Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Beach Between

The wooden stairs had been worn smooth and rounded by thousands of people tracking abrasive sand up and down them for years. A thin layer of sand made each step dubious; one misplaced foot and the trip down would be quick and bumpy. At first I felt self-conscious dressed in jeans and a black sweater, with a pair of tightly laced, shiny jogging shoes, and a ratty bag by my side. I didn’t match the rest of the beachgoers in their bathing suits, sporting a languid attitude. But then I remembered I’m not here to relax. I gripped the strap crossing over my chest and acted as natural as I could.

As I walked, I marveled that there were still people on the beach. It was January, cloudy, cold, and the playoffs were on. How is it possible that there are still people playing frisbee in the freezing cold? How is it that people still lay placidly on their towels when the sun couldn’t tan an albino? But, this is San Diego—more importantly the beach—and the people must come.

Instead of walking towards the central pier, where surfers flank the decaying and barnacle encrusted trusses, I walked north along the cliffs slowly rising parallel to the ocean, eclipsing my right field of view. Palm trees grew among houses perched just above the shore break. Surfers rode in the meager waves before jumping off to paddle out again. From the corner of my eye, beer cans flashed under blankets just as the Official City of San Diego Beach Patrol truck drove by. Beach-goers took advantage of the slender window of opportunity for a quick sup before the truck turned around and passed again.

The crowds thinned quickly as I walked down the beach, replaced by growing piles of seaweed. Pebbles supplanted the fine sand at first, then stones, and finally boulders. I imagined the patrol truck frantically driving up and down the popular section of the beach at night collecting any detritus that had washed ashore or been exposed by the waves and driving it over to this neglected portion. There the refuse is dumped and the beach maintains its entropy-free allure. Concentrated and noxious whiffs of the familiar decaying scent of the beach permeated the crisp salty air. As I walked by hulking piles of rotting seaweed, a cloud of flies lifted off in fright and I held my breath for a beat. Have the denizens of the houses on the cliff become numb to this scent, or is it reflected in lower property values?

After passing an oddly placed, small unmarked sewage treatment plant—one that I expected to be releasing its own pleasant stench, but graciously did not—placed directly on the beach, the last structure I encountered was a blue bathroom with a sawtooth roof. I considered a quick visit, but then remember that where I was going, no one would see me pee. You see, I don’t care much for this pristine beach with its shiny-black wetsuit clad surfers, and I don’t care for the equally magnificent La Jolla Shores in the direction I’m heading. I care for the beach between. I want to go to the place where no one else goes. Because in a city of over one million people, where there is no one, there is bound to be something interesting.

The sand gave way completely to stones. I struggled to keep my balance as I walked across them. Near me a couple of surfers carried their white surfboards. They walked more delicately than I; their thin wetsuit slippers designed to protect from frigid winter water offered little support or protection from the rocks. My target loomed ahead of me: a bend in the cliffs formed the boundary where most beach-goers would never think of passing. The first signs of what was to come lay camouflaged among the stones. A chunk of rock, granular and geometric, stood out prominently from the naturally smoothed stones. Concrete. It surprised me at first. Concrete on one of the most popular beaches in the county? This must have been a fluke. Another sharp corner jutted from the stones. Perhaps I had passed the official boundary where no worker bothered maintaining.

The sound of a decade old melody played on an acoustic guitar greeted me. Looking at the cliffs I saw a little alcove made from palm fronds draped over some planks. Old boogie-boards snapped in the middle formed seats on top of a delicately stacked wall constructed of flat rocks. Seated was the source of the music. A young man sang the chorus to a familiar pop song. Next to him sat a disinterested-looking woman, and next to her an older man. None of them wore bathing suits, but they weren’t dressed as tightly as I was.

The chorus ended. “Have you heard that one before?” the man asked.

“Yeah I’ve heard it,” the older man replied.

“Not you!” the guitarist snapped. The woman continued to look disinterested.

