Friday 18 August 2017 News Updated at 10:08 AM IST
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The Cali life - Deccan Herald
The Cali life
Sagar Kulkarni,
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In large San Francisco skyline
The sound of a spray-rifle fire catches me off guard as I duck to avoid the bullets fired by the notorious bank robber Bernard Paul Coy. I realise that I’m in what once was the Gun Gallery of Alcatraz, dubbed as the 'escape-proof prison’, off the Bay Area in San Francisco.

Coy and his five accomplices made one of the most violent escape attempts from Alcatraz in May 1946. The Cellhouse Audio Tour captures every element of what is considered as the most significant moment in the 29-year-old history of the prison that many convicts called the Rock.

Located two kilometres off the San Francisco Bay, the Rock housed some of America’s most notorious criminals - gangster Al Capone, kidnapper George 'Machine Gun’ Kelly, gangster Alvin 'Creepy’ Karpis and murderer Robert Stroud, also known as the 'Bird Man of Alcatraz’.

From being 'home’ to America’s incorrigible criminals from 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz has become a popular tourist destination for visitors to the Bay Area, and also a location for many a popular Hollywood blockbuster.

Built on a 22-acre island, the military prison-turned-maximum-security penitentiary, which was shut down in 1963, is also a premier nesting spot for seabirds. After a visit to the eerie corridors of the cellhouse, I walk around the island to watch Western gulls hatch eggs and snowy egrets take flight from the island shrubbery.

On a windy June morning, I and five others set out on a 2,000-km road trip to North California with The Golden City or The Fog City as the starting point. We are there on an invitation from Visit California.

After a visit to Alcatraz, I begin a trek to Twin Peaks from the historic Castro Theater, one of the few single-screen theatres left in the city. After nearly a two-hour hike through the classy neighbourhood and stairways, I reach the top of Twin Peaks, which rise almost 1,000 feet above the city. Standing at the tourist vista point, an outcropping of land, I have a 360-degree view of the city and its many landmarks - The Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, Transamerica Building, the downtown skyscrapers, and the cities of Berkeley and Oakland across the Bay.

After taking in the views from Twin Peaks and an early dinner, it’s back to the hotel, for next to visit is Yosemite National Park, and another trek through the woods to giant sequoias - the ageless wonders standing more than 200-ft tall for the past 2,000 years.

Waving goodbye to the still-sleepy San Francisco, we hit the road early, taking the Interstate Highway 80, crossing the 7.18-km Bay Bridge that links San Francisco to Oakland, to reach Groveland, a foothill community on the western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. At the Rush Creek Lodge on the outskirts of Groveland, we meet Jamie Plouffe of Echo Adventure Cooperative, who will be our trekking guide to the Tuolumne Grove, one of the three sequoia groves in Yosemite. It’s home to about two dozen mature sequoia trees, including Dead Giant, the first tree to be tunnelled in the park, in 1878.

Aiming for the sky

Jamie takes us to Tuolumne Grove trailhead, located about 16 km from the lodge. Carrying packed lunch along, we begin the short four-km trek to the grove. The wide trail road - closed to traffic since 1993 -descends gradually through a thick forest of sugar pines and white firs. It’s all downhill from the trailhead to the grove, and the trek appears easy with a walk down the bends. This was part of the Old Big Oak Flat Road, the original entrance of the park used more than a century back. Then, visitors would come through the thick firs, pines and sequoias to the Yosemite Valley, crossing the tunnel carved out of the trunk of Dead Giant, which measures 30 ft in diameter at the base.

The first giant sequoia greets us on the left side of the trail, and I crane my neck to have a better view of the tree that stands about 200-ft high with branches near the top resembling outstretched arms. Jamie tells us that this fellow has been around for at least 1,200 years. These tall creatures have humble beginnings. A sequoia cone is smaller than the size of a chicken egg and inside it is the seed that comes out only at high temperatures caused by forest fires.

After a quick lunch under the shadow of the gentle giants, we set off on a hike back to the trailhead. The hike called for a well-deserved rest and an evening of fun under the stars. The evening began with an early dinner with the choicest wines from Napa Valley, followed by desserts by the campfire.

If you are in California, you cannot miss technology. So, off we are to our next destination - San Jose. We are back on Highway 120 on our way to the Bay Area. We run into some heavy traffic as we near San Jose and get off at the San Pedro Market Square that abuts the Tech Museum of Innovation, also called The Tech.

The museum is buzzing with activity as students try their hand at science. The Tech has teamed up with the most high-profile companies of Silicon Valley to give visitors a first-hand experience with virtual, augmented and mixed-reality media. I buy an eight-dollar ticket, lie down on the stomach on Birdly, the first-of-its-kind simulator, and strap on a virtual-reality headset. And so begins my flight through the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Spread over 1.32 lakh square foot area, The Tech is an ode to the many innovators who earned their spurs in Silicon Valley - from the first start-up founded by William Hewlett and David Packard in 1939 to the newest kids on the block. An evening in San Jose is incomplete without a visit to Santana Row, the famous outdoor shopping mall that’s a mix of brand shops and concept restaurants. The walk down the Row makes me feel exhausted and I sit on one of the numerous benches under the leafy oaks.

Wondrous waterbody

The next day begins early as we set off on a 400-km drive to Lake Tahoe, the ultimate tourist destination in the High Sierras straddling California and Nevada. As we go round the bend leaving the snow-clad peaks behind us, the cobalt-blue waters of Lake Tahoe greet us. A visit to the lake is not the first on the charts. Instead, we hop on to a gondola ride that takes us about four kilometres up in the mountains. We get off at the observation deck built about three kilometres up in the mountains, and are treated to the most beautiful panoramic view of the lake that sprawls 490 sq km across California and Nevada. The southern side of the highest alpine lake is located in California, while its northern fringes are in Nevada.

Ironically, it is South Lake Tahoe that houses numerous casinos; the north is home to some rustic countryside. Celebrated author Mark Twain drew his inspiration at Lake Tahoe, and the northern part of the lake still marks the granite slab used by Twain as a table for meals and card games.

"The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn’t it be? It is the same the angels breathe,” Twain wrote about the weather here in his book Roughing It.

After a day at Lake Tahoe, it is time to return to San Francisco, and back to India, but not before a promise to return.