The narrow coastal rim west of the Santa Cruz Mountains is a world unto itself. Rich with moist ocean air and ornamented by unique flora, the land asserts a majestic presence in spite of roads, cars, houses, and other degradations inevitable in the presence of human population. I’ve been to Santa Cruz and its suburbs of Capitola, Soquel, and Aptos four or five times, and each time is a refreshing reminder of this unique environment.
All of it leads to the beach and sheer cliffs eroded by towering waves. Stretches of sand crop up, narrow but pristine, fed by the constant motion of water. Detritus of the sea collects in meandering lines—kelp with rubbery flat leaves, seaweed in tangled blackish masses, bits of shell, and freshly exposed critters burrowing back under the swept-clean surface. The land gently rises from the shore to sweep up the slopes to the ridges of the densely forested mountains.
Tall palms dot the neighborhoods and commercial districts, delineating their unique architecture against a backdrop of coast live oak, coast Douglas fir, the enigmatic Pacific madrone, wax myrtle and bay laurel, and the ever-present clumps of towering invasive eucalyptus.
Here and there remain the native coast redwood standing as lone sentinels or in surviving groves on the steep hillsides. Everywhere the hand of man has interspersed the natural plantscape with domestic shrubbery and flowering plants. But much of the native vegetation also blossoms in vibrant color. Blooms in every shape and hue grace parking lots, highway medians, ditches, and landscaped surroundings of shopping centers, gas stations, and random shops.
The University of California at Santa Cruz takes pride of place at its higher elevation overlooking the town and bay. The cleared sunny south slopes of campus host a more drought-resistant chaparral vegetation with manzanita, scrub oak, and chamise.
Beyond the expanse of land claimed by state parks, ranchers, and the university are groves of redwoods deeply nestled in sharp ravines and stretching to the sky up steep slopes. From the road along UCSC’s east side, a panorama of the Monterey Bay opens its glorious expanse to the viewer, breathtaking in its fingernail-moon arc southward.
I would be happy living here, I think. The community is joyously liberal and rebelliously semi-heathen in its irreverent embrace of life. Homeless people around the wharf and other public places might catch the tourist off guard, but there’s no implied threat if the request for money is denied. Seaside attractions, aside from the string of restaurants, coffee shops, and lodging, include an amusement park with Ferris wheel, fun house, and roller coaster. At a safer distance from the occasional tidal shift or storm surge are shops and stores favoring every conceivable interest. The sprawling imprint of human settlement stretches for miles.
A climate that rarely climbs past eighty degrees in the daytime or drops below forty degrees in the coldest night tempts me. My friend Ginny’s front deck faces the distant water from her perch halfway up a mountainside. From her hot tub or deck chair, I contemplate the fog bank lying like a thick silver blanket along the shore. On clear evenings, I watch the sun send its red-orange flare across the distant waves. I watch the whitecaps break at Soquel Point.
The miracle of close friendship never fails to amaze me. After forty-two years since we were cute young travelers to the Great American West, we’ve stayed friends. She left Northwest Arkansas for New York and then retired to California. Together maybe a total of two months in all that time, we start our conversation as if we’d never been apart. Her habits are familiar—the gurgle of her espresso machine starts the morning while I sit staring out at the foggy dawn. We giggle over her silly cat and talk about our plans for the day. I marvel at her ability to thrive in such a claustrophobic environment, but then, my God, she spent a couple of decades lawyering in New York City.
There are two key points that keep me from seriously entertaining a relocation plan. Money. And population density. People literally live on top of each other. Ginny’s home at nearly $2000 per month (plus utilities) is the top floor of a house divided into three living units. At the back fence mere feet away begins another house, perched higher up the hillside but close enough to hear conversation on their front porch.
Single family homes are palatial estates costing millions or small, side-by-side 1930s cottages with questionable structural integrity and still worth many thousands. If I cashed in my sixteen Boston Mountain acres with over 2000 square feet of home space and spring water, plus my two commercial rental properties in Fayetteville, I might end up with enough money to buy a house trailer in Santa Cruz. Okay, maybe a 1940s bungalow on a postage-stamp lot.
In spite of the occasional gut wrenching journey for the sheer pleasure of existing for a time in this other-worldly Shangri-la and the intense joy of sharing a few days with my kids and Ginny, I think I’ll stay put in the Ozarks.