The world was going to end and Americans were not taking their vacations. So said the headlines when I visited San Francisco for a conference last month. The sky was clear and blue. The wind blew white noise into the edges of Oakland, softening the city into a memory I would need later.
If you are not taking your vacations, that’s your business. Someone needs to keep the chiropractors, cardiologists and other healers of stress-related illness afloat through the recession. Maybe you can’t afford it right now, or maybe you are just stubborn, have a mean boss or believe the office walls will crumble if you are not there to hold them up.
A host of other challenges may stand between you and the winds of San Francisco, greens of Tuscany, beaches of Cape Cod, camping trails through forests waiting for your feet…whatever the place is that brings you back to yourself after months of forgetting needs of mind, body and spirit in a chugging-along life.
If you are not on vacation today, or can’t go this summer, have you tried bringing vacation to you?
What is it about a change in place that sands down our edges and pulls glow to the surface, replaces jittery thoughts with deep breaths and reminds us of sky-big possibilities for our lives?
For my trip to San Francisco, I had planned to book-end full, fluorescent-lit conference days with sights of the city in the evenings. That was before I arrived and realized that my bucket-listed California redwoods were less than an hour away.
So I built vacation time into each day, cutting my time in a plastic seat to the bare bones of need-to-know, catching only the need-to-know from quick Twitter-fingered conference goers at night.
I think it was the first time I vacationed alone, and it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever taken. If you have never vacationed solo, add it to your bucket list!
My prescription for a perfect San Francisco solo vacation (may be traveled on your own or vicariously from your chair):
• Walk from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf and back. Get deliciously lost in Chinatown each
• Eat sushi at hole-in-the-wall restaurants like Akiko’s in Union Square, or Nara Sushi on Polk Street,
where straightforward décor belies colorful bites and slowed me down to gratitude.
• Do the dorky tourist things. Ride the Cable Car down the hill as if you are ten. Hang on with one
arm while leaning far into the speeding-by, wind-kicking up world of small store-fronts on a sunny
day. Sing the Rice-a-Roni song.
• Walk through Nob Hill to Lombard Street and walk the steep inclines of Russian Hill (they
disempower excess calories from the Nutella crêpes and ice-cream at The Crêpe House nearby).
After a few hills you will understand why San Francisco has one of the lowest obesity rates in the
country and longest life expectancies in the world. Here you can treat yourself to the spaghetti and
meatballs bolognese at Puccini & Pinetti at the end of the day and still come home light and
One caveat: as a pedestrian you are also more likely to get hit by a car than in any other city, a
statistic I almost contributed to before I dismissed the blackberry to the bottom of my purse. So
avoid checking Twitter while crossing the street.
• When you pass the fishing boats along the wharf, jump in when a captain offers a group tour of the
bay. Choose a spot in the sun, perching yourself above the spray that will kick the bay onto the deck
when you turn toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Jump in also to the short-term friendships with
other tourists who have sent their own to do lists on vacation somewhere else. Notice each other,
seeing eyes and lives you would pass by at home.
• Visit the California Redwoods in Muir Woods. Sit, look up, and breathe.
hillside town sloping down to a rocky coast just across the San Francisco Bay from the city’s
This is going to sound lame coming from a writer, but I cannot write you there. You have to see the
Coastal Sequoia Redwoods for yourself.
At Muir Woods, walk any part of the 6 miles of trails, taking as many photos as you can,
straining your neck every which way you need to in order to these 1,000 year-old trees home with
you. Then sit on the wood railing over the creek that passes through these impossible trees, the
tallest in the world yet with roots so unusually shallow it is difficult to know where their strength
Try to capture in your lens their quiet stretch upward, and their brave leaning over water. You will
not capture the smell. It is a meditation all by itself, and I wish I could remember it now.
• Walk through the Never Never-land of Sausalito.
Sausalito is an easy stop on the way back to San Francisco from Muir Woods. But once I left, I could
not be sure that I had not made it up.
It may be a pretend place or somewhere you go when you die. My cell phone stopped working as
soon as I arrived. Walking along the harbor the masts and halyards of sailboats lean toward each
other, frozen in tableaus that are silent but for the wind and small clanging of rigs against masts.
Walking down Bridgeway, the main street full of art galleries, shops and restaurants, people’s voices
sink below the wind. It is not wind that blinds you with knotted hair whipping your face or makes
you too cold to finish your milkshake from Lappert’s Ice-Cream, but the kind that tightens your skin
just enough to wake up the vacation glow, makes you forget make-up ever existed, and forms
hollows of space around you, giving you solitude.
The art galleries are filled with pieces that twist you up inside, just enough to make you love the
artist who created them. The vases and urns of one mountain-artist holds color and shine and stones
and sky in twenty different ways, so surprising and beautiful that looking at them almost hurts. You
may have to plunk down a few paychecks to buy one, but that was the only part of my visit that
suggested Sausalito could be in the real world after all.
Continue down Bridgeway to where the street curves along the rocks. Let the wind hollow out
everything from whatever life you sort of remember stressing you out a few days ago. Watch the
gusts make sailboats cut the sky, and their sails lean over the surf as the redwoods did over the
creek bends in Muir Woods.
Who needs a piece of vacation in every day?
If you will not be on vacation this summer, I hope you are able to carve a piece of vacation into each day. It may be only an hour, before your kids wake up, on your lunch break, wherever you can find that shows you the space around you, and your place in it, with new eyes.
Again, whether you do or not is your business. But I think we all need this. A few weeks after returning from San Francisco, I was reminded why I do.
When a relative’s health emergency suddenly needed immediate and sustained attention a few weeks ago, carving solitude into the day became a challenge that will likely be around for a while. At first glance and maybe more on this at another time, right now my life bears little resemblance to a vacation.
But when I remember San Francisco, I am struck by a powerful similarity between a vacation and a crisis.
Each stuns you into the present moment, and in ways you do not expect. Each forces you to stare only at what matters while what doesn’t flies away, lighter than dust.
In this way, whether they deliver beauty or sadness, both are gifts.