"Soul Packed Up," An Angelic Overnight

It was time. Time to try a little overnight, self-supported, camping, away from home. My problem has never been unable-to-go but unable-to-decide-where-to-go; there are so many options nearby that I've been paralyzed by indecision. But finally an online article caught my eye: Angel Island State Park in San Francisco Bay. I hadn't been there in 30 years. I made a reservation for a Sunday night two weeks hence and was committed.

So the night before, I wrestled my Target-special sleeping bag into its stuff sack, rolled up my 1.5-inch-thick Therm-a-Rest knock-off, and borrowed a tent from my brother. I packed my commuter panniers with some cold cuts and veggies and a hunk of cheese. Water bottle. Fleece jacket, fleece vest, fleece hat. (Have you spent a summer in San Francisco? The fog comes barreling through the Golden Gate and runs right into Angel Island before proceeding to Berkeley and beyond.) With the help of the wife, I figured out how to attach them all to my recumbent trike. In sum, I was not traveling light, but I was traveling with what I had to have. That's the idea of an overnight.

My sister decided she too wanted to spend the day on Angel Island, since she hadn't been there in awhile, either. She would be on foot. That, it turned out, would not be a problem.

I parked about three miles away from the ferry. The route from there was along an old rail-trail. Flat and lovely right along an inlet of the bay. Except for the little old hill I forgot about between my car and the trail. 

Don't ferries and bikes go together like horse and carriage? Brie and baguette? Coffee and cream? I think so. A three-mile bike ride to a seven-minute ferry ride was the right scale for a bite-sized tour. 

Waiting for the ferry.

We were discovering, my sister and I, that this gorgeous day was turning out to be downright hot. It ended up close to or even above 90 degrees, which is an infrequent thing on the bay. I had checked the weather forecast before setting out, really I had, and it said the same thing it had said the night before: A high of 68. Hence the fleece. And the jeans.

Angel Island is a mountain surrounded by water. Everywhere from the ferry landing is up, sometimes quite steeply. So, as I pedaled in my granniest gear the two miles toward my campsite, my sister easily strolled alongside me. At one point I had to leave the paved road for a gravel fire road. I did not have sufficient weight upon the rear wheel as I thought I would, with the gear and all. And I had not sufficiently deflated my tires, nor did I feel like deflating them any more. That rear wheel was spinning out, unless I pedalled maddeningly slowly. That's when I discovered, yet again, that a sister is a good thing to have around. Good old sis pushed. Not a lot, more like leaned against the back of my gear and walked as I pedaled, but it made all the difference.

And I learned yet again again that a sister is a good thing to have around as I set up camp. There was ridiculously significantly more tent pole than tent and it took the two of us to bend the poles to our will.

High on both of our lists was a visit to the emigration station that had been restored and renovated. Angel Island served an Ellis Island-like role for many years. It was the usual stellar episode in our history: European emigrants were interviewed briefly and allowed to move along, while Asians, thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, were kept weeks, months, sometimes years as they waited to be processed. They were housed in a barracks, three double bunks high, a small fenced-in enclosure for exercise, men and women separated. The men turned to poetry, and carved their words on the walls. The poems were painted over again and again, but that didn't stop them. You can still see the carvings. Heartbreaking to see and reflect on. The folks who restored the station did a wonderful job, and I recommend the trip to see it.

An example of poetry carved into dormitory walls at the emigration station on Angel Island.

Sis caught the ferry back to the mainland after that. After seeing her off, I was on my own. The day was still hot and bright. Taking a cue from another cyclist who exclaimed "You're going the hard way!" as I was riding to my campsite, I rode the paved perimeter road in the other direction from the ferry. It was a great way to get a 360-degree view of the Bay Area a little at a time. And around every turn was more history, most of it military, some of it emigration-related. As always, it was special to see the Golden Gate Bridge and the magical city of San Francisco.

