Ocean Beach

Tuesday morning under a leaden sky rain drummed against the windshield, mingling with the waves rolling in beyond the break wall. In our apartment sat a blow-up mattress, two folding lawn chairs, and little else. There was so much to do—a refrigerator to fill; pots, pans, and plates to buy; and of course, jobs to find. Instead we got coffee and went to the beach, joining the few soggy cars dozing quietly in the parking lot. As I watched the rain, anxiety swelled and receded in my chest, occasionally spilling its frigid waters into my heart and binding up my breath in a furious, foaming gyre. I reclined my seat and looked up through the passenger window at squinting seagulls fighting against the wind.

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Days earlier, hours off the plane, we drove by as the sun hovered low over the water. I ran out of the car, a chill and rough wind pelting sand against my face. In the salt-vapor distance, a laden cargo ship slipped off the horizon. A beached jelly glistened near the wave-tamped sand. This was the wild, open ocean. Its bigness socked me in my gut and filled me with a pulsing, primordial excitement.

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In a city where nature dresses the seasons with subtlety, the rhythms of Ocean Beach set a cadence of seasonal familiarity for me. Curling slate-blue waves in the pale morning; thick, molten gold in the evening. Winking crab boats in the pre-dawn winter; magenta and yellow blooms bursting through beach scrub in springtime. When the tide hugs the waves close, I go running on the surf-packed sand amidst abandoned sand dollars and seagull-pecked crab limbs. Dogs romp in the waves and chase balls lobbed across the wide stretch of beach by their scarf- and sweatshirt-swaddled owners.

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No matter the season, Ocean Beach demands sartorial deference from its visitors. The impulse inspired by warm-weather beaches to shed clothing is curbed here by the nearly constant presence of the chill wind collected over the open Pacific and deposited in hair-tangling gusts across the beach. Even in summer the surfers dipping and bobbing with the swells are encased in wetsuits. It always thrills me to watch their defiance of nature as they pop up from the water, bending the waves to the will of their board. Of course, nature doesn’t enjoy being upstaged, so with a giddy surge she gamely nips at surfers’ heels, often gobbling them up in a churn of swirling foam. The waves of Ocean Beach are rough and not easily tamed.

The power of nature is always keenly present. Most of the time it hovers on the edges—weathered signs warning against rip tides, sneaker waves that overtake a swath of beach and recede with a gurgling rush. One morning, watching the coast guard boats methodically trawl the coast in search of a drowned boy, that power was palpable and sobering. Lying on the edge of one of the world’s greatest cities, Ocean Beach marks the transition point where the laminar flow of domesticated urban life gives way to nature’s turbulence. Escaped detritus of weekend picnics and late-night bonfires litter its shore, as does Bullwhip Kelp and Velella Velella.

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Barking dogs, families gathering sand-caked shells, runners, strollers, old men with their fishing lines pulled taught against the surf—Ocean Beach is where I first felt the soul of my new home. It remains for me a place where I feel rooted, yet open to the mutability of life and the wildness it can contain.

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Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Ocean Beach stretches 3.5 miles along the western edge of San Francisco.

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