January 2013. I found myself living in Southern California, that mythical land of bougainvillea-draped stucco, southwest swells, dune buggies, the ubiquitous fish taco, and, yes, beach volleyball. As a native Virginian it took some time getting used to—the open landscape, arid climate, infamous freeway traffic, and sheer mass of humanity congregating near the coast like so many shipwrecked ants. Since that time, residing in this far southwestern corner of the U.S. has gradually gifted me new perceptions about the world, about life, about how we see and interact with others.
One: life at the edge of a continent.
The “Peaceful Sea”—so named by early 16th-century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan—provides an immutable natural boundary to the west and is, in many ways, an endpoint for the migration of people across this immense land. Though I didn’t grow up in a landlocked state, it was a good three-plus hour drive to our murky coast and as such, the ocean was something reserved for infrequent summertime getaways or visiting the grandparents in Florida. Childhood memories of the beach tend towards a misty collage of sandy bathing suits, the unmistakable smell of cheap sunscreen, the dreaded but welcome relief of Solarcaine spray for parched skin.
In contrast, the endless expanse of briny blue along the Pacific Coast provides an ever-present and soothing antidote to the 5 million strong San Diego-Tijuana binational megalopolis (recently dubbed, along with California’s Imperial Valley and the Baja California Norte capital of Mexicali, the “CaliBaja Mega-Region”). Congested freeways, crowded shopping centers, inconceivably narrow parking spaces, the teeming sprawl of human settlement, and—at least north of the border—exorbitant land values can turn dispiriting in its enormity.
But at the ocean it all stops. Nothing but deep water (and a few scattered western Pacific islands) to the East China Sea. Love it or loathe it, the juxtaposition between these two extremes of vastness—an ever-expanding metropolis, ending abruptly at the fringes of a nearly 64 million square-mile ocean—never fails to lend perspective to our own small lives.