It is early in the season and my night walks have not yet become habitual. This is the first time on one of those walks that I am not alone. We are walking and the fog is rolling in, covering the stars slowly like a blanket being pulled over bed sheets. It feels like the world is moving very fast. Leading up to camp there is a large hill and at the base of that hill is Rancho Marino, a private gated property that snakes up the coast and hugs the perimeter of camp. The fence taunts me daily. A place of Monterey pine and coastal oaks and scrubby sage. A place I cannot go.
We reach the bottom of the hill and come to a stop at the entrance gate to Rancho Marino.
Do you see that? What is that?
In a perfect arc over the gate is a ribbon of white.
I try to explain it. A strange refraction of distant headlights? A distortion of moonlight? I am utterly unsure.
It’s a moonbow, a lunar rainbow, he tells me.
A moonbow. A moonbow. I didn’t know such things existed. And how wonderful is that? To find something blindly, to be wholly surprised and overcome with emotion, to stumble upon something magnificent and be struck dumb with the mystery of it. The internet has made so much knowable these days, and although I love all that access, sometimes I just want to sit and know nothing and experience the world in a bright, alien sense, observing and feeling with no name for anything, just sensation, just waves of wonderment.
The tide is low, so three of us go to explore the sea caves at San Simeon. We wander along the beach and do our best to avoid the male elephant seal patrolling the water. Even at low tide, only a couple caves are accessible by foot. They are filled with ochre stars and mussels and sea anemones with the vibrancy of highlighters. The caves remind of me of The Grotto in Iowa, which is one of the craziest comparisons I’ve ever made.
We go hiking and climb down the bluffs and scavenge for gumboot chitons. I’d never heard of chitons before I moved to California, which just goes to show you how quickly life can change. There are different types of chitons, but gumboot chitons are reddish/orange, large, and vaguely resemble a quartered cantaloupe crossed with a maxi pad. Chitons have a fossil record dating back 400 million years, and it is not difficult to imagine them stuck to the side of a rock as a Diplodocus nibbles nearby trees. We find three of them. I name the last one Henrietta.
We find more than just gumboot chitons, though. We find dungeness crabs and a brittle sea star and a carpet of baby sea anemone that could easily be mistaken for lichen. We walk and wander. We separate. We join back together.
Nothing much happens. There is no ah-ha moment when the sun shines directly on us and our thoughts and dreams are realized. We explore and find stuff and it is one of those perfect afternoons because the whole thing is so sweetly mild, so unassuming.
The sun is disappearing as we make our way back along the beach, the sky turning that late afternoon, stuffed-cotton gray. We pass the elephant seals and a couple spooning on the beach, and then when we are almost back to the car, we take off our shirts and run into the ocean.
Five of us are spending the weekend at Pinnacles National Park. The hikes have been wonderful, winding through the rock and tenacious trees, leading us up near the nesting condors who swoop by overhead. We are on our last hike before heading out, and this one involves a cave.
The cave isn’t much. Arrows are neatly spray painted for directions. Railings line the steeper sections. The dark portion takes, at most, fifteen minutes.
But being in that darkness, headlamp on, makes me feel so many things and I’m humming with the vibrancy of it all. Because I’ve spent time in caves before and honestly some of those memories are my most cherished. Moments that ride the line of fear and adventure. Weekends spent muddy and slightly drunk and full of laughter.
Caving makes me think of Megan. She was there the last time I legitimately went caving. It was spring break of my senior year in college. I was 22. I think about her often, which is surprising because I didn’t really know her. But I think she changed my life. And now I’m older than she will ever be and that makes me feel, I don’t know, the way an oak tree feels during twilight, dreaming of rain.
We are at Harmony Headlands to see the sunset. The main trail takes you straight to the ocean, but if you cut south and head straight up the hill, the path will take you to the bluffs overlooking the water. It is my first time here, and I am wide-eyed and eager.
What surprises me most about California is how expansive the land is. How, once you climb to the top of the hill, it is you and the cows and the ocean and the tiny town far away but no one else for miles and miles and miles. In a state of 39 million, it is wild how easy it is to feel alone. Alone in that vast and freeing sense. …and my thoughts fly off to a province/ made of one enormous sky / and about a million empty branches, wrote Billy Collins. That’s how the Californian hills make me feel.
Sunset is not looking very promising. Clouds blanket the horizon, sometimes so thickly you cannot even see the ocean. We sit and watch and wait, hopes helium high.
And it’s spectacular. The sun bursts through the clouds at sporadic intervals, illuminating a narrow corridor of ocean, turning it a hazy tangerine. The clouds disperse the light making the sky look as if it were painted from watercolor—everything bleeding and blending and seeping together, orange to pink to blue.
And then the lower clouds clear and the ocean is bare and everything is neatly stacked—ocean, clouds, sky—and the surrounding hills blush with sunset and ohmyohmy what is this feeling that is ballooning in my chest? This swell of what—happiness? hope? childhood? It is too much and not enough and the vastness of the land swallows me, and to end on yet another quote because all I’m made of is words and honey….you almost believe you could start again. And an intense love rushes to your heart, and hope. It’s unendurable, unendurable (Franz Wright).
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