She walks away, dragging a suitcase down the path beside our building. She’s dressed in black pants, a black t-shirt and white sneakers that will look stylish while remaining comfortable on the long flight ahead.
Sunshine sparkles off the succulents at her feet and the tall Mexican fan palms leaning into a sea breeze overhead. She’s off on her first overseas work trip for the job that brought us to Southern California. She’ll be away for two weeks.
We’ve now been together for eight and a half years, and so now anytime she goes on some sort of trip it takes me about 24 hours to remember how to be a functioning adult. Home doesn’t seem quite as fun when I’m alone, and I find it harder to make decisions or even do things when she’s not around to bounce ideas. I find cooking for one terribly depressing, and so I tend to avoid eating real meals until it’s 10pm, when I gorge on bad takeout.
Aware that I’m liable to dissolve into my phone within 15 minutes after she leaves, I have a plan to stave it all off for a few hours. I pack a backpack with a wetsuit, towel, wax and sunscreen and retrieve my bicycle, which now has a detachable rack designed to carry a surfboard alongside me. I slot the board home, secure it with elastic straps, and hit the road.
Movement. Purpose. Physical exertion. Something to distract me that isn’t my phone.
I am riding the 1970’s-era steel racing bike that has been my main commuter and urban adventure steed (and occasional touring rig) since H and I returned to the States in 2018. It doesn’t have an electric motor, which makes it an anomaly here in the small Orange County city of San Clemente, where we now live.
Everyone rides e-bikes here. They zip up and down the gently undulating streets, rarely bothering to pedal. They have usually left their helmets at home or, in the case of San Clemente’s teenagers, they remember to wear the helmet but forget to buckle it under their chin.
This is a family town, you see, and for many people — adults and children alike — high school is the only social institution they have. Looking cool is of utmost importance at high school (especially in a wealthy area like this), and so it is also the main preoccupation for a large chunk of the broader San Clemente community.
Despite their popularity, the e-bike’s resemblance to the old fashioned and uncool push bike means some folks are hesitant to be seen riding one in conservative, car-loving Orange County — especially among San Clemente’s population of burly upper-middle class white dads. You can tell this is true because manufacturers have responded with a wildly successful model of e-bike that resembles a Harley Davidson motorcycle, complete with a distinctive chrome headlight and a fake gas tank mounted on the top tube. The dads roam the streets with their handlebars high and their legs stretched out, feet nowhere near the pedals as if they really were riding a Harley, and wear ball caps instead of helmets.
So far, I have refused to buy an e-bike because a) I don’t want to spend $3,000 on one, and b) I’m an able-bodied 32 year-old who is perfectly capable of pushing myself up hills without lithium assistance, thank you very much. But it should be stressed that while I am busy sneering at the e-bikers on the streets of San Clemente, my battery-free rig makes me the weird one around here — and that’s before the locals spot my sandals, which are also decidedly Not Cool.
I’m nearing Avenida del Mar, where most downtown buildings have the white-washed stucco walls and red-tile roofs of an old Spanish mission. However, San Clemente wasn’t founded as a mission — there wasn’t even a town here until 1925, when it was born as a real estate scheme in the mind of one OIe Hanson. 18th century Spanish colonists did build a mission at San Juan Capistrano, a few miles north and inland, but the closest pre-20th century settlement to present-day San Clemente was an Acjachemen village at the confluence of two creeks just south of town. Known as Panhe, the place was inhabited for about 9,600 years.
Ole Hanson was a child of Norwegian immigrants who grew up to become mayor of Seattle in 1918. As mayor, Hanson successfully quashed the city’s famous 1919 general strike, when 65,000 people walked off their jobs in support of shipyard workers’ appeals for higher wages. Hanson’s anti-strike strategy involved deploying armed marines to the streets. In the face of machine gun nests in downtown Seattle, the strikers returned to work.
After anarchist radicals attempted to get even by mailing him a booby trap bomb (the 1910s and ’20s were a wild time for labor relations), Hanson publicly called for hangings and life imprisonment for all members of the International Workers of the World union, whose ranks numbered some 150,000 at the time. Discouraged in politics, he resigned in August 1919. In news stories announcing his resignation, Hanson is quoted as saying, “I am worn out and am going fishing.”
