Down on the Farm: California coast
Yes, a person can get homesick every now and then when gone south for the winter. But there is a cure: call home. Doesn’t matter who. Just call any number in the 218 or 701 area code. Listen to the desperation, the depression, the rage on the other end. Feel the subzero cold pour through the speaker of the phone. Feel the desire to go home evaporate.
Rents skyrocket in Tucson in February, so I moved onward to the south California coast to see what has drawn twenty million others to the area. At random, I chose the coastal village of Carlsbad between San Diego and Los Angeles. That’s right, it is a village. On the coast. A cute little place, according to the brochures. Carlsbad has 102,000 residents. Almost as big as Fargo, this village.
Why all the people in California, and Carlsbad? The weather! The scenery! Endless beaches! When you get here, it is obvious why everybody else got here already. Think July 4 at the lake, but every day.
Today, Sunday, I took four walks to the beach. Each trip I became convinced there was some sort of emergency going on. Hundreds of people lined the beach, and they all stared out at the water.
Following their gaze, I looked hard at the ocean. I looked for sharks. I looked for whales. I looked for sinking ships. I looked for drowning victims, or for injured surfers. I saw nothing. I looked back at the people lining the beach. They still stared outward. What was I missing?
Finally, I realized the crowds were just enjoying the ocean. They were watching the waves, absorbing the misty breeze, catching some rays.
With millions of people clinging to a narrow piece of land between the coastal mountains and the Pacific Ocean, space is tight. Unlike the Midwest, where we have plenty of elbow room, and Arizona, where the millions are spread across seventy miles of desert, California has to squeeze people in.
No long, luxurious entrance ramps onto the freeway here, folks. Nope, if you want to get onto I-5, you have to keep your eye out for a little tar path tucked between two overgrown rhododendrons just past the McDonald’s drive through.
Look hard and you’ll see a faded “Freeway Entrance” sign behind the leaves. Yank the wheel, then tromp on the accelerator, for the little tar path is a little tar path for about seven more rhododendrons before it foists you onto eight lanes of California freeway mayhem. If you aren’t up to speed by the time you burst forth from the rhododendron grove, you will be squashed by a BMW.
On the southern California coastal map run four major north/south lines.
First is the endless sandy shoreline, where waves have been pounding the beach for millions of years without cessation. Fifty yards east of the beach runs US Highway 101, the scenic route along the coast. Take the 101 if you aren’t in a hurry, or if you want a taste of local beach culture. About 150 yards east of Highway 101 is the commuter rail. Several trains pass per hour, horns blaring. Finally, 200 more yards to the east, the fourteen jam-packed lanes of Interstate 5.
Tucked between these four major demarcations are countless tiny condos, boutiques, cafes and stores.
The tiny bungalow I rented is fifty yards from the rail line. Within 2000 feet are over 40 cafes, according to my phone. The beach is steps away. Yes, things are congested, but the laid-back attitude of Californians makes it easier to endure the crowds.
Californians obey the walk/don’t walk lights even when there is no traffic. Rather than sneak out early, or rush across late, California pedestrians sun themselves as they wait for the light to change. When the light finally changes, only half of the walkers leave the curb. The rest wake up from their nap, stretch, do some yoga, and then decide whether to cross now, or hang out until the next green light.
On the beach, people do their own thing. They jog in any number of bizarre styles. They do push ups on the walkway. They dance with scarves flowing. They gather to beat drums.
Or, they just stare out at the endless ocean and bask in the breeze.
It’s the southern California coast, the un-Minnesota, where millions of people have shoehorned themselves onto a small slice of paradise.