Californian Faces

The teens of Newport

Beach blond. Eyes bright. Moving in small packs. Clustered around the octangle at Balboa, they congregate.  I marvel at them.  What is it that intrigues me so? I watch as more and more roll in: many wheels.  I listen to conversation snippets.  I get the feeling that as tenuously as this peninsula is connected to the mainland, so too is their connection to a world outside of here.  A microcosm of lost identity.  Kids dress like adults; adults do themselves up to keep looking younger and younger, stave of ageing and keep up with the kids.  Million dollar houses and million dollar haircuts.  Everybody is  beautiful.  Nobody presents their own awkward face to the world.  Here I sit amidst this.  Trying to look cool, too.  Well ok, not that but trying not to stand out too much. Well ok, not even that, just sitting in the corner, wild hair windblown and filled with sea salt, eating fried cheese on a stick.  With a funny sort of smile on my face, watching.


The otter of Monterey

The water was too still.  I kept checking myself and thinking no, I cannot be at sea.  Then looking up and out over my shoulder I saw the horizon that lies drawn out forever and on, the most delicate of lines, telling me that yes, this is ocean.  I am in a stubby open-topped kayak.  These are perhaps my favourite kind of boats, for they are the closest one can get to the water without being in it.   I am at the same level as everything else.

This evening, everything else in an otter.  He looks at me looking at him.  Both of us we’re just eyes.  His face is round and furry. Long whiskers poke out from under his squished up nose.  Floating on his back, toes pointed out towards me, he cricks his neck to get a better view. My paddle lies in my lap, fingers on it softly.  The cramp I felt from a long day of driving is gone, all the dust washed away.  The expansion from car-box to here, where I stretch out beyond this boat, beyond the soft swell and the kelp seaweed arms and my new friend to some place that is allplace, it makes me giddy.  It takes my breath away.

A breeze is sending me past him obliquely, we’ve passed our closest point now.  Like at the end of an embrace our fingers are slowly separating until only their tips touch. Then nothing. Just me, the Pacific, and the departing light.


The park ranger of Marin

“You need some help?” His government-licensed four wheel drive pickup pulled up beside my bike.  I was surprised to see him.  Up until now, the road had been completely deserted.

“I’m looking for the best route up to Stinson beach.”

“Helluva ride that is.” He squinted at me.  “Helluva ride.”

Each ‘e’ he spoke was way drawn out, lazy, like a day on the beach.  He turned his back, reached into the truck and pulled out a trailmap. And with a sigh he spoke,

“Well. Up Milwok, past Wolf Ridge then all the way on over Bobcat.”

The park ranger handed over the map then squinted at me again. “Long way that is”, he said, “real long way”.

“Ok” I answered, “well, thank you”.  

I paused; he waited.

I saddled up. “Thanks again” I called over my shoulder.

“Or I suppose you could hike over Mt. Tam” came his reply. “You’re talking hours though. Hours.”

But his voice was already fading away, being replaced in my ears by the delicious noise of tires crunching over gravel.

The old man of Furnival

If it were not for the engines it would be quiet here. There are footsteps, horns and jet propellers; only the promise of people exists.

Towering, it rose before me, over the water behind the houseboats. It stood black on black sky, yet quite distinguishable, the sky’s black heavily bordered with orange — the colour of our outpourings into the clouds. Its branches were short and held close to the body – snowman’s arms. Neatly spiked hair began where the trunk disappeared.

The therapeutic effect one tree had on me was strong, my heartbeat halved and breathing lulled. And in the comfort of the slowing, my head fuzzed and a different tower swam in. I was sitting on the Isle of Hoy, gazing out at the Old Man of Hoy, a great sea stack rising uninterrupted from the ocean. The cliffs commanded close attention. All the noises that people make were silenced. In their place rang out waves and wind the screams of cormorants. This wind was far greater than a sound and a brushing hand, it stung my eyes, brought saltwater to my lips.

I stood up, turned my face to the rain. I stepped forwards, compelled, until the next step would take me into the air. Like a grandfather clock the old man out at sea was keeping time. Not in hours or years but in deaths of mountains. This great column holds up everything that can possibly last, and still he crumbles and crumbles.

Movement below startles me, perilously. My eyes drop and meet those of a puffin, looking up from his perch almost at my feet. This funny little guy brings me back, first from the ocean to the land, then from the island, skimming far across the water and down our country’s length to Hammersmith, Furnival park. Wet grass becomes cold wooden bench. The old man has retaken his tree form and, as silently as ever, surveys the river.

A child is running towards me with quick light steps, haphazardly following the path of a drunkard, pink beanie hat bouncing with her gait. Two joggers follow her, their trajectories terribly sombre in comparison. They, in turn, are followed by a couple of dogs, small shaggy things, running recklessly and tumbling into one another as they misjudge how their own legs work. Finally a human couple who move at a leisurely pace bring up the rear of the parade, softening its pace.

I am alone again. Watching the skyline beyond the boats beyond the river beyond the bushes. This tree tower is less than the old man of Hoy: less striking, less wild, less majestic, less unitary. He stands not in the cold sea here, but in the warm streetglow. More close then, more friendly too. Trees line the night on both sides of him, branches upon branches, arms upon arms.

An encounter with a serow

I glanced up the hill, then back down at my line through the trees. I wanted to make sure the ski patrol or any other officials were not in sight: I could be thrown out of the resort for skiing under fences. The snow was picture perfect. I could not resist. Yes it was dangerous; stupid, some might say. To ski alone is unwise. To ski alone off-piste could lead to serious trouble. To ski alone off-piste, in an unknown resort in a foreign country through trees in near white-out conditions during a snowstorm, well, you get the idea. I calculated the risk I was taking. I squeezed my poles tight in my fists, ducked under, and pushed off.

Oh! that first turn. True powder skiing is nothing less than floating through air. Effortlessly I made a second and a third, my mouth catching the snow that flew up from my skis — but I couldn’t close it over my grin. I heard my boy-laugh. Then I started thinking again. I knew I had to hang right. I put in a couple sweeping turns, applying a bit more pressure with each. Then, squinting and aghast, I slammed my skis though the thick pillows into a hockey stop and everything — but for the heartbeat in my ears — went quiet. These four beasts stood before me. What were they? Stout and grey-brown with little horns and bigger ears they stood there, furrily. Full of apprehension at these solid mirages, I clacked my poles. That sent three of them trotting off into the silent whiteness. The fourth remained, steadfast, looking me straight in the eye.

In that moment of his gaze I understood something. I understood that there is a place for me on this incredible little planet. Somehow I can be a mathematician and a skier. A writer and a yogi; sensible and drunken. I stared into the eyes of the serow, and he stared back into mine, and under those ancient white trees, everything just fit.

Now, back in the world of red buses, grey skies and desktops, I have that moment. In times of doubt, it really helps. It is the reminder that beauty is everywhere; it is the reminder that “good enough” can expand way beyond us and fill out over our horizons. It allows me to lay down my head lightly on my pillow, tired and fulfilled and hopeful.