Working on the Sausalito waterfront in my teens, the Golden Gate was always in sight. My friend Des and I both lived in the city and drove across the bridge most days to the one of the last remaining shipyards there, where we hauled fishing boats out on the old rails and scraped and painted their bottoms and sides. Northbound in the blue dawn, my motorcycle blown sideways in the wind, hammering across the grated roadway through which I could see the tide washing in, far below. Southbound, the tall deco towers painted dusty madrone-skin orange, lit by the warm yellow-orange of sodium vapor streetlamps, strings of orange-red tail lights—and if I was lucky, a technicolor orange sunset glowing on my right.
I was lucky. Growing up on the bay, I’d sailed beneath the bridge many times, staring straight up at the huge weight of metal. Seen from that perspective, at not much more than walking speed, the bridge was a starship moving slowly into space, its engines roaring, burning, pushing west, up, and away from Earth’s one gee. Crossing the Gate framed each day with perfect catenary arcs, the subtle bend of the bridge deck mirroring the curvature of the Pacific horizon. I was lucky to have these elemental shapes as my native territory. The bridge was the center of my world from early on—it was the center, it meant center, it meant here—a symbol of place and of connection, a symbol of the gold that’s here, the gold that brought people here from the beginning and the gold that’s been here for me, an echo of the gold laid up in the geology of the Sierra, the golden dry summer grass of the California hills, the golden poppies of spring, and the gold that’s always in the West. A symbol for the city, an artifact of discovery and civilization, and something beautiful for its utility. A bridge to cross on the way to work each morning.
The bridge glows with the guarantee of good fortune—and—also with danger, and loneliness. As much as I loved that bridge, it could also feel like a threat, a dark mass casting its gargantuan shadow far into the bay, inescapable. Its arms looms over us. Even darker truth, the bridge is also a monument to suicide. We can’t avoid knowing its popularity as an end-of-life travel destination. I’ve seen the stiff bodies of jumpers after they hit the water, and although I’ve never been tempted to join them, I did often have the feeling, driving over the bridge on those grey mornings, that I might suddenly shrink and slip through a gap, drift sideways in the salt air on the way down, and then be washed cold by the waves, on my way to disappearing. It’s not that I wanted to disappear, but at that age I felt that my footing in the world was slippery. My sense of self was patchy, formless, foggy. I still feel that way, thankfully, not as often, and not as much.
Des and I, we’d been to Yosemite together, climbing at Glacier Point and below the Royal Arches. I taught him the rope-work I’d learned from my father—how to tie in and belay, how to use slings and carabiners, how to place protection. Back in Sausalito, we put two and two together, and we began to wait for one of the long late-summer nights when the heat of the day is slowly released from the land, an out-breathing of soft, warm, calm air. I was lucky—and I had my eyes open. Even at eighteen, I knew the patterns. I knew when to go.
A few weeks later, straight from a late shift at the yard, another friend who’d agreed to drive dropped us in the north-west parking lot, dark and quiet in the odd hours of the early morning. We stepped out of the car and I watched the door swing closed with a heavy thump, moonlight glinting off the bright chrome handle. We stood for a moment there on the blacktop as the car slid away, and then turned towards the bridge. A concrete ramp brought us to the western sidewalk, and then we were there, at the bottom of the twelve-foot section of fence that guards the intersection of the massive main cable descending past the horizontal bridge platform.
I put my hand on the fence. We had talked about this—the place where we were most likely to be seen. The lanes were empty, vibrating black and white with the energy of cars sure to be coming along any second. The bulk of the cable confronted me, thick as the trunk of a fallen redwood, as I grasped the hard diamonds of woven cyclone fencing wire. We both wore work boots and coveralls with our climbing harnesses underneath, belay slings already attached and threaded out in front and each ready with a locking ‘biner. My old manual Pentax K1000 was slung over my shoulder, and I could feel the plastic film canister in my right hip pocket.
