June 23, 2005

Laguna Dawn

THE FULL MOON is sliding down the dark sky over Catalina Island off shore. Slipping in and out of sheets of haze it throws a burnished orange path out from the silhouette of the island's steep hills and across the open slate water to the shore. Below me to the north, the winding lights of the village converge on the long dark strand of the Pacific Coast Highway arcing up and over the hills of Laguna Beach and on into the towns that string out towards LA, growing ever denser along that route until it fades into the bleak streets of the metropolis.

Driving that way towards the central coast, you'd be tempted to give up the highway for a quick transit through LA and out over the Grapevine to the featureless plain of

the central valley and the torpor of Highway 5. But if you stay on the Pacific Coast Highway as it disappears into scuzzy sprawl of LA, you'll find, in time, you took the better route.

It's true that to find the deeper rewards of the Pacific Coast Highway you have to crawl through endless renditions of our modern malaise laid out as the strip malls and neighborhoods of low degree in that part of the passage -- the fried food joints, the store-front fortune tellers, the endless quick shot bars and bad to mediocre restaurants, drive-through churches -- but in the end the Highway emerges in Santa Monica, gives way to the long beaches and headlands of Malibu, sweeps out of the city completely and leads to highlands and sea cliffs and finally to the Sur. You'd never get there if you took the fast and easy freeway to the east. It is true that you might get to someplace else, some other clot of cities, quicker. But then you'd just find yourself in another variation of Los Angeles. It would be as if you never left, since, in truth, you had not.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that if you take your time with a journey, you have a much better chance of finding, again, that the journey itself is the destination and not some distant city or goal; that if you can accept that you need to pass through the uglier parts of the landscape to get to the highlands and the vistas, they will in time appear again. But if you try to take the fast route, the route that leads around all the clutter and slash of our disposable culture, you will in the end have seen little and understood less, you will be traveling on the bland Highway 5s that always run into the dark end of nowhere special.

This morning, having come back from a very long journey, it seems clearer than usual to me that our recent ability to achieve speed in transit has infected us with the idea that all transitions in life need to be done at speed. After which, we complain that there seem to be far too many wrecks and breakdowns on these highways of our lives. We complain that there is always too much traffic around us and all we can do is hunker down in our own steel shell and drive with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake, boxed in by a flying wedge of semis hauling things we don't need to houses that are not quite homes, and tailgated by our own impatience to get there on time only to discover it is not really where we needed to be at all.

We think that the "road rage" we see around us as millions daily take to these expressways -- made so that goods can flow into our stores and workers get into their corporations -- is something fairly new on the scene. But it isn't. It's only the expression of our inner rages and compulsive demons telling all of us to get some where, to be some one, to have some thing. Of course, in time, being in that where will become old and a new where will beckon. In time becoming a new some one will not be the one we then need to become. In time having some thing will only compel us to have some other thing. There's no "being" to it, and less "becoming" about it. There is only the having to have and the getting to be spending. And when we are done with years of it, we will look back and know that it was all a waste of life; that what was really worth having was all off on the side roads that took a lot more time to travel and forced you by their sharp curves and high cliffs to slow down and take it all very carefully. Wise men and women have, of course, told us all of this for aeons, but with our power windows cranked up, our air-conditioning on high, and our radios tuned to the latest news or the new hit of meaningless trash music, we cannot hear them.

Worse still, we will not hear them. If their voices were to suddenly intrude on our world
of piped in music to everywhere, car, house, restaurant and bar -- to intrude upon the beep and rattle and hum of our oh-so-networked offices -- to speak over the custom musical snippits we've programmed into our cell phone -- we would, utterly without thinking, and as a programmed response, hit scan and pass on to the next frequency where we would be more assured of receiving confirming, upbeat messages that we are doing all right and everything is perfectly and finally on track. All we have to do to keep up is move just a little faster on the freeway, speed it up and close the gap.

I know this road well. I wasted many years on it. It can be long or short, but in the end, I found it only leads to a parking lot where, if you are very good and very diligent you will get a personal parking place with your name stenciled over the name that was there before. That's one end. The other is where, if you plan wisely, you'll have a structure that will enable you to park three cars inside it and close the door with the touch of a button. I know many people travel this road willingly and many others travel it because they believe they have to because there is just no other way. They've all sped up so much and taken on so much weight that they missed the small sign that said "Scenic Route."

The turns of my life in the last month have recently given me a tour of the Scenic Route that took me to places so slow and beautiful I could not believe they existed on Earth, and to places that might seem beautiful to some, but that I would rather not have ever seen at all. As noted above, the slow road does not always wind along trackless beaches and pristine forests, but sooner or later passes through the strip malls and junk yards of our lives; places where you want to speed up but discover your speed is limited and checked by radar.

I've been up along the Pacific Coast Highway One to Big Sur where so many of the deeper and more lasting moments of my life either began or came to fruition as if I always had to have part of them happen there to be real and be verified as important. My life has risen and fallen and risen again from those coastal cliffs and the road that winds so tenuously along the edge of them. The grand abiding indifference of those mist-shrouded cliffs to both the road and lives that scuttle slowly along it never ceases to remind me of what small brief sparks we are.

Later on in the month, I threw myself on one of our high-flying, high-speed buses of the air to the other end of the continent. There I got on a power boat with an old, old friend and, together with another man who actually knew what he was doing, we set out from Fort Lauderdale to cross to the Bahamas. The crossing itself is a lesson in the fast lane versus the scenic route.

