Since moving to California we’ve become beach bums. Not the caricature most East Coasters are prone to imagining with sandy sun kissed hair, a surf board tucked under an arm, and air of ease and nonchalance, and year round golden skin. We have become a lesser celebrated pale northern variety by way of San Francisco, and really, it was a long time coming.
As native Northern Virginians, the beach was somewhere we voyaged to only once a year. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the Northeast corridor, our family would inch down I-95 to the Outer Banks for our yearly pilgrimage, eventually completing the 4.5 hour drive in a mere 8 hours. There was nothing quite like those glorious seven days though; the blistering sun, the lulling waves, the wrinkles and darkening shades coming without care, and the pinnacle: a piping hot outdoor shower; the ritual of scrubbing off the day's grime, sweat, sand and lotion, toweling off, and being reincarnated as what always felt like the calmest and best version of myself. Desperate to ingest as much of the ocean as we could in order to sustain ourselves in the coming 51 weeks, our evenings were spent covering the dining table with newspapers and freshly steamed bushels of blue crabs from Dockside N' Duck or Carawan Seafood Co, finessing the art of crab picking for hours until our fingers ached and our bellies surrendered.
Years later as New Yorkers the beach became a bi-monthly treat during the summer. Ditching Brooklyn many a weekend we would drive out to Coney Island or Rockaway, realizing by trial and error that the full day trip to Fire Island was worth the long haul in exchange for leaving every trace of the city behind. In Autumn when the city’s walls felt too close we began exploring along the Hudson and Sleepy Hollow, eventually expanding our perimeter further up the coast into Connecticut back towards the sea, exiting off the highway at the first sight of a storybook town, taking smaller and smaller roads towards the water until we would happen upon a movie set neighborhood beach and small local gem, like Rowayton Seafood Fish Market to bring part of the ocean home with us.
One December day in Connecticut during a month long stint of toying with the idea of moving to the shore, we arrived at the coast. Walking out to the jetty the wind began to howl, a million microscopic needles nipping our faces as the snow started blowing in wildly from the south turning our bones to ice. As the storm enveloped us I stood in awe, giving witness to the frigid salty waters hammering the rocks, the breakwater quickly collecting a frosty film, and the sideways snow whiting out the horizon. It felt like we had stumbled upon one of nature's best kept secrets; the winter sea.
Seeking refuge in our car, we drove until we came upon Harborview Market, where all the locals appeared to commune. Seated patrons called out the names of everyone who walked through the doors, asking for updates on wreath making and small town gossip, throwing a curious glance and raised eyebrow followed by a warm smile our way. We found that instead of washing off the lotion and grime from a day at the beach, the ritual of a bowl of soup and a hot coffee, warming up from the inside out, slowly exfoliating our layers of down and wool as our temperatures steadily rose, our bodies were once again reborn and revived, our spirits reset, and our cheeks familiarly reddened by our time by the sea.
So when we moved to California, and suddenly had not just a beach, but an enormous rugged coastline in our backyard at our constant disposal, it seemed a trivial detail that the waters were ankle achingly frigid year round, the waves intimidatingly dangerous at almost every shore, and the wind bone chilling half the year. We quickly learned that this side of the Pacific Ocean is a looking-at-ocean; not a swimming-in-ocean, but found we didn't require anything of it; we didn't need the air to be warm, or the waters to be calm or clear or inviting. We didn't care if the trek from our car was long or windy or steep, or if the sand was course and rocky or fine white sugar. We didn't care if we had to wear hats or shoes or sweaters as a prerequisite for treading her shores. Like someone in love, we weren't concerned about the logistics, we simply wanted proximity to this force we were so strongly drawn to.
We found, as we did on the East Coast, if we could be willing to travel further than 95% of other people; whether it was driving an extra 45 minutes, or walking an extra 15, that there was a magical experience to be had. Our West Coast rewards quickly materialized in the form of extraordinary drives and hikes through pin drop quiet coastal redwood forests, whale sightings, beaches with jade rocks and fossils, tide pools teeming with anemones, starfish and urchins, fragrant eucalyptus groves perfuming the air, private moments with curious seals and preoccupied sea otters, and spectacular jagged rock formations giving us a picturesque backdrop for the afternoon.
