I’ve wanted to write this story down for many years now. My Senior year of High School I used it as an ‘improv’ audition for a part in my high school’s production of “David and Lisa: A Play in Two Acts”. My retelling (complete with an animated reenactment) of the following true story earned me the only lead role I’ve ever had.
The year was 1981, and while I had traveled alone before, it was not a common occurrence. About 18 months earlier I had made my first unaccompanied trip: A 6-hour bus ride to visit my sister in the middle of nowhere, West VA. That’s when I learned that a 15-yr. old should not be allowed to see “The Shining” (on the big screen, no less) prior to sleeping in a house 3 miles from civilization. An inability to see the hand in front of one’s face combined with the kind of terror only Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall can inspire … well, you can imagine, yes?
I suppose the scariness of my first trip should have warned me off ever traveling alone again. Alas, teenager = notoriously slow on the uptake.
So, at 17 I made the trek (by plane this time) from East Coast to West for one last adventure before my final year of High School. I would again be visiting family (Aunt, Uncle, & cousins), and I looked forward to seeing what life was like in the State famous for balmy weather, horrendous traffic, and movie stars. Little did I know that this trip (along with a few other things I’ve picked up on in the 30-years since) would inspire in me
a disparaging an affectionate mantra for my West Coast brothers and sisters: ‘Everyone in California is crazy!’
I have always been a ‘beach girl’, you know, the way some people are mountain folk? Well, that’s me, only at the beach. Even now, if I could, I would build myself a house on a sand dune and spend the rest of my days watching the tide roll in and out.
Every summer as a child my family spent a week or more at the beach pictured here:
The entirety of the main strip of Virginia Beach is jammed with condos, hotels, dance clubs, beer joints, sandwich shops, and retail stores. As a child, I remember a carnival of sorts adding to the magic of our vacation by offering rides, cotton candy, a fun house, and salt-water taffy.
The California Coast I visited was quite different from the Virginia Coast I knew and loved.
That August day, 1981 was pretty hot as Coastal California goes. My Aunt drove me about a mile from her house and we agreed she would pick me up at 3:00 p.m., giving me roughly 4+ hours on the beach – plenty of time to
get burnt to a crisp enjoy the sand and surf.
Arriving at the spot my Aunt had chosen – ALONE, mind you – I stood atop a cliff overlooking a virtual wilderness stretching out to meet the dark blue waters of the Pacific. The hike down the rock stairway from the road was a bit daunting, but I soldiered on. Bravely waving good-bye to my Aunt, I settled my towel on a patch of sand and began my Pacific Coast Adventure.
The hot day and the fact that I’ve never enjoyed
baking in the sun lying out, meant it wasn’t long before I wanted to get in the water. I stumbled across the blazing sands, anxious for a dip.
Several things in succession took me by surprise. First, the water was freezing. Seriously, I’m not exaggerating (I’m mostly not exaggerating). Next, hidden by the dark, frigid waters, I found myself trapped on a broad swath of sharp, pointy rocks like glass which dug into my bare but sensitive feet! What happened to the sand? Gone. I knew this by the fact that my feet were now bleeding*. (My feet might have been bleeding … I was not certain since the water had turned my legs from the knees down into solid blocks of ice.) I hobbled forward, hoping the sand would miraculously reappear. Instead, I found another cliff, this one sans stair.
Totally focused on the pain in my feet, I stepped off the edge into nothingness and was suddenly, without ceremony, in over my head.
Forced now to tread water or drown, I managed to struggle up for a breath. I splashed around for a while hoping not to attract any Great Whites (Jaws had taught me never to trust an ocean filled with monsters … wait, isn’t every ocean filled with monsters?). Scanning the coastline, I realized that in a few short minutes I had been swept down probably 1/4-1/2 mile from the spot where I had left my towel. I could barely see the lone lifeguard stand in the distance.
So began my journey to get out of the water. This sounds simple, but no. I had unwittingly discovered the
Twilight Zone Bermuda Triangle of the West Coast. Apparently exiting the Pacific Ocean is California’s equivalent of a Herculean feat. Here were the tasks before me:
- Swim back up the coast – against the current – to get fairly even with my towel. I thought I had experienced strong currents before, but the East Coast cannot hold a candle to the Pacific currents’ mad skills.
- Defeat the
rip tideundertow which barred my way back to the underwater cliff edge. (I’m pretty sure I fought it for at least 20 minutes before making any headway whatsoever.)
- Cross the sharp, pointy rock-bed before bleeding* out.
- Stumble across blistering sands to find my towel and collapse. (Pain from sharp, pointy rocks + blistering sands = insult + injury.)