My vision was clear and fixed on the top of the fence. I took a breath of sea air and launched myself upwards, making three quick moves, mantled over the roll of wire, swung around and placed my feet one, two on the wide cable—nearly three feet in diameter. Clipping a sling around one of the handrails, I immediately took several steps upwards to be sure to get above the reach of any approaching headlights. Securing the second sling and glancing back to see Des in position behind me, I moved easily along the slope of the cable, swapping the belay slings in alternate fashion as we passed smaller vertical cables every few yards. Something about climbing that seems not so widely known is that despite the exposure, the practice of climbing is very much about safety and security. The culture and skill of climbing with proper techniques and equipment negate our natural fear of heights. Tools and experience make it possible to navigate the unknown.
You could say we were lucky. We were prepared. We were ready. Climbing rapid and steady above the city lights, we reached the top of the cable in not more than ten minutes. We didn’t hesitate to jump the fence, to make our way upwards, but here, we had to pause. Our slings weren’t long enough to allow us to climb from the cable onto the tower platform. Des caught up with me, and we faced the question without speaking. I pointed at the gap and raised my eyes. We both looked back down the slope of the cable, down to the roadway far below. We had to decide: Turn back, or unclip and step up and around?
To be clear, climbers do not unclip—ever. Many of the skills that you learn in climbing are specifically intended to avoid the possibility of ever having to even consider unclipping from the rope, or whatever else is securing you to solid ground. Good climbers don’t unclip. But—we were here for the tower. We had chosen the perfect night—clear, balmy and still, even at seven hundred and fifty feet above the water. The footing on the cable was secure, the top of the wide surface coated with non-skid mixed into the paint. I felt calm and clear-headed as we turned our eyes back to consider the two moves that we’d have to make unsecured, and my hands made the decision for me. I reached down and removed the first and then the second sling, freeing myself to climb up and over the bulwark of the tower. I moved then with precision, my fingers strong from working the brake and clutch levers of my motorcycle, checking the position of my feet before giving them my weight. I moved, and in another moment, we were together there on very top of the tower. I put my arm around my friend’s shoulders, and we stood, silent.
The air swam around us, thick and slow like the ocean. We stood there together on an island, breathing in the infinity of San Francisco. The infinity of that city around me, within me. Every hill and street corner, every bus stop and every place of memory—all the streets of my youth laid out in the sky beneath us. The dark forest of the Presidio stretching west to Lands End, where the mouth of the Gate opens wide to the Pacific. Standing there, my steel-toed boots securely planted in this surely secret place, I felt the city dissolve and permeate my skin. All those lights, the movements of thousands and thousands of people, buildings, engines, trees, switches, pencils, bus lines and beer bottles, the discarded wrappers from the candy we ate as kids—Jolly Ranchers and Bit-O-Honey, Colt 45 and taqueria burritos, bottle rockets and char siu bao. I used to carry fortune-cookie fortunes around in my wallet, because it seemed like bad luck to discard them—but you can’t hang onto a tiny slip of paper forever that tells you “You are almost there”.
We stood there as long as we could stand it. What we had done was inevitable. The bridge was there, we came to know its shape, and we had to climb it. We tasted something there. There was freedom there—and, and—the possibility that we might just get away with it. I’ve always wanted to be the one that got away, and I was lucky—we did get away with it. We managed to descend without being spotted, our driver showed up, and we climbed in as quietly as we had arrived, saving our hoots of joy and success until we were well away.
Just this afternoon I was out on the water there, skimming along right under the bridge in the exact same place I had been as a kid on our small family sailboat, watching that Imperial cruiser move out towards the stars. It’s an old friend now—not just the bridge but the entire place that it stands for. The bridge is so familiar, I feel that I can touch it, and these days, somehow, it often seems not much larger than my own body. I mistakenly ruined that roll of film from the top of the tower that night, but the fact will never fade: we climbed the Golden Gate, and that made it mine forever.