The sheer protected and undeveloped vastness of the coast in Northern California and bone chilling ruggedness are the likely culprits as to why the coast manages to feel empty and unvisited year round. Most inland residents unabashedly admit to visiting the beach only during warmer early Autumn months and the few extraordinary off season weekends of the year when wearing a bathing suit all day doesn't feel like punishment; those blissful days spent only shrugging on a fisherman’s sweater (or as locals prefer, hoodie) close to sunset or when a smattering of clouds linger overhead for a bit too long.
Those who show up to the coast year round tend to be hardy coastal breeds born way of Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, San Gregorio and the like; who own wetsuits and dinghys, who know every coastal trail by heart, who give a heads up when negative tides and an array of tide pools will be abundant, or when there will be 25 foot waves and only the most seasoned surfers on the water. These locals tell you where to find the most massive redwood trees that put Muir Woods to shame (but swear you to secrecy), the location of the best artichoke bread (but don't swear you to secrecy: Arcangeli Grocery Co., est.1929), and tip you off on the best beaches to reliably find harbor seal (Fitzgerald Marine Reserve) and elephant seals (Drake's Beach for up close intimate viewing, Chimney Rock Overlook for hundreds to thousands of seals but viewed from further away, January through April if you want to see the seal pups), which local general store you can grab a beer with locals and sometimes spot Neil Young at, and who let you in on the secret that that the best days to go hiking are the rainy ones because no one else is on the trail. These locals humbly giving an education in nature, teaching the art of foraging for wild bay leaves, wild roses, and Pacific blackberries to take home, and showing you how to spot the difference between a turkey vulture and a red tailed hawk from a distance (the vultures fly tipsy).
It’s Sunday mid November, where everyone inland warns us of the last decent beach weekend approaching; the warmest months of the year in Northern California are coming to a close. For us though, it’s time to start looking at investing in a waxed Barbour for the coming months, and unearthing our woolen hats and scarves from the coat closet.
Our usual local goodies are getting packed up for the day: americanos, pain au chocolats, and manchego & cheese croissants from Fournée for the drive, a sour batard from Acme Bread alongside some castelvetranos, cornichons, a chunk of local Red Hawk, dry cured salami from Fra' Mani, a low acid dry Sardinian red wine vinegar scavenged from Monterey Market, and a bottle of pelligrino for the beach; all snuggled into the ever present, and often bruised and gritty reserves at the bottom of the snack bag; apples, clementines, roasted almonds, dried mango and seaweed. A stop along the way home for a belly warmer from Sam's Chowder House, freshly fried seafood from Barb's Fish Trap (cash only), a seaside pub pit stop for a pint and and banger at The Pelican Inn, or a piping hot cioppino from Phil's Fish Market, are always likely possibilities as well if the day fully extends itself.
The car trunk now houses its own small wardrobe year round; perpetually ready for a variety of outfit changes by any member of the family ranging from bathing suits to anoraks, corduroy trousers to spare Bélons, wool socks, and pairs of Blundstones, as we’ve learned 63 degrees here can feel either hot or frigid depending on the sun, wind and cloud cover; and that one never fully knows if they’ll meet mud or dirt, calm waters, sneaker waves, a bizarre microclimate, or feel brave enough to wade into the water when they venture out.
Learning from our near comical constant coastal ill-preparedness all last year, we’re adding on an insulated jug and wool blanket this season as well, envisioning piping hot chocolates with sand dusted marshmallows being drunk as we huddle together on the beach this winter exploring the cold coast, the soft golden afternoon sun on our faces, jagged cliffs at our backs, eventually propelled home by the promise of a piping hot bath tub, turning to the ocean for one last glance of the day and a whispered “Goodnight, Pacific,” never completely certain if it’s the chilling wind or the beauty of this place whipping the tears from our eyes.