I was in San Francisco for two weeks before someone told me I should see the Golden Gate Bridge. It's not something I usually think of – my kind of travel usually involves wandering city streets pretending I live there, not seeing the sights. But I decided to go because two weeks is a long time for aimless wandering and it was almost time to go back to Sydney. I needed a holiday memory.
I caught the train from Oakland and then a bus that sped up and down endless, impossible hills. It was a rare blue day in the Bay and the rust-coloured bridge looked like a sun-drenched postcard from the 70s. In my mind, the colour International Orange is so embedded in that decade that gazing at the Golden Gate Bridge was like stepping back in time.
Walking on the giant suspension bridge was different to the landmark steel through-arch bridge of my hometown, the Sydney Harbour Bridge – this bridge moved. Mesmerised by the sensation, I went to stand by the railing and take in San Francisco Bay. Tiny triangles of boat sails cut white lines through the water. It was so far down and I was just one small person. Any passer-by could pick me up and throw me into that vast expanse of air and water. I clung to the metal bars, listened to the rush of passing cars and stared at my own mortality.
'How are you today?'
I looked up at the person standing close by; I hadn't heard him until he was at my side. I replied that I was okay, then noticed the blue police uniform and bicycle.
'Are you feeling alright?' he asked me again, sincerity emanating through his Californian accent.
It hit me in a rush of emotion: he thought I wanted to jump. He'd probably watched me from a hundred metres away, staring over the edge, and moved in quietly so I wouldn't get startled, the way you'd sneak up on a bird about to take flight.
This upset me more than I could understand. I hadn't been thinking of jumping, but the idea that this man thought I could was so disturbing I wanted to cry.
Instead, I acted like a tourist. Convinced that I was not about to suicide, the cop asked me why I didn't have a camera to take pictures. I'd left mine at the place I was staying.
'It's a beautiful day and you're having a lifetime experience here at the Golden Gate Bridge! Why not capture it for later?'
He told me I could buy a disposable camera at the shop back where the bus dropped me off, and then cruised away on his bicycle looking for more souls to save.
Great, I thought. First he rescues me from death, then he sells me something. In angry rebellion I continued walking until I was half way across the bridge. But I couldn't shake off his words. Once in a lifetime. I never think about travel that way. Even in the smallest towns and out of the way places, I always feel that there will be another time I can return. But if there isn't, if there's only now?
I couldn't stand it – turning on my heels, I walked back to the shop, bought a camera, took a photo of the entire length of the bridge from a grassy hill and then walked back along the bridge, snapping everything in sight. I wanted to use the whole roll on the Golden Gate Bridge. Every photo painted in International Orange and Pacific Ocean blue.
By the time I reached the other side the sun was still shining, but half way back I saw thin white clouds slide through the long suspension cables. The tops of the Art Deco towers started to disappear in the fog. I'd almost run out of space on my disposable camera. While waiting for the bus I took one last photo from the same spot overlooking the bridge. Now cloudy grey and gloomy, it was a different day.