Bluffed

It’s been a strange weekend. I feel like I didn’t do anything, but on Saturday I went to the bluffs north of Cayucos and today I hiked to an overlook that showed off the central coastline from the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes to past Avila Beach. It seems like there are times in life when it’s harder to see the world for what it is, when a day spent in the sun is lost to the thoughts that take up space in the dark. I’m not sure, I just feel a little off.

Like some weird sad serenity took over me, until the wind brought the dank air from the bay to shore to wake me up, to snap me into existence. To force me into looking at the strange bluffs. They were dry and cracked with brittle grass and gopher holes, like at any moment the ground would split in two and half would melt away into the surf that stretches blue forever. It’s like the desert tried to meet a mountain meadow, but the grass got stuck in the ocean’s salt and the sky forgot to rain.

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The water stank like rotting sea: salt, plants, fish, and invertebrates, constantly churning up the mess it tried to leave on the beach. Red and black crabs the size of my fist ran from my footsteps and I shrieked and jumped to a higher point at the sight of them. Their claws up as they scuttled between the cracks and the water. Cormorants gathered a ways out, the rock they collected on white with what they left behind. The beach was quiet, far from the crowds of Morro Bay and Pismo Beach. It was pebbly and full of hermit crab shells, the surf was quiet and groves of seaweed made red and brown shapes in the bay.

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And I thought about what I don’t know, I can’t recall, but I know it was important, important enough to consume my energy as I watched my dog chase rocks and cover his slobbering lips with little pebbles, oblivious to the way it might feel in his belly. I realized that I like taking little jaunts to new places, away from my house and away from the crowd of people’s whose only goal on Saturday was to escape the inland heat by going to the beach.

I enjoy the solitude and the sounds that pull me into the reality of what’s around me. To be able to feel the pebbles on my bare feet and see the shells built into the sediment that fell from the cliffs to the high tide line. To relax and not have to worry about how my dog will interact with humans and their animals, so he can relax and run around without hearing me call his name to behave.

The serenity of a moment is like a lapse in the movement of time. Where it doesn’t stop, but for just a little while it becomes unimportant. Where you are, what you’re doing, what everyone else is doing, the constant comparisons and mile-a-minute movement of my brain just fades away into the sounds of water and dog feet digging up sand, the little pebbles I wipe off my bare feet, and the woman from Nevada who just wanted to chat while she picked up hermit crab shells. Is that not just as important as everything else? And yet, I haven’t thought about the moment until now. And I only think of it because I want to transcribe it. To record it because it helped me see something I didn’t see at the time.

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Will it propel me forward into the great unknown of future accomplishments? Who knows, probably not. But how can an interaction so small, lively, and cordial not be important. It doesn’t affect me today, as I dropped back into the same train of thoughts I can’t quite remember the content of. I do know I feel sad, but for that moment on the beach, I was not sad, but pleasantly content.

Kind of like how I felt when I hiked the peak today, and last Thursday when I scrambled down to the beach to just miss the sunset, but to catch the lights of Pismo Beach come on, and give the dog some stick time on the almost empty part of the beach where the sand becomes dunes. It’s easy because I don’t have to think, because I can just be me and be where I am without that constant nag of my brain.

It’s not that I’m sad so much as I long for a friendship that I don’t have to work for, one where I can be myself and we can walk as ourselves together, without trying to be something different than we are. I think, honestly that’s what my life is missing right now, a solid friendship, because a phone call can only do so much, and I can’t take the beach or the ocean home with me.

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Bluegrass and wind

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It’s been a slow process that started in Yosemite, and I’m not sure what it is about this week, but I’ve seem to come full circle. It’s been something I’ve needed for a while, a honest look at myself and what the hell I’m doing here, who I am, rather than who I want to be or was or will be. A refresher on the life I used to live and love; enjoying the steps I took through the day because it was where I was and who I was; happy, sad, cold, hot, angry, indifferent.

