Spots Unknown

Drive Across Mongolia in 4 Minutes (video)

Brokedown Mongolia

It took two of us 11 days in a 1.2L Fiat Panda to get from the Russian border to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, but you can do it in 4 minutes thanks to the dashboard cam that recorded it all. Experience the roadlessness, the bandits, the breakdowns, the yaks, and the camels, without ever having to figure out how to steer and shift a right-driving mini-car through some of the remotest land on the planet. And see it out the windshield just like we did.

The trip started last July with us flying from San Francisco to London and buying a car to run in the Mongol Rally. The next video will take you from England to the border of Mongolia - 40 days of driving in 5 minutes - under the British Channel, over the Caspian Sea, through Eastern Europe, Turkey, most of the 'Stans (Kazakhstan!), and Russia.

During that long haul, my teammate and I talked about doing something in America. And so, this summer I'm organizing a car rally here in the States, a road trip where each team goes on its own route of discovery armed with cameras and mobile technology, and they all meet up for a party at the geographic center of the country (it's in Kansas). Follow it online, or join in!

Under the Bridge

Where Bridge Leaves Land, San Francisco

It gave me a funny sort of feeling when I stumbled (OK, climbed and scrambled) onto this spot directly under the Bay Bridge, where it traverses San Francisco's northeastern edge and first passes over water to the initial tower.

Where Bridge Leaves Land, San Francisco

Where Bridge Leaves Land, San Francisco

See higher-res versions at the Spots Unknown Flickr pool. And follow SU on Twitter.

Hazardous Cliffs Stay Back

Be sure to watch to the end for some sweet irony.

Pulled From the Bay – An Angry Stingray

Clearly, the stingray is the star of this video, as it should be. The cruel, matter-of-fact way that the fisherman handles it doesn't seem to lessen its sinister awesomeness.

Perhaps it's a good symbol for this whole area of San Francisco.

This video covers Candlestick Point, Yosemite Slough, South Basin, and India Basin. Stay tuned as we explore the entirety of San Francisco's coastal edges in an ongoing series of vids.

The Stingray, San Francisco

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The Nasty, Beautiful Edge of South Basin

The Edge of Bayview, South Basin, San Francisco

If the posted signs of environmental hazards are to be believed, it's advised that you don't visit the southeast industrial coast of San Francisco.

I was there as part of an ongoing video project, but despite the joys of discovering hulks of decaying artifacts and debris, the warnings about tainted shellfish (not to mention the international sign for "radiation") definitely made me think twice about having crawled through that hole in the fence.

The Edge of Bayview, South Basin, San Francisco

After a few hours in the hot sun I began to think I could taste the toxins in the back of my throat. But surely, the hazard was overblown. Just look at all the water fowl, feasting on organisms that have marinaded in the same stuff I'm stepping in. They seem fine, and I'm more robust than a sea gull, even at my age.

South Basin, Rebar & Posts, San Francisco

I reminded myself that I'd begun my own trip that day at Candlestick Point Recreation Area just to the south, which bears no such pollution signs, and come on: you gonna tell me the fishermen there weren't reeling in fish that had also swum through these tainted waters?

Still, I was glad when I reached (relatively) clean asphalt again.

Photos from the Spots Unknown Flickr pool.

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Victory of the Mad Viking: Brooks Park

Brooks Park, San Francisco

Not long ago it was a post-apocalyptic den of drug abuse, blood sport, and murder. Now, it has been re-made as a virtual Valhalla by The Mad Viking himself, Peter Vaernet, and is a tribute to the past figures who battled to make something noble out of the parcel of land atop Merced Heights.

Today, Brooks Park is a model for creative land stewardship, urban gardening, and community pride.

Peter Vaernet is a cyclone of positive energy, and has swept folks like gardener John Herbert into the storm. Together they've completed the park's dramatic adventure from its auspicious beginnings with the Brooks family in the 1930s, through its 1970s and 80s descent, to its glorious present rebound.

