I first visited California in 2004, when I ran the Los Angeles Marathon. Thanks to the generosity of a friend, I was able to escape the bleak and frigid Upstate New York winter for more than a month before the marathon to finish my training in lovely Claremont. I saw the Pacific for the first time then and vowed someday to live closer to it.
But even after relocating to the San Joaquin Valley in 2009, I wouldn’t see the Pacific again for nearly five years. When an opportunity to visit the coast finally arose, I chose Montaña de Oro State Park in Los Osos as my destination. Getting a campsite in California’s state parks isn’t always easy, although I didn’t know that at the time. These parks are popular. And spectacular, as I would soon learn. The only site open at Montaña de Oro for my chosen dates was “environmental site 4,” one of four sites in the park that offer a pleasant hybrid of car camping and secluded roughing it.
My companion and I arrived late and had some difficulty figuring out where the site was and where to park. We eventually found the marker for the site and pulled the car tentatively off the road just beyond it, being careful to follow the instructions not to block the gate. Then we picked our way on foot in the darkness up the half-mile service road that led to the camping area. The late arrival had been hectic, and our gear-laden uphill climb that had the possibility of leading somewhere other than our intended destination raised a slight annoyance.
The service road narrowed into a trail through the chapparal and we pressed on, finally rounding a westerly bend that brought into view a little hut (the pit toilet) and, beyond that, a picnic table. This was it: e4. We strolled into the site and dropped our belongings on the table and then, downward focus on footing no longer needed, looked up.
A glorious autumn moon brightened a long stretch of rocky Pacific shoreline and cast a scintillating mångata that seemed to point right to the place we’d call home for the night. Bands of rainless clouds hanging above the water were brightened as well—day during night. Exquisite. Moñtana de Oro’s e4 was the most astonishing and breathtaking state park campsite I’d ever had the privilege of securing.
The clear night wouldn’t last. The Pacific’s characteristic autumn fog began rolling in soon after we finished eating our dinner, hastily prepared by headlamp. Our borrowed tent failed in the humidity, and despite my having pitched the shelter at home to gain familiarity with its workings, I lacked the patience for troubleshooting at the late hour, especially when the fog seemed likely to bring rain. I suggested we throw the tent on the ground, make up a bed with the sleeping pads and blankets we’d brought, and put the rainfly over us. So we did.
At some point during the night, I groggily heard my name being called. As I slowly became conscious and oriented to place and time, I heard my companion saying, “Look up.” The fog had departed, rolling back out to sea and leaving behind high clouds in the process of breaking up. Through the growing gaps in the overcast, a sky salted with stars appeared above us. I fumbled for my glasses and stared in childlike wonder at these heavenly bodies. Living in the city induces an amnesia of what lies nightly above us, of our celestial neighbors, of the fact that stars twinkle. They do! And now I remembered. I fell back asleep grateful and renewed.
A sunny morning roused us from our cowboy accommodations, and we spent the day exploring the jagged shoreline, taking photographs and marveling at wonders big and small. The boom of the surf, a natural tunnel eroded in a rocky cove, the bright explosion of an occasional poppy, the colors and textures of tidal creatures I’d never seen before.
Pure luck had brought me to this park, to that place overlooking the shore. But the timeless and powerful Pacific sent me home a changed woman, reminding me that my longing to return to California had been fulfilled and freshly re-instilling my memories and knowledge of the majesties of Earth.
By gods, we’ve got to cherish our planetary home, our only home — a home we will not flee for a destination with similar perfection and diversity. We must protect it. Defend it. By any means possible.
By all means necessary.