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Up The Road: Touring The Real Rock, Alcatraz

Dave Mathhews

This week we head up the road to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, unofficially known as The Rock, where countless bad guys did their time in the former federal prison there.

Visiting Alcatraz is like touring the dark side of the American dream, like peering into democracy’s private demon hold. At Alcatraz, freedom is a fantasy. If crime is a universal option—and everyone behind bars at Alcatraz exercised that option—then all who once inhabited this desolate island penitentiary were certainly equal.

Yet all who once lived on the Rock were also equal in other ways—in their utter isolation, in their human desperation, in their hopelessness. It all feels so . . . contemporary, doesn’t it?

According to former prison guards, it was no vacation by the Bay, working alongside some of America’s most notorious felons—including George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, Ma Barker’s righthand man, and Robert “The Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud. The job was psychologically demanding, yet often boring.

Former inhabitants who remember the Rock, both guards and inmates, are included on the Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour, an “inside” audio journey through prison history developed by the Golden Gate National Park Association and offered on official tours.

Among those voices from the past is Jim Quillen, former inmate, who Up the Road met in person many years ago, greeting visitors. He leaned against the rusted iron doors of Cell Block A. His pained eyes scanned the pocked walls and empty cells, each barely adequate as an open-air closet.

Quillen spent the best years of his life on Alcatraz. “Ten years and one day,” he said in a soft voice. “The tourists see the architecture, the history—all I see are ghosts. I can point to the exact spots where my friends have killed themselves, been murdered, gone completely insane.”

And there you have it. That’s the main reason to visit Alcatraz—to explore this lonely, hard, wind-whipped island of exile. The ghosts here need human companionship.

Besides visiting with ghosts, there is plenty else to do, from lectures, ranger-guided walks, and other special tours and programs to poking your nose into various buildings. All structures, damaged by long exposure to salt air, are being restored.

About tour options: Alcatraz is immensely popular, so there are tons of choices, including fancy-dancy ones like helicopter trips, or tours combining other destinations. But nothing beats the official Golden Gate National Park tour, from Alcatraz Cruises, a journey by ferry that departs San Francisco from Pier 33. Get there at least 30 minutes early, because no refunds or exchanges are allowed if you miss the boat.

And go on an early tour, if you can, to see the cellblocks and Alcatraz Island in relative solitude, before the rest of humanity arrives. Wear good walking shoes, and warm clothes (layers best). It can be brutally cold on Alcatraz in the fog or when the wind whips up. Inquire about help getting up the steep initial climb, for those with limited mobility.

Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.