Travel Journal No. 6: Bowling Ball Beach

“Lynn, just a reminder, I’m heading out again tonight,” I called to my wife from our living room as I readied for my trip up the California coastline.

“I remember,” she called from her office down the hall. “Be safe.”

Our dog, Sam, looked up at me expectantly, his small tail wagging vigorously.

“Sorry, boy,” I said as I patted his head. “Tonight’s hike is not very far, but the trail’s been washed out so you’ll need to stay here and watch over things while I’m gone.”

His tail stopped wagging and he flopped to the ground with a sigh.

The tapping of my wife’s laptop stopped abruptly.

I waited, hoping to hear that her typing would start up again. It didn’t.

“When do you think you’ll be coming home?” she asked, walking down the hall in my direction.

“Not until morning,” I said.

She nodded slowly and looked down at my pile of gear: tripods, cameras, lenses, a couple of headlamps and a climbing rope. She frowned.

“Why do you need the rope?” she asked.

I looked outside and pondered changing the topic. The sun was just beginning to set, and there was not a cloud in the sky. The night was going to be perfect: clear, a very low tide and no moon, one of the very few days of the year when I might hope to get the photos I was after.

“Rope, what rope?” I asked and smiled.

“That one,” she said pointing to it with her foot.

“It’s for the dog?” I said, more as a question than a statement.

“I just heard you tell Sam he was staying here,” she said. She had begun to tap her foot on the carpet.

My wife and I have been together since we were 18 years old. We’ve been on many adventures, including having two children who are now out of college and building lives of their own. We’ve had pets, started businesses, succeeded and failed. She knows me and I know her, and when her foot starts tapping I might just be heading for trouble. I knew that if her hands went to her hips I might be forced to scrap my plans and stay home.

“Oh, this rope,” I repeated, picking up the thick coil as if I were surprised to find it lying at my feet.

I never lie to my wife, but sometimes I can get away with vagary. This was not one of those times.

“The trail I need to take to the beach has been washed out by the recent storms and I’m bringing this to—”

She interrupted. “You are going out at night, in what will be pitchblack darkness, to scale down a sea cliff alone with your heavy gear?”

“I wouldn’t use the phrase ‘scale down,’” I said. “More like ‘plod down.’”

She didn’t smile, and her hands started to lift from where they had hung, moving up toward her hips.

“There’s only a tiny window when I can get this shot and tonight’s the night,” I said, my voice taking on a slightly desperate tone.

Her hands paused, she breathed heavily and then dropped her arms to her sides as she began to chew her lip.

“Will you be safe, and have you sent me your location info?” she asked.

I nodded and smiled. She shook her head.

“Other women do not have to put up with this,” she said as I gave her a hug.

“But other women don’t have to put up with this, either,” I said as I hugged her tighter.

I couldn’t see her face, but I could tell she was smiling.

“Be safe,” she repeated.

Two hours later I was standing at the edge of a cliff along Highway 1 just north of the tiny village of Gualala. The night was indeed dark, and there were no clouds to block the brilliant colors of the stars that filled the sky above. The scene brought to mind the words of Vincent van Gogh:

“The night is even more richly colored than the day. . . . If only one pays attention to it, one sees that certain stars are citron yellow, while others have a pink glow or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance. And without my expiating on this theme, it should be clear that putting little white dots on a blue-black surface is not enough.”

I thought about the beauty of that night’s sky and considered sharing the quote with my wife when I returned home until I remembered that van Gogh was considered mentally unstable and delusional. To avoid the association and to ensure future trip departures went more smoothly, I’d probably be better off dropping his quote and using a different one.

The washed-out trail to the site was precarious but not bad enough for me to use ropes down the cliff. Nevertheless, with my heavy gear and the darkness it was slow going, and I paused often to gaze into the night, the beam of my headlight creating milky stabs of brightness that faded into the distance.

Somewhere in the blackness waves swept in, slipping noisily over the rough sand beach, making a sound like tiny glass beads cascading through the constricted neck of an hourglass. The salty smell of marshy decay and dried seaweed merged with the soft perfumes from a nearby pine forest, bringing together two contrasting but comforting aromas on the cool night air.

Once down on the beach it was a short walk to the site where the normally hidden stone “cannonballs” were gleaming in the low tide and starlight, tiny crabs darting from the light of my headlamp as I set up my cameras.

That night there were extended moments of sitting in darkness while I took long-exposure photos. Briny smells and the soft sounds of distant waves hung as thick in the air as the wash of blinking stars, each seemingly its own vibrant shade of color. There would never be another night exactly like this one.

I reached for a fistful of sand. It was wet and rough in my hand, sticky with salt. Sand and stars, each its own type of speck, each with its own story to tell.

I want to pay homage in a small way to these single moments in time, specks that will never happen again but are each so common as to be lost in our busy lives to the blur of existence.

Another quote slipped into my mind, this one from John Muir and one I would happily share with my wife when I returned to our warm, comfortable home where I seldom need a safety rope.

“When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.”

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Originally published in the Napa Register, August 2017