Ignore the sheer cliffs
Of uplifted land
New from the ocean floor
Rising eastward against the aged continent.
View instead the luminous bounty
Of nature’s fresh spring,
Ignore the sheer cliffs
Of uplifted land
New from the ocean floor
Rising eastward against the aged continent.
View instead the luminous bounty
Of nature’s fresh spring,
My last night, again too anxious to get a good night’s sleep, I rise early for my flight home. The fog is in along the coast. Overnight chill permeates the distinctly scented air. Stately redwoods stand in silent observation as we merge into Highway One’s rush hour traffic.
Much as I dreaded the journey, I feel nothing but happiness that I came. Spending time with loved ones wrenches me, lingers like a lump in my stomach. Good that aircraft exist. A hundred years earlier, anyone traveling this far left loved ones behind forever.
San Jose airport. I say goodbye to my first born, swallowing back tears. Again I am thrust into a sea of humanity also venturing out into the world. Security is less stressful, boarding less crowded. Maybe I’m slightly inured.
The gods smile on my seating, this time next to a window and not over a wing. My forehead presses the glass as the lumbering beast leaves ground and the wheels thump into the plane’s belly. Below spreads San Francisco Bay, San Jose, and streets, buildings, cars, and lives growing smaller by the moment. In striking resemblance to a circuit board, a network of roads, industrial complexes, and neighborhoods form the landscape below. Each serves a critical function, interdependent, vital, alive. Civilization, California style, 2014.
Last distant view of the Pacific. Goodbye salty spray, kelp-scented air. Long gray-blue line beyond jagged dark blue mountains. Horizon.
Soon the vista below changes to a patchwork of brown and green fields in the inner valley. Aqueducts glimmer blue-green. Bare brown hillocks become the southern Sierra Nevada range.
Across Nevada and then Utah, I marvel at the extent of this desolation. I’ve seen it all before, drove it more than once, but this time it seems even more a wasteland than I had previously considered. A handful of places feature a circular green patch and make me wonder who would struggle to pull water from the depths to grow anything in such a place. Even across New Mexico, the vista unfolds in desert tones of gray, tan, and ochre.
For the first time, I feel fear for us as a nation, for people everywhere, who confront the loss of rain as land slowly turns barren. For all our irrigation trenches, dams, and pipelines, in the end we are powerless to stay Mother Nature’s hand. Without fresh water, we can’t survive.
The land greens slightly in central Texas and by the time my commuter flight to Northwest Arkansas circles for landing, fertile green fields and thickly wooded hills welcome me home. Unlike the West Coast, the Ozark plateau is among the oldest land masses on the continent. I feel its old bones in me, welcoming me, holding me close in its eroded creek bottoms and smoothed down ridges.
Safely landed and walking to my car, I hear a familiar chorus of crickets and katydids. The air smells of cut hay and crushed weeds. For all my anxiety and curmudgeonly angst, I’m glad I went. I’ve been reintroduced to a world wider than me. I’ve shared a brief happy time with people I love and who love me. I’ve plugged myself into the Pacific for a deep charge of my psychic batteries.
I’ve been renewed.
One of the last days of my California trip featured a venture to Monterey and Seaside where my son lives. The old coast road, Cabrillo Highway, Highway One, muddled south out of Santa Cruz, Soquel, and Aptos in heavy traffic that cleared some after Rio Del Mar. The four lanes narrowed to two for nine miles through fertile agricultural lands. Fields of artichoke, Brussel sprouts, strawberries, lettuce, and kale lined either side of the aging highway. I wondered about irrigation—more wells, more groundwater. How long do these farmers have if the drought continues?
The fields gave way to huge sand dunes colonized by dune grass and invasive ice plant. Called ‘relic landscapes,’ the dunes occupy a wide swath between the road and the Pacific. According to local authorities, the dunes may shift but are thousands of years old. New ones aren’t forming. Older landscapes of rock and sand slightly more inland provide basis for roads, shopping centers, and neighborhoods. We followed the road around this last tip of the great Monterey Bay arc.
It was a clear day, brilliant blue sky above and the bay vista stretched fogless twenty-four miles north to Santa Cruz. I thought of the Native Americans who made use of every living thing given by the sea and the fishermen who came on the heels of the Spanish missions to exploit the rich sealife nourished in the recesses of the three-thousand foot deep Monterey trench. I thought of the generations of immigrants—Chinese, Italian, Portugese—who settled here to wrest a living from the land and Pacific Ocean.
At the seaside route around the Asilomar retreat grounds, we parked and walked a short distance to the water’s edge. The tide was outbound. Waves curled onto the sand and crashed against rugged rock outcroppings. Gulls patrolled the beach, peeking into straggles of kelp torn from its offshore forest. Washed up kelp leaves flared from narrow stalks long as a bullwhip. Hordes of tiny insects swarmed the tangled kelp heaps. Tide pools hosted anemone communities and mussel thickets in colors too amazing to believe.
I could sit all day here, fully entertained by nothing more than the movement of the water. A few surfers in wet suits challenged themselves in the unforgiving breakers. Others, like me and my kids, were content to walk at the high water line, happy to be occasionally caught off guard by a stealthy wave whooshing up to wet our legs. If this was all there was—if there were no bills to pay, schedules, obligations—would I make my life about watching the sea?
Too short is the time at my son’s home, sitting in his living room, touring his garden, smiling as I visit with his family. I’m envious of his ten-minute drive to the beach. Sad as my daughter and I pull away from his home, I can’t look back.
