"To travel is to take a journey into yourself." — Danny Kaye
One of the great things about travel is the way it lets us reinvent ourselves. The “me” who is sipping espresso in a strange city isn’t exactly the same me that days earlier was racing around the supermarket, cursing under my breath because I couldn’t find the coffee filters. Nor is it the same me that stumbled zombie-like off my last long plane ride, or the me that in July was stretched out on a sandy beach, too lazy and contented even to read the book I’d brought. Travel constantly invites us to be new and different. Our destinations shape us in unexpected ways.
Which is why I was so delighted when I was kidnapped and taken to Treasure Island this week.
OK, maybe kidnapped is too strong a word. Some friends had planned a surprise expedition to an undisclosed location, and when Rich and I climbed into the backseat of their car, they gave us eye masks to blindfold ourselves in order to draw out the suspense. Actual hoods, like the ones in TV crime thrillers, might (they felt) attract unwanted attention from random passing officers of the law. I put on the eye mask feeling that little thrill of excitement that always comes with heading off to a mysterious destination. Eventually our friends instructed us to remove the blindfolds and I discovered where we were headed.
Treasure Island is one of San Francisco’s least visited and most oddball neighborhoods, an artificial land mass created to transform some dangerously rocky shoals into “Magic City” just in time for the 1938 World’s Fair. All it took was the Army Corps of Engineers, hundreds of thousands of tons of boulders, and 2.5 million dump-trucks-worth of bay mud and sand.
The new 400-acre island was bursting with style and glamour. Everyone from Judy Garland to W.C. Handy, the father of the blues, performed there. Most of the entertainment was suitable for the whole family, but there were a few burlesque shows, the most notorious of which was Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch with its scantily clad (but far from actually nude) cowgirls. The sexiest seaplane ever — the China Clipper — had its own hangar on the shore and regularly flew (gasp!) to Asia. According to local legend, someone claimed gold had been found in the island’s mud, and the name Treasure Island was born and stuck.
And then, just as the party was really getting started, WWII broke out, and Treasure Island was turned over to the Navy for the rest of the century. When I first met Rich, he was still in the Naval Reserve and spent his weekends serving there. For him, traveling to Treasure Island was a journey back in time to his youth.
Despite having grown up in the Bay Area, I’d never set foot on Treasure Island until that day, and I had the novel experience of feeling like a tourist in my own city. I was impressed with the hustle and bustle, and hoped the island wasn’t on a collision course with climate destiny.
Right now, Treasure Island is knee-deep in a multibillion-dollar renovation project. Recreational space: 210 acres. Hotel rooms: 500. Retail: 550,000 square feet. New homes: 8000, with 27% of them reserved for low-income and homeless households. Everyone’s excited about the potential. All the developers have to do is solve a few pesky little problems — like what to do about the rising water in the bay.
Stop me if you’ve heard this, but apparently climate change is melting the ice caps and causing seas to rise all over the planet. I know, bad news for everybody, and especially people in coastal California. “It’s unlike any disaster we have ever seen,” warn scientists, who have this crazy idea we ought to try to curb carbon emissions so it doesn’t keep getting worse. Last I heard, the bay's water levels are projected to rise a foot by 2030, three feet by mid-century, and seven feet by 2100. Yikes! Good thing I took swimming lessons as a kid!
Not surprisingly, Treasure Island has been identified as one of the most vulnerable locations in the state. “Engineers built the island atop a bottom layer of mud,” explains science writer Kevin Stark. “The weight of earth and buildings on this gooey muck compresses it like a sponge and over time causes the island to sink. Treasure Island is descending at about the same rate as the sea is rising.” So islanders can look forward to twice as much flooding in half the time.
Of course, this being let’s-try-something-new California, engineers are embracing all sorts of innovative solutions. Giant straws knows as “wick drains” are sucking water out of the mud. Towering cranes are hammering the ground to compact it. Enormous mounds of earth are weighting down the island. House are being moved back from the shore. And everyone is sending up prayers to whatever Higher Being they believe in. If the effort’s successful, it could become a model for other coastal cities preparing for higher and higher tides.
“We are well-positioned to adapt to even some of the worst-case scenarios,” insists Bob Beck, director of the Treasure Island Development Authority. Which sounds worryingly close to the deckhand on the Titanic who said, “God himself could not sink this ship.”
But Beck’s right; the only thing we can place our faith in is our ability to adapt. Nobody knows how high seas will rise or what other natural or man-made disasters may befall us. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that we humans are remarkably gifted at course corrections.
And that’s especially true of Treasure Islanders, whose stories are being preserved in an oral history project. MeeSun Boice, for instance, left corporate life to reinvent herself as a restauranteur. She and her business partner, chef Parke Ulrich, opened Mersea (it’s Old English for "island oasis") serving delicious food on the Great Lawn with stunning views of the San Francisco skyline. The buildings are repurposed shipping containers, and many of the tabletops started life as bowling alley lanes in the officer’s club of the Naval base.
“We made the tables ourselves,” Ulrich told me. “One day I found an old man wandering around and I asked if I could help. He said he’d heard about our tables and wanted to see them for himself. Many years ago he’d been stationed here and met his wife while she was working at that bowling alley. They’d been married all these years. And then he told me she’d just passed away.”
Everyone brings a different part of themselves to a place like Treasure Island; our visits transform each of us in different ways. For some, it’s deeply nostalgic, for others it’s a journey of discovery, for environmentalists it’s an exciting chance to try out innovations, for developers it’s a nail-biting business risk. How will it all turn out? No idea. And that’s what makes it interesting. I’ll keep you posted as the project progresses, even if I have to write my rough drafts in waterproof ink.
How have your travels transformed you? Do you feel like you come home a different person?
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California. Right now I'm on a Nutters' World Tour seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and wacky food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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