San Francisco receives all of its municipal power from a dam at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park. This includes any municipal uses, such as city streetlights, SF General Hospital, the SFO airport, SFUSD public schools, fire stations, and the MUNI transportation system. The only map I could find online was abstract: it included just two tower symbols and a couple of straight lines. Wanting to see the route for myself, I used Google Satellite to painstakingly trace the transmission and towers and lines from the Newark substation in the East Bay, where the power enters the grid, to the Kirkwood Powerhouse in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where the flow of Hetch Hetchy water is first converted to electricity. I then used this map to generate driving directions for a trip in the summer of 2013. It was an difficult route, since the transmission lines blithely disregard all boundaries, crossing public and private lands and sneaking through backyards and inaccessible ravines. Ultimately, the route would take me past the suburbs of Fremont, a paintball park, a series of vineyards, a road named for Tesla, a vehicular recreation area, the San Joaquin River Nation Wildlife Refuge, orchards and farms, a veterinary hospital parking lot, traffic jams and shopping centers in Modesto, a Del Taco, a fruit stand, an endless expanse of yellow grass (a wintering home for bald eagles, and thus an Area of Critical Environmental Concern), a crystal-blue reservoir, and Moccasin, a town owned entirely by San Francisco for the purpose of maintaining the Hetch Hetchy line. Past Moccasin, my Google directions completely failed me – telling me to turn right onto Forest Route 1 from Forest Route 1, for example – as my route twisted onto steep, mostly deserted roads. (One month later, the 2013 Rim Fire would break out in exactly this area, threatening the transmission lines and dropping ash on the Hetch Hetchy reservoir.) After several unsuccessful attempts, I found the Kirkwood Powerhouse at the bottom of a canyon. Hetch Hetchy water, which flows underground from the dam to this point, emerged as a white pipe that dropped straight down the severe face of a mountain. Then, across the river, the generated electricity clambered up the other side of the canyon via the transmission towers, which had never looked so precarious.
Indeed, it was this characteristic of the system -- so vulnerable, so unlikely, with its spindly structures making complicated maneuvers through dense suburbs and famously large mountains just so that a bus in San Francisco could open and close its doors -- that became most apparent. To a person completely unacquainted with contemporary civilization, it would seem obvious that the towers and pipes (the Kirkwood penstock's vertical drop being totally baffling to the eye, describable only as sublime) are monuments. Instead, my curiosity about a public good -- and my camera -- simply aroused suspicion. "What are you taking pictures of?" a woman in a Fremont cul-de-sac asked me as I was photographing a tower and marveling at the audible buzz of electricity. When I explained my project to her, she seemed dissatisfied with my answer. Despite the fact that I was wearing entirely leopard print and polka dots, disco was playing on my car stereo, and my traveling companion was using a rainbow hula hoop he'd found near the transmission tower, she watched us resentfully until we left. Trucks often slowed or tailed us on roads we had no evident reason to be on. And Moccasin had an unwelcome air, as though if you didn't work there, you didn't belong there.
The fact is that photographing these structures was by no means illegal, but it was also not expected. Simply by training my gaze on something other than the usual sights of Yosemite, I encountered resistance. This resistance spoke to the habits of looking. In places where it exists above ground, the power grid is one of the best examples of something that is all around us but which we have learned not to see. As a child I would often take pictures in my neighborhood and be dismayed when there turned out to be power lines in the photo– as though they had materialized in the picture itself. The towers of the Hetch Hetchy line stand unassumingly in fields next to the freeway and in the back parking lots of shopping centers, unseen until we see them. But now I have – and I've seen the hot, dry, hundreds of miles they cross. When the J MUNI line comes to pick me up in the morning, seemingly banal as ever, I know that it's driven by water rushing straight down a monumental pipe in a remote canyon in the Sierra Nevada.
Note: the soundtrack of the video below is an original home recording by my father, an electronics engineer.
the map I found on the sfwater.org website
the map I traced using Google Satellite
a map I drew after the trip