The Beating Heart of California
by Stephen Page
The cars shined like fools gold on the rugged jawline of cliffs, a silver and gold reminder
of the world I had left behind. For thousands of tourists each year, the highway through Big Sur
is a tenuous line, a ribbon of compromise between the hard edged Santa Lucia’s, and the
abrupt edge of the sea. Here, the scenic highway marks the edge of California, the farthest
reaches of America’s percieved manifest destiny. Each day, tourists drive this stretch, snapping
pictures of the Bixby Bridge, McWay Falls, and other vistas, unaware of the greater forces at
work, forces that one cannot possibly grasp from the comfort of their car. Below the winding
yellow lines and instagram snapshots, California’s coastline meets the Pacific Ocean in a
collision of mountain and sea. Below the road, great cosmic booms echo off the cliffs and caves,
energy seeming to scream “even the greatest republics will fall in the hopelessness of time”.
Seated on my fifteen foot kayak, the Abalone Darling, I stared up at the cars and people
on the cliffs and breathed a contented sigh of relief. I was 450 miles into an 840 mile, solo kayak
trip of the California coast, and solitude had become my best friend. The first twenty days in
Northern California I relied on colonies of sea lions for raucous entertainment, and the voices of
seabirds to roust me from my sleeping bag. Now rafts of otters and the crackling of ghost shrimp
in the water below me were my only company.
I knew this coast well. This was where I had learned to dive and hunt for my own food,
and where the land left me emblazoned with the red tattoos of poison oak. I knew this coast,
and knew that once I was tucked away beneath its vertical cliffs, below the framed photos of
passing tourists, I would truly be alone. I could never escape the threat of landslides, or the pull
of the ocean, but at least I was free of the greatest danger of all, that of mankind.
Paddling south across the syrupy surface, the land and cliffs rise and fall in stunning
relief, hemming me between a world of rock and water. As I pass ravines cut down through the
land, the smells of redwood and dry grass mix with the overpowering smell of the sea. Thick
strands of kelp reach up towards my kayak from below, like long algic fingers looking to ensnare
me in their grip. I paddle on in silence, floating on a division of bright sky and the dark green
underworld. Hours drift by, and my mind does not conjure up a collection of thoughts, but is
rather transfixed on the world laid out before me. I paddle and rest, and paddle, and the cliffs
rise and fall like stark reminders of the infinitely deliberate powers of erosion.
I enter the cove at McWay Falls during golden hour. Light filters over the cobalt water
and fills it with a yellow glow. Sentries of bull kelp guard the small entrance, and I weave
through their bobbing heads to enter. The cliffs curve around a small island at the center of the
cove, forming a rough circle around the rock navel. Pink amaryllis blankets the slopes around
me, and gnarled boughs of Monterey cypress lean over the water, guardians of a bygone age.
The beach glistens with course, granitic grains, that hiss with the retreat of each wave. On the
south side of the cove, a spring gushes over an overhanging cliff, a fountain of youth burning
white in the evening light. Its sound mixes with the rush of the waves, and the entire cove
seems to hum with energy.
I lean over the side of my kayak and hold onto a strand of bull kelp, rooting myself to the
seafloor below me. A warm breeze filters through the curved branches of the trees, and around
the walls of the cove. No rotting kelp, no acrid bird poop, no smell of humans or gasoline, just
the resinous cypress, and the sea air.
A single gull enters the cove, drawn into the trance. It does one circle of the cliffs, the
beach, the waterfall, and then heads south. A feather floats on the surface next to me, the brush
strokes of wind yet to decide what to do with it. I move up and down with each swell, surrounded
by life and stillness, kelp and flower, land and sea, fresh and salt. The waves that pass
underneath me do not break, but simply collapse onto shore as if in compromise with the land. I
look out of the cove and the sun is approaching the horizon line, glowing through the opaque
green and yellow blades of bull kelp.
I land my kayak.
Despite the stir of adventure that wants me to explore the beach, I keep my kayak and
my feet below the high tide line. With no way to hike down, and a sixteen mile paddle as the
only other alternative, this cove is safe from the ravaged destiny that beauty and tourist
popularity naturally lead to. Even footprints feel like a stain in this sacred place.
Walking along the tide line, I approach the waterfall. The roar fills my ears, and the water
vibrates with intensity. There is a small nook behind the waterfall where I stand and observe my
surroundings. The stream cascades from seventy feet above me, and pulverizes the sand at my
feet, doing its best to help the sea turn rock into sand. Every ten seconds a wall of whitewater
collapses onto the beach and rushes to greet the freshwater in a fierce collision of worlds. The
wave moves around the funnel of water like its a pillar, a tireless mass that it will never conquer.
Perhaps the whole cove will one day collapse into the sea. The tourist overlook will go
first, and then the highway, mercilessly battered by tireless erosion. But the waterfall will always
thunder from its height, and the waves will always be there to greet it, the twin sisters, sea and
stream, forever intertwined. McWay Falls is a place where, for this moment in geologic time, the
sea has met its match. I stand witness to the forces, neither side giving an inch, and for a
fleeting moment the sunset catches the falling water and turns it red.
With a heavy heart I pull myself away, and return to my kayak. I launch back out into the
circle of the cove, paddling around the navel rock in the center. I rise and fall with the swells,
and turn to gaze upon the scene one more time. I look at the beach, the bluffs, the cypress, the
kelp, the flowers, the waterfall. I watch a wave erase my footprints as the tide fills in. It is late,
and the tourists at the overlook have gone home. As I leave the cove I know the waterfall will
keep raging. I know the waves will keep breathing. I know that the kelp will hold fast, and the
cypress will bend, but not break. In this cove there is the past. In this cove there is hope for the
future; the steady beating heart of California.