Days Seventeen Through Twenty : San Francisco (1975)

RetroSign4-Days 17-20 (Sept. 10-13, 1975): We arrived in San Francisco last night and checked into the questionable Wharf Motel, which I described in my Journal as “real junk!” (It could be The Wharf Inn, judging by the mixed reviews of this 1960’s era budget motel.) So the first order of business today was to check into an ever-reliable Ramada Inn before exploring one of America’s prettiest cities.

Kurt and I found a magic shop. The allure of novelties, visual gags (think: dried rubber puke), joke items (shake my hidden-hand buzzer, anyone?), and magician tricks for sale proved irresistible, as we visited the shop often.

My family did the usual touristy things: “We went to the Cannery (a place like Ala Moana Shopping Center) and Ghirardelli. We ate at a restaurant in Ghirardelli and caught a cable car going up.

According to recent Yelp reviews, The Cannery is no longer the once-vibrant shopping complex it used to be. Like so many indoor shopping malls across the United States, the place has been variously described as “Zombies have taken over…This shopping center is pretty much dead…Pretty much empty spaces…Not what it once was.”

By contrast, Ghirardelli Square appears to have held up well over the decades and is even thriving. (You can read some reviews HERE.) A small public square with shops and restaurants in the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco, one of the strongest draws of Ghirardelli Square are the famous chocolates, sundaes and ice cream.


Ghirardelli Chocolate Company was founded by Italian chocolatier Domenico “Domingo” Ghirardelli in 1852. From Italy, he moved to South America and then to San Francisco, where he purchased an entire city block in 1893 to make way for the headquarters of his Ghirardelli Chocolate Company. The Square has become a landmark. In 1982, a portion of the area was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

San Francisco is the first city where I saw so many street performers, whether good, bad or just kind of weird: “We saw a man doing yoga on the streets with his shirt off. It was cold out there. Some people gave him some coins when he was finished.” Imagine that: People giving you money just for stretching and exercising in public.

I much preferred the magic and dog performances: “A man did some magic tricks and I gave him a quarter. One did some tricks with his dog, knives, balls, and fire torches. I gave him a quarter. This other man did his thing and I gave him 20 cents. By then my hands and feet were freezing.


The next morning, we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and stopped at a scenic overlook for the customary photos while Mom rested in the car.

Opened in 1937, the suspension bridge spans the Golden Gate strait, with San Francisco on one side and Marin County on the other. It has been described as “possibly the most beautiful, certainly the most photographed, bridge in the world” (Frommer’s travel guide). The distinctive bridge color is an orange vermillion called international orange.

Before the bridge was built, ferry service was the primary way of crossing the strait. Critics said the Golden Gate Bridge could not be built across the 6,700-foot strait because of the strong, swirling tides and currents, the challenging depths (372 feet at the deepest), and the occasional strong winds and blinding fogs. But build it, they did.


If you think the Golden Gate Bridge is impressive in stature and size, then you need to visit northern California’s Redwood National Forest – home to the tallest trees on Earth. I must have been duly impressed because, back in 1975, I wrote: “There were lots of Redwood trees. The oldest tree was from 9900 A.D. [Editor’s note: obvious typo], cut down in 1930. One tree was 3500 years old, another 2500 years old.”

The National Park Service and California State Parks jointly manage not just the old-growth redwood forest, but also oak woodlands, wild riverways, grassland prairies, and nearly 40 miles of pristine coastline.

If you never manage to visit Redwood National Forest, you can always view it on film as the “forest moon of Endor“.  Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) was filmed, in part, in the Tall Trees Redwood Grove in the northern part of Humboldt County, California.


On the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge, you will find Sausalito (Spanish for “small willow grove”). In his book On the Road, Jack Kerouac described the small community as “a little fishing village”. During the Prohibition era, Sausalito was a center for bootlegging and rum runners. During World War II, it became a shipbuilding center. After the War, the city became a tourist destination (that’s why we visited it), a residential community (so many houseboats!), and an enclave for artists and the wealthy.