Six years later he purchased 2,000 acres of seaside desert halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, named it San Clemente (“my San Clemente by the sea,” he called it), and began selling lots. His vision was of a Mediterranean-style coastal village, and every land deed mandated that residents and businesses build according to his tastes: white stucco walls and red-tiled roofs. If you didn’t have the stucco and the tiles, Hanson would buy your lot back, demolish your house and rebuild to suit the theme.
Hanson lost his fortune in the Great Depression, including the hilltop mansion now repurposed as a cultural center, and the town has become a hodgepodge of ’60s triplexes, ’70s horror mansions, single-story bungalows and original red-roofed cottages. His full vision lives on downtown, with whitewashed walls and red roofs and little patches of patterned tiles, including around the public benches where Christian teenagers channel their throbbing hormones into musical declarations of love for Jesus.
The faux-Mediterranean village aesthetic, the botoxed boomers with faces as smooth and fleshy as the succulents, the dads on their toy motorbikes, the drunk grandparents driving golf carts to dinner, the faded Ronald Reagan portraits in business windows, the fruity Spanish street names (Ola Vista, Avenida de la Estrella and Hanson’s former mansion, known as the Casa Romantica) — hell, the very existence of a town irrigated by water transported from hundreds of miles away: there’s something faintly ridiculous about this place.
I roll through the well-heeled southern part of town and onto a road that parallels Interstate 5. This stretch of freeway has been carved into the desert floor, which means I’m looking down on it from about two stories up. I-5 is eight lanes wide, a place of monstrous noise, speeding steel and air that tastes like exhaust. Tires shriek and thunk on the pockmarked concrete, drifts of shredded plastic and old tires collect at the fringes. Motorbikes thread the lines of traffic like Mad Max bandits. Gleaming cop cars cruise like sharks hunting for prey.
There is something distinctly off about life in Southern California. Most first-time visitors seem aware of it — I certainly sensed it when I first came through eleven years ago (“All told, Los Angeles is not a place that needs another look,” 21 year-old me wrote — if only he knew), but the feeling is hard to put into words. All I have right now is a suspicion that horrific, violent madness lurks just beneath the sunshine, the palm trees, the funky cars and the exaggerated California chill.
Let me explain. On the second day after H and I arrived to start our new lives here, we caught up with a Boston friend who was visiting family in Los Angeles. We agreed to meet at Seal Beach, a typically sundrenched SoCal neighborhood of quaint old houses and a cutesy downtown behind a wide beach. Old guys in t-shirts of soft, billowy cotton drove lowriders and restored Model Ts around the block. Sparkling sunshine filtered through the canopies of white-trunked fig trees, or shone on the bulbous surfaces of the succulents. All the SoCal cliches were present, including baggy cargo shorts over high socks and checkered Vans, and the Main Character types subjecting a friend (and the street at large) to the fascinating minutiae of their relationship with their yoga instructor or their go-to smoothie order. You couldn’t picture a more relaxed street scene on a Sunday morning.
While waiting for a table at a popular brunch spot, the three of us ambled out onto the beach pier. About halfway along, we approached a typically diverse crowd of Californians standing back to observe two men bent over the bloody corpse of an animal that we realized, as we came closer, was a shark. One of the men struggled to remove a kind of grappling hook from its jaws, which was attached to a steel chain. Meanwhile, the other man used a large knife to slice into its body, removing large, blood-soaked hunks of flesh.
It was a thresher shark, about six feet long if you included the thin tail that trailed behind it. Despite their fearsome name and appearance, thresher sharks aren’t believed to pose any danger to humans. As they worked, the men fielded questions from watching children and adults as if this was some kind of educational presentation, which is how we learned that this was the fourth shark they’d caught that morning. The man with the knife then fixed a big steak of shark flesh onto the hook and threw it back into the ocean. It splashed down just a few meters from a group of swimmers, who were out doing a lap of the pier.
The incident delayed my plan to coax H into surfing by at least two months, but it also rattled me on a deeper level. How could such a spectacle — the death throes of a large, beautiful creature at the hands of two men wielding sharp steel, the bright blood pooling on the timbers — exist within such a relaxed street scene?
