Drake’s Beach

At home I have the luxury of a hospital-type bed that electrically cranks up and down and even vibrates if one isn’t getting enough vibrations elsewhere…but I am elsewhere now, Point Reyes, to be exact, that surprisingly wild, and at this time of year, empty bit of national parkland just north of San Francisco. 

To anyone who doesn’t know the region, being “just north” may not sound like what it is. Close is what it is. As the crow flies, the Golden Gate Bridge is less than 20 miles away. Fortunately, I am not a crow and so drive over the hills that almost magically keep Western Marin County what it is. A land of water and hills and forests and, of course, beaches.

Years ago when I was a science writer, one of the researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was showing me what it takes to tune some delicate instrument. Naturally, I can’t recall what the device was. But almost 40 years ago, when I had this demonstration, we were either talking about an electron microscope or a seismograph. It doesn’t matter. Either way, the thing needed to be very stable, and this particular scientist was tuning out extraneous vibrations. First, he showed me, there was the persistent vibratory rumble from Interstate 80, the motorway that runs along the edge of San Francisco Bay. Then there was something else, some faint but persistent vibration that came at odd intervals. The scientists were scratching their heads until they determined that this faint, intermittent pounding was the sound of the surf 30 or 40 miles away at the beaches of Point Reyes.

They don’t call it a National Seashore for nothing. And since I have been visiting the place for well over 50 years, I call it wonderful. I must have been in my third year of university when I drove there for the first time with Berkeley friends. Actually, the essentials of the area haven’t changed very much. Various protections have gone into place over the years. One by one, the enlightened, reasonably affluent and wise people of Western Marin County have managed to keep out hoteliers, housing developers, road builders and assorted other despoilers. Remember, the spectacular seascape is close, dangerously close, to San Francisco.

Just yesterday I found myself parked in a van at Drake’s Beach, one of the several spots in the National Seashore where one can drive. Jane went for a walk. I sat in the van. Why would one do such a thing? Well under normal circumstances, this one would have rolled down the wheelchair ramp and out into the sea air. Who could resist? At that moment, I could. My motel night had not been a good one. Getting away from my cranking bed was enough to remind me of my increasing physical limitations. Couldn’t help it. I lay there brooding and very conscious of how limited my body has become.

Which explains why, rather shattered, feeling my 72 years, and increasingly ready to let go of all sorts of things…I let go of getting out of the car. Jane would have had to unstrap me from the restraints that keep my heavy wheelchair stabilized while she drives. And I would have been free to…well, not much. There is a parking area for cars. Toilets. I can’t, of course, roll my wheelchair on the sand. And, believe it or not, I wasn’t even all that curious in the sea lions that were lounging their blubbery masses just a few feet away. A driftwood log mostly concealed them from view. But an occasional massive head would rise. That was enough for me.

I loved the drive there and the drive back. A hawk came swooping down from the skies, and the road did a bit of swooping itself, rising and falling over the green expanses. In several places the road had flooded. Rain, an improbable 5 inches, has fallen in the last few days. The month of May is normally almost dry in this part of California.

We passed South Beach without stopping. I recall, for some reason quite clearly, that the San Francisco Chronicle ran a picture of the empty parking lot at South Beach in August, 1967. The caption was something along the lines of “the national Park no one wants to visit.” Now, more than 50 years later, the National Park Service has to run special shuttles on weekends to ferry hordes of visitors to and from the Point Reyes lighthouse. Camping permits are hard to come by much of the year.

Still, popularity can put a squeeze on things. The little town of Inverness, California, the last stop before entering the Park, used to be a fairly modest place. In the very spot that has housed a succession of pizza and sandwich operations, there is now a restaurant from which it is difficult to escape for less than $75 a person. Fortunately, the Park remains free. For now. Barring unforeseen disastrous national developments.

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