The last red bands of a dying day warmed the western sky as we took off from San Diego’s Lindbergh Airport. How many times have I been in, out, and through this airport, and never knew before today that it was named after my Minnesota homeboy Chuck, whose childhood home in Little Falls I’ve toured?
Ordinarily, I shut the window during take-off, if the choice is mine, because the constantly shifting horizon has an evil effect on this Pukey-American. But for some reason, I’m fine at night, when the horizon disappears into the black, and the only point of reference is the lights below. I love to see the lights of a city (any city, really,) from the air.
As I saw the veins and arteries of San Diego lit up and spreading inward from the Pacific, I thought, Look what we did. Not bad for a bunch of talking apes. It’s amazing, truly amazing, how far opposable thumbs will get you. Do you ever stop and think about it? How everyday things we take for granted, like harnessed electricity and the plane I’m sitting on and tiny pretzels, are nothing short of stupendous? We don’t always use our powers for good. No, not nearly as often as we could or ought to. But we’ve done some fine work nonetheless over the last 200,000 years.
I know better. I grew up on water; I’m a Great Lakes girl. Don’t turn your back on the ocean. But I was so delighted to have my feet in it, my toes sinking into the sand–in November, no less!–as I turned to admire the long row of beach houses I’d only seen the unassuming backsides of before, despite this being my fourth or fifth trip to this beach.
So magnificently zen and in the moment was I that I was completely surprised (and chagrined) when a series of large waves threatened to knock me over, even though the surf was barely up to my knees. I was still trying to right myself from the first when the second folded me in half, getting the front of my tank top wet. My phone and my friend’s electronic key fob were safe, though, in a Ziploc in my back pocket because I knew I’d be wading, and I’d learned the lessons of Maui. The water didn’t touch them, but if it had, they’d have been fine.
I walked the water’s edge, picking rocks and shells…and dropping rocks and shells, studying the black sand in patterns on the brown, wondering what the gold flecks suspended in the water and deposited along the eddies carved by the waves were. I walked until all the small muscles in my city feet ached and made me newly aware of their existence. They reminded me that I’d been away from the beach, any beach, for a long time. I am a Scorpio, a water sign, but I am happy in the desert. I think it’s stunningly beautiful; it catches me off guard all the time. And I am fortunate in that I don’t miss the water, don’t yearn constantly for it. Not until I’m back to it, submerged in summer or feeling it dripping from the hem of my rolled up jeans in fall, and thinking it’d be a fine thing to live close enough to it to learn to breathe with it and the moon again.
I stop to watch a gang of eight plovers loitering at the edge of the surf, and they are cute in their seriousness as they scurry out following the waves’ retreat and pick at the sand. I assume they’re looking for small shellfish, and wonder if they’re catching anything, because to my eyes, the sand looks mostly barren, broken up by a few rocks and plenty of shell fragments, but nothing that looks alive. But they seem to head back to barely drier land with something in their beaks. The wave comes in again, and they back up, and then follow it out again and again. And I want to get a picture of them, but the damned Ziploc bag is tight around my ginormous phone, and I can’t get it out in time. They’ve moved down the beach, and I am going the other way. I remind myself that it is the moment, the experience, and the memory that is important, not necessarily the record of it, and think of John Mayer’s musical meditation on this very point, back before he was a notorious jerk.
When my feet and calves cried “Uncle!” from walking in the sand, I took up a spot near where I’d entered the beach to enjoy the unseasonably hot sun and ponder the vastness before me. Buccaneer Beach is what the travel books would call a “hidden gem,” tucked as it is betwixt beach houses. I found it by asking Google to direct me to the nearest beach my first trip out last year, because it is a shame to go to California and not make it to the ocean. Now it’s my beach. Across the street is a little snack hut that does great breakfast burritos and a decent burger and fries. I had thought that I might have a bite there if I got hungry, but it was closed for the season, and I was surprised, because it was a sublime, sunny 87 degrees at the beach. It’s easy for us Southwesterners to forget it’s November because it doesn’t look like the Novembers so many of us left behind, all dark and wool and cold, summer only a memory and a wish again.
So I sat in the sand and ate fruit snacks I’d grabbed on my way out the door against just this possibility and listened to the surf and the kids screaming and the dude working on both his tan and his Bluetooth. And then I closed my eyes and listened harder, trying to record it all deep enough into my ears and skin to last me until next time.
In front of me are several children who have been busy engineering their own personal lagoon in the beach. There’s a lot of back and forth to the water with buckets, and dumped sand that anyone could see will not hold. I hold back from giving them engineering advice, though I fancy myself pretty handy with a shovel and pail; it’s good for all of us to learn about building castles on sand, and this is as fun and relatively painless a way as any. There are two boys and a girl and they are playing happily together, everyone equally bossy and amenable to the shifting design priorities. They were there when I first got to the beach, and they are still there when I finally sit down for a rest.
After awhile, a mom in a floppy hat above me calls, “Madison!” and waves her daughter in. Her daughter was one of the lagoon engineers, and while she doesn’t exactly come running, she does say goodbye to her pals and works her way back up the beach to her mom.
She isn’t gone five minutes when the lagoon is suddenly under attack from the very boys who were building it. They stomp on the walls. They start throwing rocks at the walls, rocks that are bigger than their own feet and threatening each other’s as they tumble out of control. Then they decide that throwing sand and rocks at each other is even greater sport. I wait for the inevitable wailing that will ensue when one of them takes two pounds of ocean-polished granite to the ankle or big toe. And I muse on the whole “civilizing influence of (even very small) women” thing. I have long thought it a bullshit burden placed upon my kind so that mankind doesn’t have to trouble itself with behaving. But it seems to be a genuine phenomenon, however inexplicable (especially at that age), at least as it has played out before my eyes.
It’s a strange thing to be on the coast, at the very edge of a what is a vast country. We are fourth in size by area; fourth in the whole world (fifth if you count Antarctica, which isn’t technically a country). We are bigger than all of Europe, and then some. I kept thinking about all that America behind me. It takes days to drive across it, and yet here I was, at the end of all that. And I think that early settlers must’ve thought it would never end, that they were surprised to finally come upon the Pacific. Or maybe they kept thinking that over the next rise would be THE perfect spot to homestead, passing up perfectly good spots again and again in the belief they’d find something better yet, and suddenly, there were no more rises, and they started thinking maybe they should’ve stopped in Kansas after all.
I don’t know. Large nature makes me pensive, in a good way.