The answer, I am increasingly convinced, is that a shrieking, animal fury is, at all times, only barely restrained beneath the Xanax tranquility of Southern California society. There are hints everywhere. When you encounter Orange County police on the palm-lined streets, for example, it is easy to mistake them for members of an occupying army, with their bulky vests and combat boots, their multiple forms of weaponry and their khaki uniforms. (“Very Gestapo-y,” is how one friend and fellow transplant describes them.) When I’m out surfing at the break near our house, I often see black helicopters — the kind that have rained death on many African and Middle Eastern warzones over the last three decades — buzzing overhead from the nearby Marine base. When the swell is low and I’m sitting on the sand in my Tommy Bahama fold-out chair among thousands of relaxing parents and playing children, it’s often possible to hear the low thump of artillery fire in the hills to the south.
It’s important to note that this violent, isolating madness is endemic (I believe) to any society where market-based exchange and the pursuit of profit govern the vast majority of our interactions with fellow humans. The arrangement is convenient and efficient but it has isolated us, pitched us against one another, and therefore sent us all a little mad. In Southern California, it feels like that madness lives closer to the surface than usual.
The most visible local manifestation — and perhaps the exacerbating factor — of this madness, the one that all newcomers fixate on, is the freeway. No matter how charming the neighborhood is, how ecstatic the live performance, how sumptuous the food, how beautiful the beach or convivial the company, it is impossible to escape the fact that the majority of humans around you at any given moment arrived there via the nightmarish freeway system. We sit in deadening air-conditioned comfort serenely checking our phones and glancing at injury lawyers’ billboards as our bodies hurtle through space at 110 feet per second, and less than a body’s length from other vehicles, milliseconds from violent death for at least 20 minutes at a time, which is the minimum duration for any journey in this vast metropolis.
San Clemente succulents to cleanse your palate
Before long, I steer my bike off the road away from the roaring freeway and down a paved path, which drops me underneath the rail bridge that gives the area its name: Trestles.
If you are a surfer, you have likely heard of Trestles. A professional competition is held here every year, boosting its renown as the premier high-performance surf spot on the US mainland. A few weeks ago, my visiting sister and I were drunkenly introduced to an Australian friend of a friend of a friend named Ethan — and only later realized we’d met Ethan Ewing, currently number two on the World Surfing League professional rankings, in town for the tournament. (He wasn’t drinking.) This level of fame means that the breaks at Trestles are usually as crowded as it gets. I mostly try to avoid these “big name” places, sacrificing quality for the serenity that comes with surfing uncrowded waves, but I’m here working on a theory.
I lock my bike and wander over the dunes to check out Uppers, which generally plays second fiddle to the more famous break at Lowers (surfers can be very uninspired when it comes to naming breaks). The swell had been small and disorganized on the town beaches, chopped up by a howling north-west wind. But my theory is that if the swell and wind are right, most places will have good waves and I will head for one of the relatively uncrowded spots I have discovered thus far. However, if the swell is wonky and the wind is wrong, the world-class breaks at Trestles will still find a way to sculpt them into decent waves — and with a fraction of the crowd one would find on a “good” day with ideal conditions. As I pull on my wetsuit I count just 15 surfers in the lineup, virtually empty for a place like this, even though conditions look pretty good from the dunes.
Today, at least, my theory is correct. The swell is disorganized and harried by the wind, but something about the place organizes it so that once a wave breaks (and you have to pick the right one), it lines up into a long, deliciously peeling righthander.
Trestles is often described as a “high-performance” wave and I can see why. I am a profoundly median surfer, equally likely to pull off a passable maneuver or embarrassingly faceplant right in front of a crowd of smirking teenagers, but at Uppers I find myself connecting multiple top-to-bottom turns as effortlessly as a kid playing Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer on my friend’s PlayStation 2. My tactic is to sit well inside the pack, sacrificing the more disorganized larger waves to the talented youngsters and crusty old locals who tend to dominate, and take the medium-sized swells that seek out shallower sections of the reef and therefore peel more cleanly. Occasionally, after a set cleans out the crowd, I’ll race to the top of the pack and pluck a larger wave before the locals reassert themselves. It’s one of these — which stands up several feet over my head and runs all the way through, allowing me time and space to connect five or six different turns — that I will replay in my head while lying in bed later tonight.
More than anywhere else, American culture fosters a desire for self-actualization — though it doesn’t offer much guidance on how to achieve it. Instead, we get a dizzying array of consumer choices that, if we squint hard enough, can stand in for the real thing. Moving to California, we’re told, is one of the most potent such choices we can make, and so the country’s dreams seem to pile up here against the Pacific. All those hollow dreams might be another reason for the palpable presence of madness.
