I'm a London-dwelling northern lass who swapped the East End for Far East on the trip of a lifetime. I blog about food, travel, yoga and spirituality. www.sophiesnotinkansas.com
Published May 11th 2014
be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
"If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair..." goes the famous song by Scott McKenzie. Iconic for many reasons (the food, the people, the liberal-mindedness, the spirituality), this most eccentric of cities is perhaps best known for the psychedelic music scene of the 1960s. Although it's over 50 years since the 'hippy' subculture was spawned in San Fran, the spirit of it is very much still alive on the streets of alternative neighbourhood Haight Ashbury. And what better way to explore it than to dive deep in the immersive experience that is the Flower Power Walking Tour.
The iconic signs of Haight Ashbury - the only ones left - all the others keep being stolen!
We were told to book in advance via their website as this tour gets pretty popular and were glad we did as a healthy number of other tourists turned up. We arrived at our meeting point (behind the McDonalds parking lot on the corner of Stanyan and Waller Streets) at the appointed hour. Although we had been told to be on time, our tour guide arrived a little bit late. She, however, was worth it. With striking long black hair, black Yoko Ono glasses (that she assured us she couldn't see out of), and resplendent in a floor length tie-dye coat, Izu, our guide, was worth her weight in gold.
Accompanied by a sausage dog called Bennie ("he's not a sausage dog, he's a vegetarian burrito" she insisted) and rocking a smoky, raucous New York accent, Izu was the perfect guide. Despite hailing originally from NYC, she had been "hippified" at the age of 14 and had moved to San Francisco. Apparently she was a straight 'A' student and her parents thought her a little too boring and shipped her off to San Fran, where her adventures began.
What followed was less a historical and factual tour of Haight Ashbury, more personal narrative, the slightly rambling recollection of a life lived with all of the heroes of the psychedelic music scene of San Fran in the 1960s. Izu also waxed lyrical marvellously on what it means to be a "hippy" and gave the full history of the iconic "Hippies Human Be-In" which took place on the 14th January, 1967. This was one of the great precursors to the hippy movement, when Dr. Timothy Leary (American psychologist and advocate of hallucinogenic drugs) encouraged the thousands of attendees to "turn on, tune in, drop out"
Izu also pointed out two lamp posts, painted in brown that were covered with literally thousands and thousands of staples. These dated back to the days when Haight Ashbury was awash with hippies and they used these lampposts to staple fliers and information about gigs and events. "This was the precursor to the internet," she quipped.
The lamp posts covered with thousands of staples where gigs used to be advertised and information exchanged
In amongst this, Izu peppered the narrative with amusing accounts of her own personal life, talking in sardonic terms about her ex husband and the fact that she only eats one meal a day.... after dark!
Izu holding up a picture of the Grateful Dead sticker on fire engines from Station No. 12
Izu pointed out the San Francisco Fire Department Truck Station No. 12. "the only fire station in the universe where the fire engines boast stickers paying tribute to the Grateful Dead." On that particular day, we weren't in luck and didn't manage to see the fire trucks out on the roads. However, Izu excitedly whipped out some artwork so we could see a replica of the stickers. How life has changed since the days when these fire engines were pulled by horse and cart.
Some of the beautiful architecture we took in on the tour
Izu took us to the house where Janis Joplin lived, the house where the Hells Angels had met and, of course, the famous house of the Grateful Dead. A self confessed "Dead Head", Izu had a number of stories that she regaled us with.
The house where Janis Joplin had lived and Jimmy Hendrix had crashed
We walked along the beautiful streets of San Francisco, admiring the Victorian architecture, including the rather wondrous 'painted ladies' - houses painted in elegant style. Izu also pointed out some more macabre sights, such as the house from which Charles Manson ran his cult in the 1970s and the house where Janis Joplin lived (where Jimi Hendrix used to stay) before she died at the young and tragic age of 27.
The tour ended with a look inside 'The Herb N Inn and Psychedelic History Museum', a typical Victorian house boasting an eclectic collection of items from the era, including 'Hippies Use Side Door' prints, black and white photographs and various paraphernalia including 'hippy chips'. It was a rather special experience to be allowed inside the house, which is not usually open to visitors not participating in the tour.
The tour is supposed to take approximately two hours, but be prepared to be there for a LOT longer. We tried to drag ourselves away an hour after it was supposed to finish, much to Izu's distress. She seemed much more concerned that everyone was getting along and having a good time than she was about running to schedule (much to the chagrin of a thin-lipped couple from Nashville). She genuinely seemed to adore her tourists, connecting with them each in person. She really embodied the hippy maxim that she expounded with great passion: "we are here to make a better world."