Coast Road Trip: A Body on the Beach

From our motel room, looking south/southwest, I could see Crescent Beach. A few surfers were out, but the waves looked very small, 1 or 2 feet. The water was glassy. There was no fog, the sun was coming up, and I went down to the lobby where I filled a paper cup with coffee and water and headed out for an early morning walk on the beach. We were staying at the Anchor Beach Inn, located on the west side of 101, at the southeast edge of the harbor. Tommy and Barbara were in the room next to us. I knew Tom would be awake, and from the street I tried to yell up through his open window to come down and join me. I didn’t want to sound an alarm, though, and he didn’t hear me. I walked on alone and crossed the street where a path led through the deep sand out to the beach area. I had thought the beach empty, but at the far end of the path a young woman came walking toward me.

“Are you staying in the motel?” she asked, as we approached one another on the path.
“Yeah. Good morning.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t want to ruin your morning.”
“What’s the matter?” She was wearing beach combing clothes, barefoot, looked like she had just awoken. I thought maybe she was about to ask for a handout or some coffee.
“Well, I’m sorry, I don’t know if I should say anything, but, I don’t know, you know, but there is a body on the beach. I almost stepped on it. And I don’t know if its alive or do they need help. I don’t know, maybe we should just leave them be. I don’t want to ruin your day.”
“No, that’s fine, if they need help we should try to help. Where?”
“Over there,” she turned and pointed.

We were at the end of the beach, where the sand is deep and windblown into small dunes and strewn with driftwood and beached logs and trees of all twisted shapes and sizes washed ashore in storms, beach debris people like to comb through. Here and there smaller pieces of wood and log had been stacked or piled into fire pits. Long, thinner pieces were stood up into teepee shapes but with no covering. There were a few of these built along the outer beach edge. I didn’t know if they were meant to be works of art or something practical, shelter or bonfire starts.

“Where is it?” I asked.
“Right there,” she pointed.

I had thought we would find the body out on the open beach, washed in maybe, but there it was, against a big log, covered with a thin blanket, stretched out but elbows and knees and feet pointing this way and that as happens when people move about in their sleep. The head was covered. The feet stuck out. It was right there, maybe five feet away from where we had stopped short. There had been a sign at the entrance to the path. A city ordinance prohibited camping on the beach.

We were both watching the body for the same thing. We watched and stood staring for about a half minute.

“Oh,” she said, breaking our silent watch. “There.”
“Yeah. He’s breathing. Probably just someone spent the night on the beach.”
“You think he’s ok?”

The tide was very low, the edge of the water over a hundred yards out. A small creek flowed from out of the beachgrass and meandering stained the beach like a tiny river all the way out to the water’s edge. The beachgrass and sedge stuff held quickly and piled up and across a kind of no man’s land up to the highway, which took off at a southeast angle away from the beach. But there were few cars and trucks and you could hear the waves as small as they were and I walked on down to the water and the girl walked off back up to the road. I spent maybe half an hour walking at the water’s edge, rolling my pants up to my knees, walking out into the thin soup. The water was cold, but not so cold it stung like bees. The sand was smooth and worn fairly hard. There were no shells or agates or rocks or driftwood down at the water’s edge. The beach was all wet sand and low tide and shallow water for a long ways out.

I walked back up the beach and had another look at the body sleeping in among the driftwood piles before climbing the path back up to the road.

Later, before leaving Crescent City, we drove back up through town around the harbor and out to Battery Point, about a mile and a half diagonally across the harbor as the crow flies from where we had spent the night and in the morning I had encountered the body on the beach. At the point, the tide was still low enough that we were able to walk across the tide pools and out to visit the Battery Point Lighthouse, located on a small, rocky island at the end of the breakwater structure built up to protect the harbor from the open sea. We walked and climbed the trails up and down all around the lighthouse on the island, watching the water, the small swells breaking up on the rocks, listening to the sea birds, their open air market rife with the shrill economy of their language, calling out finds and deals and steals, calling off and calling to, calling, calling.

to be continued: this is part two of a series covering our June 2019 coastal road trip.


