California sunshine: Part 1

Rumor has it that I missed a beautiful pair of days in Portland last weekend, but since I was in the warmth of California, I really don’t mind. There were sunshine and temperatures hovering around 80 degrees. There also were family, flowers, marine mammals, beaches, hiking trails, and the freedom of time spent away from work.

It began in San Jose—a city that I left as soon as I retrieved my rental car at the airport. No offense, San Jose, but you weren’t a draw this time. Before the plane touched down I saw San Francisco and longed to go there for a visit, but my itinerary required that I head south. My travel itineraries tend not to be very detailed. The only plan for Friday was to see Santa Cruz, then make it to my aunt’s house in Salinas by the time she got home from work. I hadn’t been to Santa Cruz since I was about ten years old, and then it was only to visit the Boardwalk.

The town appeared to be just waking up when I arrived at 9:30 that morning. With my little red car parked at a meter I walked around aimlessly, taking pictures while the morning light was still active, and eventually found a place to eat brunch. It was a vegetarian restaurant that had just opened for the day. After perusing the menu I decided to have my first experience with soy bacon. I’ve eaten other vegetarian “meat” products before, and generally they’re fine, but the “bacon” in my Fakin Omelet was strange and barely tolerable. I devoured everything else and left a small pile of crispy soy squares on the plate.

 

Saturn Cafe

Saturn Cafe

When I was planning this trip I had actually hoped to spend most of my time on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, exploring parks and hiking areas. It turned out that my Northern California map didn’t have a detailed view of the area, so I was a little bit lost, even within the small city. Even if I weren’t too stubborn to ask for directions, it would have been hard to ask a local where to go when I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. I attempted to follow the signs directing me to beaches and the Boardwalk. For a moment I was crazy enough to think that going to the Boardwalk itself would be a fun idea, but I quickly changed my mind after getting stuck in traffic near the amusement park. Unsure of how to get out of that mess, I worried that I would be forced to turn into the parking lot and pay some extravagant fee. Of course, the escape route became clear soon enough. I managed to commit a faux pas by blocking an intersection while waiting to turn left, not realizing that cars from the right were able to turn onto my street—surprisingly, that was the only time I got honked at while driving in Santa Cruz. Gratefully, I left the Boardwalk area without hitting any cars or running over any children in swimsuits.

If the town hadn’t been awake when I first got there, it certainly was now. The day was warming up and the sky was cloudlessly blue. After driving in circles for another ten minutes or so, I was finally able to park next to the crowded Municipal Wharf and obtain a dollar’s worth of quarters for the meter from a convenience store . I crossed a busy street and ventured toward the pier. Over the water it was breezy enough that my sweater came in handy. A short while later, stepping off the pier and onto a bright yellow beach, I felt a little dowdy in my ensemble. Most people were in shorts or bathing suits. I had packed as lightly as possible and brought long pants, one short-sleeved shirt and several long-sleeved tops. No sunscreen, either, thanks to the TSA rules about carry-on liquids.

I trudged across the sand, passing kids and teenagers and sunbathers and shirtless volleyball players. On the other side of the pier were groups of surfers; on this side, there were sailboats and people wading close to shore. Everything was sunbleached and colorful, particularly the towers and flags rising from the Boardwalk. I recognized the Big Dipper roller coaster, which probably used to be the tallest thing at the park but has been surpassed by a new ride: one of those towers that transports you slowly to the top, then drops you. I don’t know how long ago that was put in, or even how long the Boardwalk has been around, but the new addition certainly seems more modern and intrusive compared to the rest of the park.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

With a few minutes left on the meter I walked along the palm-tree-lined street. An old set of railroad tracks ran down the middle. Vehicular traffic was one-way and there was a well used bike lane. I noticed two themes among the businesses of Santa Cruz: surfing and pizza. This is a place where California stereotypes are alive. The same thought crossed my mind later in the afternoon, as I sat on a sidewalk bench eating frozen yogurt and watching blond boys in board shorts. There was a hint of the vibe I had felt in Kona, Hawaii, where the lifestyle is laid-back and centered on the ocean. One of many differences, I’m sure, is that Santa Cruz depends less heavily on revenues from tourism and recreation. I really don’t know much about the town, but since it is so close to the Silicon Valley I’d bet there’s some wealth there.

A friend informed me that there were free public parking garages downtown, so I found my way back to that area and spent a couple of peaceful hours walking the streets. The downtown district is quite pretty and well maintained. As far as I could tell it consisted of two main avenues, each eight or ten blocks long. I bought a magazine from an independent bookstore and enjoyed it in tandem with the aforementioned frozen yogurt. When I got restless, I picked up a tall glass of iced tea for the road and got back in my rental car.

Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz

Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz

I vaguely remembered how I’d gotten into town in the first place, and I thought it should be easy to find a way out: drive away from the ocean until I hit Highway One. I think I had the right idea, but my execution was sloppy. The signs that were supposed to help me find the highway didn’t do their jobs, either. A very nice lady in the Safeway parking lot gave me proper directions. It was about 3:30, and the freeway was just as crowded as the city streets were. Traffic started to unclog a few miles outside of town, and by that time it felt so good to be driving freely again that I bypassed almost every turnoff for a beach or vista point. The one vista point for which I stopped didn’t have an ocean view, but I was happy to see a small lizard on the stone ledge.

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