There’s enough sand in Southern California, we can all find a few grains to suit our personalities. But because the water is so shockingly cold compared to the bathwater-hot waves of my youth in North Carolina, it took me awhile to get used to beaches here. The heat and traffic you sit through to get to Venice or the South Bay are washed from memory as soon as your toe hits the icy foam. But there’s a beach I found that’s been what I mean when I say I’m going to the beach for about the last twenty years. Leo Carrillo State Beach was named for a Vaudeville actor/cartoonist turned Republican conservationist, back when such a term was not an oxymoron.
Coming from LA, you access Leo Carrillo by way of a wide but twisty mountain road—complete with tunnels. I always honked the horn as I drove the boys and my dog through them. Once you clear the last tunnel, you crest a hill and rediscover the Pacific—much as Balboa REdiscovered it centuries ago. The name of the road is Kanan-Dume. We pronounced it like the Land of Canaan, and it ends at Point Dume, a paradise far from doom, but I’ve seen many dead creatures on those beaches. The beach is a place where the young come to play and the old and sick come to die—the shore a continuum between those two extremities of existence.
From Kanan-Dume, you turn north on the Pacific Coast Highway. On the inland side of the highway is a huge campground, set low in the mud and shaded with sycamores, but a short walk to the beach. When I started going there two decades back, it was not hard to reserve a spot in the off-season. We began going there because Leo Carrillo was one of the few beaches in Southern California that allowed dogs. When Huckleberry came into our lives, everything revolved around him, to the benefit of us all. One of his first nights in a tent was spent here. After the 10 PM quiet, the five of us had settled into our sleeping bags, cozy against the Pacific chill. In the silence, a great-horned owl began to hoot, his eerie voice echoing through the canyon. Huck sat bolt-upright and shivered so hard the tent shook. He didn’t make a sound, just trembled and waited to be disemboweled by the unseen predator. We held him close, tried to distract him with treats, but nothing helped until the owl went quiet.
I know another divorced woman who lived in that campground for several months. Maybe more than a year. Like me, she lost everything in an unexpected legal twist. But she came by an RV somehow and stayed in the campground for the 45-day limit. Then she’d leave for a day or two and come right back. She invited friends to stay with her, cooking dinners over roaring fires, the kindling: her divorce papers. She remembers what could have been a gloomy period as one of the happiest, carefree times of her life.
Whenever my sons and I said we were going to the beach, Leo Carrillo is what we meant. Vacation, frolicking with friends, mental health days, and once—a frustrated high school suspension. Grief walks, climbing cliffs to get over lost loves, running over rocks to think about how bad your feet hurt instead of what’s really bothering you. Letting the cold water sting you back to your senses.
We went often enough to see the seasons change. Hot and dry inland days dissipated into socked-in clouds over the ocean. Winter and spring gales carved new shelves out of the beach rocks and into the sand. Late spring and early summer brought skinny sea lion pups to bark on big rocks in the surf.
By the time we headed home on Kanan-Dume, the berry stands had popped up. Older farm workers sold from the backs of their trucks with only a painted sign of a giant strawberry to get your attention.
And there was a friendly biker bar with chain-saw carved totem poles out front. During the summer when the mountains were on fire, I drove Huck to Leo Carrillo to get away from the smoke and ash. We ran out of food, trying to avoid returning to the foothills till after dark, but no one welcomed my dog as my dinner-date till I got to the biker bar. There, I asked if he could eat at a table with me. The cook looked out her little side window. She said, “Honey, I don’t care if he sits ON the table.”
I honk the horn through the tunnels still. Most times I pass through them alone, but I honk for you.