Surf Noir: “The Tribes of Palos Verdes”

I knew about “The Tribes of Palos Verdes” (St. Martin’s Press, 1997) when it first came out, and I was interested in reading it for what appeared to be its local surf setting. We used to go snorkel diving in the coves around Palos Verdes, the small peninsula that gives Los Angeles’s Santa Monica Bay its southern boundary, in the late 50’s and early 60s. We drove down through the beach cities to Palos Verdes from El Segundo. We did not wear wet suits, and I don’t remember many houses on the cliffs, or any problems with locals (key themes for Medina, the teenaged, first person narrator of “Tribes”). The coves consisted of rocky bottoms and kelp beds. Later, we surfed Haggerty’s and The Cove a few times. But if you live close to a beach, you tend to stay local, and El Porto was our local beach, so over the years, we didn’t get down to Palos Verdes very often. And I didn’t get around to reading “Tribes” until just recently.

It seems two basic views of surfing, of surf culture, dominate popular depictions. One is bright and sunny, and emphasizes a water sport, a recreational activity. The other is dark and dangerous, and emphasizes behaviors that may not have anything to do with wave riding. The argument is a fallacious dichotomy, and I don’t subscribe to either view, but it might be useful in describing writing with background themes of surfing. At the Catholic high school I attended, in Playa del Rey, surfers were viewed with a certain suspicion, for the sport (if it was even begrudgingly called a sport at the time) was an off-campus, un-sanctioned activity. This view was further tainted by corny media representation in films and music, but why couldn’t the teachers see through that? A kid couldn’t just have fun with a surfboard in the water. He had to be part of a growing sub-culture which at best wasted its time hanging out at the beach and at worst was infused with anti-social sentiment characterized by rebellious attitudes illustrated by long hair, non-participation in team sports, resin-sniffing.

Yet most of the surfers I knew were in better physical shape than the football players with their damaged knees and light concussions. And surfing has gone on to occupy a singular place in today’s sporting world, combining health, spirit, and organic virtues. Surfing cannot get caged in an arena. Yet, in any case, perhaps, at least in “Tribes,” we hear the teen spirit asking, how do we know what’s good for us if we don’t taste some bad every now and then? Perhaps this explains the taste for noir. Thus D. H. Lawrence looks at Browning’s “God’s in His heaven—All’s right with the world!,” and comes up with (from his poem titled “Nemesis” – from “Pansies,” 1929):

“The Nemesis that awaits our civilsation
is social insanity
which in the end is always homicidal.
Sanity means the wholeness of the consciousness.
And our society is only part conscious, like an idiot.

If we do not rapidly open all the doors of consciousness
and freshen the putrid little space in which we are cribbed
the sky-blue walls of our unventilated heaven
will be bright red with blood.”

Anyway, as a result of a recent, random conversation that mentioned “Tribes,” I finally did get a copy (at Powell’s, 1st edition hardback, signed by the author, – what a find! – if you like that sort of thing), and read with pleasure Joy Nicholson’s book. And the sky blue walls of Medina’s Palos Verdes are unventilated, much of the surfing takes place at night, and the sport is infused with a noir spirit. I was reminded of Kem Nunn’s surf-themed books, “Tijuana Straits” (Scribner, 2004) for example, which I did read when it first came out. The reader is asked, in both books, to suspend judgement with regard to certain aspects of surfing and local conditions. It’s unclear how, for example, surfers in Joy’s book could possibly be seen from the front window of her house; likewise, the last wave Nunn’s surfer-hero rides, across the U. S. and Mexico boundary, peaks with poetic license. In both books, surfing is as much figurative as literal.

Back to D. H. Lawrence, where we find we should

“Be still!

The only thing to be done, now,
now that the waves of our undoing have begun to strike
on us,
is to contain ourselves.

To keep still, and let the wreckage of ourselves go,
let everything go, as the wave smashes us,
yet keep still, and hold
the tiny grain of something that no wave can wash away,
not even the most massive wave of destiny.

Among all the smashed debris of myself
keep quiet, and wait.
For the word is Resurrection.
And even the sea of seas will have to give up its dead.”

Joy’s book is a dark depiction of teen life in a toxic family and local social environment driven by stereotyped trappings of upper-middle class wealth. The values described are popularly depicted, but the teen perception is sharp in its single, unflinching vision. The toxicity, toward the end of the book, grows to mythic proportions as a famous red tide is stretched to figurative means, and the book speeds toward a final, conclusive wipe out. “Tribes” is divided into seven, un-numbered chapters consisting of 218 short, un-numbered sections, separated by sets of wave looking tildes (~ ~ ~): Waves (81 sections); Rocks (41); Motion (22); Tide (13); Fire (44); Salt (6); Stars (11). Surfing is largely a figurative theme throughout, and the language is remarkably clear of metaphor. The dialog is crisp and the narrator’s voice sarcastic in what would seem true to her age and setting.