San Francisco Hills: 1, Rental Car: 0

Dec 27, 2014

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I have always liked the song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. It was recorded by Tony Bennett long before he met Lady Gaga. Heck, long before she was even born. I now find some of the lyrics to be quite meaningful, especially the line “where little incapable cars, climb only half as fast and far”.  Let me explain these words new poignancy.


My wife, youngest daughter and myself were completing a quick visit to the City by the Bay and were headed to the airport to return our rental car. We were driving toward Hwy 101 going from the shoreline through town when things started going bad. There are hills in San Francisco. Big, steep hills that double as roads. These roads can be between 30 and 40% grade. That, my friends, is steep. In saner areas, there are highway warnings signs that warn you of 6% grades, trucks use lower gear. In San Francisco, there are no warning signs, no crash bags, no good luck wishes, no fonts of holy water or special “blessing of the brakes” rituals. Where was the “chain law in effect” sign?


I think the reason all the expensive 3 and 4 story Victorian style homes that line the streets have large bay windows is so the residents can watch the potential carnage and bloodshed, or, at least, the fear and panic on the driver’s faces. And I can attest on the co-pilot and passenger faces, as well.


We were minding our business reflecting on the highlights of a grand day when halfway up one of he aforementioned hills our car, in medical terms, became unresponsive. The engine was running, the lights were working, the driver was awake, but the application of pressure to the gas pedal brought us, well, nothing.

The engine revved, the car didn’t. We were in purgatory, going nowhere. We are on a steep incline and there were cars behind us. A lot of cars. I reached for a lower gear but  there was no gear lower than low. More gas and more rpms and finally a lurch occurred. We must have looked like a bucking bronco in slow motion as we inched toward the summit. We are now in a Mt. Everest expedition survival frame of mind ready to plant a flag at the top and then exit to a side street for prayer and reflection.

driving san francisco hills

We made it to the top BUT the cross street is one way and impossible to access. Oh great, we scaled Everest and Kilimanjaro is now ominously staring down at us. We didn’t really want to have a sequel to this story, as they usually aren’t as good as the first, and because our first wasn’t good at all.  Well, you can imagine what happened. When we did actually move, we were lurching like a beginner using a stick shift for the first time. Tach said 7000 rpms, speedometer said 4 mph. Occupants of car said ##@&%$## !

Warning light comes on that transmission is getting hot. Traffic light goes from green to red as we are halfway up this sheer cliff. There is no bail out option as the roads are narrow, parking places are full, and we are sharing the road with the cable cars. The language of car’s occupants now goes from XX to XXXX. And then in a micro second we went from blasphemy to begging. Dear God, if you only let us get out of this mess, I promise….


After another agonizing 2 hours, well, some 30 seconds seem longer than others, we crested the hill and turned down the cross street and took refuge in a driveway. We sat in stone silence for awhile as the emotional drama had rendered us speechless. We did not know what we would do next, but we knew what we would not do. We would not try to cross the Alps in our covered wagon. Not with winter setting in and supplies running low. We would call 911, I mean the car rental company’s roadside assistance number. No answer, leave a message. Try Again. No answer, leave a message. We left a message and awaited a call back. We are still waiting.

We called the company’s national number and relayed our plight to the representative that answered. He said that he would contact his supervisor and forward info to the local agency and that they would give us a call. We are still waiting. While staring at the non-ringing phone we were also studying both hard copy maps and phone apps looking for solutions. We analyzed that if we headed back down the hills toward the shore and followed a shoreline road that we could possibly avoid our kryptonite hills. This plan was forced into action when the rightful user of the driveway drove up expecting and needing an empty drive to park in. So we pulled out, looked for our St. Christopher’s medal and headed down not knowing if we would survive re-entry.

We survived.

Reflecting back on the day I recalled that our little rental had exhibited some transmission anomalies while driving in some gentle hills on the way to Muir Woods. I remember mentioning that it seemed the car needed another gear, or two. I guess in retrospect it would be like a baseball general manager calling up a minor league hitter with a history of not hitting a curve ball and then being surprised that the ballplayer had trouble with major league off speed  breaking pitches. Our little car had trouble with the minor league hills and then struck out miserably with the major league hills.

I have thought a lot of our Frisco Folly in the two days since and I have reached the conclusion that the famous San Francisco chase scene in the movie Bullitt was not so much a chase as it was two drivers deciding the best way to deal with the hills was to attack them with speed, show them no mercy, hit them while they are down, slit their chests open and rip out their heart. And that is exactly what I would do next time if I hadn’t made that promise. You know, the Dear God if you get us out of this mess promise.  Well, next time, I’ll leave the driving to BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit).

A promise is a promise.

Featured image by Garth Pratt via Unsplash

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