All these I managed to accomplish before falling, exhausted, on my towel, instantly asleep. Upon waking, I decided I had had enough of the dangerous (who knew?) Capistrano Beach. Not knowing how long I had slept, I approached the lifeguard stand and asked what time it was. Even though I was talking to (clearly) a fellow American, I had to repeat the question several times before he seemed to understand me. A little past 1:30 was the answer in the end. I then had the
brilliant idiotic idea that I could walk back to my Aunt’s house, saving her the trouble of picking me up.
cliff stairway to the road. Hm, now which way? I did not remember coming down a hill to the drop-off spot, so I turned right and started walking along the highway. I found myself at a sort of 4-way intersection with a nice-looking neighborhood to my left. The only landmark I knew to look for was a K-Mart store near my Aunt’s home. I was fairly certain that if I could find the K-Mart, I could find my way to her house. I didn’t see the K-Mart sign anywhere.
Just as I decided to cross the street into the neighborhood, I saw a man coming towards me on a bike.
“Excuse me,” I said, in my not-quite-Southern Virginia drawl, “but can you tell me where the K-Mart is?”
The way he looked at me I could tell he had heard and understood my question. He then proceeded to put his head down and start peddling. Huh? That’s weird, I thought. Shrugging, I entered the nice neighborhood and found myself in a typical seaside subdivision complete with palm trees and balconies overlooking the ocean. Pretty houses with manicured lawns surrounded me on both sides.
The first person I saw was a lady walking down her front sidewalk toward the street. Halfway to the mailbox her head turned in my direction, she kind of ‘started’ when she saw me, then did an about-face, and retreated back inside double-quick. Curiouser and Curiouser! (Alice, that one was for you.)
The next lady was across the street up the road a ways, watering her garden. I stopped in front of her house and asked for directions to the K-Mart (I stayed on the opposite side of the street so as not to scare her, since I apparently resembled a 17-yr. old, unarmed, female Jack the Ripper). The woman took one look at me, her eyes widened, and she literally (I wish I were making this up) dropped her hose and ran into the house, slamming the front door behind her.
I couldn’t help thinking, “Either these people are the most unsociable bunch on the planet or they’re just NUTS!”
I settled on nuts, wouldn’t you? This woman was obviously from California:
I can totally relate to that guy (not), but his bodily pain looks to me a lot like I felt.
Once I (sort of) overcame the shock of 3 people having blown off a lost stranger (really 4, if you count the not-so-helpful lifeguard), I decided a self-assessment was in order: Sandals, check. White shorts (which had dried by now), check. Blue button-down collared shirt with sleeves rolled up to 3/4 length (also dry), check. Granted, I could not see my hair, but my hands did not detect anything beyond the normal windswept mess which usually followed a swim in the ocean. Fashionable sunglasses completed my ensemble.
I continued walking uphill for probably another 45 minutes or so (it was a long street), and at the top, lo and behold, I could see in the distance the K-Mart sign!! By now I was exhausted from my battle with the sea, my feet were blistered (walking for miles in sandals will do that), and I was afraid my Aunt had already left to pick me up. I wouldn’t be at the designated pick-up spot, she would decide that I had met my end in Jaws’ jaws giving her a wonderfully icky story to tell at the next Capistrano Beach Garden Party.
“Shocking!” the listeners would reply. “Wait, wasn’t there a serial killer posing as a lost girl asking for directions in our neighborhood last week? Whew! Aren’t we lucky a shark got that one! Pass the cucumber sandwiches, please.”
Convincing the clerk at a nearby mini-mart to let me use the phone (and phone book) provided yet another exercise in How can I convince you I am a real human being in need who does not actually want to steal your phone or your phone book?! Sheesh! You’d think no one there had ever
helped seen a stranger!
In case you are wondering, I did make it back to my Aunt’s house that day, despite having spent the afternoon walking out of my way in a 3-mile arc, no thanks to the peanut gallery of unhelpful Californians.
Still, I am grateful for my time in The Golden State. My experience has helped me understand why Californians continue to pass nutty legislation; I can now justify the odd behavior of so many of California’s public figures; and I gave up trying to figure out how Nancy Pelosi could hold a seat in the House of Representatives for 15 years running! It’s simple:
Everyone in California really is crazy!**
*No permanent foot damage was inflicted in the making of this story (and I seriously doubt there was any blood involved whatsoever).
**Excepting, of course, the friends and family I know there. Hope you guys got the humor in this and didn’t take offense! 😉
What about you? Have you ever gotten lost in a strange place and couldn’t find anyone to help you find your way? Was it a funny story or a scary one? How did you escape your predicament?