We first came to California in 1963 after three years at Northwestern, and moving cross-country to a new life changed everything for me. The North Bay climate returned me to the happily embodied life I’d had when I was a pre-school proto-pagan playing in the Indiana woods and fields. The magnitude of this hit me the day we moved into our first California apartment. Once we got the VW unloaded, I kicked off my shoes and went outside. The drive from Evanston IL had been a long grind, we’d just finished an intense three days of apartment-hunting, and I was frazzled. But it was a sunny September day and the concrete patio was smooth and warm. As a kid I’d always gone barefoot in the Indiana summers and wiggled my toes in the sandy beach at our summer home in Michigan. Then I grew up, and sidewalks locked me into shoes, but enough was enough. This was my home now and dammit, I wanted my bare feet on the ground. I wasn’t prepared for that first moment. It was like a strong electric shock: the soles of my feet tingled and a current shot up my spine. It was an intense sensation of belonging, of being welcomed home. California moved into my being and never left, even during the thirty-three years when we lived elsewhere.
Stanford was a whirlwind schedule for both of us, but on weekends we could spend time at some of the relatively unpopulated beaches like San Gregorio and Pescadero, and I developed a ritual picnic menu: a plastic bag of chicken legs in teriyaki marinade, another bag of juicy figs, a chunk of Muenster cheese and a bottle of semi-dry ruby port.
The narrow winding road wound up and down the hills to the coast, and I loved the way I could make the VW dance on the curves. Turning south along the coast we’d pick our beach and park. I’d take the food sack in one hand and my sandals in the other and try not to yip at the sharp pleasure of being barefoot in the soft white sand. Conrad carried rolled beach towels and tatami mats, the bag of charcoal and a metal rack; a short walk south along the high bluffs usually gave us a place to ourselves in one of the sheltered coves among the huge rocks. We had swimsuits on under our clothes, but sometimes it was secluded enough to get naked.
Broiling the chicken didn’t require constant attention. I patrolled the waterline looking for treasures, and when I was sitting at the fire I could watch the hawks riding the updrafts. Sometimes I could count to a hundred before a wing moved. It was quiet, the air smelled like salt and seaweeds, the sun was gentle and my job at the orthodontist’s office was a million miles away. The barefoot bond I’d felt on my first day outside our California apartment was now humming through my whole body. I hadn’t felt so completely alive since my pre-school days wandering solo in woods and fields. I was home in my skin again.
Conrad’s first teaching job was in South Carolina. Leaving was hard for both of us, but for me it was a piercing pain. I’d bonded fast and hard to California, and in these three years the bond had only deepened. Working for the orthodontist in San Carlos, I’d drive home every day with the intoxicating colors of sunset over my right shoulder behind the sharp silhouette of the hills. When I got home, I could walk barefoot on the soft dusty streets of our home neighborhood. As we were about to leave California a spontaneous song came to me, “San Gregorio Sands.” It was my celebration and farewell to that special place.
the last sweet drops of the tangerine sun
trickle down, and the surf is tangerine foam
San Gregorio sands are honey and gold
and the fog is waiting till we’ve gone on home
perfect day — there’s a hawk there playing
where the warm air climbs up the rocky cliff
he can stay there floating forever
like a daydream balanced on the point of “if”
if I had my way, that tangerine sun
would stay floating right there like the lazy hawk
and San Gregorio sands would always be warm
for an hour of love and a barefoot walk
now the road is twisty and the summer is hot
our bags are packed and we’re ready to go
there’s not much time but we’ll take what we’ve got
when San Gregorio calls we don’t say no
perfect day, and it’s almost over
but there’s two more sips of the ruby wine
we can stay for five more minutes
watching gulls play hopscotch at the water line
the sun is down, it’s past time to go
I’ll be back some day but I don’t know when
San Gregorio sands will be honey and gold
and l’ll shed my shoes and be home again.