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Guide to California's Highway 1

The next morning we pushed on to San Francisco. We had only a day there to spend with family, and we'd been on the road for long enough that Lucy was starting to yearn out loud for her "real house, and real crib, and real computer." A single day in San Francisco is a torturous thing. What to do, when there's so much to do?In the end, we decided on the Walk, a tradition of our family holidays for the last few years, discovered and promoted by my intrepid sister-in-law, Pippa.

The Walk takes you from the Marina, a small, rocky beach where you can watch crazy windsurfers, past the open expanse of Crissy Field, a former air-field that is now an urban meadow, past a marsh that is a sanctuary for waterbirds, to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, and just under it, to eerie Fort Point, an echoing Civil War citadel that kids scramble around. I prefer to stand atop the fort, gazing out at the choppy blue waters of the bay and the ocean beyond, wondering who on earth the American government thought would be attacking from the Pacific during the Civil War, wondering what life was like in this dank chambered shell for the men stationed here, whose morose, mustachioed faces you can see in old photographs in one wing. You feel a pleasant thrill of exposure on the ramparts here, as though you're on the edge of something.

I love all our regular stops: the various goofy memorials to great dogs who've been walked there, the rock-balancing performance art of a local Zen kind of guy who piles small boulders on top of one another in astonishing feats of physics, the pipes you can put your ear to and hear underwater ocean sounds, the places where you can best see glowering Alcatraz, and the Warming Hut, the café where we always break for (very good) coffee and hot chocolate. To my mind, the Walk is the perfect blend of urban and natural: behind you, the San Francisco skyline rises Oz-like and tantalizing, in shades of silver-tinged tweed, clouds chasing one another around the skyscrapers like excitable children. Ahead of you, the Golden Gate Bridge looms gloriously, wreathed in fog. Often we spot seals not far from shore, and once my nephew jumped into the water and swam with one, who kept a guarded but seemingly friendly distance of 10 feet or so.

We usually have the discussion about whether it's true, as you always hear, that as soon as workmen finish painting the 1.7-mile bridge they have to start over, the salt air having already scoured away the new coat. I often think of that as a metaphor for the unending tasks in life—doing laundry, for instance. But that day, I thought of it in a happier light. I thought of how much, just about now, I'd like to start our road trip all over again.

Margaret Talbot is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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