We took our camera into the fog to Brooks Park last weekend while they were building a temporary tomato greenhouse in the garden, and met Peter and John:

Victory of the Mad Viking, San Francisco from Spots Unknown on Vimeo.

More after the jump...

I Want to Go to There: Bayview Park

Bayview Park, Sutro Tower, San Francisco

With the mild renaissance of Candlestick Point Recreation Area, you'd think there would be more interest in the conspicuous hill that juts up from the far side of the football stadium. It's called Bayview Park (or Bayview Hill, alternatively), and it sacrificed its eastern slopes in the 1950s as fill on which to plant the arena.

It has suffered from neglect and harsh urbanization throughout its history, and it it's barely appreciated even now by San Francisco residents, despite its natural beauty and kickass vistas. But it is getting attention by some for its high diversity of native plant species, including coastal scrub, oak groves, and the largest population of rare Islais cherry trees around.

Bayview Park, Cityscape, San Francisco

There are also a number of area and migratory birds that frequent the hill; I spotted a big, fat Horned Owl when I went last weekend.

I also went off-trail a bit and discovered the ruins of a makeshift structure:

Bayview Park, Fort Ruins, San Francisco

I don't know if it was a kid's fort or a homeless encampment, but it was cool. I'm not gonna tell you exactly how to find it - because what fun would that be? - but if you decide to go looking, be sure to wear shoes with some tread.

For anyone who claims to be fan of SF's hilltops, this spot simply must be visited and explored.

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The Resurrection of Yosemite Creek

Yosemite Marsh, McLaren Park, San Francisco; photo by Matt Baume

"Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it." --Lao Tzu

There's something about San Francisco's bodies of water that people just can't resist. We abuse them, we bury them, we fill them in with rubble and toxins - and then finally when we realize the error of our ways, if we're lucky we can pull them back from the brink.

Consider Yosemite Creek, a small but crucial part of the city's watershed. The creek's entire trip, from McLaren Park to Bayview, takes place in aging underground pipes. But it may not always be that way: the Public Utilities Commission is exploring nifty new ways to "daylight" the creek, ranging from creating new parks to placing watery channels alongside city streets.

The Marsh

Poor McLaren Park. It has a name, but sometimes it seems to lack an identity. Way out in the Excelsior - or is it Portola? - it boasts a head-spinning array of amenities: tennis and basketball courts, a pool, dog run areas galore, barbecue pits and an amphitheater, woodsy trails, and possibly soon a disc-golf course.

But among the Park's distinguishing features, a spot called Yosemite Marsh may be the most unique. Unlike two nearby asphalt-contained bodies of water - one a reservoir, the other McNab Lake - Yosemite Marsh is a naturally-occurring wetland.

You could be forgiven for walking right by without noticing it. It's small, and hidden by a thicket of trees. A wooden footbridge crosses through the thicket, spanning a thin gully. Nearby, and for no discernable reason, a concrete sculpture of a dolphin sits across from an always-empty park bench.

At this time of year, the creek is nearly completely dry; but during the rainy season, a steady stream of water emerges from the hillside to feed the marsh. The marsh, in turn, provides habitat to herons, quail, ducks, bullfrogs, lizards, and (thrillingly) wrentits.

Formerly a bit run-down, the Marsh enjoyed an extreme makeover in 2006 [PDF]. The most prominent upgrades are a nice footpath and seating, but there are more infrastructural improvements under the hood: erosion control, enlarged banks, and enhanced wetland plantings, thanks to a $150,000 grant and $150,000 in Rec & Park Department Funds. With riparian rehab projects such as this, it can take five to ten years for plants to mature; the hillside above the marsh still looks a bit scraggly, but you can definitely see where it's growing in.

Hal Phillips put together this very "electric" edit of footage we shot recently at the marsh:

There's still lots of work to be done elsewhere in the park. McLaren is currently in the running for a $30,000 grant from Sears (yes, Sears) to improve a particularly unkempt northern entrance to the park.

