While most people that were sent to Alcatraz wanted nothing more than to get off “The Rock” surprisingly when I was offered the chance to actually be stranded there overnight I jumped at it! I first heard about the trip when I was working the annual Make-A-Wish® Wine and Wishes® event last year and thought it sounded amazing. I remembered that the first time I’d heard the auction lot announced I remarked to Amy Currens how much I’d give to be able to spend a night on the ROCK. It just goes to show what a simple intention can accomplish!
I have always loved Alcatraz from afar. I went once as a child, but hardly remember, and ever since moving to San Francisco in 1996 I’d been meaning to visit. It took until May of 2012 for me to do so when my brother Omar and his girlfriend Jess were in town. We took off on a Wednesday to visit and really enjoyed a gorgeous sunny day on the rock visiting the sites and even taking what I thought was an amazing audio tour of the cell house. I entered cell #9 in D Block, an isolation cell and said to my brother, “Oh my God, can you imagine spending the night in here?” Clearly fueled by my addictive viewing of shows such as “Ghost Adventures” and formerly what was one of my favorites, “Fear” from MTV, all I wanted to do was head out and perform my own investigation.
Later in the year I was out and about visiting accounts trying to collect some information for Wines of Chile when I saw on Facebook that my buddy Hoss Zaré, Chef of Zaré at Fly Trap was around the corner from where I was enjoying a glass of wine (Bin 38) so I zipped on over to A16 and busted in on his dinner to enjoy some delicious wine and pasta. At the end of dinner he said, “You wouldn’t want to be my sous chef for a dinner on Alcatraz would you? It’s for Make a Wish®! We get to stay the night!”
I could not believe my good fortune!
I rushed home from A16 completely elated to wake my husband tell him the great news! His immediate reaction was, “Why? Why would you want to do that? Oh my God I would never do that!” It had never even crossed my mind that someone would decline this once in a lifetime opportunity! So although I was still extremely excited there was of course a bit of fear and nervous anticipation involved as well…
The next few weeks were spent bragging about my upcoming journey and doing some research! I never knew how little I actually knew about the island I see so often from San Francisco’s many vantage points. I found a great signed copy of Eyewitness on Alcatraz by Jolene Babyak all about Life on the Rock as told by the Guards, Families and Prisoners. It gave me some great perspective on the prison and a unique vantage point. As a fun picture book I bought Alcatraz History and Design of a Landmark by Donald MacDonald and Ira Nadel. I also read and re-read the instructions from the National Park Service. No alcohol (WHAT!?), no Sharpies (HELLO? Two of my favorite things?!), bring a sleeping bag, no power, bring a headlamp. Also Hoss told me to bring my guitar so I could play a song!
So the day of the journey I was scheduled to judge wine at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, but I zipped out early to be sure I wasn’t going to miss the boat. Alcatraz Cruises does not wait on anyone whether you have reserved regular tickets or are on a special event. Best parking for Alcatraz is Pier 29 next door (but the pier suffered a fire less than a week after our event, so check to make sure it’s operational again…) I got to the dock in time to meet a fun group of the three chefs, Hoss and co-chefs Peter McNee from Poggio and Eric Arnold Wong of E&O Asian Kitchen and their sous chefs (actually legit sous chefs unlike me…although I can set a table and pour soup and whatnot). Also attending were a group of mostly families and their kids, kids had to be at least nine to come and the families were all really excited with all their gear and sleeping bags and such.
Soon after we gathered we were met by Ranger John Cantwell. Google the guy and you’ll find out how important he is, he’s worked on the island since he was a teen. He rolled up on a bicycle relatively sweaty and boasting that he’d just rolled in from Monterey. In our nervousness we believed him for about a half hour. He immediately straightened us out by telling us he wasn’t there to offer up ghost stories, my impression is that he knows way to well how miserable it could be dealing with scared kids and adults overnight on the island, he likes his sleep.