Crossing to the Bahamas from Florida is not that far at all as distances are measured at sea, but standing in the path and very moody is the Gulf Stream. People crossing in small boats as we were wisely keep a close eye on the weather and the wind and how they affect the stream. Four to five foot seas are manageable but the conditions can easily and quickly shift and serve up seas twice that size or more. If that turns out to be the case, small craft warnings are issued and you'd best pay attention to them. If that turns out to be the case and you are crossing the Gulf Stream, you'd best determine the closest harbor and head towards it wearing lifejackets. It can get serious.

Our crossing, though three hours of rough slamming about, wasn't threatening and we put ashore at West End for the recently increased moment of extortion that passes for Bahamian Customs and Immigration. From there, we made our way to the Sea of Abaco via GPS waypoints since the Bahamian method of marking navigation points and underwater hazards seems to be either a pole in the sand or no pole at all. It is a forced exercise in the slow and scenic route. That day we ran twelve hours in the boat across hundreds of miles of water with an average depth of five feet. Since that is an average and the boat drew three, we ran it carefully. Putting your utter faith in the accuracy of GPS is something you come to slowly in such waters.

The next day we docked in the Sea Spray Marina next to Hopetown and began to experience the slow and scenic route that only these places off to the side of our far too busy lives seem to provide. Our house was at the very edge of the far side of Elbow Cay and placed so that when I stepped out the front door the stairs led down to beach on the Atlantic side where for days big combers rolled in over the reef smashing shells into a fine almost pink sand. On the one side, was the Sea of Abaco, shallow and calm and translucent green. On the other side, separated only by a ridge of high coral and sand was the Atlantic swells rolling in from Africa. At one point, you could stand on a dune and see them both without turning your head. At one moment in that week, out on the Atlantic near the Bahamas, a cruise ship was struck with a 70 foot rogue wave that came out of nowhere and smashed in the widows on the high decks, flooded the ship, and rolled away again. It was so slow in the Sea of Abaco, that news of this only reached us three days after via an email.

My friends took to boating out from the marina, but I was always drawn back to the long wave shattered beach below our house. It was miles long and, as far as I could tell in the mornings and evenings, I was the only one on it. As is my way, I stroll beaches looking for shells, for Anne Lindburghs' 'Gift from the Sea.'

Although the sand is fine and clean all along this beach, the relentless waves seem to shatter every shell to fragments as they bring them ashore. Shattered shells and lumps of brain coral are what you see step after step. But still I look down as I walk along because I see the world as a metaphor and am always alert for anomalies.

Last Monday, early in the morning, walking the beach I glance down and sitting among nothing but shattered, bleached white fragments of shells, I saw one, and only one, perfect polished and gleaming cowry. About two inches long and an inch high. One perfect thing given by the sea in a vast strands of smashed things. I picked it up and placed it in my pocket. Then I turned and left the beach and the islands.

Two days and four thousand air miles later, I gave the shell away in a coffee shop in some small town up near the Canadian border.

And now, I'm back at my home where the moon was falling down the sky over the slow swells of the Pacific. While I wrote this, the birds woke up and the sun rose high. It's getting to be mid morning and I have to go to the village and the post office now. There's a bunch of small errands I've been putting off while I've been moving fast trying to learn to move slow.

The shell? It was left behind in the coffee shop and thought to be lost. But I've learned that it has been found and I've been promised it will be returned to the one I gave it too. I hope that happens. I hate to see beautiful perfect things found amidst the fragments lost forever.

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Posted by Vanderleun at June 23, 2005 9:09 AM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

In case you think you weren't missed:



Posted by: Everyman at April 23, 2005 2:15 PM

Welcome back Gerard. Many were worried.

The long way is usually the best way.

Posted by: Steel Turman at April 23, 2005 6:01 PM

Welcome back, sir. You were missed.

Posted by: P.A. Breault at April 23, 2005 7:40 PM

Life is a crapshoot played with dice that return infinite results driven by the "Arrow of Time".

Welcome back from your journey.

Posted by: ChiefTestPilot at April 24, 2005 3:37 AM

I have been wondering where you were too as you were missing from a different site. I came over here to find this lovely piece. Thank you. I'm going to share it with Carla. Your blog is now bookmarked and I'll return regularly. Much Care, Barbara

Posted by: Barbara Spalding at April 25, 2005 1:46 PM

I rode my 10-speed down the west coast of the United States from Vancouver, B.C. to Ensenada, B.C. in 1971. Highway 101 was a different world then, and Big Sur might as well have been on the moon. Fell in love with the town of Arcata and ended up getting my degree a few years later from HSU. Stopped in a little roadside tavern for dinner and ended up listening to Tony Joe White and Neil Young trade licks for a half-dozen locals. Watched the fog ease in through the trees and listed to the waves break over the rocks somewhere down below as I had my morning coffee and studied a map. Seems like a long time ago. Welcome back, amigo.

Posted by: greg at April 25, 2005 3:57 PM

Thank you Gerard,

I urge my children (18+19 - UC students) to read and learn how to write!

Keep it up!!!

Posted by: sushizero at April 27, 2005 12:41 AM

Thanks for your encouragement. I don't know why encouragement is so important to writers but it is. When it stops all else seems to stop as well.

I'll have more to say about all this soon.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at April 27, 2005 10:05 AM

Welcome back. Love the Big Sur area, and even just reading about it.

I'll have to get some reco's from people on Catalina--I want to take my wife there for a romantic getaway one weekend.

Posted by: Chrees at April 28, 2005 11:08 AM
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