Of course, the marsh isn't the only moisture in the area. Various trickles of water can be found throughout the park. (And in fact, I carelessly stepped into one up to my ankle when I visited after a rainstorm.) Why is McLaren so wet? Bedrock. Soil is slow to discharge moisture, so water tends to hang around a bit.

And when the water finally does trickle out of the park, it has quite a trip ahead of it. From McLaren, it winds its way underground past University Mound Reservoir under Portola and the Phillip Burton Academic School, under the 101 and the 3rd Street light rail, and then finally aligning itself with Yosemite Ave - its namesake - before emptying into the South Basin in an area known as Yosemite Slough.

The Slough

Yosemite Slough, San Francisco; photo by Spots Unknown

The most complicated step in Yosemite Creek's journey lies at the very end, in Yosemite Slough. It's a highly sensitive ecological area, decimated by decades of heavy industry. But there's reason for hope: a massive environmental restoration is underway [PDF], featuring the planting of thousands of native species, soil remediation, and habitat construction.

But it is only hope at this point. As the video below shows, the area is currently an industrial dumping area. (The song is "33" by David Molina's Ghosts and Strings.)

It's not exactly an easy spot to access, and lord knows it's toxic in several different ways; we've done the exploring so you don't have to.

The Slough is part of Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, which in general is well worth a visit. Don't let the unseemly history scare you off. Yes, legend has it that it got its name because of all the burning abandoned ships nearby. And yes, for years it was used as a landfill. Okay, and the Navy didn't exactly take great care of it during WWII.

But! You can't beat that view. And apparently the birds agree: there's no better place in San Francisco for spotting herons, loons, egrets, and avocet than nearby Heron's Head Park. Environmental cleanup - much of it led by students - is gradually turning the area from a garbade dump to prime real estate.

With Yosemite Marsh stronger than ever, Yosemite Slough on the mend, and Yosemite Creek facing a new lease on life, there's never been a better time to thank San Francisco's watershed for sticking with us through thick and thin.

Matt Baume is a San Francisco writer and photographer covering transit, ecology, and the science of cities.

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Bar Unknown: Pass Time

Bar Unknown: Pass Time, San Francisco

Only a special kind of bar can prompt philosophical thought by its very name on the sign. In the case of "Pass Time," that question is: "Typo, or command?"

If it's a typo, one imagines what the intended spelling was, and the implications regarding the vision of the proprietors. "Pastime," as in, America's favorite, means one thing, while "Past Time" means another.

But the other possibility - that the sign contains no mis-spelling, and is indeed insisting that those who enter do so with the ambition of staying a while - is even more intriguing. After all, we still are not being told whether there is any sound reason to enter this place. Do I come in, sit at the bar, oder round after round, and content myself with "passing time" as you ordered me too, simply because I was already a little tipsy and kind of suggestible, so why not? Or is there something else on offer to make my extended stay worth it beyond pleasing your desire to dictate my destiny?

Or, does the philosophical enquiry go even deeper than that, with the sign uttering a metaphysical command to all who are conscious and may happen to read it, regardless of whether they enter the establishment beneath?

Remember the childhood game, Why-Are-You-Hitting-Yourself? The question is asked of the playground victim merely to add a little ironic humiliation to the pain, while using superior strength to wallop them with their own hand. It's pure cruelty, and yet it teaches the victim an important lesson, does it not? It teaches that often we are punished by malevolent forces beyond our control, forces which may taunt us as if we could act to make it not so. But we cannot. Perhaps the words above the entrance to the bar should read:

To all who see this sign, please understand that, as belligerent as it seems, there can be no such command as "pass time," for we all must. We are born, we pass time, and then we die. Oh, and if you try to come here to forget this truth, we won't make it easy for you.

