It was supposed to be a mid-summer break from Midwestern reality. A return to the land of surf and traffic. Instead it became a world coated in soot and ash and a surreal exercise in ‘California Dreamin.’
It was snowing the day we arrived in Palm Springs. In fact, it had been snowing soot and ash for several days. Officials labeled the cause as the ‘mountain fire.’
At its height, there were over 3000 hotshots fighting the conflagration just over the mountains from Palm Springs. Local newscasters are all aflutter with hints of doom and gloom descending on this tony enclave of absentee owners. Admittedly, it was a little unsettling to watch the night flames moving high in the mountains above us like a surreal basket of glowing orange in a bowl of black. But realistically, it would be a stretch to say the fire was threatening our community. But, of course, there were television ratings to grow and it made for exciting, if not exaggerated, story-telling. The national news was even more distorted.
A friend wrote to ask if we were concerned about our home being consumed by the fire. I answered “not so much. We’re heading behind the Orange Curtain tomorrow.”
Now it’s 6:00 am on the main drag heading through town. We’ve left the desert and pasted through the Orange Curtain. I’m the only one up, meandering toward the main beach. There is little traffic and only a few public works folks picking up trash. This return to the ocean brings new meaning to the cliché ‘spending the night together.’ It’s a romantic return to my first sojourn to the Pacific Ocean in 1965. The beginning of a lifetime of romantic illusions of sea and surf and sin.
It’s the height of summer season along the West Coast with its art festivals, hordes of bronze bodies on surf boards and women showing more skin than they would ever dare show anyplace else on the planet. Traffic on the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) is unbelievable. It’s California at its best. A kind of cliché etched in stone by advertisers and every Midwesterners distraction from winter.
First there’s a necessary side track to Starbucks for my morning fix. The first thing I see is a well-endowed, rail thin, leggy blond hugging a tall, muscular surfer dude. They seem to be whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears. Only she’s old enough to be his mother. ..but they certainly seem to be very friendly.
Welcome to Laguna Beach.
Starting in the late 20’s, with the opening of a road to Laguna Beach, this town quickly became a thriving magnet for artists, musicians and other creative types. I’m told the difference between this town and Newport Beach, its neighboring community to the north, is that they don’t all cut their hair the same down here and the people aren’t plastic. The homes in Laguna Beach certainly aren’t the ticky-tacky million dollar stucco beauties that line the ridgelines and mountain sides of Newport.
In Laguna Beach, houses range from expansive mansions on top of the mountains to shacks lining the side streets (think ‘favela’ in Portuguese) to everything in-between. Outside of the business district, few of the streets have sidewalks. The houses come in all size, shapes and colors.
It’s mid-summer so we’re past ‘May gray’ and ‘June gloom.’ Yet it’s still overcast and hazy and a typical morning on the beach before the sun burns through the haze and heats up the place.
What I encounter is the early morning beach scene before the tourists, boarders, surfers and bogie-boarders begin their assault on the ocean. The air is thick with the smell of rotting seaweed which will soon be replaced by the odor of suntan lotion, beer and kid’s drinks filling the vacuum. Thankfully, the air is still cool before the salty breeze leaves the skin sticky to the touch.
There is a group of homeless men gathered around a stone picnic table, some wrapped in their old army blankets. I assume they’ve just crawled out from wherever they were sleeping and now it’s time to gather in the park for morning BS and a cheap cup of coffee. Not far away is a prayer group of men, probably all in recovery.
I catch a glimpse of the legendary crazy old lady who is always dressed like a court jester and encourages people to take her picture. Then when they do, she screams obscenities at them.
A young man, dressed in all black and lugging two large satchels, walks by me mumbling to himself. He looks over at me but I don’t dare return his stare. Several men go by in long pants. Only tourists wear long pants even in the winter time.
The early morning beach worshippers are all there. Zen masters practicing their beliefs in the sand, dog walkers, beach runners, a volleyball game going on, someone searching for gold with his scooper and metal detector, a couple of kayakers older than my grandpa and trash pickup truck being stalked by seagulls. Even ‘Despicable Me’ was there in the form of a blimp.
Gradually the early morning crowd gives way to the daily onslaught of tourists and regulars.
It’s the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and all those other masterful painters of the California surf scene practicing their craft. An old man’s favorite fantasy.
Further up the coast, alongside the 405, sits a wonderful palace dedicated to the arts. Paid for by a man who reveled in his moniker as an old curmudgeon. J. Paul Getty, who at one time was the world’s richest man, has left a treasure for all to see.
Welcome to the Getty, a 750-acre mountaintop property in Brentwood, West Los Angeles. All of the buildings are clad in travertine, a type of limestone, with glass and metal in definitive con-trast to the rough stone. I’m not an art aficionado by any means but there were some wonderful pieces there.
‘Sister Act’ was playing at the Pantages Theater and while it wasn’t as good as the movie, the stage production was great entertainment.
Before the play, there was even time for garage-sales in West Hollywood. Old habits die hard. Even on the West Coast, one person’s junk is another person’s treasure.
Finally a return to the desert. The fires are mostly out by now. The haze is gone and returning blue skies mean intense sun and growing heat. 110 in the shade is just a start. But it’s still nice to be back in the desert. It means coffee with friends in the early morning hours before the sun begins to bake the air and slow-burn any exposed skin.
During the summer, Palm Springs is like a city of lost souls. There were two sickly old men at Starbucks sharing their respective tales of illness and multiple hospital visits. A crippled, bent-over old man who got into a Steve McQueen (bullit) Mustang fastback and tore out of the McDonalds parking lot, going who knows where? Welcome to Palm Springs in the middle of summer.
Despite the heat, it’s good to be back home. I don’t own this town yet but my comfort level here is growing with each visit.
Then it’s back to the land of green grass, green plants and plenty of flowers. Cool evenings and lakes all around. Trail running and swatting flies, mountain biking while ducking branches, finishing up “A Shau” and getting to the core of “Debris.”
My trip to the land of milk and honey was brief, pleasant and a wonderful distraction from the necessary work at hand. Yet while I thought returning to Minnesota was a return to normalcy, it really wasn’t. Granted, it was a different environment, great friends and comfortable familiarity with the tried and true.
But my heart was still back at the beach, penning my observations and fantasizing about surfer dudes and California girls. Oh, the naïve life of a romantic…
I can’t wait to get back home again.