When we arrive there are six seagulls standing at the shore, discussing amongst themselves whether they should fly to Catalina for the night. The conversation goes back and forth for several minutes, but ultimately they decide they’d rather remain where they are and watch the sunset.
An excellent decision; it’s a beautiful sunset.
Two children, both five or six years old, hold hands and turn circles around a sandcastle they have just completed. The castle looks like something William Randolph Hearst might have built, had he been in possession of less money and more imagination.
When a wave flattens the castle a few minutes later, one of the boys recites the final lines of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” from memory:
“Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The other boy nods his head solemnly in agreement.
Okay, that’s not exactly true. No one quoted Shelley. But someone certainly should have.
When I was a child my father and I used to fish from this very spot. Sometimes we caught a few; always we threw them back.
Once, after releasing the last of that day’s catch back into the water, my father said he hoped the fish would spread word of our good deeds far and wide across the Pacific, so that if we were ever on a boat that sank, the creatures of the sea would come to our rescue.
“Like Tarzan,” I said.
“Sort of,” he answered. “Except that we’re not the kings of anything. Just servants.”
Two of the seagulls I mentioned above have begun to waddle a little further down the shoreline. They seem engaged in the kind of serious conversation that usually involves something metaphysical:
Why are our wings so beautiful?
Do human beings also have souls?
Why do the Clippers always under-achieve in the playoffs?
We walk north, the water lapping at our toes. It is the middle of May, and above us the white silhouette of a moon appears to be strumming a small guitar.
“What song do you think she’s playing?” I ask you.
“That isn’t a guitar she’s holding,” you answer. “It’s a fisherman’s oar.”
“But I hear music.”
“Yes,” you admit. “I do too.”
I should mention that the Mission San Juan Capistrano is less than twenty miles to the south. I should mention that the palm trees in Trancos Creek were planted by Hollywood studios so the area could be used as a stand-in for films set in the South Seas. I should mention that Japanese farmers used to own hundreds of acres of land around here, and that their land was taken from them—permanently—after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt’s issuance of Executive Order 9066.
I have never been to Manzanar, but I know you cannot see the ocean from there.
A few minutes later we see dolphins; we see a young couple posing for wedding photographs; we see a beach towel of the American Flag that someone has left behind as carelessly as we once planted a flag upon the surface of the moon.
There are evenings down here—and this is one of them—when the wildflowers in the hills above us seem to change colors every hour: from gold to blue to red and back again, over and over, until autumn comes and they gift their colors back to the winds and the soil.
That last passage was a little overwritten. My apologies.
The secret to ocean swimming: take deep breaths between strokes and remember that inside we are all mermaids.
My favorite painting of the area is William Wendt’s “Crystal Cove.” Wendt, who immigrated to America from Germany in the late 1800s, paints the shoreline a mixture of white and gold that makes it resemble an elongated version of Jason’s fleece. To Wendt’s eye, it isn’t even a beach so much as a chalice that some particularly sated God has knocked over after having spent the entire afternoon drinking.
Wendt paints “Crystal Cove” in 1912.
Hollywood plants the first palm trees in 1917.
Cottages are constructed in 1925.
Pacific Coast Highway arrives the following year.
Wendt knew the paradise he was painting wouldn’t last.
At least I think he knew.
I’d ask him, but he died four days after Christmas in 1946, less than four years after Manzanar first opened two hundred and sixty-six miles northeast of where we are standing at this moment.
When we can walk no further we take a seat on the sand and place our arms around each other. Neither of us says anything. The water seems very interested in stealing my shoes and your purse. I think we should let them.