For a child, all beaches are the beach. School taught me that the New Jersey coastline was impressive, that people traveled down from Canada to visit our beaches, and so I had been sated with what I knew. When I finally saw the Pacific Ocean as an adult, I was overwhelmed by its vastness, the specific shade of blue. Waves brutally broke along steep, rocky coastlines. The sun set magnificently upon it, its surface aflame in fuschia and coral. J is an expressive man and I was eager for him to get his first glimpse.
The drive to San Diego was to be the last haul of our trip. We filled our tank, having properly learned our lesson in the Mojave Desert. We headed through the San Bernardino Mountains and past the gently circling turbines of the wind farm. With it being so early and the day proving to be a stunner, we veered off the interstate at Carlsbad to take in the view.
It was due to be a quick and largely uneventful drive to San Diego from Joshua Tree until Y wisely diverted us to Carlsbad so that we could drive down 101 for a stretch. I could smell the ocean well before I saw it, and the sight had me awash in all types of feels. It’s absolutely beautiful. The end of our road was surging up and down the coast, the sound of the waves and beachgoers floating in on the breeze, the glint of the sun on the churning water, all greens and deep blues, so different from the amethyst-blooded velvet of the Atlantic. We stopped in the seaside town for some sandwiches and beer, then drove South along 101, the windows down as far they could go. You can feel the magic and vitality soaking into your skin with every rush of the waves.
The Pacific lay to our right, the beaches dotted with sunbathers and surfers basking in another glorious day. We passed through adorable little beach towns, their shops and restaurants all bright and clean and filled with avocados. As a Northeasterner, you view Californians as flitty and vapid, lacking the elegance and seriousness of people from New York. My first time on the West coast I realized that it wasn’t that the people here were flaky, so much as it was hard to be morose when every day was gorgeous. In New York, dour cynicism is worn like a badge of honor. Salty air filled our lungs and we allowed the beating sun to melt away our concerns.
After deciphering our host’s eighteen-point plan to accessing the guest house (complete with pictures), we were rewarded with a cool, airy room. We laid about, leisurely waiting out the midday sun until hunger moved us to stir. People were enjoying the evening, lazing on the front lawns of the charming ranch houses of our temporary neighborhood. The lights of the city flickered before us from the top of Fairmount, a channel of stars shining from below.
We arrived at our AirBnB, nestled in the warrens of neighborhoods that cling to the hillsides like barnacles. We took five or twenty to lay back and turn off. Our tanks effectively bone dry, we waited for enough fumes to collect to continue the last few days of the journey, most of which would be composed of rest and writing, along with steeling ourselves for the long slog of airport layovers ahead. We shook ourselves and took a walk down the hillside to Chiquita’s Kitchen, which was a solid and venerable find, clocking in at over a half-century of operation. We fell fully asleep soon after we came home, excited to commence in the relaxation.
The next day started with some amazingly fierce breakfast burritos at an unassuming spot in a mini-mall, then we were off to the beach. Most everyone, even those who haven’t been to a beach, understand that it’s a good thing. Even as a child living next to Lake Erie, I would leap at the chance to go to Huntington Beach, or even Rocky River Park, just to be on the sand and hear the waves. While I am certainly no expert, having only recently upped my ocean count by one, the Southern California coast was a truly luxurious experience. Being able to take advantage of an October heatwave and play in the Pacific Ocean is something that would make a younger J’s head explode. The impossible made possible by the mere passage of time.
We stopped at a strip mall taqueria for some truly kickass breakfast burritos, the massive meal the perfect prelude to undressing before a crowd. The water was frigid despite the heat, and we decided to beach ourselves like the whales we were to roast a bit before a second attempt. We read, looking up occasionally to take in the scene. Birds were arguing over territory on the next dune. A young father was building a sandcastle for a daughter too young to care. With both sun and burrito inspiring sweat at my brow, I suggested another venture. This time we were braver and managed to take a proper dip.
Our internal clocks alerted us to the approaching happy hour and we secured two barstools on the patio of Miss B’s Coconut Club. Normally I would be discouraged from ordering something like the Bro Tai, a whiskey riff on a Mai Tai, by its incendiary name. I ordered one with abandon. It was delightful. Our round of beers came served in glass tiki mugs. It was hard to find fault in anything, even for me.
We walked along the surf, half-looking for a change of scenery. The father had finished his castle. A single pail had been used repetitively to form the structure. I balked at the McMansion and its lack of subtlety. Mounds of kelp had washed ashore. J explained that the little orbs were air pockets and that they aided floating, thus helping the plant undergo photosynthesis. We stopped at a rooftop deck to watch the sun set behind the palms. Then walked back along the beach, dipping our toes in the chilly water.
The next day was largely devoted to writing, and having accomplished enough to warrant a drink, we went to Seaport Village in search of one, enjoying the promenade before and afterward. We wandered as the sun set, taking in the extensive monuments, naval and otherwise. Though the fairy tale image of the famed V-Day Kiss has been proven to be a chance photograph of a serviceman forcing himself onto an unsuspecting nurse, there remains a massive monument to rape culture, looming alongside the venerated hulk of the USS Midway. The sheer size and ignorant earnestness of it exhausted us immediately, and we quickly left to continue the evening in the Gaslamp District.
Satisfied with our work for the day, we went to the Seaport Village for a sunset walk. The village itself is merely a cluster of overpriced eateries and souvenir shops, but the views are grand. The USS Midway, now a museum, is docked in the bay nearby. A number of naval memorials, including one commemorating Bob Hope, are placed beside it, and we stopped to read them over before heading to dinner and dirty martinis.