Bar Unknown: Pass Time, San Francisco

Well, the time I passed at Pass Time did not entirely lack a sense of malevolence. Hernando, the older Colombian gentleman next to me at the bar, told me he'd gone to high school in Medellín with Pablo Escobar. I chose to believe this while looking at the many photos of the Three Stooges pinned up over the booze. I tried not to notice the toothless woman at the end of the bar laughing and screaming in Spanish.

I never shook the nagging mysteries of the name of this quintessential neighborhood dive, and in fact came to feel quite comfortable with them. The Cazadores burned in just the right way, and the sun set.

And as the bartender refilled my glass without a prompt, I thought I heard him ask, "Why are you hitting yourself?"

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Round Up: Six Months Worth of Spots Unknown

Lobos Creek, San Francisco

First off: an apology.

The category that is closest to the stated mission of this blog has only nine items in it after six months. That seems a little bit thin. My bad.

A big reason for doing this blog is to compel me to explore, physically, the parts of the city that I don't know, or don't know well enough, after living here nearly 14 years. (I know, I mouth off like I'm a native.) I had a great time investigating these few areas, so I'm going to try to increase the rate of items like these:

  • Muwekma Ohlone Park and Wildlife Sanctuary: Water has become a pretty steady obsession of mine after learning the tragic details of this spot; but there is, according to an update made just today, some hope for its future.
  • Lobos Creek & Mountain Lake: Funny how even the smallest of free-flowing waterways can seem so meaningful in an urban environment.
  • Precita Creek: A great case of a well-known iconic landmark, Twin Peaks, and what little I knew of it.
  • The Spitfire Rose: OK, one more resolution: to explore/discover more bars. Long Live the SU Corps of Urban Drunkards!
  • Mount Sutro: I was pretty jazzed about finally getting to the top of this hill and seeing the open space there. On the way down I wondered if this was in any way "unknown" to anyone but me, but then I ran into a friend and long-time resident who was jogging through the Panhandle, and mentioned where I'd been. He'd never been up there, either.
  • Hillapalooza: This redeems me a little bit, since it hit 14 spots at once. A great day in the city.
  • Dorothy Erskine Park: I especially enjoy finding a spot after being somewhere, pointing off to the distance, and saying, "what's that over there?" And then going there. This was one of those.
  • O'Shaughnessy Hollow: Don't even pretend you know what this is. You may have seen the spot, or even been there, but if you try to claim you knew the name, YOU LIE! (Also, why are you people so unresponsive to coyote posts?)
  • Edgehill Mountain: I first spotted this on a topo map, unlabeled of course. Turned out to be quite a specimen of the sort of city fight that can only happen in San Francisco.

There were lots of other popular posts, such as the Lost Landscapes stuff (got to give away some tickets), and video links. My "Palin-esque" defense of the city against SF Weekly drew lots of comments.

But in the end, it's about the Spots, and me trudging my way, by foot, into, onto, under them. Basically, this map needs to look a lot busier:

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The Battle for Edgehill Mountain

Edgehill Mountain, San Francisco

It's wedged between Mount Davidson and Forest Hill, and it offers some amazing vistas and a thriving natural area, but you won't find Edgehill Mountain or its open space labeled on any official maps. Yet.

Because it's San Francisco, there is of course an epic clash between good and evil unfolding on this obscure, scenic bump in the topography. Land developers vs. stewards, citizens vs. city officials, native vs. invasive plants - and stuck in the middle, a humble little hillside that just wants to be who it was meant to be.

Large homes - many of them owned by Italian land magnate Angelo Sangiacomo - are densely-packed right up to the summit, but the south side is too steep. This fact was demonstrated several times in the past when large portions of the hill turned to mud and slid away. In the '50s a house was taken out entirely, and in 1997 mud crashed into some unfinished homes.