There was quite a bit of loading onto a private ferry out to the rock. We headed out and the day was sunny and gorgeous with some light wind, but overall a very warm day for June in San Francisco. The journey was a short 10-15 minutes after which there was an equal amount of off-loading. When we arrived the last daytime guests were leaving the island, there were about 600 more guests on the way for the night tours, but we felt special as they commented on our gear and sleeping bags. We stored all the food at the dock area under the “Indians Welcome” sign and headed indoors for a short movie about the island. As soon as it was over we loaded our sleeping gear into the Ranger’s truck, there’s no food allowed in your gear due to rats and mice that they’re careful to keep out of the cell house. We started the long walk up the rock’s steep paths to the area by the lighthouse. Our gear was taken into the cell house D Block, the area known for the worst prisoners, where we were told we would spend the night but choose cells later. I expressed that I wanted #9, an isolation chamber aloud, just sayin’! We hid our stuff on the upper levels of the block so as not to have it visible to the night guests and the group set out on our community service project to clean up the yard (originally the overnights started as a Boy Scouts program). We picked up little pieces of paper and tried to avoid all the gull feathers (they gave us gloves luckily) and then John gave us a tour of the gardens and viewed some of the bird sanctuaries. After our walk the group headed out for the audio tour of the cell block while the chefs and sous chefs ran down the hill to try to get the charcoal started so we would have dinner ready for them when they returned.
You can’t tell three ambitious top chefs from San Francisco to grill hot dogs and burgers, so for the group of 35 the chefs had some pretty extensive dishes planned, thinking we had something a bit bigger than the teeny grill we were presented with. The grill was made by the last group of prisoners on the Rock. Luckily the team are professionals and made it work, but it wasn’t the ideal condition to make an extensive meal! Peter McNee made “Jail Birds” (quail in little cages grilled over the charcoal) served with fresh red cherries, arugula and almonds, and he even went on to make an amazing hot chocolate with whipped cream and a zabaglione atop strawberries for dessert! A huge challenge and a lot of effort to do over a charcoal fire. Arnold Eric Wong had amazing pulled pork with a selection of great sauces and fresh herbs served in traditional steamed Chinese buns. The amazing thing is that they were steamed on location, once again over the open fire. He also made a great Kombucha that paired perfectly with all the dishes and provided a great alternative to sodas. Chef Hoss provided a selection of amazing pickles, white strawberries, fiddleheads, etc. and then presented a cold yogurt soup with raisins, nuts, rose and herbs. The kids in the group were eager sous chefs asking for jobs at every turn, and even tray serving soups! Then Hoss brought out his lamb shank meatballs, aka the “Ball and Chain” and he had dressed the part in black and white stripes!
While we enjoyed dinner we noticed the last boat leaving, all the workers, every last one, except for the one security guard and John were gone… When dinner was done I grabbed my guitar and was invited to perform my “Pork Song” and then an encore of “You Gotta Go to Sea”, which was so fun, the Ranger held up a microphone for me and said, “Live from Alcatraz, Rebecca Chapa!” Hoss provided cheesecake and then everyone milled about until we could clean up. The greatest part was that the entire group cleaned up together, such an amazing group, we were all in this together, rather than workers and guests. In a way, we had become a family!
Ranger John gathered us together and we set off on our special tour of the island and it’s normally off limits areas. We visited the tunnel, industries area, the Morgue, Officer’s Club, Theatre, I think we really saw everything. He had us traipsing all over the entire property on what was a pretty rigorous journey. We ended at the Hospital where we were able to go into the isolation areas, rooms with floor to ceiling tiles and not much else but an observation window and a hole in the floor. We also saw the Birdman of Alcatraz’s cell. It seemed quite spacious in fact. By this time we were all totally exhausted, I realized I hadn’t sat down for more than twenty minutes all day. We gathered up our sleeping bags and gear and each of us took possession of a thin foam mattress pad to sleep on top of… Folks began scrambling into the cells on the second and third floors of the cell block complete with lights, metal bunks that came out from the walls and in close proximity to each other. I still had my sights on cell number 9 but was starting to reconsider, after all the talk of rats and mice and god knows what other creepy crawlies I didn’t love the idea of setting myself down on the floor in a room that was wall to wall metal with nothing to protect me and my foam mattress placed directly on the floor. I edged over to cell number 1, still a floor away from the others but with a bunk and a light switch and also right next to the spiral stairs that lead to my friends in case I freaked out. I was about to place my foam mattress down on the metal bunk when I noticed a puddle of water. It seemed weird to me considering we were the only folks on the island since about 9 and it was 2 am, and it hadn’t rained in weeks. So I took it as a sign that I was meant to stay in cell #9. As I was arranging my bed on the floor of my cell a few of my cohorts came by to take my photo and tell me how crazy I was to want to stay there. Ranger John came by and was really surprised that I had taken up residence there and so I told him about the water. He was a bit flabbergasted when he saw it and then he just said, “Well someone must have spilled water and tried to dry it with his boot and walked away.”
