Our planned route through San Francisco. Simple enough, right? (click for larger image)

As a general rule, we don’t take our rig off of major roads and highways in large, crowded cities. At almost 62 feet long, more than 13 feet high, and nearly 13 tons in weight, the truck/trailer combination can’t just go anywhere. But heading north from Half Moon Bay, CA yesterday morning, we knew that we couldn’t avoid traveling through San Francisco to get to the Golden Gate Bridge and across the bay into Marin County. There just aren’t any other reasonable routes. The camp host at our park recommended we skirt up the far west side of the peninsula, which promised less vehicle congestion and bicycle traffic than plowing through the heart of the city on the route recommended by Google Maps and our RV-specific Garmin 760RV GPS. As a bonus, we’d be treated to scenic views along the coastline.

We programmed the route into the Garmin, and it didn’t raise any objections based on our size and weight. So off we went. And it looked great until we got just past the San Francisco Zoo…where we discovered that the coastal road northbound was closed for some reason. There was a semi-permanent gate across the road, but strangely neither Google Maps nor the Garmin (which receives real-time traffic and road closure updates) had told us about it.

A sign on the gate told us to detour to a major north-south road a few blocks to the east, which we did. We had no idea how much of the coastal road was closed, but I kept expecting to see another detour sign telling me when it was safe to turn back west to our original route. That sign never appeared, however. It looked like we were going through the heart of the city after all.

The route we actually ended up taking. It felt much more complicated than it looks! (click for larger image)

As soon as we’d turned off, Cheryl was on Google Maps, trying to plan a new route that would avoid any problems. Meanwhile, the Garmin GPS was giving new instructions that didn’t seem to make any sense, including going around blocks (a right turn and two lefts) to make a simple left turn. Ideally, we would have pulled into a parking lot to sort out a new plan, but that was impossible in this congested city area. With all this input and trying to read all the street signs and avoid hitting anything, my brain was soon overloaded. Pilots call this “getting behind the airplane”. I was most definitely behind the RV at this point.

Red alert…

I’m sure San Francisco’s traffic engineers know what they’re doing. But to me, the surface roads around Golden Gate Park seemed to be a tangled mess of random “no left turns” and one-way streets. Cheryl was giving me directions, but either she’d tell me too late and I’d miss a turn, or I couldn’t make it because it wasn’t allowed.

To add to the fun, I noticed in my left mirror that one of our slide-out rooms was open a few inches, and seemed to slowly be creeping out as we drove. Worrying about that further added to my mental workload.

And finally, it all caught up with us. Prohibited from turning left on the north-south street that would have pointed us in the right direction, we crossed it instead. The Garmin told me that there was a cloverleaf-type turn on the right that would turn us around and allow us to turn right on the street. As I headed into the turn, I remember saying out loud, “I sure hope I don’t regret this.”

Danger, Will Robinson, danger!

Where we got stuck (Stanyan St. at JFK Dr./Oak St.). The yellow arrow shows where we wanted to go. The red arrow is where we tried to go. (click for larger image)

Yeah, I regretted it almost immediately. The turn was very tight, and like most streets in San Francisco, parked cars lined the inside of the turn. Well into the turn, I realized there was no possible way I’d be able to complete it without hitting one of the cars with the trailer. We couldn’t go forward, and with a busy three-lane thoroughfare behind us, we couldn’t back up, either. We were well and truly stuck. I said a few choice words, because I knew I should have known better than to drive into a place that I wasn’t certain I could get out of.

We had no choice but to stop traffic on the road so that we could back up out of the cloverleaf. Cheryl got out and started to play traffic cop. Not surprisingly, most of the San Francisco drivers weren’t too happy about that, and they let her know it. Finally, a kind driver in a construction truck stopped in the lane and turned on his yellow flashing lights. Other drivers grudgingly gave in, and I was able to back the rig up into the main road.

I pulled the rig into along the curb, blocking traffic in the right lane, and put on my four-way flashers. But now, Cheryl was on the opposite side of the street, and traffic wouldn’t let up long enough for her to cross over to get back in the truck. Much honking ensued, but after what seemed like an eternity, she was finally able to cross the road, climb in, and we were on our way once more–headed further east, but at least we were moving.

I was still worried about the slide-out, but there was no way I was stopping again until we were out of the city. So we found our way to the Golden Gate Bridge, crossed it, and drove several miles into Marin County until we found a wide shoulder on the highway where we could pull off, gather what was left of our wits and retract the slide. The rest of the trip, fortunately, was without incident, except for sitting in heavy traffic on US 101 for about 20 miles.

Another popular saying among pilots is “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” That was certainly true for us yesterday. What would I have done differently?

  1. I maybe should have stuck with the original route that Google and the Garmin GPS suggested, and just put up with the traffic and construction. It was the most direct route, on major streets, with the fewest turns.
  2. When the GPS said to go around a block to make a left turn to go north, I should not have ignored the advice. It turns out that the left turn was prohibited, forcing us to continue further east into unknown territory. (But, I had no way to be sure that I could have navigated the streets to make the turn, either.) Every time we don’t follow the GPS routing, it takes several seconds to calculate a new route, putting me further behind the RV because I don’t know where I’m going until then.
  3. When I had that bad feeling about turning into the cloverleaf, I should have passed it by until I could find a turn I was sure I could make. Here’s where I should have ignored the GPS’ routing. That Garmin is pretty smart, but it doesn’t know about turning radii or cars parked on a road. A cardinal rule for driving a big rig: Never drive your RV into someplace that you’re not certain (or at least reasonably sure) you can get out of.
  4. We need to add a yellow highway safety vest (like this one) to our gear. If she had been wearing one, Cheryl would have been much more visible (and maybe more official-looking?) when she was trying to direct traffic.

On the other hand, we both kept our cool–pretty much, at least–and by slowing down and thinking through the problem, we managed not to damage our rig or anything else around us. At the end of the day, I’ll take a bruised ego over something that could have been much worse.

“Experience Comes from Bad Judgment”: A Nail-Biting Drive Through San Francisco
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3 thoughts on ““Experience Comes from Bad Judgment”: A Nail-Biting Drive Through San Francisco

  • March 31, 2017 at 3:51 pm

    Uhh…didn’t we discuss it would not be a good idea to even drive the truck in and around the Presidio?! Why didn’t you ask me?? The best route was to cross the 92 bridge and connect going north in the East Bay. That sounded horrific!!

  • March 31, 2017 at 4:20 pm

    The campground host said she drives her RV that route all the time. She just didn’t mention that the sometimes close that shoreline road!

    I will say that having the walkie talkies was a life saver when trying to help David back up into traffic- but, yeah, I would have felt safer if I had a reflective vest on.


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