Sep 12, 2012

Escaping to Alcatraz

Nearly two years ago to the day, my friend Dave and I took the popular ride across the bay to Alcatraz Island to join swarms of other tourists for an afternoon exploring one of the world's most famous prisons.  Having shared several photo sets from this excursion before, it hit me how I hadn't really talked about our experience from visiting this iconic landmark.  Frankly, it seemed like a fun post to write.

We drove up from Indio the day before, taking a welcome detour through Big Sur along the Pacific Coast Highway.  We only had one full day for site seeing in San Francisco before we had to continue our long drive home, so the main attractions topped our list. We bought our tickets for Alcatraz online before leaving on our road trip knowing that time would be in short supply.  If there's one piece of advice to take to heart on visiting, buying your tickets before hand is it.

Dave's orange VW bug bounced and weaved easily around the hills of downtown San Francisco, which was a good thing because we weren't sure where to go exactly.  Our hotel was out by the airport, so it wasn't until that morning that we actually got our first glimpse of the city.  Haphazardly we found Lombard Street and from there we could see Alcatraz Island out in the bay.  It wasn't so difficult to see where landmarks were, it was just a challenge to understand ways of actually navigating to them.  Long story short, we found Pier 33, boarded our ferry, and headed out to the Rock.

The first thing that crossed our minds when we got to Alcatraz was how big the island actually was.  There's plenty to explore, and while the prison is obviously the highlight, it's a surprisingly small part of the location.  After getting off of the ferry you start walking a long path up the hill to where the prison house is.  There are numerous smaller buildings along the way, some of them now ruins, which only seem to add to the mystery and eeriness of the island.

As you reach the prison it's a bit surprising to see what rough shape some of it is in. The facade is crumbling in some parts, there a substantial cracks, and you start to think about the fine line between preserving the ruin and preserving the original building.  We did soon realize that while restoration has been ongoing, the prison was already in rough shape when it closed in the sixties.

Once inside you shuffle into what was the communal shower room to pick up an audio deck and headphones to take your self guided tour of the landmark.  I really loved the audio tour as it added so much ambiance to the location.  Between stories about famous inmates, escape attempts, and the function of the prison, they played sounds of the cell doors slamming, the guards talking, inmates playing their instruments, etc.  It brought the abandoned structure to life.  Despite all of the people around, it actually made the experience feel more personal and unique than I imagined it would.

One of the funny things about Dave and I each doing the tour was that because we could pause it when we wanted to take more time to look at something, our tracks ended up at different parts.  We would look at each other to say how interesting something was only to discover that we were listening to different parts.  This only created more confusion when Dave wanted to catch up, but lost his place on the track.

We checked out the few rows of infamous cell blocks, explored solitary confinement, and made our way out to the recreation yard.  Not surprisingly, the view of San Francisco from Alcatraz is impressive.  You can see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, and the skyline is all right there in front of you.  They said that was one of the worst parts of being an inmate there, the life and energy of the city was constantly teasing you.

One of the cells shows the scene of the famous 1962 escape with a dummy head in the bunk and the concrete around the air vent chipped away.  Three inmates managed to make it from their cells, into the utility corridor, and out to the bay.  While it's believed they all drowned, their bodies were never found leading some to believe they made it ashore.  Whether they survived or not, their escape was masterful in its execution.

We made our way back outside and were greeted by more stunning views of the city and the towering lighthouse.  Alcatraz Island is actually the oldest light station on the west coast of the United States.

Probably because we knew we had to wait for the ferry anyway, we seemed to spend quite a while just enjoying the view and talking about our trip. We ended up in the gift shop before heading back to the city, where I managed to build a nice collection of souvenirs.  Dave and I both seemed to come away from the island with more questions than we came in with, but I suppose that was a good sign.

There is something truly captivating about the dark history of Alcatraz, knowing that people were locked up there, and then touring it as entertainment. I'd love to go again someday, but until then it's not an experience I'll soon forget.

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