Dispatch from Ocean Beach.1
I wondered if they’d missed the turnoff to Santa Monica. The two young women, skin the color once known in the crayon box as Burnt Sienna, pinned down their towels with a beach bag bursting with water bottles and lotions. Their bikinis offered little protection against the windblown sand that nipped at their skin like biting ants. They giggled and shivered. Too late they’d learned one of Ocean Beach’s first lessons. With a few annual exceptions, this three-mile stretch of sand is not for sunbathers. It’s for thinkers, walkers, runners, artists, surfers, fisher folk, and dogs, not to mention the omnipresent birds of various tribes.
If the grid-like Avenues that border Ocean Beach are San Francisco’s residential stepchildren, Ocean Beach itself is its orphan. True, there’s heavy traffic on warm days in September and October, and everything from IMPEACH spell-outs to the Corgi-Fest attract crowds and attention. And there’s civic history. The Cliff House. Playland at the Beach. The Sutro Baths and Land’s End. But Ocean Beach is not loved to death every day like Fisherman’s Wharf or Lombard Street, and for those who live close enough to consider it ours, we like it that way. The current pandemic has only tightened this embrace.
It’s no surprise that when San Francisco closed down, Ocean Beach got busy — at least until the city closed the parking lots. When your world shrinks, the ocean calls. Its vastness is a balm for our petty concerns and its power a reminder of who’s in charge. But a busy beach, trashed by strangers who leave behind their plastic salad containers and water bottles from Safeway, obscures the real beach locals know well. And on quiet mornings, when the tide recedes, you find us treading the sand, some of which began as volcanic rock in the Sierra. Eroded and swept into rivers, the sediment passes through the Bay and out to sea, only to be pushed back onto the shore where San Francisco stops. There’s a poetic unity in this natural recycling. Nothing ends. It only changes.
Endings are also part of Ocean Beach’s noir appeal. At the interface between ocean and land, the beach makes climate change and its consequences for humanity seem less abstract. The waves are loud. The water freezing. The rip currents treacherous. The drownings frequent. No matter how beautiful the scene, you must stay alert. There’s something raw and unforgiving in the air, even as the sandpipers skitter back and forth like an amphetamine-addled dance troupe.
There’s also inspiration. You see things. The stranded log that resembles a sea serpent. The message hidden in graffiti.
You make things. Sculptures of seaweed and driftwood pop up mysteriously. They collapse. They morph.
You accept the inevitable. Sand art, love notes, and castles are all fleeting. The waves erase them and dare you to start anew. And you do.
For locals, Ocean Beach is a place of wonder: It’s both meditative and visceral. The combination makes you think. And once inside your brain, the beach keeps calling you back. There’s only one hitch. Don’t forget to wear a sweatshirt.