Is an oceanside sojourn the future for my son, this child who became a man when I wasn’t watching?
Or my daughter, happily settled in the hills of her new home near Eugene, Oregon, an hour and half drive from the coast?
Those are among a thousand alternate lives I could have lived close to the sea. The waves murmur and slosh, crash and growl. Another world. I miss it already.
Part of my agenda for this trip to Santa Cruz and environs had to do with a novel I’m writing. I arrived with a list of locations to scout. Thanks to Ginny and Jeb’s patient chauffeuring and on other days my daughter’s use of a borrowed car, we managed to tour neighborhoods, the campus, the business districts, and the beach. I made copious notes.
Questions arose. Why is the San Lorenzo River dry at the crossing of Highway 1 and full of water further downstream near the coast? Why is Fire Break Road shown on the map stretching from Empire Grade down to the backside of campus but doesn’t exist in the real world?
A flurry of investigation resulted in answers. The San Lorenzo is dry because of a two year drought, and the lower riverbed holds captured water because of a sand bar blocking the mouth where it drains into the Bay, creating what amounts to a long lake. No answer on the missing road.
We spent a day in San Francisco, tracking sites of my fictional events. The Alemany farmers market is surrounded by steep hillsides with rows and rows of colorful houses built literally wall to wall.
The Embarcadero stretches along its long waterfront up to the Presidio—shops, wharfs, boats in sheltered marinas, mobs of tourists.
We walked along the old airplane landing strip, Crissy Field, and pondered the Civil War era red brick structures at Fort Point. Directly overhead, traffic thundered onto the Golden Gate Bridge. The narrow drive skirted a sharp embankment of crumbling pale green serpentinite that slopes down to sea level.
We drove up along the west-facing oceanfront cliffs of the Presidio where groves of redwoods shelter World War II artillery batteries. Ghosts of men in uniform seem to emerge from hovering redwood thickets. The urgent need to guard against invasion left its acrid residue in the air, in the massive concrete bunkers, along the pathways carved through the rugged terrain. What threats, real or imagined, kept these men awake at night, shivering in the cold coastal wind?
Lunch involved Ginny’s son Warren and his family at a hole-in-the-wall place on Clement Street serving Burmese food. After a wait on the sidewalk made friendly by a bench and hot tea, our party of eight was seated at a large round table.
How does one describe a Burmese feast? Savory catfish chowder, thick lentil/cabbage soup, lamb curry, coconut chicken rice noodle curry, tea leaf salad, crisp samusas—the large lazy susan kept turning as we sampled our way to gluttony.
Sated by our delicious meal, we said our goodbyes to Warren and his family. Our search for story settings then led south along the coast following the “Great Highway.” Densely populated streets disappeared behind us as the road merged with Highway 35. Soon our path became Skyline Boulevard as we neared Daly City. Our objective? The great and powerful magic spot at Mussel Beach, where the San Andreas Fault leaves land and enters the Pacific.
We missed the turn-off, assuming that such an important spot would be well marked. After doubling back, we found Mussel Beach disappointingly under-developed and lacking any signage that might describe the forces at work underfoot. The narrow shelf of land broke upward to the east with a steep eroding hillside and to the west down a sharp crumbling embankment to the turbulent surf below. Offshore, waves pounded the tilted outcrops of broken rock which continued the fault’s northward journey. The mostly paved ‘park’ area rolled and humped over conspicuously-disturbed ground. Multiple patches in the asphalt provided evidence of the fault line’s restless character.
Hovering above the precarious cliff faces and uneven terrain, housing developments cling to steep hillsides and beg the question of how anyone could in good conscience build houses literally on top of a major fault. The neighborhood centers on an elementary school and seems inhabited mostly by lower income residents. I took notes for my story as we rejoined Skyline Drive.
The drive back south along Highway 280 tracked the trajectory of the infamous fault. The miles-deep gash forms a valley between the Santa Cruz Mountains on the west and the less dramatic hills and rolling lands of the southern Bay communities of San Mateo, Redwood City, and Santa Clara. For part of the distance, San Andreas Lake glimmers in the day’s bright sunlight. Angling west onto Highway 85, and then Highway 17, we soon crossed over the fault itself at Los Gatos. The four-lane road jagged and bumped as it crossed the extended disturbance.
Then back to Santa Cruz. It struck me at this point that highways and landmarks tell only part of the story of what it means to be here. Less specific but more important is the feeling of the place. A unique scent permeates the air—pine, salt, kelp, eucalyptus. And something else I can’t name. It lingers in my clothing, on my skin.
The light is clean, thin, sharp. Fog rolls in and drapes over the roofs, hides the tree tops, waxes and wanes along the shore so that at one moment you see the lighthouse on the point, the next moment it disappears.
The whole place sits on an edge. The edge of the sea. The edge of light. The edge of visibility.
Here is the edge of North America, not part of the land mass that comprises the bulk of the continent but a sliver of earth’s crust emerging from the sea to shove eastward and cling to its reluctant partner continent. The energy of the rebel, the upstart, the adolescent swells from this nascent ground, lending its attitude to the human settlements that occupy it. From the shore eastward for a hundred miles, this new land presses its case, shoving up mountains and sliding along the tear called the San Andreas fault. Countless other faults branch off from it, all mute testimony to the mind-boggling forces at work on our planet.
You can’t live along the California coast and not feel the energy of this subterranean collision. What better place to set a novel that deals with the frontiers of human consciousness?
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.