Today, I have $4 worth of taco-truck tacos sitting on top of my calendar, watermelon to my left, green leaves shaking in the Santa Maria wind outside my window, and some bluegrass in my ear. And it’s time to get down to the business of what I’m on here for—writing to cleanse myself and maybe show the world something in return. What that may be I have no idea, but I think it’s how this kind of thing works.

After a full and exhausting weekend of drive-time, family, and time with a Petaluma-based friend, I pulled off the side of the road in grape country to try and capture a moon that I needed a tripod for. Its light illuminated the cars passing by on Highway 101 as it rose from clear sky into blurry clouds. The super moon, they called it, and maybe it was super— giving off strange vibes, but I think its gaze forced me to reflect on myself and who I am.

I am honesty and light. I have the ability to propel myself forward into the life I’ve chosen for myself, rather than hide from my past and pretend I know what I’m doing for my future, meanwhile yearning for a place where I’m not. It’s strange to think that when we leave someplace behind, all we do is think about what we’ve left behind. I’ll admit, when I first came back to California, I felt it was so much better than where I was, and in a way it was, it is. But, I didn’t give myself to it fully, because I left a small part of my heart back in the place I thought I belonged. And there will probably always be a small part of me that feels torn between the wild mountain passes and water of Montana and the dry, populated, but crazy beauty of the place I live now.

Life is all about perspective and I can’t believe it’s taken me six months to realize that I belong wherever I am and no matter what, I have the ability to push myself through anything I need to, alone. Alone, because I have the support of the people who truly care for and want the best for me, and because I know that in the end that’s all we ever really have — ourselves.

I can give my heart to another and fall hard on the floor, when I realize it’s over. I can run away from my problems, and they follow me, hiding in the background. I can seek the happiness I can’t seem to find, and I know I will never find it. I can think about the friends who mean so much to me and how far away they are, and they will never come any closer. I can yearn for the high country when I live 2 miles from the beach and never enjoy the place where I live.

But, I can also look outside the window and think about how lucky I am to be me, to be where I am, to have some tacos and watermelon to munch on and music in my ears, and the ability to write down my thoughts, no matter how crazy and messed up my parents may think I am, because I know they’re the only ones that read this. (Don’t worry, I’m not quitting my job to travel the world, although, yes, I still think about it from time to time)

It’s like a switch buzzed off in my brain, and all of a sudden I feel lighter, more optimistic, and able to let in and out whatever I feel I need to. And I want to write about it, tell the world that it’s all going to be okay, no matter what, because as humans we persevere only if we tell ourselves to. We feel with our whole beings only when we allow ourselves the pleasure, because we remove the fear of what we can’t see or control.

If I can give in to myself, I can give more of myself to the world I’ve put myself into, and here I am. Ready to do it. Ready to wash over the mountain’s edgeinto the pool of water at the bottom of the incline and flow into the wilderness of what, I do not know.

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Worth the car-time

One hour north of Santa Maria is where my journey started, where I took the Morro Bay exit off the four-lane Highway 101 and ventured toward the two-lane, curvaceous Highway 1. After 10 miles of anticipation, I hit the coast and saw the beige of a long beach out my window. Out the other, huge spendy houses and tourist-trap restaurants streaked by. After that, a meander through hilly pastures, cows, and signs that shouted “COASTAL ACCESS” with arrows that pointed down dirt-roads, led me to Cambria and San Simeon, where the cliffs and beaches begin to fight each other for ocean-front property and Big Sur looms — not visible, but in the distance stated on a highway sign.

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Up and down and side-to-side the road started to move as I left the last sign of civilization behind me and orange poppies began making their token appearances on California’s coastal cliff sides. I know, maybe it’s too poetic, but that’s how I felt when I was driving. It’s like the more I wound the wheel and the more I alternated between the gas pedal and the brake, the further away I moved from whatever it was I needed a break from. The coast took over and it became exactly where I wanted to be, and my mind fell away and left me weightless.

At this point the trip was a few weeks ago, and what it was, was a weekend camping meetup with a friend of mine. Big Sur was the halfway point between her and I, and what a place to spend a couple of days. As you drive north, the coast  comes at you in phases. After the poppies start, the hills began to roll again. Indian paintbrushes, silver lupine, and other flowers I don’t know the names for popped in and out of view in front of me, and lush green reached out and touched the crumbling cliffs that dropped off into the sand.