The Chee Chee club was a perfect change of pace, with great atmosphere and San Diego-cheap drinks. After a couple of rounds, we headed off to our next destination, Turf Supper Club, which I knew nothing about. Y had kept the full nature of our dinner plans from me, so those that have been to Turf, you know why I was surprised. Keep quiet and don’t spoil it. After some initial discomfort, I happily tucked in for one of the best-cooked flank steaks I’ve ever had, which paired perfectly with some filthy-dirty martinis. Full of dead cow and briny vodka, we set off into the night, braving the roads of San Diego, which are decidedly not chill. The drivers are both frantic and selfish, and more than a little aggressive. It harshed our mellow more than once.
The next day was a bit of a late rising, but Y had planned the entire day out, complete with some necessary errands. I gladly put myself on autopilot and took in the scenery while I navigated. We started back at the USS Midway, as we had missed the boat on getting decent shots in the fading light the previous night. My father imparted his love for history to me at an early age, and I was delighted to send him pictures of the proud vessel and the surrounding monuments. The aforementioned V-Day Kiss statue, unfortunately, had not collapsed into the sea overnight, but the tug of progress is as relentless as gravity.
Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo is said to have been the first Spaniard to have set foot on the West coast of what is now the United States. The National Monument bearing his name at the tip of Point Loma celebrates his first steps on to Ballast Point in 1542. The monument looms 400 feet above sea level, at the site of the city’s first lighthouse. We approached from the ocean side of the peninsula, stopping to look out on the Pacific, laced in mist despite the clear day. From the monument, the entire bay was visible. Naval helicopters crossed overhead and ships returned to the base below. In the near distance, Tijuana shimmered.
We explored the museum and the grounds of the old lighthouse. The original lens was on display, a hulking, brilliant testament to craftsmanship. The standard issue light-keeper’s tools were exhibited as well. Their brass gleamed smartly, but keeping that brass polished had apparently been quite the chore for the light-keepers. A poem by Frederic W. Morong even suggested it was to blame for their wife-beating, which I took some issue with.
“Oh what is the bane of a lightkeeper’s life
That causes him worry, struggle and strife,
That makes him use cuss words and beat on his wife?
We continued our tour at Whale Point. Though it was a little early in the season for seeing any gray whales, we were able to spot the glossy reflection of the kelp forests on the ocean’s surface.
We drove around the bay to Cabrillo National Monument and further fleshed out our grasp of the region’s history. We stopped by the restored original lighthouse and the remains of WWII artillery batteries before heading down the hill to see the tidal pools. The pools being well below the water and the sun searing through what little ocean breeze there was sent us on our way in short order. We returned to the humble taco counter for actual tacos this time, and the Carnitas, Fish and especially the Adobada were legendary. The East Coast has no idea what they’re missing, as much as I have enjoyed octopus tacos and other contemporary fusion twists, laden with foam.
Heavy with one or three bites too many, we headed back to Mission Beach to watch the sunset. We dipped into the Pacific for one last time, reflecting on the incredible journey we had completed. The sun slowly melted into the horizon while the greenhorn surfers floundered in the darkening waters. A lifeguard, retiring for the evening, gave me the shaka sign as he drove his ATV away. I suddenly felt cool enough to maybe even hang out with a National Park Ranger.
We stopped for one last fix at the taqueria before heading to Mission Beach. The waves were higher than expected, and I waded awhile until a few too many decided to get slappy. A crowd had collected on the beach to watch the sunset and it didn’t disappoint. The surfers were just as stunning in their ineptitude. My awkwardness has never dulled my desire to learn, and as they fumbled and flopped, unable to catch a wave, I vowed that my equally agile ass was long overdue.
We walked along the beach, stopping to grab beers just off the boardwalk. Fortune again smiled on us, as the local Fireball rep was making her rounds, which included buying a round of fireball for the bar. We will never turn down Fireball. I started my bartending career in a dive, and as much as I love a solid 5:1 Gin Martini or a Sazerac, I’d almost always rather get crazy on some boilermakers. Put that in your mustache and wax it.
We hopped back in the car to Belmont Park, because Y had her eyes set on the Giant Dipper, a truly jarring and awesome wooden roller coaster. I’ve ridden my share of rickety thrills, and this one was probably my favorite, even though the old Blue Streak at Cedar Point will always be my first love. We managed to be the last sober and uncostumed folks to get on the ride before what must have been a caravan of busses unloaded on the park, disgorging well over 100 costumed white 20-somethings, all in various stages of various chemical intoxication. We rubbernecked for a minute, noting that sexy cow costumes were now a thing and high fives continue to very much be a thing, before heading back to the car. San Diego is the definition of a rad place to visit, but it buries the needle on the Bro scale.
I had regretted missing the Big Dipper on my first visit to San Diego. While rollercoaster technology has gotten impressively imaginative, the steel models lack the feeling of being on an actual deathtrap one gets when riding the old wooden ones. Belmont Park was empty, and we walked right on to a car with only two other couples. As we were slated to start our ride, the park was flooded with college kids. Messed up and in costume, like a scarier Spring Break, they piled into our car. I don’t know that there’s a more perfect way to experience a rollercoaster. We welcomed our new companions and raised our arms.
You can read the full poem It’s Brasswork: The Light-Keepers Lament by Frederic W. Morong here.