South of Eureka, Highway 101 again turns inland, curling through more redwoods, passing through a few small towns. The road curves and curls through the tall woods and slants south-southeast away from the ocean, the trees gradually grow smaller and more sparse, the land opens up into rolling hills, and you enter wine country. Travelers wanting to continue hugging the coast cut over from Leggett to Fort Bragg and continue down old Highway 1, through Mendocino, and can roll and stroll on down all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. Travelers wanting more Pynchon can spend a few nights in Garberville. But we were on our way to Healdsburg, in Sonoma County, in the heart of wine country, though we’d only be about 20 miles from the ocean as the crow flies, about an hour from Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock filmed “The Birds,” and on the south side of the bay, Dillon Beach, where my brother John likes to go surfing.
Alas, we would not go surfing this trip, in spite of the fact my brother has enough surfboards in his garage to supply a squad of dolphins, and Kevin had brought along his wetsuit. Healdsburg was a happy happening hive: a wedding was being planned though a couple of weeks out yet and anticipation was high; more immediate, a birthday gathering weekend was bringing California family coming in from all directions; Healdsburg High was holding its annual graduation ceremony; there was a jazz fest blowing in the downtown square; and at John’s place there were guitars enough to equip a choir.
After the long drive down the coast, getting lost upon arrival in tiny Healdsburg trying to find John’s house, and the excitement of seeing folks we’d not in some time, we slept like sloths.
…to be continued: this is part five in a series covering our June 2019 coastal road trip.
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.
The past is not enough to live on
to make ends meet.
what test passed avoids stays
to wheedle this incessant urge
past the tinnitus still sings proof
below like wave bounce go easy
under the sheer cliff and around
the mossy point to the bay
where the dolphins play
but the past is not enough to live on
you say and you say things like
anyway the sea is calm tonight
and you need to calm down
and relax we are past all that
pother the rigmarole accoutrements
impedimenta odds and ends
ins and outs no you need
to cool off i’m sorry if you are
disappointed but you see
how tranquil this palaver
becomes us as we unbend
and are made drowsy
not dreary but like
drizzle after a wave breaks.
When does a bummer become a hell? For the average surfer, an ocean with no waves is but a bummer of a morning. The lull will pass. Need to pull some maintenance on the surf rig, anyway. But one can’t escape the hell of other surfers when the swell does come in.
“All those little crystals flew behind us in drifting angel trails.”
We’re on page 226 of Daniel Duane’s “Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast” (North Point Press, 1996, paperback 1997).
“We all paused a moment, pictured it. Willie and Vince looked at each other: angel trails . . . metaphor or assertion?”
It’s a good question that’s answered by Duane’s rhetorical decision to write about the real ocean, not a metaphorical one. If a surfer mistakes a wave for something it’s not, someone might drown. “Caught Inside” is a researched book combined with the one year memoir, with appearances by the likes of Richard Henry Dana Jr (“Two Years Before the Mast”) and Ed Ricketts (“Between Pacific Tides,” “Cannery Row,” “The Log from the Sea of Cortez”). These by writers who almost never took something for what it was not, but catalogued and described in terms of scientific method – observing objectively, identifying, naming. And Duane is good at following suit. He’s interested in local observation, behavior, and faithful reporting:
“…and John Steinbeck intentionally socks it to Ricketts with a moral about those who would romanticize the wild: ‘Here a crab tears a leg from his brother . . . Then the creeping murderer, the octopus, steals out, slowly, moving like a grey mist, pretending to be a bit of weed, now a rock, now a lump of decaying meat while its evil goat eyes watch coldly.’ It’s Melville’s universal cannibalism of the sea, where Ricketts sees in the horror of the glassed-over pool a ‘lovely, colored world” – tide pool as evasive simulacrum” (230).
Nor does the shark pull on a pair of Hang Ten trunks before drifting with the tide toward a breakfast of those yummy looking frog legs dangling off that funny looking abdomen with its upside-down fin. That’s not a frog. That’s a surfer, and the fin is the skeg of his surfboard.
Alongside the historical beachcombers, Duane populates his book with local surfer aficionados he meets along the surfer’s way, most of whom follow the surfer codes. Surfing, annoyingly, is a social activity (much valuable surfing time is spent driving up and down the coast road searching for a preferred spot where no surfers are already out), which means if we want to be something more than shark bait or flotsam flown against barnacled rocks by an unheralded outsider, we must adhere to standards and conventions of behavior – in the water, up on the beach, and in the stingy community where being a surfer bum is economically and socially a monk’s life. Affordable beach city pads are already extinct in most popular areas, just about anywhere along the 800 mile California coastline, and dedicated surfers, the true aficionados, those who plan on spending every single morning in the waves if not also every single afternoon and evening glass-off, sacrificing relationships, careers, jobs, family, the crab traps of “benefits,” don’t have much time left over to load the 16 tons, even if they wanted to.
How should we spend our time which becomes our lives? Thoreau spent two years living in his monk’s shack on Walden Pond, alone, but within walk of the city. And he had a few visitors and neighbors. Thoreau didn’t surf, but he did walk through the woods eight miles every day. Those kinds of pursuits (surfing and walking) place obvious limits on other options, finding a job, raising a family, going out for pizza and a movie every now and then, not to mention finding the time to read a book about some surfer’s year at the beach. Maybe hell is an ocean with waves but none you can take off on, none for you, caught inside a commute. Quit daydreaming about the surf and get back to work. You can always read about the ocean, in bed, before sleep, before falling into the deepest ocean of them all.
