"All good things are wild and free." --Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Ever since childhood when Momma drove her red convertible Mustang up 101 towards San Francisco, I wondered about those humungous letters on the side of San Bruno Mountain:


What was so great about South SF that they got to hog up the side of a hill with their name? Shouldn’t it just say SAN FRANCISCO? And were those letters painted on, or made of wood like the Hollywood sign? Most importantly, could I get up there?

But Momma had other plans, and we drove on.

"Y" spells "Weeee!"
A short lifetime of distractions kept me from reaching for the letters ‘til my twenties, when I went clambering up the hillside with beer in my backpack and friends at my side. The letters were like big concrete slides going down the hill! Well how’s about them apples! I must’ve tried to joyride them, but I don’t quite remember.

Fast-forward ten years.

On a recent afternoon my nuclear family (husband, baby, and I) ate burritos on Grand Avenue and then took our girl for a swing at the playground behind South SF’s City Hall. Then, bellies full of food, we waddled off in search of yard sales. (I’m thinking I’ve surely hit middle age.) We decided to go up to those letters on the hill.

On the Letters Trail
Sign Hill, the official name where the letters are, isn’t smack up against San Bruno Mountain, but on a parallel ridge. Getting to the letters is easy from Grand Avenue, just a short, uphill walk through a quiet suburban neighborhood.

We climbed up Sign Hill’s eastern edge (the backside of the Letters Trail?), up a fire road alongside eucalyptuses. I had a dizzy flashback from my twenties, but this time my backpack held a 22-pound baby girl and a canteen filled with Hetch Hetchy’s finest.

Looking south
And for the second time in my life, there were the letters, up close and personal. It was very, very cool. There’s a certain thrill from being up so high, sort of lording over the peninsula, looking down at a thousand backyards, and perching next to a monumental letter. It reminded me of trespassing, but it obviously wasn’t.

The Letters Trail was a short jaunt, a mini-hike, although there are four trails to choose from (Ridge, Seubert, Iris Hill, and Letters). We made our way back to suburbia, at the intersection of Poplar and Rocca Streets.

"Warship"--SSF Library
We meandered back to our car by City Hall, and noticed some brass plaques about Sign Hill. It was time to learn some history. Apparently the letters went up in 1923, sixty feet tall and ten feet wide, but were replaced with concrete ones by the end of the decade. South SF was truly an industrial city in its day, home to businesses like Pacific Coast Steel, Western Pipe, South SF Lumber Company, Baden Brick, American Marble, and more. Back then, acres of cattle stockyards undoubtedly stank up the vicinity but supplied fresh beef to the many distributors. Besides the Swift Meat Company and the Western Meat Company, there was the Morgan Oyster Company, and probably a whole lot of other warehouses full of food being shipped across country. It must’ve been exciting. (Back then, freight trains ran to San Francisco, carrying goods up and down the peninsula—and characters like Jack London and Jack Kerouac worked or hoboed on them.) When America became involved in two World Wars, it was the blue-collar folk of South SF who churned out some of our warships. South San Francisco quite justifiably added “The Industrial City” to its name back in 1908.

My husband and I drove back to San Francisco better off for having checked out those massive letters than we were before. Did we feel like middle-aged old coots? Naw. We felt pretty stoked to live in the Bay Area. Did we slide down the letters? Well, what do you think? 

Baby says, "Weeee!"

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