Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Price of Flight

My friend Tim, the doctor says that the flight from the East Coast to San Francisco is enough travel and perhaps too much. The world, he says, is running all over itself and it’s sometimes a shock to the system. But there is a stretch of Northern California beach that I must visit at least once a year. I have to fly and I have to drive north to get there.

I have driven enough, especially in Florida where pastel precludes hurricane and a good number of people settle because there are no hills where anyone can get a good shot at them. Half the time I’m in cardiac arrest just trying to exit I-95.

I rent a car in San Francisco. By the time I get to the clerk I change my mind. I tell the agent to cancel my reservation, then in a miracle of mental reprieve, I jump back in line (the guy with the Panama hat and the cigar crammed in his craw casts me a sidelong glance) and the agent tells me to wait just a second. I wait. I get the car. I sit in the car. I am afraid to drive. I want to walk.

At Point Reyes Station I buy some Calistoga water. I see they have barbecued oysters cooking on a grill outside the supermarket; Pacific oysters that for me are best eaten cooked. Raw they are too slippery and the texture. Unlike the Blue Point that is thin and solid, these are soft and hard to get down. I eat four juicy oysters with a plastic fork. The man who sells oysters wears a white tee-shirt that says,” Love" in faded letters. His upper teeth are large.

The oysters set the mood. I’m in the familiar. The air and the food and the sea beyond fit well. I drive up the winding road to the eucalyptus and the redwoods, to the turns and shallows that dip to turns that make my heart sing, “Let go.” I reach the peak above the coast. Below, as far as I can see Limantour Spit and the bigger than big California coast line stretches before me. I am humbled and awed. I coast down letting the car switch lanes with the contour of the road like some wild natural roller coaster. I park.

I take out my soft blue denim jacket. I wear the black sweatshirt and Levis, the white sneakers and polo hat for the sun. The colder weather is a mild change for me although I lived in Northern California for many years. I hike down the trail to the beach. To my left along the flats, the marshland is quiet. The reflection of the day casts darkness about the ducks flitting and dipping bills in the water. I walk down to a small split in the trail and turn right to a path behind the dunes. I see a sparrow, a pile of raccoon dung and no rabbits. Far to my right in the inland bay, across a plain of low dunes, I spot a flock of Canadian Geese. Beyond the geese I see a great blue heron alone just off shore.

After a mile or so, the path runs to soft sand and I climb the lip to the magnificent rolling sea and the ever roar of tide. Plover scurry and sweep the sand. I must walk slowly along the hard sand to keep them from flight. The plovers line up in little herds and sometimes when I pass, they scurry into sweeping meadows of plovers. I walk northwest along the sand with the dunes to my right. Beyond the dunes I see the white cliffs where two figures on horses ride down the south ridge..

The fog arrives early today and I begin to feel refreshed, yet uneasy and unsure of myself. Walking northwest along the empty beach, I scan the far cliffs for a relative bearing to tell me where my special place in the dunes lies. I climb the narrow stretch of sand that becomes the dune and soon I see the open space in the dune grass lying like a tongue. I climb the tongue. I see a two pieces of driftwood with a round stone tucked in a hole between them. I am home again.

I sit and stare at the sea. Months of work and hurry have taken their toll. I hear the sea run on. A California gull with the red tipped beak darts, turns and soars. I strip to my black shorts and lie back in the dunes and close my eyes. My brain rushes on and on for what seems like hours and hours.

The sea sweeps in and over and beyond my thoughts. I sit up and wait. My mind is clearing. I dress, climb down from the dunes and walk north toward the end of the spit where the sea spits toward the back bay. I expect to see the gargantuan elephant seals or sea lions raise their heads to inspect me; to hold me in tight watch. Instead, I see the sea lions are pelicans. I hear sharp billed terns squawk.

They know I am coming. I slow down so as not to disturb them. The pelicans and the gulls ruffle and arch and snoot and shake themselves off and wallow in sand. Brown pelicans sleep with heads in wings. Some preen. Some yawn big pelican yawns with beaks raised to the sky like great trumpets or wild flowers opening. To my left, a covey of dark Hermann’s gulls stick close to the water. I search the dark birds for a Hermann’s gull with a red breeding beak More brown pelicans and aha! Far to the right of the spit, where the bay eases into a narrow inlet, I see a flock of giant white pelicans, brown pelicans, California and western gulls, occasional black mud hens and swooping terns.

The pelicans flap their wings. I walk slowly. Some run. A sweep of pelicans rise and flow out over the water and swing back around. Some settle where; some keep flying. I walk closer. The trick is to walk slowly. Some of the birds still fly up, but most just walk slowly at safe distance.

I stand in an arc of pelicans. They go about their business. I flap my arms. I say, “Pelicans this is it. If you are looking for a heaven, it is not up and it is not after; it is here and it is our job to keep this balance.”

The fog is closes in. The terns shoot back and forth. A second year California gull stands a few feet away in brown, gray body, aware but seemingly ok with my being there.. I flap my arms again. We are all one here. What’s the rush?

We humans jump from one thing to another while the credits run up the right side of the TV sets and the new show bangs the right side of the screen. We’re one big video game leaping to the next button. Car ads spin the cars until you think you’re batty. Oh, and the cell phones? The pelicans have no cell phones and they are fine.

I flap my wings and a few pelicans flap but not at, or with me. Soon I must leave these beautiful birds in this fog. Then I do.

Back along the beach I keep a slow pace. It’s getting late. A speck coming toward me becomes a short woman with black hair and bare feet. She strides by and we smile, then she is gone in fog. I walk on looking for the three trees that tell me I’m almost there and then I’m there. I climb the sand and look back.

Four harbor seals emerge from the surf. A string of brown pelicans sweep over them and fly south. I feel blessed and now I must walk along the hard path past the marsh where it is darker than before and so still. Brown ducks. Shadows of ducks. I watch the reeds and the grasses become darker shadows. The ducks grow dim in the last light. I thank everyone and walk back to my car.