The city refuses to maintain Edgehill Way, the single-lane road that circles the crest. A patchwork of filled potholes and an abundance of foliage make it feel like a country road in the middle of the city. The lookout facing south at Mount Davidson is quite special:

Edgehill Mountain Lookout, San Francisco

On a clear day you can see the ocean from the park.

Edgehill is easily accessible from the Forest Hill and West Portal Muni stations. Check the Spots Map for exact location, and then visit. Go on a second Saturday for a work party and help local resident Stan Kaufman, president of the Friends of Edgehill Mountain Park, and Randy Zebell of SF Rec & Parks fight the good fight against non-native weeds.

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Let’s Vex Us Some Coyotes!

O'Shaugnessy Hollow, San Francisco

"Maybe they need to be tased."

Ralph Montana was referring to people who let their dogs run off-leash in San Francisco's coyote zones. I'm pretty sure he was joking. (More after the jump...)

Dorothy Erskine Park Exists

Dorothy Erskine Park Exists, San Francisco

If you've ever walked up Bosworth from the Glen Park BART station, you've probably glanced at the little cliffside pictured above. You see that strip of greenery on top? It marks the edge of one of the city's lesser-known parks, named after an early advocate of open urban spaces.

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The number one reason to peel off on your way to Glen Canyon Park, or slip over from the Sunnyside Conservatory and visit this little perch is for the South-facing view at the top amidst the charming miniature forest.

Coming in a close second, is bragging rights. I guarantee less than one percent of your local friends have ever heard of it. (My friend Steve gave me his Erskine "virginity" there on Saturday, and he lives just a few streets over.)

Oh, and there's a tire swing:

Tire Swing, Dorothy Erskine Park, San Francisco

Hillapalooza – an Urban Hike

Hillapalooza, Twin Peaks, San Francisco

If you've got half a day some weekend or holiday, and you like a moderately challenging hike, this easily-accessed, 4.5-mile route with a 900 ft. elevation means you don't have to leave the city of San Francisco. Details after the jump...

Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve

Skyline view from Sutro Forest

At first I was a little ashamed that I'd never been in the forest on Mount Sutro, officially known as the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve, even after living in the city for almost 14 years. But, after asking around, I discovered most of my long-time-resident friends haven't been there either. So now it's their turn to feel ashamed. (More after the jump.)

The Spitfire Rose

Spitfire Rose San Francisco

As the appeal of overlit, overcool "dives" wanes for yours truly, unassuming neighborhood haunts like Mission Terrace's Spitfire Rose (allegedly named after the British WWII fighter plane) continue to fascinate.

The Yelp page has that enticing combo of mixed experiences and low review count that raises more questions than it answers. That's all it took for the SU Corps of Urban Drunkards (SUCUD) to go on its inaugural raid. More after the jump.

The Stewardship of Precita Creek


Make no mistake: Artist and self-styled "greenbelt steward" Amber Hasselbring, pictured above (pointing) along with her field-guide-clutching partner in crime (and fellow artist), Iris Clearwater, is just as enthusiastic inspecting manhole covers like the one next to her, as she is identifying a native butterfly or monkey flower. More after the jump...

Lobos Creek & Mountain Lake


Fed by the same aquifer, but not directly connected, these bodies of water are special parts of the San Francisco watershed near the Presidio.

More after the jump...

The Attempted Homicide of a Sanctuary

Photo by David Erickson

UPDATE 4/14/2010: Via Matt Baume, from StreetsBlog:

The PUC ... proposes to terminate the creek in a manufactured wetland at the western end of Islais Creek Channel. The area is currently an asphalt lot just down the street from the headquarters of Mythbusters, used occasionally to store vehicles.

This would be a fantastic and appropriate honor for this spot. (And there is still more than just asphalt here!)

Once upon a time in 2001, there was a tiny plot of shoreline, Muwekma Ohlone Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, named after the native people who once populated the San Francisco peninsula. Guerrilla gardeners had, for years, nurtured this vestige of unlikely marshland amidst the industrial zone near Hunters Point.

More after the jump...