Well, I’ve made it to California.
Five months ago I sat with my Mom on a pier overlooking the Boston harbor. Last night, I walked down the long hill to Black’s Beach in La Jolla, San Diego and touched the blue Pacific.
It is a beautiful and overwhelming feeling to be here. From my drive west watching the country change to my time in the four corners (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico), I feel, as the writer Annie Fitzsimmons says, “simultaneously powerful and insignificant.” She was talking about Arizona, its landscape and mystery, but I think it captures well the transcontinental journey.
I’ve been here over a week and it still hardly feels real. I left the quiet, snowy mountains of New Mexico on a Monday, found my first palm trees outside of Tucson that night, and then saw the ocean the next day. I ran to greet it in Santa Barbara, the Channel Islands luringly visible on the horizon.
I’m in San Diego now, camped at my friend Stacy’s amazing grad student apartment on the edge of the ocean that I still can’t believe qualifies as University housing. I can hear the waves as I write this.
There are lots of things that can stir my soul but nothing comes close to water. I am a fish. Before this year, the furthest I’ve lived away from something I can swim in was four miles, and even that seemed far. I completely understand the man in Big Fish whose wife finds him in the bathtub one night, soaking while still in his pajamas. “I was drying out,” he tells her. (It also is one of the most touching scenes between a husband and wife, I think, in film.)
And more than just any water, I am near The Ocean. I can smell the salt and feel the faint moisture in the air. I can watch the surfers run to the waves and start to climb them. I can end my day and watch the orange sun descend below the horizon as a dolphin, feeding close by, watches too in between its breath and dive.
Thich Nhat Hanh talks about meditating before still water. A highland mountain lake. Something to reflect the sky. Give me a rumbling ocean, I say. Something raging and calm in one moment. Something the sky yearns to reach down and touch, like a surfer kissing the inside of his wave. This to me is real water. This to me is meditation on life.
Strangely, it is home I have thought of the most since I arrived. I grew up spending a few weeks every winter with cousins, grandma, aunts and uncles on the Florida coast near Hillsboro Beach. More recently, my parents now call the Gulf side home. They are thousands of miles away and those extended family beach days are fading well into the past, but I can’t swim in the surf and not expect to see a cousin waving from shore. I can’t lay in the sand and not expect my Grandma to call down from the boardwalk to say it’s time for lunch. I can’t walk alongside the waves and not feel my Mom somewhere close by, ready to meander upshore and chat our way past the eddies and seabirds.
The other day, as I turned towards Scripps Pier on my way back to my temporary home, I saw the black silhouettes of fellow beach walkers. The soft mist and light from the sun and surf gave layers to the black, obscuring the person but not the outline. And I had this thought. So many names, faces, individualities unknown. So many quiet memories, tragedies, and dreams. All moving pieces on my stage and I, a solitary gray, looking back on their own.
It is good to be in California. Good to feel water. Good to remember home. Good to, like Benjamin Gibbard and Jay Farrar sing, see America roll on by.
Now I’m transcontinental 3000 miles from my home / I’m on the California Zephyr watching America roll by…