Pescadero State Beach
From the asphalt arteries of the San Francisco Peninsula, to the very edge of America, a narrow ribbon of road runs. Over the coast range and through redwood groves we ride the hairpin turns of a shoulderless, muddy path to find the salt-crusted and sea-battered granite boundary of the country. We ride with baby in tow, bringing him to open his infant eyes for the first time upon that rolling tempest we call the Pacific. Melville’s Ishmael called gazing upon this ocean the answer to the long supplication of his youth; how wonderful it would be to live as a child within spitting distance of the waves. So we came upon Pescadero (the place to fish in Spanish) to spend a few moments on its mussel-tiled rock garden of a beach to watch the waves.
I am captivated by the idea of the coasts as a visible boundary to the United States. Northern and southern borders are marked by shabby fences and congested customs stations, one can pass from state to state with little more than a colorful road sign, yet here on the strand the whole edifice of a nation ends. I say “ends” with special reference to the West coast. This coast feels like a period on the end of the American sentence. Hawai’i rides the waves some few thousand miles over the surf, but it is these few feet of sand and stone between Pacific Coast Highway 1 and the briny lip of the rising tide that most dramatically mark the end of the country for me.
Make no mistake, on the Central California Coast (and just about every point north and south), our great country ends with a bang, not a whisper. To crest the coast range and come into late afternoon sunlight bathing cows grazing in strawberry- and mustard-painted pastures, to see the tempest send massive breakers onto the outer shoals of Pescadero is an experience to which I always look forward.
Beautiful in all light.
When first I moved here and began to photograph the coast, I headed out hoping for clear skies and sunsets. I’ve come now to hope for thick marine layers moving on shore at low tide. I’ve come to expect overcast skies and great heaving walls of brine. Learning to make stunning images in what some might call “ordinary” light is a topic for a coming essay, but for now let us suffice it to say that the Pacific seems anything but to me. Serene, amber, brilliant sunsets are not associative with the sea for me. Instead I think of the Pacific as the Kraken disembodied. Clawing, biting, gnawing it comes with tendrils, tearing at stone, gasping for the dry Earth. Even at low tide it salivates in foaming breakers upon the land. To create a photograph of an idillic ocean, rolling beneath a crimson sunset just wouldn’t be as fun.
I climbed around outcroppings and scuttled over the stones, buried in the sand, to make a few images of the tide pools. The surf has ground at these few stone shelves over the eons, removing the softer rock and leaving irregular domes of granite studding the beach behind. In the brooding light, covered as they are by slick, black matts of seaweeds and anemone, they look like the cobbles of some submarine street revealed for a moment by the low tide.
Further north along the beach and there’s a break from the cliffs, where the large outcroppings that lie further into the surf protect the shore. Here the rolling waves barely stir the sand. I stood along this peaceful stretch for some time, letting the occasional surge soak me from the knees down, so as to get an image of a harbor seal, enjoying a late-afternoon nap on his perch amongst the storm.
North of that serene bit of beach, the gray, rocky shoulder blades of California push back out from the sand and into the sea. A bit of scrambling affords some wonderful views of gulls and other foal scouring the landscape for food. Occasionally, if one is still, he can observe the birds wrestle mussels from the rocks and climb into the sea-spray on sorties to dash them upon the razor-like shoreline, the sharp staccato of shellfish on the granite and the hiss of the listing waves upon the shore the only sounds to break the silence. The place to fish indeed.