Ride with Me: California’s Beach Towns

The California coastline is no doubt one of our state’s most magnificent features. As a LYFT driver I journeyed through several towns and cities that had had the fortune of constructing their borders alongside it. From the woodsy, cooler beaches of NorCal to the the chill surfer vibes of Santa Cruz, each of these towns had a distinct feel. Passenger demographics varied,  but many were outdoor enthusiasts, artists, and tourists.

Come along with me on my explorations of them!

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Fort Bragg first made its way onto my radar after a friend posted a picture at the Lost Coast Brewery a few years ago. Initially I didn’t realize it was a town; it sounded more like a military base that served beer.

A Google search confirmed for me though that Fort Bragg was in fact a city, initially established as a military post to supervise an Indian reservation in the mid 1800s. As time went on, “Fort Bragg became a thriving rail site and port, ferrying lumber, passengers, and supplies to and from San Francisco,” writes Susan Gebers.

Pictures showed lush meadows, turquoise-blue water, and pristine coastline.

It’ll be like spending time in an oil pastel painting, I predicted before setting out.

I wasn’t far off, though an artistic pulse beating through the town prevented the sterility that might typically arise from such placidness.

“The villagers of Mendocino have infused their town with a deep respect for the history of the region and a feeling of welcome for the legions of artists, musicians, writers, and craftspeople who make this area their home,” writes Kim Westerman.

I arrive to royal waves crashing majestically against the golden coast. Driving through a residential street, I pass by a sign that says “No biking, rollerskating, or riding horses on the sidewalk” before arriving in downtown, where red and teal feature prominently on the facades of buildings.

A woman with a white flower in her shoulder-length dark hair strums the harp on a street corner, her colorful skirt falling down her legs like a long elaborate quilt. Inside the window of one shop hangs a striking pair of aqua-colored socks with gorgeously rendered images of cat-mermaid hybrids. In one mural just outside of downtown, the body of a mermaid extends almost an entire block.

“Damn, she’s LONG!” remarks the middle-aged man with the Southern accent behind me, who’s dressed in a black leather jacket, as we walk by it. The skunk train, with its signature artwork of critters caught mid-scuttle painted onto the sides of its cars, choo choo’s by us.

A 20-something male passenger with wavy blond hair gets into my car with a half-finished charcoal drawing, flecks of sand, and a righteous fury. Word of Trump’s transgender military ban has incited him to create.

“This piece is in response to our administration’s egregious disregard for our collective humanity,” he explains.

A middle-aged woman, whose four-year-old son poured an entire carton of milk over his head earlier that day, tells me he is a handful.

Finally, a 40-something man is on his way to the town bar to meet friends—not to watch the baseball game (“I’m not even sure who’s playing,” he admits)– just for the chicken wings.

The latest I’ve heard about Fort Bragg is that they’re voting on a name change for the city because William Bragg did terrible things to marginalized groups. I’m in support of that!

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I hadn’t heard of my next town, Crescent City before accepting a house-sitting job up in Eureka (84 miles south of it). Until then, I’d basically imagined all land north of Humboldt County to be replete with trees but absent of any actual humans. 

While this is mostly true, a cluster of about 7,000 people resides in a town just south of the Oregon border.

Established in 1854, Crescent City is the only city in Del Norte County. It was originally populated by the Yurok and Tolowa Native American tribes, some of whom still live there. Most of its profit now comes from fishing, crabbing, tourism, and timber.

The scenery alone makes the drive from Eureka worth it. Along the way I stop at Trees of Mystery, a sky gondola that takes you up through the towering redwoods to the top of a hill with scenic views. A bit north of there, waves wash against a shore that’s surrounded by greenery and almost completely untouched by trash. 

Once in Crescent City I walk through the formerly thriving, now sleepy downtown, which never quite restored its past vigor after the 1970s hurricane destroyed many of its structures.  The crisp clean air makes it easy to maintain a brisk pace while walking by country-style homes and seaside cottages.

What seems to be a substantial proportion of Crescent City’s population gathers in the town’s sole brewery. Kids spell out words across a magnet board. A little girl dressed in teal pants and a long-sleeved pink shirt colors determinedly while the adults she shares the long wooden table with sip from taster flights. Floor to ceiling windows offer views of the ample coastline, which stretches into a crescent shape that inspired the city’s name.