I considered plopping down on one of the boogie-boards—gently, the perch didn’t look stable—and chat, but I had a long way to walk and the sun encroached the horizon. I had to walk all the way to the Children’s Pool, the first real part of La Jolla Shores, and if I failed to make it, the lack of any way up the cliffs would force me to walk back across the beach, in the dark. Determined, I gripped my bag and rounded the bend.

Lots more concrete. Apparently I had found the official dumping ground for derelict buildings. Despite the beauty of the sun beginning its descent and the low tide exposing dark green pools, these lumps of artificial geology brought me back to the reality of human existence. Most slabs were tame, content in blending in, others shot out rusted rebar like punji sticks. A huge slab of concrete the size of a tiny car rested not far from the bend. Metal bloomed from the concrete like rust-red petals. Had this been a gear is some archaic Grecian machine?

A few surfers in the distance slowly making their way out to the low tide provided me with my only company. Combined with the crumbling architecture, I felt as if I had stumbled into a dystopian future where everyone had fled San Diego and I had resorted to roaming the beaches in search of food. Another monolithic slab of concrete loomed over the beach, five thick metal poles pointing at an angle to the sky. Viewed from a certain angle the slab looked like an antiaircraft gun from a World War II movie. The poles were rusted beyond recognition; if I were to take a picture without context, one might think they were tree branches.

I wondered how this mess got here. Did the upscale neighborhood nested on the cliffs above me care about the pile of rubble below them, or were they too intoxicated by the rotting seaweed to notice? I couldn’t imagine a plain concrete building ever having been built near such desirable real estate. I heard from a friend that Highway 1 ran by here back in the day and they had to move it, so they dumped the refuse off the cliff and hoped no one snooped around. I sifted through the rubble hoping to find a yellow road stripe.

I noticed a sense of dread building up inside of me as I lingered in the area. Beaches are not supposed to be a place of ruination, but a place of mirth, tanned skin, and of course, surfing. I had to move on. After the two slabs of concrete, the smaller bits were mundane and I ignored them. Thankfully, as I walked on, the concrete dwindled to nothing, relieving me of the thought that it would define my trip up the beach. I stopped caring about what was below me and had the opportunity to look at my surroundings.

The beach was narrow. If not for the low tide, I would be pressed against the cliffs. I had planned the perfect time to come, as the receded water exposed a rocky marsh-like strip of green. The stones had sorted themselves out to only being fist sized, but as I walked towards the marsh, the stones did not help the steep slope. At the bottom, I didn’t want to walk any closer to the water. Looking closely at the marsh revealed a microcosm of little creatures: shell-encrusted sea anemones, crabs that skittered away from my thunderous footsteps, a thin sheet of seaweed that makes the marsh almost look like someone’s well-groomed and well designed front yard. I knew that even one step could possibly upset this fragile area for years. However, I shouldn't discount the scrappy critter's resolve, considering how they retook the area stolen from them by the tire I found in the surf. The moss-like seaweed managed to grow in the rim, making for a poignant, life-affirming scene. Scrambling back up the slope gave me a good view of the cliffs transformed.

Instead of the mesmerizing layers of ancient sediment and the rain etched features, a black plastic transparent mesh draped the cliffs. What possible purpose could this unsightly material serve? Erosion prevention? Vestigial construction material? Brutalist tapestries? I doubt the purpose could ever justify nearly the entire cliff being covered. Snaking black drainage tubes emerging from the cliff face accentuated the drapes. The foreign decorations swayed in the wind coming up from the sea. Near the pier I noticed one long tube hanging from the cliffs but wrote it off as a quirk. Little did I know that instead of a quirk, they were a feature.

