PISMO BEACH - BIG SUR - MONTEREY - SANTA CRUZ
The fantasy had been to wake at dawn, slither myself back into my wetsuit, grab my board, jog down to the beach, the theme from The Endless Summer playing in my head, as I enjoyed surfing with the seals as the predawn darkness gave way to the hues of orange, pink, and purple that denoted the impending sunrise. The reality was waking up to the sounds of people around us breaking down their campsites, motorcycles roaring on the nearby roadway, and a blinding bright yellow sun. The ebbing tide provided virtually zero waves.
Feeling well rested and spry after being “done” the night before, I was much more helpful in breaking down our campsite than I had been in setting it up. And it was a good thing too. We had a lot of driving to do today. After a breakfast of eggs and coffee, we got back on the road, taking the 101 back to SLO to pick up the PCH and continue northward along the coast through Cambria and San Simeon, where we vetoed a trip to the Hearst Castle: We’d spent too much time in places like Lompoc and Pismo Beach. We had to make up some time. Besides, today’s docket included the stop I was most excited about: The Monterey Bay Aquarium. And to get there, we had to take one of the most beautiful and scenic drives in the entire country.
To say that Big Sur is breathtaking is an understatement. Spectacular, beautiful, amazing, awesome, stunning, astounding, incredible, humbling, magnificent--none of these adjectives do it justice. This is the rugged California coastline The Beach Boys never wrote songs about. It’s a region of frigid swirling eddies and whirlpools, massive waves slamming into jagged rocks, the place where the mountains truly reach the sea. Bright green vegetation dotted slick, black, salty rocks and cliffs that stood--and were constantly battered--by the raging Pacific. This wasn’t a beach in the classic sense--manicured sand, as soft as talc; a boardwalk; beach access; rows and rows of people on towels, absorbing the sun’s rays. This was a wilderness in every sense of the word, the land of elephant seals, humpback whales, great white sharks, and God-only-knew-what walking down from the hills. My reaction to Big Sur had been similar to that of the church back at Mission Santa Barbara. This was religion; this was God.
Sadly though, it was also a sad reminder of the fragility of life on Earth, as we noticed huge swaths of burned forest up in the hills, ugly black scars in the green-brown earth to the east. Yup, still California, the state that routinely attempts to burn to the ground.
We’d heard horror stories about the traffic on summer weekends as it was a huge tourist destination. But, it was a Monday, and while still technically and seasonally summer, it was pretty much fall. Kids were back in school and families weren’t as likely to be out and about taking selfies at McWay Falls and clogging up the roads. For the most part, we had the road to ourselves. The exceptions were a few RVs containing, I assumed, retired couples with no particular place to go.
We opted for beauty and experience (you know, an enjoy-the-journey-not-the-destination kind of thing) over efficiency, and it took us four hours to reach Monterey.
The first thing we did was check out the Aquarium. The visit was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for me. I got my undergraduate degree in marine biology. I was going to save the whales, swim with dolphins, and dispel the negative myths associated with sharks. But, of course, that’s not realistic, and while twiddling my thumbs and being unable to find work in my field while Brianna was at medical school, I figured I might as well make myself useful and get my master’s degree in writing, the assumption being I’d be at least qualified to teach entry-level English classes at a state university somewhere. I also loved creative writing, had written numerous short stories at that point, and harbored the notion--however unlikely--that I would one day write a novel.
A couple of years later, while Brianna was interning at BMC, I got an amazing job at the Great Bay Estuary Reserve in New Hampshire, observing and cataloguing the different bird, fish, and marine mammal species in the area. It was truly my dream job, and I’d never been happier. However, my position was funded by a grant--a grant we only received because a certain state senator saw merit in what we were doing. That particular senator passed away, and without him to champion us, we lost our funding and my position was cut at the end of the fiscal year. I was devastated and fell into a deep depression that soured me.
Brianna was working for peanuts at the time (what most people don’t know is that doctors, often times saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of student loan debt, don’t make much money initially) and I was unemployed. I needed something, anything, and I needed it fast. Because of my experience in writing, a friend of mine who worked in public relations and marketing said she could get me a job as a copywriter. The pay was fair, but not great, but I was able to liven up otherwise dull copy with enough snappy prose for my colleagues to take notice. I graduated to head copywriter, then an editor. Soon I was being wooed by larger firms in Boston. I had a Back Bay apartment and a six-figure income. Sure, I still surfed and bummed around the beaches of Cape Cod on my free time, but I was also a woman in pinstripe pant suits, who worked long hours, wined and dined potential clients on the company credit card, drank dirty martinis, and, much to my horror when I stepped back to examine myself, enjoyed poaching multi-million dollar accounts from our competitors.
I made the jump to L.A. a few years ago. While I was in Boston, Brianna was already here. She’d accepted a position at a sports medicine clinic in the hopes we would move out here together. Due to family issues, I stayed behind initially. We had also been fighting a lot lately, and we thought the time apart would do us good. With nothing to fill the void in my life now...I just worked. A lot. It came to define me as a person. When I got out to my new hometown and reconnected with the love of my life, I realized I didn’t want to be that person anymore. I had always been this punk rock surfer girl who assumed--through familial or societal influence, perhaps--that I could not be a punk rock surfer woman. Well, why the hell not? Being a suit--a corporate Sally? That wasn’t me. Not anymore. In fact, it never really was. It was a costume I thought I had to wear to be a “proper” adult.
As I sat on the deck outside the aquarium, overlooking the almost postcard-perfectly picturesque Monterey Bay, the sounds of barking sea lions coming from somewhere beneath us, I leaned my head on Brianna’s shoulder and before I could speak, she said, “I know, I know...it’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen and you want to live here.”
The Monterey Bay Aquarium was built into a converted old sardine canning factory, the smokestacks still part of the current structure. It overlooked the bay and, unlike most aquariums, really blurred the line between artificial habitat and true wilderness. The swirling baitfish and kelp forests--a literal nightmare if you ask me; I can’t fathom (see what I did there?) the fear of being lost among 25-foot plants on the ocean floor--require thousands of gallons of seawater to be pumped through the place in order to survive. There were windows that faced, not tanks, but the actual open ocean. Up on the deck, one could spot seals and sealions in the wild and, if one were lucky, whales in the distance. It was an ocean geek’s dream. I stomped through the place with all the grace of an excited nine-year-old, tugging Brianna from exhibit to exhibit, calling out the names of all the species of fishes we saw, long before getting close enough to read the placards: Groupers, dolphin fish, silky and dusky sharks, mackerel, bluefin and yellowfin tuna, sting rays, California barracuda, and, of course, the scalloped hammerhead shark.
We saw sea otters and baby leopard sharks. I watched with envy as a woman--employed by the aquarium and simply doing what she was paid to do--fed the baby bat rays. We picked up some knick-knacks and t-shirts from the gift shop and took a trolley back to our car. Though I couldn’t quite articulate it, I felt something profound and significant were happening to me. I felt that I was, for lack of better term, growing up finally after 38 years.
It was after dark by the time we arrived in the next town I’d want to live in: Santa Cruz. We checked into our hotel, ordered some room service, and opened one of the many bottles of wine we’d acquired on our journey. We ate, watched some TV, and went to bed. I wanted my rest. Tomorrow should be an epic day. I was very interested in checking out the town known as “Surf City, USA.”
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