My experiences as a teenager growing up in Wisconsin were as far removed from the life I lead in Cambria today as Milwaukee is from the moon. Talk about shedding one layer of cheese-head skin and growing a more creative, coastal one.
Thousands of brutally cold Wisconsin mornings brought visions of palm trees and warm fresh breezes rushing through my head. Walking the mile or so up to Paul Green’s dairy farm on icy winter mornings, I dreamed of, fantasized and idealized the California experience.
As I stepped through snowdrifts in minus-10-degree weather, I conjured up vivid images of beaches, crashing waves, surfers, pretty girls in summer clothes, and stately palm trees swaying in balmy breezes.
I worked with two milking machines and 24 cows — Jerseys, Guernsey’s, and Holsteins. Before I attached suctions to the first cow’s udders, I tuned my transistor radio to a local top-40 station.
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Several windows in the old red barn were broken out, letting in chilly breezes. But as soon as a Jan & Dean or Beach Boys song came on, the barn warmed right up.
Never for a moment did I doubt that I would somehow get to California, to escape the long and brutal winters and to free myself from the preacher’s kid stigma I experienced in a small conservative town.
On those early frosty mornings, with every shovel of cow manure into the spreader at the far end of the stanchions, I knew it was my destiny to be delivered to the West Coast.
I completed the first phase of my California dreamin’ pilgrimage when our church youth group took a train trip from Wisconsin to West Covina in Orange County. It was a denominational conference linked to my dad’s church.
On the first night, the big brother of a new friend drove us over some coastal mountains to my long-sought nirvana — the Pacific Ocean. My first glimpse of the mythical waters was beyond wonderful — it was wildly electric.
The crest of every wave danced with a million amazing tiny lights! I stood awestruck in the sand. Each new thundering wave surging shoreward was capped with countless tiny sparkling lights. “California!” I recall shouting. “California!”
We stripped down and went skinny-dipping, a baptism of luminosity. When we jumped out of the ocean, those magical sparkling lights covered our bodies and blew my mind like it’d never been blown before.
I don’t recall if the big brother driver explained that we were experiencing the “red tide” or not, but it wouldn’t have meant much to me at that moment anyway.
I had discovered an enchanted ocean — alive with dazzling little lights. And during that week of heavy religious dogma and boring youth-related lectures, I probably didn’t hear a word that was spoken. My goals had been crystallized.
Years later, when I arrived in San Luis Obispo in my sports car, before locating an apartment I rented a motel room and waited for darkness to descend — so I could hurry out to Estero Bay with the top down to rediscover the ocean’s light show.
But there were no dazzling little lights being carried to shore on the crashing waves. No luminescence at all. The ocean was wonderfully loud and powerful, but the phytoplankton phenomenon that I had witnessed back in the day was nowhere to be seen.
Still, over the years I have become an aficionado of all things ocean. I am addicted to the salty aroma, the sheer power and ceaseless thunder, the whale spouts, dolphin acrobatics and pelican plunges — even the musty stench of decaying kelp on the beach has its charm.
Relaxing on the high sand bluffs at Leffingwell Landing (near the north parking lot) I find peace and perspective. Returning home to Skye Street, within earshot of the pounding surf, I am constantly cognizant of how blessed all of us are to live here.
I am forever fascinated with the fact that the restless preacher’s kid who milked cows in biting cold Wisconsin lives out his dream in the middle of a Monterey Pine forest, splashed by the Pacific, in a community with the same number of letters as Camelot.
E-mail freelance journalist and Cambrian columnist John FitzRandolph at email@example.com.