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Hitting the Road and Building a Northern California Bucket List

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The author, Pendarvis Harshaw, in the rear-view mirror.
The author, Pendarvis Harshaw, in the rear-view mirror. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Last July, longtime KTVU traffic reporter Sal Casteneda tweeted that, despite being born and raised in the Bay, he had never been to Alcatraz. A chorus of responses with similar stories ensued.

After reading it, I did that thing we all do, where you mentally respond but you don’t actually join the thread. In my telepathic reply, I said that I’d actually been to Alcatraz a couple times; once with a guy who had escaped from San Quentin, turned himself back in, and served two more decades before being released legally.

In fact, I’ve done a handful of traditionally “Northern California” things while growing up here. I’ve panned for gold in Sacramento and attended tech conferences in Silicon Valley. I’ve seen the sunrise on Mt. Diablo, been swimming on a hot day in Lake Tahoe, and shivered while watching the sunset at Ocean Beach.

Passing under the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, looking at toward the East Bay.
Passing under the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, looking at toward the East Bay. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

I could talk your ear off about what I’ve done. But what’s on my mind right now are the things I haven’t done.

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I’m talking quintessential Northern Californian activities: hiking a trail in Yosemite or going wine tasting in Napa. Honestly, ever since I was a kid and heard that advertising slogan about how “happy cows come from California,” I’ve wanted to milk a cow.

Essentially, I’m on a mission to be an expert in California culture. And to fulfill this goal, I should probably embark on some of its “traditional” experiences. Plus, with me, nothing really happens in a traditional fashion (example: the aforementioned trip to Alcatraz).

Here’s where you come in. I’m compiling a list of things to do in the coming weeks—places to see and people to meet, and stories to write so you can follow along. But before I do, I’m taking your suggestions. What are some classic Northern California excursions that I might be missing? What’s something every person in this state needs to do before they die? What off-the-beaten path discoveries are out there waiting for me?

I know you have ideas. Send ’em to me here.

In the meantime, I’m going to start by whittling away at the preliminary list I’ve already compiled. First up is the tale of this, um, historic boat trip I took this past weekend.

Since the very first episode of East Bay Yesterday all the way to the most recent one on Mac Dre’s death, I’ve been following the work of historian and show host Liam O’Donoghue. (I’ve also appeared on an episode.)

When I first found out O’Donoghue also hosts boat tours, I put it on a long-ass list of “things to eventually do in life.” He’s been doing these tours for three years now, and I finally made the trip this past weekend.

As Liam’s voice shoots through the PA system on a 50-foot Delta Marine boat named Pacific Pearl, the boat’s Captain Andy Guiliano steers us from the Emeryville Marina’s Sport Fishing Dock. We pick up speed, and the bow of the boat breaks waves before slowing near the Bay Bridge. That’s where O’Donoghue tells us about the gold dust that was found in the sediment during the construction of Treasure Island, as well as the wild minty herb that’s indigenous to this area and partially responsible for the name of Yerba Buena Island.

Liam O'Donoghue speaks through the boat's PA system as he shares tidbits of the Eat Bay's history.
Liam O’Donoghue speaks through the boat’s PA system, sharing tidbits of the East Bay’s history. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Seals are spotted on the San Francisco side of the island before the boat turns southeast toward Oakland, only to stop in the middle of the water. Liam asks the 25 or so people on board if they can guess what we’re floating over. Without skipping a beat, a voice near the boat’s stern says “BART.” Bingo.

We kick up a few knots, heading toward the Port of Oakland. As we float past the huge ships that export fresh produce and import newly manufactured goods, O’Donoghue tells us about the history of the port’s cranes, utters a “no comment” about the future of Howard Terminal, and then shares the story of the longshore workers—specifically the members of the ILWU—who made notable contributions to ending Apartheid in South Africa by refusing to unload goods from that country.

As the barge moves past Jack London Square and the channel that feeds into Lake Merritt, we head toward Brooklyn Basin, where people are rollerskating along the water. I get a tap on my shoulder.

Dorothy Lazard wearing a knit cap and sunglasses, on a boat, with the SF skyline in the background
Dorothy Lazard of the Oakland Public Library rides along for an East Bay Yesterday boat tour of the San Francisco Bay. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Dorothy Lazard, head librarian in the Oakland Public Library’s History Center, speaks through her mask and over the sound of the boat’s engine, pointing toward Coast Guard Island. She tells me that her husband, Gerald Chambers, who’s sitting on the other side of her in the boat, used to go swimming there as a child.

Between O’Donoghue pointing out where the bullet-dodging-scene from The Matrix was filmed and the white-and-blue paint job on the boat house Tom Hanks lived in as a young adult, Lazard and I catch up.

She tells me about what’s been going on in her life as of late, including a recent trip to Chicago to see the work of Bisa Butler.

I tell her about my back-and-forth journey between Oakland and Sacramento, and what parenting during the pandemic has taught me about life. Then I broach the idea of creating a Northern Californian bucket list of sorts. What would she put on it?

Originally the Berkeley Pier stretched 3.5 miles into the Bay's water!
The Berkeley Pier originally stretched 3.5 miles out into the Bay. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Lazard, who also serves as the travel guidebook selector at the library, jokingly suggests that I participate in the harvesting of a peculiar delicacy in West Marin: geoduck clams, which are shaped like penises.

Days later, after letting the question marinate, I call Lazard and ask again. We start compiling a list of things that I haven’t seen and places I haven’t been. The Grateful Dead house in San Francisco. The ticky-tacky houses in Daly City. The dock on the Bay where Otis Redding wrote his famous song, and the National Steinbeck Center dedicated to the world-famous author. There’s the Black Diamond Mines near Mt. Diablo, mud baths in Napa, and the salt flats in Fremont (which O’Donoghue mentions during the boat tour as one of the Bay Area’s earliest forms of industry).

When I ask O’Donoghue about my idea, his response is twofold: go to Año Nuevo State Park in January to see the elephant seals. And hit the Sea View trail in Tilden Park on a clear day to see the Golden Gate Bridge, Mt. Tamalpais, the Delta and the San Pablo Bay all from one spot.

“You can get a sense the beauty of this place,” says O’Donoghue, noting how standing along that ridge not only brings views, but the ability to “smell eucalyptus trees and see coyotes.”

The boat trip concludes. It may have only covered a small patch of the Bay, but it covered a wide array of topics—from the history of the Indigenous community’s shellmounds to the current restoration projects to cleanse the Bay. And it put a whole lot of ideas in my head.

A three-hour boat trip around the Bay showed me a side of home that I had never seen before. And even for the things I’d heard about, seeing the place where they actually happened was just different.

That’s what I want more of. I want to take this place that I’ve called home for basically all of my life, and gain experiences that force me to look at it from a slightly different perspective. What better way than to spend a few weeks to get refreshed on what California means?

There are so many people to meet, places to go, and things to see—and I hope you’ll follow along.

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