Signs for vista points lined the side of the highway, and eventually the one I was waiting for stood out brown and white, warning drivers that elephant seals would soon come into view. I, of course, pulled off the road too early, which is something I tend to do when I don’t know exactly where I’m going. But lucky for me there was some species of seals there and a white heron stalking the water with that jilted bird-like gait.

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The next vista point turn-off was where the real seal party was though, and every tourist on Highway 1 that Saturday knew it. The parking lot was full, a vendor was selling plastic elephant seal water bottles, and a state parks ranger person was roaming around. A fence lined the cliffs around the beach so nobody could do anything stupid, no matter how badly they wanted to. And it smelled like fish breath. Big beasts rolled around groaning, slapping at each other, and sunning themselves.

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Although I still don’t believe they were elephant seals, I’ve since been told that they were. They didn’t look big enough and their noses were short and delicate, not the flubbery hanging jowls I associate with the elephants, but they were loud and stinky all the same. That was the first stop on my drive north. Next up was construction, traffic, and more cliffside views of the sunny ocean…not a bad way to spend a Saturday morning.

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Mammals for humanity

It was me, a gawker, who arrived at the scene of an otter in distress with a couple of Marine Mammal Center volunteers debating the best way to go about their rescuing business. And then I thought, oh I should take pictures and people will think I’m a slimeball, but I did it anyway.

The poor thing was crying out and writhing, rolling from one side to the next with its little paws squirming around and reaching out. Its mouth opened and closed and its whiskers twitched. It was wild and helpless on a Sunday afternoon at Pismo State Beach with people, kids, and dogs running by screaming and oblivious. I can tell you my dog was well aware, as was the husky with the family standing next to me as we watched and recorded a small scene of struggle.

All the dogs wanted to do was run over and sniff it, after all it was furry and making funny noises. I wanted to run over and take pictures of it, because I thought it would be good practice, which sounds terrible, I know. I resisted the urge. This young lady with a red t-shirt stood over the top of it, arms folded with a look of worry on her face, and an older lady came with a white towel and what looked like a dog crate. Then they scooted it into the crate and carted it away, up the beach to Pismo and into the back of some waiting vehicle.

Just like that it was over, and the gawkers like me disbursed. It seemed an odd thing to experience on a Sunday walk. All the hubbub and stress over a little creature stuck on the beach. I wonder if we stressed him out more than being stuck halfway up a beach did.  But then its gone, and it slowly faded away into the background of surf, laughter, and sun.

The point of my day that seems most poignant to me now, was gone with the snap of a crate door and drove away with the crowd that followed the red t-shirt. After that all I could think about was myself and the sandy sun that lit up the flowers, how much I wanted to capture them with a photograph.

Just like that, my thoughts were absorbed into the life around me rather than the life of mine.

Dirty sand

Trash hung onto the wire fencing that wrapped around protected habitat the folks at the California State Parks are trying to invigorate. The fencing starts where the sand becomes unsaturated with vegetation and signs are zip-tied every couple of steps to warn walkers about the endangered snowy plover, the least tern, and plants that needs a reprieve from human traffic. Ropes welcome visitors to the beige carpet of  sand that opens onto the beach at the end of Oso Flaco Lake’s boardwalk trail.

A huge red stop sign obscures the view of Port San Luis, Avila, and Pismo Beach to the north and 50 meters from the shoreline rope with signs keep visitors within the wrack line, which is the highest point the ocean’s tide reaches up the sand, evidenced by a line of shells and seaweed that looks like a two-dimensional line of hills that crest and valley on the beach.

Tar — sticky, malleable, and stinky — sticks out black and big against the tiny grains of pale sand. They’re remnants of a time when oil drillers and refineries could do what they wanted to the landscape without fear of reprisal. A company called Unocal started operating the Guadalupe oil fields in the 1950s and leaked 18 million gallons of petroleum from busted pipelines under the dunes for the next 40 years. The company was fined $44 million and forced to clean up the 2,700-acre site in 1994. 