Lest an adventurer like me think that these would make for a great rope in which to scale the cliffs for easy access into the expensive homes above, the tenants carefully poised alarm company signs—the type most people are content to only jamming in their front lawns or plastering on their windows—on the outside of their fences, pointed towards the ocean. Or perhaps I am mistaken, perhaps commando sea lions and thieving crustaceans really plagued their homes, and they didn’t care that tell-tale signs of opulence besmirched the beautiful cliffs. I noticed a correlation between large house size and excess signage.

Tucked under the black sheeting I found what looked like a small cage clutched precariously to the cliff above my head. I had to scramble up the crumbling rocks to get a good look. Peering close, I saw two compartments separated by mesh. An inward fold of the mesh led to the first compartment, and another fold in the separation led to the second compartment. The cage seemed maze-like until I realized what it was for: lobsters crawl in searching for bait hung in the second room, chow down, and then can't find their way out again, sealing their fate. The bait keeps them fat until pick-up time. This particular model could hold two lobsters, more if they didn't mind fighting to the death. How did the cage find its way up here and manage to get stuck behind the black drapes? Had there been a tsunami I never hear about? To my dismay, I did not find a fresh lobster trapped inside. Nor did I find any in the other traps washed up along the beach. Plenty of shell fragments could be found between the rocks—mostly tails but also a couple skulls, beady white eyes still poking outward, all picked clean first by birds, then little bugs wedging between the plates for the remaining elusive morsel. I periodically found cages pushed up against the cliff, all empty even of bait, each in a unique state of collapse and rust. Just like the concrete and all of the rest of the trash I found, no one ever bothered to come back here and clean up the place. Maybe one day I can go back and collect them, maybe make a buck off of selling them back to the people who lost them at sea.

The stately houses with overhanging decks and obnoxious alarm signs, along with the drapes and drainage pipes became an ever-repeating backdrop as I walked along, the scree sound of rocks rubbing against each other under my feet my musical accompaniment. I moved at a slow pace and the sun reflecting off of the water in the horizon reminded me of the impending darkness. I thought about turning back. I didn’t want to continue if all of the interesting things were behind me. However, something in the distance caught my eye, something stacked near the cliffs, gigantic sand bags of some sort. Had I stumbled upon some secret naval base or weapons cache?

The sand bags turned out to be huge rolls of solid concrete, the diameter of a thick palm tree, layered on each other like huge stairs, perhaps acting as a wave-breaker. Rolls and ripples in the concrete made them look like gray floatation devices, or at least like an artistic rendition. A single layer of fence with a padlocked gate ran across the top of the concrete staircase. Security camera signs replaced the now rather pedestrian alarm signs. Water from rogue waves had rusted the fence and the resulting brownish liquid flowed down the concrete in places, painting the concrete with some much needed—but rather scatological—color.

Past the fence, the cliff had been completely replaced by concrete, which in places looked brittle and sure to collapse in the same fate as the cliffs it wedged between. Two competing sections leading up to separate houses above butted against each other. The left section had a staircase leading halfway up to what looked like a small room behind another locked fence—or as I like to pretend: a holding cell. Built right out of the concrete cliff, a seating area with a few benches supplied the owners of the house a wonderful view of a chain link fence, with an ocean behind it. To the right of the benches another staircase led parallel up the cliffs to the top deck. A variety of floodlights and security cameras festooned the deck. The right section had one single steep staircase leading to a ladder that ascended into what seemed like a bleached white wooden cage. On the wall of the cage a single camera gazed at me as I gawked at it.

I dared get close to the concrete rolls, half expecting a helicopter of trained paramilitary to suddenly appear above me if I so much as touched it. The lowest layer had lost its curvature to the waves and felt coarse. Someone had scrawled some surprisingly legible graffiti in places: kitsch phrases such as “The birds swim around and the fishes fly” and “The sky is the ocean and the ocean” (Signed: V), along with some curlicues that went nowhere. Instead of the leading purveyors of graffiti—the hard urban gangster—only bored upper-class teenagers have made it out this far.

