I go to the beach in January—sometimes I bring a sweater and a hat. I go to the beach in June in work clothes and roll up the cuffs. It reminds me why I’m still in California, what my rent really includes, that I’m alive.
Listening to the waves crashing at night, leaning on the seawall, strolling the curvy slope of Highway 1 where foxes roam the bottoms of cliffs; watching the waves during the day, surface glistening, the smells, the shells, the elements. I sit back and soak up the sun, and peek at families, and eavesdrop, and ignore their chatter, and fall into everything. The rhythms mimicking valleys, heart rate monitors, breath.
At night I sing into the foam, play tag with the waves. Trudging through muddy clay, the tide receded and the shore doubled, is like walking beneath the earth—as if it’s beginning or ending. Tiptoeing, sneaking into the ocean’s basement, I’m ready to run if it comes home early. Funny things happen at night at the beach: Once I thought I was alone while serenading the sky, but people trying to sleep shushed me from the shadows of an overpass.
My father found China Beach on a map. After the ridiculous wind gusts at Ocean Beach blew laughter out of my mouth, I had given up on that sort of California. “It’s Northern California,” I clarified to the back-easters, until he visited from New York in August ’04. We hiked the Presidio, wandered the mansion-caked streets of Sea Cliff, then moved to the sand. This was his gift to me: a playground for adults, a boardroom for kids, sandbox handed down as heirloom, deposited in an alcove collared by cliffs, facing the Golden Gate. Sometimes I bring a mug of milky coffee, still steaming in the sun, and call him on my cell, pacing the shore, running my fingers over shell-studded hillocks, waxing caffeinetic, and he points out the waves crashing in the background, more vivid than my voice.
In May ’06, I took my buddy there before his departure to Boston. Hungover and exhausted, he wouldn’t climb down the steps from the parking lot. Through the fence I pointed to the Golden Gate Bridge glowing in the east, the mountains in the north—pastel. The sun lit a generous spread of sand, past hundreds of steps that could wind his smoker’s lungs. Stepping from the shade I said it’s more than just a view down there, and after an exchange of shrugs we worked our way to that California.
The tide lapped foam at our feet. He gazed ahead and agreed there was something different down here, the vibrant textures, the visceral scents, the ashy logs, the swirled maroon stones, the lucid breeze, the residue of earth. We talked our way back up the steps, and at the top he said it wasn’t that bad—I’d been distracting him with conversation, like a nurse administering an injection. China Beach left its mark.
Tranquility and exhilaration aside, there is a morbidity to the sea—especially for a non-swimmer like me. I feel the liberation of those who enter its dangerous tide, but the waves could wash me away, so I bow my head and the breakers massage my neuroses and whisk them over the horizon. I see how the ocean might have been worshipped in earlier times, rituals dotting the coast, to appease the temperamental giant. Neither beginning nor end—the seaside embodies a liminal state outside, within, beyond, before—peaceful and momentous.
On one average weeknight at China Beach, I looked up from my book and noticed an elderly man with a swim cap. He shed his clothes, his wallet, his keys, then stepped into the water, wading far out there, bobbing, floating, his cap a blue blip on the aquatic chart—getting acquainted with eternity. I couldn’t concentrate on my reading, because I worried about him drowning—his possessions abandoned on the sand. Two harbor porpoises swam head to tail closer to shore than his blue blip. He came back, dried off, shook the sand from his clothes, and left. A large boat crossed not too far from where he’d been treading.
I know this beach will hold my father and our relationship when he passes. I will look back on these words and they will make me sad. I will smile, blurry-eyed, as if underwater and capable of shallow breath, and reflect on the life he handed to me. Who knows what floats in our future? Where it pulls us? If bedridden, I pray I’m on a towel, and that my wife brings me soup. The ocean is still there, and its salt tastes extra bittersweet: emotion and experience, possibility and loss, timelessness and inevitability. You toss your spirit onto it, skipping water, spraying, and it volleys back—a panorama of human experience. Mountains huddled on the horizon shoot brushfires through your mind.
Look to the right, past the tour boat, at the red bridge. Now imagine my father and I driving over, gawking at the mountains on our left that keep growing. San Francisco is behind and beautiful from Sausalito; scratch that—it’s too foggy this morning. Highway 1 carries us to Marin, where we follow a winding trail on foot by Stinson Beach.
We collect rocks with lively colors, shapes, and sizes—little smooth treasures washing up on shore, and race the waves that seem to swoop them away as soon as we see one to pluck up. We keep an eye on the mischievous tide creeping toward our shoes and wallets. There is a freedom, a release with the lack of credentials, just family and sun and water and stones. Before climbing a rough patch of boulders to another beach, we collect our keys and rocks. The breakers are treacherous here, the kind of California that could smash you into a wall while the birds on top scatter safely to another vantage point. A cliff cuts into a large vegetated hill, the craft work of the tide. We aim our way back to the highway, following the imprints of the ocean.
My father leads. Dirt crumbles and small stones fall beneath his feet; some I dodge so they don’t strike me in the face. He doesn’t notice. We pull on branches and squeeze through flimsy bundles that could give way and send us tumbling to the sand. We slide through gnarls of hill, torn trees, thorny hoops that scrape our bellies. I say this is the point of no return, and my father gazes uphill, nodding.
Beer bottle shards glint in the soil. The beers must have shattered during an ocean-side celebration of the night, by teenagers whooping at the edge of the world. From the highway the bottles flew into the oblivion of the cliff, and waited. Not pleased by the glass pinchers, the glass fins, the glass jellyfish, it is a sign of life, that we may make it off the cliff-side. Besides, I can’t complain if my senior-citizen pops keeps trekking. Closer to the highway, the shattered glass grows more plentiful, and some bottles are still solid. This is the kind of cliff a car slides off in a film noir, but this is our movie; we bring action, we bring comedy, trudging the last of the glass.
We reach the road, pulling ourselves up, rolling on to the shoulder, but our car is nowhere in sight. The tar is hot on our palms. Inspecting our skin, we find that after digging into dirt and palming rocks and roots, everything is thorn-free. Nature has cured itself. The bottles will become sand, labels recycled, printed into petals. We walk a half-mile along the highway back to the car, city-bound.
This is before China Beach, but we find it soon enough: golden light on cliffs mounted by mansions, scaffolds wrapping the windows. An orange bobbing, still unpeeled. Shells collaged on islets like fliers in car doors in alleys. The breeze sprays, the waves are windshield wipers, and you can forget obligations and concerns, and you can remember. I walk with the seagulls, watch them fly off to a rock when the waves get too high, wings inches above the surf. I’m sure they’ve been plucked down, but I’ve never seen it happen. They keep flying, back into the blue, and the surf keeps bounding, and I just breathe it in.
The city’s hilly views make San Francisco a living map of itself, a live satellite feed. Look from Lone Mountain into the Presidio green, and China Beach is just a click away. My father left this for us, a sheltered beach, one that funnels business and pleasure, the beach as playground, the beach as office. I can read or bring my laptop to the shore, cranking out pages, mesmerized by the swell ahead, but the sand and computers don’t mix—so pen and pad is wiser. A sunset etched in orange highlight borders everything, as if to annotate what really matters, as if to say, “Hey, check this out!” and I put down what I’m reading.
There’s lots more where this came from…
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John Kelly, the director of conservation science at Audubon Canyon Ranch, is retiring after decades making a better Bay Area for birds.