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May 20, 2024

Santa Cruzin'

By Sand Pilarski

Part Two of a Three Part Series

Morning in Santa Cruz is muffled. The marine layer, the blanket of fog that rolls in to shroud every angle of the city, still holds its position and dampens and chills and quiets everything. At dawn, few people brave the beach, the traffic is almost non-existent, and the air is COLD. The light jackets I had packed are NOT enough. We put on extra T-shirts and pajama tops under the jackets and shiver our way beneath the sodden gray fog that hovers over us, and set out to the Municipal Wharf to see if there is a restaurant out there open for breakfast. Gilda's is, and in we go to order a pancake combo and corned beef hash and eggs.

We'd just ordered, when the cook appears and gets on the front desk phone."Yes,"he says,"I need to report what appears to be a dead body floating in the water. No, not swimming, just floating, face down."

A number of customers dive for the windows to see if this is some kind of joke. Whoa, there is something in the water. A clever waitress produces a pair of binoculars. Yes, several people agree, that's a body, all right.

I hear a man in the booth behind me say,"Yeah, it's a cadaver. How many dead people have I found along the shore in the past ten years? Four?"

A couple seated at a window booth avow that they had seen the body some minutes earlier, while it was still alive, swimming in the cold water as a few hardy souls do.

What bugs me as I begin my breakfast is the matter-of-fact tone the cook used to call in the alert. Does this happen often? No one is overly exercised by the incident. The paramedics and police, the firemen and the harbor rescue boat all arrive; a rescuer on a surfboard rides the gentle swells of the waves beside the body, keeping watch until all is ready to pull the body aboard the sturdy little boat. Is this the price of a seaside lifestyle, seeing people pit themselves against the ocean, and lose?

Yet, commending the unfortunate swimmer's soul to God, we pitch into breakfast with all the verve of the living, and find that Gilda's is a terrific breakfast place."Eggs Over Medium"is seemingly a difficult order to fill at most restaurants, but Gilda's fills the order to perfection. Lots of good hash browns, and the corned beef hash is pretty darn good. Service is prompt, courteous, and attentive. We'll be back here for breakfast again tomorrow, you bet, hopefully with no more accidents.

West Cliffs of Santa Cruz

By the time we reach the landward anchor of the pier, we hear people discussing the dead swimmer among themselves. The story is now that someone was doing a nude morning swim and had a heart attack. Funny, the people with the binoculars at the restaurant saw a white t-shirt and navy trunks. We continue on our way to work off the breakfast and shock: the walk of West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz.

Keep an ear out for joggers and bicyclists. West Cliff Drive has a wide sidewalk that runs from the Boardwalk with its roller coasters and hotdogs and arcades all the way to Natural Bridges National Park, where the rock is eroded into arches and polished tidal pools by the surf. I can't say for sure the milage, but the walk will take a good three to four hours there and back again. The cliffs are magnificent, waves dashing against them, and surfers paddle out to try to catch an interesting swell. The kelp beds make a murky mass in the calmer parts of the surface of the sea, and in a different season we'd be seeing sea lions and sea otters frolicking there. Mating season now, and the beasts are elsewhere, partying with their buddies.

Surfer paddles past kelp beds

At various points along the walk, stairs climb down the cliffs to end above the water, for surfers to set off on their adventures. In one of the many beautiful gardens along the walk, a tribute to surfers stands above the cliffs. Across the street from the walk, some of the priciest real estate in California struts its stuff with magnificent views and inspired gardens. Pocket beaches can be seen at the bottom of the cliffs; a couple of them have been designated"Dog Beaches"-- that means that you can take your dog to play in the surf, so long as you clean up after the dog if he/she has to go. From sunrise to 10 am, and then from 4 pm until sunset, dogs can even be off leash.We stopped to watch a bunch of dogs and their owners playing on the beach. We had to laugh at the city's great solution...the last time we made this walk, our eyes were seared by nude men on the very same beach. No, they didn't strike anyone as serious nudists...more like serious exposers. Well, they ain't doing that with a hundred dogs frolicking back and forth, not no mo'.

After the four-hour walk, we were ready to flop on the warm sand of the beach and doze and talk, but the marine layer only broke for about five minutes to make us warm. Lying flat on the sand was tolerable, but sitting up? Brr. Snuggled into the blanket on the sand, we watched brave kids romping in the gentle little surf, and sailboats moving back and forth in the Bay. The screams of the roller coaster riders up on the boardwalk have a predictable rhythm, and music from the arcade forms a background beat for the beach volleyball tournament going on. What a great place to just -- be.

Plantings along West Cliff Trail

Before nightfall, we drove to a local store and bought heavy sweatshirts with hoods. And then, as the evening drew to a close, we sat out once again to listen to the ocean and really awful karaoke from a club down the street. What is it about Santa Cruz that makes it so alluring? The air is temperate, rarely too hot or too cold, and the coastline is beautiful; but I think that much of the charm is because of the sheltering weather of Santa Cruz Bay within the larger Monterey Bay. More mellow than other west coast towns, to be sure. And then there's the isolation, too: Santa Cruz is reachable only by winding roads through the mountain from the north, or along the coast on Route 1 from the south. If you go to Santa Cruz, you really have to want to; the town is never just a convenient stopover.

For us, the trip has been a pleasant retreat from everyday life, a time for pondering life, and death; for letting deadline-nerves dissipate, for letting the misty fog cool our heated Valley heads. Memories of Santa Cruz, as gentle as a sweet summer dream.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2002-08-03
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