In contrast to the casually minimalistic decor of a classy beach access it tried to exude, The Compound—as I called it—had the air of a prison, complete with the crumbling, rusting gray exterior, panopticon security measures, and floodlights waiting to be activated in case of a riot. The only thing The Compound lacked was a tower with a mounted machine gun and trigger-happy guard.

The cameras moved. Or, at least I thought they moved. I stepped back from the lumpy concrete staircase and shuffled left, then right. Okay, maybe they weren’t moving, but they could have, so I moved on.

Another bend in the cliffs similar to the one I followed earlier lay ahead. The same palm trees, luxurious homes, and tilted tropical colored umbrellas silhouetted against the ever-darkening blue sky, only something was amiss. The gray concrete came back with a vengeance, this time in the form of an entire cliff. Not just one section, but the entire cliff face clear around the bend. The insatiable desire to live near the coast called for the cliffs to be sliced away and replaced with a new model, only this model existed merely to prop up the houses, a pure unabashed utilitarian hack-job. And they had the gall to not even give it a coat of paint. Excess concrete formed a flat lip at the bottom of the cliff, giving me a stone-free comfortable walkway. I closed my eyes and ran my hand across the coarse concrete, fantasizing that I was back in the city, on a relaxing stroll to the DMV.

I noticed near the water’s edge a single small patch of beach with absolutely no stones, footprints, plastic toy shovels, or even seaweed on it. Two people could sunbathe comfortably, no more. Surely this is the last patch of untouched sandy beach in all of Southern California, accessible only when the tides are low.

The concrete lip sloped upward and ended at a light brown sandstone rock top. A few seagulls stared idly at me questioning if I was really moving in on their turf. The rock trapped water from old waves in unnatural crevices. Competing graffiti dug into the soft rock criss-crossed in and out of each other and formed a tangled web of old worn letters and shapes, all of which had lost their intended meaning, if any ever existed. I could barely make out LW; a triangle; a poorly thought out D. I wanted to scuff it all away and let the rock begin again.

The stones changed to large and angular boulders, reminiscent of the concrete chunks, only pleasantly natural. Although nothing shifted under my feet, I planned my footsteps carefully along the jutting corners. Loose rocks can make for a slow journey, but the amount of arm flailing, near splits, uncertain leaps, and off-balance warbling I had performed while walking across the boulders made me pine for the familiar small egg-shaped stones. I stopped to look at a narrow brick wall with smatterings of tame graffiti. Taking up the lower half in big block letters read “BIRD ROCK” (I learned later that Bird Rock Avenue dead-ended just above the brick wall, and formed the official boundary between Pacific Beach and La Jolla.). The purpose of the wall became clear when I walked past it: a couple hid behind the wall, making out. I panicked a bit—they were the first people I had seen since the surfers—then tried to act like walking across a deserted beach towards nothing was totally natural. I can offer no description of this couple, as even glancing at them would further our shared awkwardness.

I reached another solid sandstone rock, this one narrow and high above waves striking its sheer face. In the distance a hopeful staircase led up from the beach. If it could be reached, I might not need to walk back on the beach at night, provided it didn’t lead up to another house. The irregular cliff shielded the terrain and offered no preview of what I would traverse. I warily stepped over a split in the rocks, arms reaching out for support, careful not to look down at the waves breaking under me.

The beach in its classical form had morphed into a meandering, multi-layered cliff, slick with breakwater and unforgiving sloped rock. Water bubbled in and out of miniature coves below me, the bottom cleverly concealed by dark water. To continue on, I had to scoot along a very narrow ledge, room enough for my toes only. I pressed myself up against the rock, seeking any sort of hold to jam my fingers into. After a few steps and failing to find anything for my left hand, I panicked and inched my way back, then tried again, rapidly groping the side of the cliff for any support. What would happen if I slipped? Rocks jutted from the water's surface, making for a very unreliable landing zone. Even if I were to miss the rocks, I had no idea of the depth of the water, nor if anyone would hear my screams.

