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The Most Memorable Sunset of the Year

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A low setting sun behind a bridge above water
The sun sets over Hwy. 37 in Vallejo — one of nature's many masterpieces on the canvas of Northern California.  (Pendarvis Harshaw)

This week, as we near the end of 2022, the writers and editors of KQED Arts & Culture are reflecting on One Beautiful Thing from the year. Here, in a year of endless freeway commutes and big-city gridlock, correspondent Pendarvis Harshaw honors the spiritual regeneration of a well-timed sunset.

Someone asks you the best place to watch a sunset in Northern California, what do you say?

Driving down I-80 after leaving Tahoe? Sitting on a beach in Monterey? Pulled over somewhere on Hwy. 1, watching that big burning ball in the sky skinny dip into the Pacific?

This year alone, I’ve seen the sunset from the fishing pier in Benicia, and Lone Tree Point in Rodeo. Have you ever been to San Jose’s Alviso Marina? With its wetlands, wide array of birds and murky waves, it’s like another world during the evening hours.

One of my personal top five favorite spots is the east side of Lake Merritt; I love watching the pelicans dive into the water as the sun dips behind the Alameda County Courthouse. And quiet as it’s kept, another personal favorite is the McDonalds parking lot on the hillside of Vallejo’s Magazine Street.

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This place we call home has so many large bodies of water, changes in elevation, amazing displays of architecture, and evenings of pleasant weather that you really can’t go wrong when it comes to a Northern California sunset. You could literally pull over at the intersection of Road 104 and Road 35 in Davis, among the cows, and fall in love with the colors of the sky.

The sun disappears behind the plains of Central California, the sky a burnt amber and blue
The view after pulling over at Road 104 and Road 35 in Davis, among the cows. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

The most memorable sunset of my year, though, involves an unfortunate carjacking on the Bay Bridge, a much-needed conversation about the under-recognized legacy of San Francisco gangsta rap, and getting blasted by sand on Ocean Beach.

The story starts in a boutique hip-hop clothing shop in San Francisco’s Lakeview neighborhood. Varsity jackets and colorful hoodies line one wall, while the other bears a mural painted by Dregs One. It’s a collage of Bay Area rappers who’ve transitioned to ancestor-hood. I’m in the middle of the store chopping it up with the shop owner, Cellski, a San Francisco rap icon whose career spans four decades.

He’s telling me about the history of rappers and dope dealers in the City. That leads to a conversation about Chemical Baby, Cellski’s clothing line, a name inspired by the toxic dirt and water found in his community, as well as the drugs.

San Francisco hip-hop legend Cellski, at his boutique clothing store in Lakeview.
San Francisco hip-hop legend Cellski at his boutique clothing store in Lakeview. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

We talk about some of his upcoming plans, and then I shake his hand and head toward the door, ready to drive back to Sacramento. He warns me about traffic. On top of the usual 5 p.m. gridlock, apparently there’d been a carjacking on the Bay Bridge earlier that day, and The City was a shitshow.

So I decide to kill time by grabbing a slice from Northgate Pizza and hitting Ocean Beach. That’s where I messed up. The wind and sand combined to drop a diss track that my car still hasn’t recovered from. The song goes: “Sand in my beard and in my Thermos / Sand all over my clothes and my epidermis.”

Beach trip truncated and traffic still a mess, I decide on an alternate route: across the Golden Gate Bridge, up 101 and over Hwy. 37 from Novato to Vallejo. From there, I figure, I can catch 80 and bypass the gridlock as I head back to Sac — and I get more than I bargained for.

The sun sets behind the skyline of Oakland's downtown with Lake Merritt in the foreground
Lake Merritt, Oakland’s jewel. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

The afternoon conversation with the Lakeview lyricist inspired my evening playlist. I slap a couple tracks from Cellski, then 11/5, Cougnut, and an RBL Posse track or two. With early- to mid-’90s Frisco gangsta rap blasting through the speakers of my midsize hybrid, I hit Hwy. 37 right at golden hour.

Driving east, the sunset in my rearview, I watch as the spring sky turns beaming, brilliant shades of Baskin-Robbins Rainbow Sherbet and Starburst Passion Fruit purple.

California State Route 37 is low-lying, two-lane highway that runs along the northern edge of San Pablo Bay. It’s surrounded by marshy wetlands and a series of sloughs, as well as the Napa River. The water ripples up right next to the road. The cautious mind wonders how long this infrastructure will hold against rising tides. The imaginative mind feels like it’s riding atop the waves of the Bay.

But the present mind enjoys the classic SF gangsta rap reverberating through the stock sound system as the sun sets in my rearview mirror. There’s a bluebird on my shoulder, should I kill it?

With all the photos I’ve taken of sunsets this year, that’s the one I didn’t take. Probably safer to take a pass on getting a pixelated image of a gigantic star burning 91 million miles away, while driving 70 miles per hour on a giant rotating rock. (It would’ve been really, really pretty tho.)

Reflecting on this year and all the sunsets I’ve seen, so many of them were background visuals for my lengthy commute. Every once in a while, I’d get to a specific spot, face toward the west, and watch nature’s daily magic happen.

And yet my most memorable sunset of the year, I watched as I drove in the opposite direction. How lucky are we? There are so many beautiful places to watch the sunset here in the Bay Area that we can literally turn our back, and it’s still one of the prettiest sights in the world.

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