Passengers say the town can feel isolated at times. The lack of traffic is nice, and though their area is home to some of the most beautiful, untouched hiking trails in California, driving an hour and a half every time they wanted to go shopping (either north to Grants Pass or south to Eureka) could get tiring. 

One passenger views this as a positive thing because it encourages a less consumerist lifestyle.

“But tonight’s my night of indulgence,” says that passenger, who I am taking down to a casino in Trinidad, a New England esque town with a lighthouse that’s fortunately located along the route back to Eureka that I’d been planning to take anyways.

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Like in Crescent City, stillness and serenity are to be found in Cambria, a  coastal town of 6,000. Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the Central Coast, Cambria is home to scenic hikes, idyllic coastline, Hearst Castle, and blubbery elephant seals.

Passing by one of these seals after arriving in town, splayed out across the sand hulky and immobile, I immediately worry he is dead.

Luckily, a man strolling by with his German shepherd assures me he is okay. 

“Some of them do that,” he remarks. “They’re very tired animals, useless on land. Really all they do out here is sleep.”

As I continue on my walk, white foamy waves surround my bare ankles. They turn the rocks in the sand into temporary islands. They shampoo the kelp that looks like the slick green hair of a mermaid.

Downtown seems minimalist and nature-revering, quietly taking up a small amount of space. Its few structures and businesses are of a quaint and antiquated style. Trees speckle the green hills in the background.

“We will construct around your grandeur,” I can imagine the original architects saying to Mother Nature.

Food here is expensive–more expensive, even (on average) than in the Bay Area.

Inside one restaurant, a fire crackles in the stone fireplace at the center of the cozy, dimly-lit room. They bring me bread in what looks like a small orange flower pot, the warm fluffy dough inside of it soft as the belly of a sun-bathing corgi.

A passenger tells me she volunteered at a kangaroo farm for a month, after I compliment her profile photo (which is of her next to a kangaroo).

Another passenger gets in squinty-eyed and calm after a rigorous yoga session. “I feel like there’s no gravity,” he says as he sinks back into the seat.

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My final stop is Capitola, a town of 9,000 (known as the oldest beach resort on the west coast) located six miles southeast of Santa Cruz.

After walking down the main road, which is speckled with beachy eateries and vibrant art galleries, I sip coffee on the balcony of Mr Toots Coffee Shop next to a view of the beach and small houses lined up in a colorful row like Turkish delights. 

A thin, river-like line of water cuts through the sand, separating the beach into two sides and ending in the ocean. A shirtless guy with sandy blond hair and a tan, sculpted chest paddles through it on an inflatable pink flamingo raft, looking very serious and methodical as he slices his oar through the water. The seagulls disperse (albeit languidly—it’s possible they’d been napping) to let him through.

A woman passenger has just gone shopping for her bachelorette party. “It’s Mexican- themed!” she exclaims, as small penis-shaped sombreros spill from her turquoise bag.

Hola, Duende.

Later in the evening I take a young Latino couple through the Carls Junior drive-through, and they treat me to curly fries. They’d started off the evening wedding planning, but it ended in them doing shots, with no venues booked. They teach me the Spanish word for goblin (it’s “duende”).

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Thanks for coming along with me! I hope you learned a little something along the way, or at least got some brief escape from this dreary COVID winter. I’ll be back soon with another batch of California towns to take you through. Stay warm and safe!

Published by esteph42190

A 30-year-old queer bilingual writer born and raised in the Bay Area, I’ve been writing since before I knew how to spell. Balancing my generative energy with a desire to inform, as a child I printed and distributed to classmates publications that included The News Newsletter and Health Digest (ironic considering I also ran an illicit candy business that landed me in the principal’s office several times). As a student at UC Davis I wrote for The California Aggie, with pieces ranging from an exploration of gender roles in the movie Tangled to my own weekly psychology column. After graduating I kept a bilingual blog of my 14 months living in Montevideo, Uruguay, and upon returning continued to blog about social issues and human psychology.

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