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Op Images: Armchair travel sparks imaginative journeys

While walking the streets of San Francisco, I often time-travel in my mind. With the city’s Victorian architecture, acres of parkland and faded corners whispering of bygone days, the city offers much material to draw me into times past.

When I wander, I sometimes think of Somerset Maugham’s short story “Honolulu.’’ In its opening lines, he writes: “The wise traveler travels only in imagination. … In England, in London, there are certain afternoons in winter when the clouds hang heavy and low and the light is so bleak that your heart sinks, but then you can look out your window, and you see the coconut trees crowded upon the beach of a coral island.’’

Maugham describes how the smallest item – a piece of porcelain in one instance – can transport him to China where “I am borne in a chair along a narrow causeway’’ between fields. He concludes his opening passage by observing: “Those are the best journeys, the journeys that you take at your own fireside, for then you lose none of your illusions.”

In my ramblings, one of my favorite spots is a cluster of buildings located within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. Built between 1890 and 1915 – the same year the U.S. Coast Guard was founded – the structures housed the life-saving crews and their boats that responded when shipwrecks occurred in the turbulent waters outside the gate.

“The story is widely spread that the unofficial motto of the life-saving crews was, ‘You have to go out; you don’t have to come back,’ ” the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s park historian, Stephen Haller, told me.

Located beside Crissy Field on the city’s north shore, the buildings served as a life-saving station until 1980, when the Coast Guard moved to new quarters at Fort Baker in Marin County. Today the buildings are leased to the Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

When I pass by those structures, I stare at the two-story Dutch Colonial building that was the home of the keeper who headed the life-saving operations. I wonder how many keepers there were. Did they have wives? I imagine myself a keeper’s wife out on the porch on a stormy, wind-lashed night, clutching a shawl around my shoulders and watching my husband oversee his crew launching boats on a rescue mission. At the boathouse next door, I watched the crew propel the boats down a marine railway of tracks into the breaking waves. Then I imagine myself as a crew member in one of the boats in total darkness on a storm-tossed sea, gripping an oar and wondering whether I would ever make it back alive.

Not long ago I painted the buildings in my crude, childlike way, cementing in my head the foreboding feeling of an approaching storm. The painting only served to remind me what a hollow life I would live without my forays into realms where I would never travel without my willingness to be spirited away to another world.