Despite all my intentions to go roaming the cellblock and the island (which John said we had carte blanche to do) I got a bit freaked. I imagined running into that security guard and losing my mind. I was also totally exhausted physically from the strenuous day, so I lay down and asked the spirits to just let me stay there without being bothered. It was weird because it really wasn’t a slumber party type atmosphere when we hit our cells despite all the kids, no laughing or boisterous talking, and all of a sudden just a lot of LOUD snoring. I’d heard reports of this on the accounts of others who had stayed there, it just seemed to permeate the entire place, there is a ton of echo in there, but it was hard to tell if it was just our group’s snores. The gulls are also really loud and make really weird sounds and then there is a constant drafty rattling of the windows and weird hisses, clicks, scratches and creaks continuously. I ran my tape recorder for a quick bit and asked the spirits to let me know they were there if they wanted. I told them I wasn’t going to listen to the recording now and to please not visit me that night. I listened to it the next day and found that there was a loud laugh audible just after I said that. And then nothing else.
Falling asleep after getting used to the noises was pretty fast due to my level of exhaustion, but I did awake at about 4 in the morning with terrible agonizing stomach pain. I willed it away as I was not about to get up and go anywhere and was pretty much laying there petrified in what was almost total darkness, the reflection from the lights in the cells above providing only limited light at the front of my isolation cell’s open door. After about a half hour of trying to calm my body and work through the pain I was able to get back to sleep. 7 am came quickly without any more interruptions and I was surprised to see the sun already well up in the sky, I had wanted to wake early to see it rise We quickly went through our morning routines and got ourselves gathered at the base of the lighthouse where John had told us to meet. He did a once over of the cells (apparently there are occasions when overnight guests are too scared to use the restrooms outside of the cell block and dirty their cells, in which case he makes them clean them…) All was AOK and John announced our special surprise which was that we could walk to the top of the lighthouse! We had to take turns at the very top as it is really small and John was sure to warn us that the railing was pretty much rusted through so not to touch it. He didn’t have to warn me as I had my back plastered to the wall of the lighthouse the entire time and sidestepped my way around… I was honestly more frightened up there than I was in cell #9! They convinced me to climb a small ladder so I could touch the red light at the pinnacle of the island on top of the lighthouse and then I gladly scrambled back down to terra firma.
After a quick breakfast we were presented with our badges that commemorated our overnight on Alcatraz! As we prepared to get on the ferry back to the mainland we saw an elderly gentleman being guided off the boat to the dock. It was clear that he was someone special, both from the way that people reacted to his presence but also just from a great energy that he had. Ranger John introduced us to Frank Heaney. Heaney was hired in 1943 and was the youngest correctional officer ever on Alcatraz. He worked for the infamous Warden Swope and during his watch no one ever tried to escape the rock. His watch on the island ended during a stint in the Korean conflict as well as time spent working for the Albany Fire Department but the allure of the island would not leave him and he ended up returning as a National Park Ranger in 1974. You can meet Heaney the third Saturday of each month in the bookstore where he is present for book signings of his book “Inside the Walls of Alcatraz”.
The entire journey was incredible and I returned to the wine judging somewhat filthy and pretty tired from my night on the rock but with fun stories for everyone. Now when I look across the bay I feel a sense of recognition for the magical island that is so close yet so distant at the same time. Alcatraz is a fun place to visit but I sure wouldn’t want to live there.