When I take the train from my home in Los Angeles to visit my parents in San Diego, I always try for a window seat on the right side, the coastal side. For the first hour, my view is of landlocked urban sprawl bleeding into landlocked suburban sprawl: skyscrapers and scrapyards giving way to office parks, tract houses, big-box stores, brush-covered hills, freeways, always freeways. Then, just past San Juan Capistrano, the tracks bend to the left, and a clean horizon cuts across. Sky stacked atop sea. Amtrak calls this train the Pacific Surfliner for good reason. Between the riprap granite of the rail embankment and the lacy wash of the waves lies the beach, varying in width, studded in places with lifeguard towers, empty some days except perhaps for a lone jogger, other days packed with umbrellas and towels and teeming with human bodies. It’s the edge of California but also its center. It’s the place you might go when you have a feeling that seems too big for your body: maybe love, maybe grief. It’s a boundary with a view onto the boundless.
As a child in the ’80s and early ’90s, I would put pennies on the tracks and wait for the train to roar by and smoosh Abe Lincoln into a copper smear. A mom, mine or a friend’s, was enthroned on a canvas chair somewhere, surrounded by an arsenal of sand toys, presiding over a cooler full of juice boxes and fruit in plastic baggies. I’m sure I wasn’t, but in my memories I feel unsupervised, free to wander off and dig for sand crabs, to plunge alone into the cold and hostile Pacific, to play by the train tracks. I was afraid of deep water generally and especially the opaque jade of the ocean, but I liked to boogie board and would venture out to where my toes just barely brushed sand between swells, paddle into the breaking waves. Sometimes I rocketed toward shore. Sometimes, lacking momentum, I bobbed anticlimactically, went nowhere. Sometimes the ocean picked me up and tipped me off my board and pulled me under.
Water that had seemed shallow and manageable suddenly held darkness and chaos. Churned and scraped against the bottom, I imagined the seafloor sloping away, saw myself as a tiny speck on the brink of a huge blackness. The boogie board’s leash tugged hard at my ankle from above as though to say come up, come back up, and eventually I always did, emerging spluttering into the day. It never made for a good story, the submerged tumbling, the battle with the depths, because I was fine. Whatever mom was on duty listened sympathetically, but she could see I was fine. No Band-Aid could be applied to existential horror, not that I could have described what troubled me, my new realization that the beach was only the flimsiest bulwark between everything safe and comfortable about middle-class, Reagan-era Orange County and the ungovernable, unfathomable wilderness that was our closest neighbor. Did I want to sit and warm up for a while? Maybe eat some grapes? I did, but once the water was out of my nose and the sand out of my bathing suit, the dry part of the beach bored me. I’d go back in.
Alienated by high school (how original) and convinced my home state was fundamentally vapid (see previous parenthetical), I tried to scrub off my Californian identity when I went to New England for college. I changed the way I pronounced aunt and wore outlandishly preppy clothes. I went to beaches where the sun rose instead of set and acquired a taste for lobster.
After two years adrift in the inland corn sea of Iowa for grad school, I lived on Nantucket for eight off-season months. I walked on frigid, sometimes snowy beaches, saw the dunes change shape with every storm. I told anyone who would listen that I had no plans to live in California again, but eventually I went back. It happens. Maybe the Pacific claims SoCal kids when we’re little, works its way into our blood while it’s tossing us around, making us vulnerable to a lifelong tidal pull that says come back, come on back in.
An old saw about California is that you can surf and ski in the same day, and I suppose that’s true, at least a few days a year and if you don’t mind spending a lot more time driving than doing either. But it’s the possibility that matters, and what’s more Californian than a love of possibility? I live on the eastern, desert edge of L.A. and don’t see the ocean very often, but I like to know it’s there. I could go. I still have a dread of deep water, but I keep trying to learn to surf, beguiled by the distant promise of competence.
I learned to scuba dive in hopelessly murky, painfully cold water in the Channel Islands among looming towers of kelp, trying not to think about more intimidating prospects, like what might be lurking around, like that huge blackness out there.
I go back in not because I’m hoping to figure out or master or best the ocean but because doing so is impossible. That’s the point. The sublime shock of its scale is the point, the depth of its mystery. Every time the blue horizon swings into view on the train I am almost startled. There it is! Only the thinnest sliver of California is beach, of course. Much more is mountains, desert, forest, shrubland, farmland, and yet when I think of my state I think of the ocean. These days, I think unavoidably of how it is rising, how it will exact a price from us, from California’s long back that it seems to cradle so gently on the maps. But I’m always drawn back to that blue horizon, which seems like a grand metaphor for possibility, and possibility seems like exactly what we need.