Friday, June 28, 2013

"There Are Places I Remember, All My Life . . ." by Pamela Sherwood

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea.

--e. e. cummings, "maggie and milly and molly and may"

When I was a kid, the family summer vacation consisted of a week or so in Yosemite National Park, a place especially dear to my father. On the day of departure, we'd rise super-early, around 4 or 5 a.m., and be on the road after a hasty breakfast, hoping to avoid the worst extremes of heat in Bakersfield and Fresno as well as reach our final destination by late afternoon.  Most of the time, we succeeded in both objectives, though there were some years when it was a close-run thing (car trouble was usually the culprit there.)

Half Dome at Sunset, photo by David Iliff
I remember those vacations fondly: the towering redwoods, the white cascade of the Bridal Veil waterfall, the majestic rise of Half-Dome mountain, purplish-grey in the twilight, brooding over the valley.  Mornings strolling through the woods and campsites, afternoons lazing in the luxurious reading rooms of the Ahwahnee Hotel, evenings riding the double decker buses that traveled from one end of the park to another.  Yosemite is an undeniably beautiful place, ideal for vacationing families, adventurous hikers and mountaineers, and even solitary nature lovers. It's well worth putting up with the mosquitoes, which descend in hungry profusion the moment you set foot in the woods, and even the occasional bear to spend some time there.

Pismo Beach and Pier
Times and tastes change, though, and for the last 20 years or so, we've been vacationing on the Central Coast--the Pismo Beach/San Luis Obispo/Morro Bay area, which has also become dear to our hearts. Maybe even dearer, in my case. My father loved the mountains, but my passion is for the sea: constantly in motion, ever-changing and never-changing, gentle and turbulent by turns. It should come as no surprise that many of my characters share that passion. Aurelia, in Waltz with a Stranger, finds the love of her life and the home of her heart on the north coast of Cornwall, and Sophie, the heroine of A Song at Twilight, is a Cornish native, whose favorite place is the north shore, where she can sit for hours, just watching the tide come in. My favorite activity at Pismo is to walk barefoot along the beach, just at the water's edge, listening to the boom of the surf as I spin my latest plots and wonder how to make things still more complicated for my characters. I pause often to admire the bounding waves, all green-shot blue, crowned with swirling foam--and on occasion, to chase my hat, which the wind usually manages to snatch off my head at least once per trip, sometimes sending it straight into the water (where it is retrieved with either laughter or profanity, depending on my mood at the time!)

No bookstore is complete without a watch-cat!
There are other attractions to the area as well: bookstores, both new and secondhand (I stopped in at the San Luis Obispo Barnes & Noble and signed the lone copy of Waltz with a Stranger that they currently had in stock), and several distinctive and unusual shops (I remember a place specializing in beautiful blown glass sculptures, including one that looks like Hokusai's famous illustration of The Great Wave off Kanagawa.)

And of course, there are restaurants where you can find the most delicious golden-brown fish and chips (Hofbrau in Morro Bay) and the creamiest clam chowder (Splash Cafe in Pismo Beach, which has won the Annual Chowder Cook-Off in multiple years).  
 The Dinner Rush at Splash Cafe

Or, if you're seeking atmosphere as well as sustenance, check out the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, where you can get a good breakfast and a good laugh--at the over-the-top predominantly pink decor. Not even the restrooms emerged unscathed: the ladies' room boasts a chandelier and red leather upholstery, the men's stone sinks and a tiled urinal. According to my sister, one of the men's rooms used to contain a waterwheel--a piece of subliminal messaging, perhaps?--although it appears to have been removed in recent years.
She's only a girl on a gilded swing ...

My favorite kitschy Madonna Inn touch is the Victorian doll on the swing, who hangs from the ceiling amid the clusters of artificial wisteria. Sometimes a blonde, sometimes a brunette, she rocks serenely back and forth, her dress changing with the seasons. This time around, she wore bright scarlet, making her impossible to miss among the white and lavender flowers.

But ultimately, it's the sea I always come back to, whether I'm wading ankle-deep in its bracingly cold waters or simply gazing at it from the clifftop path behind our hotel and letting my thoughts drift in and out with the tide. It's the sea that calms and excites me by turns, that lulls me into tranquility and reawakens my creativity. The place where I feel my happiest, most productive self--and the place I can't wait to return to, every summer.
Shell Beach, a clifftop view
Do you have a place like that? Is it the mountains, the sea, or somewhere else entirely that calls to you?


  1. Your love for the sea comes through in your words. My soul is at rest in West Texas where the flat land stretches on and on to meet up with the sky and where the stars make up half the picture at night. But I also love the ocean...the waves licking the sandy shore is music to my ears and puts me into the writing mood quicker than anything.

  2. There are a number of places I remember fondly--the road to Hana, a mountain-ringed valley outside the NE entrance to Yellowstone, Loch Ness--and I return to those places in my mind often. However, the lure of a totally new place is always drawing me somewhere else. I always want to see what's over the next hill.

  3. Victoria, I've only been to Scotland once, myself, but it's definitely a place that leaves a mark! One of my friends is Scottish herself, and proudly traces her ancestry back to two Highland clans.

    Carolyn, your description of West Texas is very evocative. Isn't it remarkable how just a sight of a loved place can lift your spirits and make you feel that all's right with the world?

    Mia, it's always exciting to discover a new place that can find its way into your heart along with the already loved and familiar locations.

  4. I'll always remember the time I went to Canada. We got to go these hot springs bordered by mountains and the mountain goats would come really close all "What's up?"

  5. We don't make it up to Central California very often but one of my favorite sights is Morro Rock...I am just fascinated by it for some reason. I remember giggling at the rooms at the Madonna Inn and the delicious smell of the split pea soup from Andersen's (even though I don't like the soup itself, I love the scent). Thanks for the lovely tour and memories!

  6. I always enjoy the area around the Great Lakes in the summer. I grew up there, so it reminds me of my childhood.

  7. Brooklyn Ann, I've been to Canada a few times--mostly the B.C. area and occasionally Alberta & Calgary--but never far enough into the wilderness to encounter the local fauna. At least the mountain goats sound mostly friendly!

    Elf, Morro Rock is a very striking sight--like a mountain in the middle of the bay. I always wonder what it would be like to take a boat ride out to it, and physically measure how big it is next to humans. Glad you enjoyed the "virtual tour."

    Shana, I think beloved places take on a special significance when they played a big part in our early lives. Yosemite will always be a fond memory, even though I vacation elsewhere these days.