California State Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are still trying to restore habitat to what it was … before cars, trucks, oil, and people. The area is closed off to beach traffic from the Oceano Dunes Off-Highway Recreation Area, now that a vehicle killed a snowy plover. The plovers are an endangered species that nests in the area from March to October. Areas weren’t roped off until State Parks was sued by the Sierra Club after the vehicle-ran-over-a-plover accident.

It seems like a battle for man and nature to work in unison within a landscape that will forever be torn up by wind, salt, and sand, while constantly scarred by industry and footprints. And now I hear there is something wrong with the fish … they’re missing.

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The parking lot sign says HOURS: 8 AM TO 6 PM, but the chain for the lock on the open gate is full of cobwebs, and that tells me HOURS: ALL DAY TO ALL NIGHT. Fog hangs low, just above the short tree tops of arroyo willows and wax myrtles that roof the dirt road to the boardwalk that takes hikers across Oso Flaco Lake.

Bears, mountain lions, and fish infested with the pesticide from local agricultural fields are noted along the trail as things to not run into. Metal rails sticking out of a break in the trees signifies that maybe I should have brought my camera because there’s still an hour of daylight left and I’m already at the lake.

A steady stream of water interrupts the creaking of tree limbs and constant echo of my brain railing away at today. Pseudo darkness gives way to the open light of water that is alive with wings. White pelicans roam in packs, lifting off the water with a gentle whoosh, moving from one spot to the next. Wind ripples into the wide-breasted outstretched chest of little brown I-don’t-know-what-they-ares that disappear with a flick of the head into the brackish lake to search for food. The ocean’s salt spilled from crashing surf comes in waves that rustle the reeds and the sudden ebb of sound gives way to chirps, honks, and whirs of chatter from cormorants, mallards, and other birds I can’t name.

The boardwalk thuds across the water and onto the dunes, switching from false blue wood to real rotting wood and back again. It stretches and buckles with the dips in the sand, continuing its hollow echo all the way to the beach, which thanks to the signs, the waning light, and the fact that no one knows where I am, I fail to conquer.

Greens of silver lupine shoot out purple petals from their bushy sage. Coyote bush and deer sage wait for their white and yellow flowers to show with spring and evidence of off-boardwalk trailblazers is pushed in footprints on the pale sand. As I turn back the wind picks up its steady whir and the ocean reveals itself in rhythm with the clod of my tennis shoes on the walkway.

All I notice is the wind that moves green on branches and leaves, forgotten is something that 20 minutes earlier was pushing between my eyes. I can’t even put it in words, it’s gone and the water once again comes to view. I can feel the movement of lake water under my feet on the planks and the wind makes my body sway and my hands cold.

The path back to the parking lot is much darker and I can make out the grumble of a tractor working away on the pesticide infested ground that leaks through the fish in the lake. The light comes through a hole at the end of the trees and gradually the orange and white lights of the Phillips 66 oil refinery on the Arroyo Grande mesa outline the pale gray of metal that disrupts the feeling of where I came from.

It’s abrupt and snaps my attention back to the present, away from the thoughts that told me what a great walk I had and back to the path that led me back to my car. Dunes gradually fill the horizon above green fields of broccoli stalks and point directly toward the cracked windshield and paint-chipped bumper of my white BMW.

Waiting

What they don’t tell you in journalism school is how much time you will spend waiting for people to call you back. Waiting and then forgetting who you actually called and whether it’s been two hours or two days since you called them.

And then when you finally do hear back from somebody, that they will usually direct you to somebody different who can “answer the questions better than I can.” And then you wait for them .

Right now I’m waiting for a call back from a school district superintendent, a high school science teacher, a public affairs person from the California State Auditor, a elementary school principal, and an email from the district guy who works on construction projects. All for different articles.

Each phone call hopefully holds the string I need to tie the article into a nice, neat little package for our readers. And I’m still waiting.

Yea for waiting.