My old Journal recorded us visiting places around San Francisco that I’m sure the locals either avoided or took for granted:

Chinatown Wax Museum (“It was real empty. Nobody was in their (sic) except us! We were there for about an hour. Then we walked to the other end of the town then back.”)

Chinatown Wax Museum SF

According to a 1983 UPI story, the Chinatown Wax Museum is now closed. Gone are the 31 scenes (Kublai Khan’s court, a Chinese apothecary shop, and an opium den, for starters) and 115 wax figures – including a huge wax dragon selling at half-price ($4,000) and  all manufactured in Hong Kong. The museum was sold to make room for a shopping center and a McDonald’s restaurant.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum

No. 9 Fishermen’s Grotto: Opened in 1935 as the first sit-down restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf, the restaurant serves seafood dishes while offering great views of the harbor and Golden Gate Bridge. Yelp reviews HERE.

Coit Tower in 2006 (photo credit: Kkmd/Wiki)
Coit Tower in 2006 (photo credit: Kkmd/Wiki)

Coit Tower: (“Today (Sept. 13th), we are leaving the Mainland for Hawaii. We packed our suitcases and put them in the car…then left for Coit’s Tower. From the top we could see the Golden Gate Bridge and the Ramada Inn were (sic) we stayed.”)

The 210-foot art deco tower was built in 1933 at the bequest of Lillian Coit, a wealthy socialite. The structure sits in the  Telegraph Hill neighborhood and offers panoramic views of the city, including San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, Russian Hill, and the Financial District.

If heights make you dizzy, you can always avoid ascending the tower and simply enjoy the murals inside. Commissioned by the federal Works Progress Administration, the murals were inspired by the social-realism style of  Diego Rivera (Mexican painter and muralist, 1886-1957) and painted by 26 different artists.

Somewhat eccentric, Ms. Coit loved to smoke cigars, gamble and wear trousers before it was socially acceptable for women to do so. Throughout her youth, she loved to “chase fires” and assist the fire-fighting companies. Today, Lillian “Lillie” Coit is the matron saint of San Francisco firefighters.

A Postscript

It’s been mighty fun re-reading and researching a long-forgotten Journal about a  family vacation taken four decades ago. But this “Retro Tripping 1975 Road Trip” would never have been possible without three ingredients:

(1) 1975 Trip Diary: The fact that I kept and rediscovered my little journal after all these years and a gajillion house moves later, is pretty darn amazing. The written words have preserved and conveyed a thousand details, impressions, and images that no faded photos or grainy videos ever could. The chronological entries have also allowed me to reconstruct – almost step by step – our car travels and explorations on foot.

(2) Google and Other Search Engines: For historical context, Wikipedia is king. For fellow travelers’ reviews, Yelp and TripAdvisor are a handy resource. And for mapping services and to simply discover whether a previously visited restaurant, hotel or tourist spot is still worth a visit, Google is indispensable. Combine all these online research sources, and you can make your decades-old tour suddenly relevant and current.

(3) Parents’ Encouragement: Traveling, of course, is not cheap. Flying a family of four across an ocean; paying for 21 days’/20 nights’ lodging and meals; rental car and gas; admission fees and spending money … How did Dad and Mom afford all this on a single worker’s wages in inflationary 1975, is beyond me.

My family was not rich. All the overnight stays at the budget Ramada Inns and the occasional dive-y “roach motels” and the multitude of fastfood meals will attest to that. But still, Mom and Dad somehow made it happen.

And by purchasing an inexpensive “Travel Diary” (all of 4 by 6 inches), one for each of their sons – and by encouraging their children to record each day’s travel – has made this Retro Tripping Road Trip possible.

I can’t wait to see what my little brother Kurt wrote!

My "Trip Diary" in 1975
My “Trip Diary” in 1975

Interactive Google Maps of the places mentioned above:

Map-San Francisco-Sausalito

Map-San Francisco-Redwood Natl Forest



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