With thanks to my brother John’s friend Lisa who brought “Caught Inside” to my attention. Black and white photos in this post include featured photo of me on wave (without wetsuit) with surfing buddy sitting outside at El Porto, 1969. Collage of waves with me on my Jacobs Surfboard, same day. Those were typical waves for an El Porto foggy summer morning. The aficionados would have taken a look and continued their search, leaving the slop all to us!
Forty years have passed since the close of “Penina’s Letters,” and Penina and Salty return to Refugio, a fictional beach town on Santa Monica Bay, in “Coconut Oil,” a sequel to “Penina’s Letters.”
Salty is again our first person narrator, and “Coconut Oil” continues an experimental narrative form – as Sal hands the mic off to several other characters and we are brought up to date on Refugio.
The themes of “Coconut Oil” include aging, housing and homelessness, gentrification, and how we occupy ourselves over time.
The style is experimental in a way a common reader might enjoy. And there is music! Songs, dancing, and some funky text features!
The back cover photo for “Coconut Oil” was taken from the northbound Coast Starlight train as it passed by the point at Refugio Beach, California, a campground 26 miles north of Santa Barbara, in the late 70’s. The front cover photo, more recent, shows the author’s shadow over a tree hollow holding mushrooms that look like bird eggs (where his heart should be).
Here is a very short excerpt from the “Wintertide” chapter of “Coconut Oil.”
Oh, and the jouissance of the creamy oil’s single flavor savors of favor, in the bath, kitchen, by the four-poster or berth, for dry skin, diaper rash, or when the dark knells for thee. No need to refrigerate. Oil squeaky hinges, refurbish dull wood finishes, fry Copper River salmon in cast iron skillet, remove warts (rub under duct tape), fly cats to the moon or snorkel under ocean kelp beds, race around the ceiling, the coconut salesman is at your door!
Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay, “A Modest Proposal,” argues a single solution to homelessness that Swift proudly suggests would provide a host of beneficial side effects. Satire is sometimes hard to get, or hard to take, the difference between satire and farce being that satire aims at a target. One might today imagine a certain presidential candidate coming up with a proposal like Swift’s that many might take seriously, missing the satirical target – and that would be farcical.
Of the critical reviews appearing for “Penina’s Letters,” several stand out for their clear and concise but right-on insight into the book. Lisa, a family friend from the Vatican Hill days, posted a picture of “Penina’s Letters” being read in a swimming pool in Cabo with the comment:
“So this was a great read – hit on some serious issues – but I enjoyed the ride – and still can’t figure out where 48th Street is located.”
Lisa’s comment hits on significant aspects of the book – how do we treat serious issues in fiction that is also intended to entertain? And she joins in the fun by wandering around looking for a fictional street she knows doesn’t exist.
My friend Dan posted a longer review to his blog, and when I thanked him in an email, he wrote back,
“It’s a very good novel.”
Dan’s a reader, suffers no delusions about stuff, and is thrifty with his complements.
“An underpinning of real harrowing tension in this. Could hardly bear the savage exposure of the truly private in a ribald public arena. There are some crimes of insensitivity that merit the return of the stocks!”
Also meanwhile, my Facebook friends had a bit of fun posting pictures of their copy of the book, being read or held or posed at various locations, including Mexico, France (on a Kindle in Paris), Montana, airplane to Los Angeles, dashboard of car in Sellwood, Studio City, Minneapolis airport bookstore, in the woods above Los Angeles, on an office desk near the Willamette, a deck in Bend, Voodoo Doughnuts, a pool room in Portland’s Hawthorne neighborhood, a bike repair apartment in Seattle, outside the Mojave Cancer Center, a very cool San Francisco pad, a neighbor’s house on 69th, a laptop with Instagram photo in Aloha, another sitting out in the yard on a warm day on the west side, on a table with the rest of the mail in Ione, on a shelf at Em’s with her cookbooks, Warren’s place in North Portland, a desktop in El Segundo, on a quilt in Barstow, and please let me know if I missed one, because what a great marketing idea!
Anyway, I was encouraged by the reader response to “Penina’s Letters.” The novel may not be what many expected it to be. And most readers seem to intuit that we probably should not criticize something for not being what it was not intended to be. It’s also hard to finish everything we pick up. I get that. I’ve nearly always got a dozen or so books and magazine articles in disarray around the house in the process of being read, but then there’s always something that pulls you to it, and you wind up finishing it before anything else. That’s maybe a good definition of a good read.
And I was so encouraged by the reader response that I’m now announcing the sequel to “Penina’s Letters,” called “Coconut Oil.” Please don’t think I wrote “Coconut Oil” in a couple of months. Like “Penina’s Letters,” “Coconut Oil” is a final (Beckett said abandoned) draft of years of writing and reading work. As Cornel West said in “Examined Life,” “Time is real.” So I finally decided to “light out for the Territory,” though unlike Huckleberry, ahead of hardly anyone else.
I’ll let you know when “Coconut Oil” is ready to launch!
Oh, yeah, that bit above about Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” That has to do with “Coconut Oil.” You’ll see.
Meantime, thanks to the readers of “Penina’s Letters”!
The e-version can be read on any device – with the Kindle app, which can be downloaded for free (click link above).
We don’t recommend reading the electronic version in water, though that might be the best place to read this dynamic novel, but at the low, low price of $2.99, you can certainly read it with your device up on the beach, near the water.