In a rush, I shuffled across the ledge and knelt jittery and triumphant on the other side, manually letting out my captured breath. Shortly after the ledge and past a few minor obstacles, all progress halted when the only way forward led over a sheer overhang stretching the length of the path. My first inclination was to jump; then I thought maybe I should get a better look. But then I thought, why not just jump and see what happens? Only when I looked from a different angle did I realize that looking straight down from the overhang betrayed its true height, and disguised the rough, uneven, and stony ground. If I had jumped, I would have slipped and fallen backwards and split my head open, lay dead for a few hours before the high tide carried me out to sea, get a few bites taken out of me by whatever animal bothered, and finally wash ashore at the Children’s Pool, entrails flapping in the waves. For the children’s sake, I did not jump.

That was as far north as I travelled, stopped only by the harsh realities of gravity. In my sullen state, I found the rock just traversed a few minutes ago much more difficult. My feet failed to find the holds I imagined existed on the slick rock, not even the tiniest of jutting lip on which to cling. I played the part of the snake, slithering over the rock using every bit of friction I could muster.

The split in the rock I had casually stepped over before seemed to have widened, or perhaps my dexterity had deflated from defeat. I miscalculated a foot placement and slipped into the split, bashing my shin against the rock. A wet ledge on the other side saved me from certain immersement. I pushed away the pain, as the sun had set, and the pale blue light faded at a dangerous rate. My feet were tired, and the trip only halfway completed. If I didn't get past the sandstone rock and the angular boulder field, I would stumble in the winter dark; a busted shin would be the first of many wounds. Above, seagulls and cormorants settled into invisible nests and squawked at my predatory self. I walked quickly past the couple still making out, past the concrete cliff-face, past The Compound, the old tire aquarium, twisted lobster traps, anti-aircraft guns, the Iron Flower, and finally the field of rotting seaweed.

The first patch of real rock-free sand greeted my feet like a deep tissue massage. I was free to put my feet wherever I wanted, without fear of twisted ankles or bashed shins. Ahead, the floodlights from the top of a hotel complex made night into day. Four beach-goers still walked along the ever chilling coast, their dogs sniffing around at mounds of seaweed and occasionally taking bites.

One of the dogs walked slowly up to me and I extended my hand palm down as is our custom. The black and white dog sniffed warily, twitching backward at every step I took. It skulked away until I was a good distance on, then it barked. Three other dogs followed suit. As I walked on, the dogs emboldened and followed behind me still barking. One of the dogs pranced in front of me, and the others mimicked its behavior. I walked on, thinking the dogs would tire of me. They barked louder and swirled around me. The owners caught wind of this and started to call their names, first softly, then forcefully as the dogs paid no attention.

Perhaps my inattention infuriated the dogs the most. I had to be corralled and controlled. Two dogs reversed direction and picked up speed. They moved so quickly and barked so loudly I could not distinguish one from another as they swirled around. One of the owners screamed at the dogs and tried to grab at their collars. The bag across my chest jerked back. One of the dogs must have bit at it. Things got serious.

The owner breached the ring of dogs and tried to block me from them, but she was simply one, and they were legion. A pang bolted through my left leg. They bit me! The cursed dogs actually bit me! I hopped around, groaning in pain, keeping alert for the next attack. Were they brave enough to attack from the front? Three other people entered the fray, each grabbing at a dog. At the height of the insanity, the dogs calmed down.

The owner, a middle-aged fit woman with short cropped hair, asked breathlessly if the dogs had bit me. I rolled up my left pant leg and revealed a large black welt in the shape of dog teeth right above my calf. No blood trickled down. She was quick to say it looked fine, but still asked if I needed anything. I said no. The litigious affair that would result if I had said otherwise would be much more painful than a little welt. She apologized once more and dragged her now miraculously placid dog away by the collar.

Walking back up the stairs and to my car, I couldn’t help but laugh.