters, a thumb pointed towards the mountains of Marin. Of white rock it was, a weed-grown suggestion of Gibraltar. And on top, commanding the harbor entrance from a height of perhaps a hundred feet, a lumpy rain-eroded ruin marked the old fortress.
Half a century ago it was fitted with cannon against the fear of British incursion, but never an angry shot was fired, and now the venerable bronze pieces lay askew in their rotten carriages or half buried in mud. Sea birds flitted about, and the bark of sea lions echoed up from the beach. It was a melancholy place, especially as I tried to picture the grand sweep of the Golden Gate Bridge whose approaches in a future era would pass more or less through the space I now stood in; for this entire rock was bound to be removed.
A distant whinny caught our attention, and by and by a small brown gelding made its way through the scrub to join its equine brethren. He had poor trappings, much repaired, and stamped and blew when next to our better-fed horses, as if complaining of poor treatment. We left the animals to socialize, and wandered about the Castillo, looking down the hillside whence the gelding came, checking the ground for signs.
I was certain we would find something, perhaps a small object, maybe several, laid out neatly in some fashion. Life has patterns, and some patterns can be predicted.
The odd angle of a collapsed cannon allowed the high sun into its bore, and from there a brilliant reflection caught my eye. I knelt to investigate and found a piece of cut glass had been laid within. I drew it out and set it on my palm. It had no doubt once been an exquisite example of Spanish glass work. Years of trading from hand to hand had broken and dulled its surfaces; yet still it bore a measure of dignity, a reminder in this lonely place of beauty and spark, of laughter and happiness and nearly forgotten pleasures.
I then went around and checked the other cannon. As I expected -- true to the pattern -- a small memento was found within each. A fine glass bead, a cigarillo holder of broken ivory, a small silver coin so worn its twin pillars were barely visible. In all, seven tiny objects were collected, each one seeming to represent in some way a good and pleasant life.
My heart ached for the unhappy woman who had so placed with such care her most precious possessions. I looked around at the drifting mist under the blue sky and wondered when. Yesterday? This morning?
"Well," I said.
Jaramillo was inscrutable. "Que?"
"I've no doubt the news for Mr. Aikins is as he fears, but we should probably look."
I had not wanted to look over the cliff's edge. Heights were bad enough for me. But I also feared what I would see.
My heart pounded as the the surf hissed and boomed below. Boulders were strewn upon the narrow strand. Sun-bleached tree limbs wrote angular words upon the dark sand.
That was all.
Maybe she walked down to the beach. Maybe she watched us from a cedar grove.
Maybe her body washed away.
8th of August. Really can't be bothered writing more of what I was doing. It was a fun experiment. But I haven't time for it now. So much to get done!
It's 9pm Sunday but I will go back to the shop soon anyway. Now is the time to work late, not later when I am struggling at work with bringing up a board. Besides, I got good sleep last night. My baby tucked me in and I was unconscious before she even got dressed.
I get an eight-hour night every week or two. Will have to be enough.
One more and I'm done with this for the time being.
Have to go back to the shop to see what is actually written on the trike tires. Maybe a metric number will help me find replacements. I haven't been very successful finding 22" bike tires but that might be an issue of international marketing.
Also to continue work on the bicycle I sorted out for my use. It's filthy and playa-rusted and needs refurbishment.
Also to make octahut door latches. Still haven't done that! Must be done. Damned inconvenient that my existing set disappeared.
We suspect aggressive cleanup.
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