But the best part of the day was that at some places during my ride around the island, I just sat and looked. And felt my shoulders sink just a bit lower, felt my brain relax. And I just looked.

Ah, there's San Francisco.

While I was stopped at yet another wonderful viewpoint, a pickup truck drove up near me and parked. Motor vehicles are few and far between on the island, except for state park vehicles. The driver jumped out, dropped the tailgate, and took out a gold-colored bicycle from the bed. Completely golden. A typical upright bike, but painted gold. He ran up a trail with the bike, then ran back down without it and took off. On the side of the truck was a sign for "We Players," a theatrical troupe performing their version of The Odyssey on the island during the summer. I supposed the golden bike played a part in Odysseus' trip.

Ah, there's the Golden Gate.

When I made it back to my campsite for dinner, there were still no campers at the other two nearby sites. I kept my fingers crossed that I'd have the place to myself, but alas, no. Well, not alas at all because I met Maude and Erwan, a French couple on vacation from their home in Southern California. We got to talking after they asked if I had a hammer they could borrow for pounding their tent stakes. I offered them my cleated bike shoe, but also said I didn't think there wasn't enough of a breeze (unusual here) to merit staking the tent.

The view from my campsite.

The perimeter road had had its ups and downs, so I took a little stroll after dinner to loosen my knees. I intended to find the trailhead to Mt. Livermore, the high point of the island, so I'd know where to go when I got up early in the morning (*cough*) for the sunrise. One thing led to another and, before I knew it, I was on top of the island right at sunset. I was even by myself for awhile. I just stood there and looked and turned and looked and turned. Now this is a 360-degree view.

A hospital near Camp Reynolds, where World War I soldiers were hospitalized.

I returned to my campsite and watched lights come on around the bay. As it got darker, the sounds became more prominent. A navigational buoy tooted every few minutes. I heard motors from boats and oil tankers and ferries. The occasional airplane or jet. The breeze. Snatches of music and laughter from passing sailboats. Waves lapping the shore. A pounding bass line from a music festival across the bay on Treasure Island. And birdsong. Lots and lots of birdsong.

The festival ended. The buoy eventually shushed. The boat traffic slowed. But the great horned owls continued calling until I fell asleep.

My fleece accoutrement came in quite handy after all: They made a wonderful pillow.

The sun came up hot and way too early for someone who never sleeps well the first night in a tent. But since I'd hit Mt. Livermore the night before, there was no need to climb it, especially since the dawn was long past.

Before packing up, I rode a little ways along the fire road to see the city and the bridge in the morning light and to just look a little longer. Eventually I moved on. Even through I went the longest way possible, what took me three hours to ride the day before took just 30 minutes.

I found a ferry waiting, but I wasn't ready yet so I let it go without me.

While at the cafe relaxing before the next boat, I sent a text to my sweetie to tell her my stuff was packed up and I was about to get on the ferry. But in a serendipitous act of my smart phone's autocorrect, I unknowingly sent "Soul packed up ..." Yea, verily.

Get more information about bike overnights.

Tip for this adventure: The best place to begin looking for information about Angel Island is at the Angel Island Conservancy.

Favorite local bike shop: Walt's Cycle and Fitness in Sunnyvale.

3 responses so far ↓

Glen A - Apr 2, 2014 at 5:36 PM

I agree with you overnight or weekend adventures are really wonderful escapes from the city. Even better if you can find an island without any traffic. Try the circle route around Niagara Falls if you get really adventurous.

Michael Wong - Jun 23, 2014 at 1:09 PM

Nice write-up! Going to have to try the trip sometime. I have relatives who spent joyous days waiting to get approved for entry.

Tim Crum - Feb 15, 2015 at 3:58 PM

I was just researching a 2-3 night trip here. I plan on loading my bike on the train at Auburn, transfer to the thruway bus to Fishermans Warf. Sight see and spend the night. Then take the ferry over and explore the island, staying a night at each of the 3 camp grounds.
What a great post! Thanks for sharing.

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