But out here, where the sun is getting close to the horizon and painting the ocean in neon and chrome, it does feel like I’m living in a version of the California dream. Sunset colors ignite the ocean’s haze and bleed into the cobalt water, even as the sun itself dulls into a dusty tangerine. I duckdive a set and surface with millions of bubbles popping into the atmosphere, releasing puffs of mist, and it looks like the ocean is steaming. Ahead, the silhouetted figures of three or four fellow surfers work their arms through the smoking whitewater. To our right, the ocean seethes and rumbles against the reef. Another set rolls through, standing up and catching sunlight that turns the vertical water a deep green that fades to translucent gold at the top, with lithe shadows springing to their feet under the falling lip and carving arcs across the face. When I reach my spot I sit up and look back at the tall palms on the shore, the driftwood shacks, the low desert brush and the tall mountains behind, all lit up in sunshine bouncing off the ocean. I turn and paddle for a wave. My arms feel powerful, my body taut as I spring to my feet and feel the swell shoot me down the line. This right here, when I’m standing at the top of a moving wall of raw oceanic power, is the closest thing I’ve experienced to the freedom and possibility that country musicians invoke when they sing of the “open road.”
The sun pauses above the horizon, seems to squish up against it as if someone’s pressing an orange onto a countertop, and then it slips beneath the waves. Soon the dusky desert reasserts itself, tinging the air with brown and gray. I take a final wave and ride it in, then pick my way back over the reef to my bag, shed my wetsuit and begin the sandy trudge back to my bike.
A day earlier, 24 hours before her flight, I’d taken H out to an isolated beach after work and pushed her into a few waves. (Enough time had passed since the shark sighting at Seal Beach.) Later, after she’d satisfied herself by standing up a few times and exhausting her shoulders, she wandered the sand while I scooted out the back for a few waves of my own. While I was surfing, she spoke to an elderly man fishing from the shore.
“This is my zen,” he’d said.
Later, she befriended a happy dog who was running up and down the sand under the smiling eye of her owner, a small white woman. “I lived in Chicago for 25 years, Russia before that,” she told H. “I have been here three years, and I can never get used to the sunsets.”
“She’s also found her zen,” I’d decided later, after H recounted this story to me. “Everyone here’s just finding their zen.”
I bike home through town, with the freeway nightmare on my right and palm fronds silhouetted against the dusk on my left, deciding that I too have found my zen, at least for today. One thing I’ve learned from the last few years and two cross-country moves is that you have to figure out what a place does well, find how and where it overlaps with your own interests, and then do those things. I love surfing, which San Clemente does very well, and cycling, which can be incorporated into one’s surfing expeditions. This combination will likely play a load-bearing role in any future conception I have of this place as “home.”
Basically all my photos now are of sunsets
So there you have it: Southern California is a place to find your zen. Find a patch of sunshine and chill out in it. Find something fun to do, and do it. Be aware of and try to avoid manifestations of the madness. And if you aren’t sure what your zen is, well, this is America, where entire industries exist to sell you one. As I bike through town, I spy garages overflowing with jet skis, enormous Tonka-syle pickup trucks, e-bikes, paddleboards, surfboards and so, so many Mercedes Sprinter camper vans.
I cross Avenida del Mar and turn off at our local park, where a quinceañera appears to be underway, and stop off at the nearest store, a Mexican grocer. I leave my bike outside without locking it because I’ll only be a minute and this is a small city. I pass an old man on the steps leading up to the front door, who returns my “Evening” with an “Hola.” Inside, I fill a basket with a handful of vegetables. All of us sway to Lalo Rodriguez’s one timeless (and incredibly thirsty) hit. At the counter, I wait for a trio of young men in cargo pants, skate shoes and hoodies pulled up over ball caps to buy a case of Pacifico beer from the senora behind the counter. She wonders with a smile which of them has the muscles to carry the case back to their house.
A moment later, I switch to Spanish when she doesn’t catch my Aussie accent. I’m asking for a bottle opener for a soda I’m buying.
“Ay,” she croons, lifting an eyebrow. “El güero sabe español” The blondie knows Spanish.
I’ll ride home now, shower, cook up a big pasta salad and politely ask our local raccoons to give me some space while I’m eating in the backyard. I’ve staved off the paralysis this long and while it will assert itself first thing in the morning, I’ll manage to fend it off again by typing all this out.