A paradise

Trip Start Apr 02, 2007
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23
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Trip End Jul 02, 2007


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Flag of United States  , California
Monday, June 11, 2007

Fly south down the coast from San Francisco, burn through the fog and out into sunshine. Leave the city behind and come upon farmlands, rolling down golden from the hills and spilling into the ocean. A long cow in the long grass. Fields of strawberries, cherries, lettuce, artichokes, marigolds. Signs advertising pies, honeys, fruits, cheeses. Slide on past and following the curves of the road as it hugs the cliffs over the water. Come to Monterey Bay, John Steinbeck country, the salt of the ocean, the sugar of the farmlands. Turn off and hit heavy traffic, the return-commute from San Fran, crawl on into Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz, a paradise on the west coast, where surf breaks against the cliffs beneath the light house and trucks laden with fresh produce spill vegetables into the road as they bounce into town. At the farmer's market all the produce is fresh, and the aromas of six seven eight species of summer-ripe nectarine waft through the air. Freshly picked fruit, fresh vegetables, freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, freshly made honey, pesto, curry, chutney, freshly jarred pickles, freshly brewed tea. The smells are intoxicating and the fruits of the region are succulent. Moving through the crowd are conversations about the turgidity of various molecules, and how we are all dead.

There is another scent on the breeze; it is the smell of weed, the smell of hippies. Santa Cruz are liberal haven within the liberal haven of the West Coast. These are informed people. If they talk about how we are all dead it is because there is a serious case to be made for that. The first town in the USofA to denounce the war in Iraq, a centre for vegetarianism, for organic farming, for legalisation of marijuana, for queer rights.

On the streets there are a dozen guitars playing. A full mariachi band blasts its way through the various Mexican joints. A duo are banging away on pots and pans and getting a great groove out of them. Between the buskers slump numerous down and out guys and gals, holding crumpled cardboard signs. Some of them are awfully well dressed. Most of them are not.   

Down on the water it is too cold to swim, but a small crowd of cyclists and walkers have stopped off to watch the surfers weave among the sharp cliffs below. A brood of blonde-haired kids are paddling out together. Out in the briney beds of kelp an otter is floating, and picking apart his shellfish catch.

The coast is a feet of natural architecture. Ranging for hundreds of miles to the north and south are great rock arches, chasms and hollows, and towering islands stand out in the heaving water, surrounded by hard foam. on top of the cliffs all is calm and sleepy and golden.

In Santa Cruz, where the cliffs give way to beach can be heard screams and laughter. On the beach stands the Boardwalk, a century-old amusement park full of bone-jarring, teeth-knocking rides. It looks old and well-worn, lacking any of the gloss of the higher profile Californian theme parks. The entertainment it serves up belongs to an older, simpler tradition, but families and friends descend on it in droves none the less. The spirit of earnestness, of being able to suspend cynicism and throw yourself into the moment, is well and truly alive here.

It is an easy place to spend time, an easier place to lose time completely. A week can slip away unnoticed so easily. My host Lindsay and i rode along the cliffs, watched the surfers, the otters, the rattling roller coasters, we gorged ourselves on burritos and camped overnight further south in Big Sur national park, where the coastal architecture is at its most sublime. But the time was seeping away faster than we could spend it.

On the last day before we left on our road trip Lindsay graduated from UCSC. The ceremony was utterly unlike my sombre, formal affair in the Great Hall at the university of Sydney. The dais was erected out on green field. beyond it the cliffs plummeted away down to Santa Cruz town, a tiny thing hugging tightly to the coast below. the immensity of the ocean shimmered beyond. The official party marched out and was lead by a student in a giant owl costume. a lot of the graduates weren't in gowns. When certain names were read and degrees conferred, air horns blasted from out of the crowd. It was a raucous affair, fitting for a university that for a time didn't award grades to its students. The campus itself sprawls on the hills encompassing golden pastureland and deep redwood forests. Signs warn of mountain lions in the area.

The guest speaker made the usual jokes about relaxed UCSC, offered the usual inspiration words, and then concluded with a more focused, direct message. for those considering their futures, and what to do with themselves, he gave these words: LEAVE SANTA CRUZ. to make sure he had been heard right and well, he repeated them: LEAVE SANTA CRUZ.  

What kind of message was this to leave for the men and women of tomorrow?

There was wisdom in his admonition. The town is a kind of paradise, but it is also a snare. It is a place where time disappears, and where, despite a history of activism, everything feels utterly passive and static.

At a party students congregate around the fire and pass the bong, the pipe, the joint, the beer, the margaritas. Before the sun has fully set silence descends over the group and there is nothing more to say or do except to reach for the smoke as it comes back around. Dumb grins are smeared across faces and i am utterly utterly bored.

This is a town where medicine cabinet is its own pharmacy, an A-Z of prescription drugs to treat every possible condition before or after it has risen. The American cult of convenience taken to its furthest and most ludicrous extreme. Everyone is medicated or in therapy or both, and every few days someone is have anxiety attacks and break downs. There is, behind the dumb grins and paradisaical feel, an air of depression about the place. At the party by the fire someone speaks up through the drink and smoke with 'life is good', and the words dissipate into the air. They are true, but they don't feel true, sitting in this zombie camp in the half-dark. People are in bed by 10.

Life IS good. Santa Cruz IS a paradise. BUT it was one i was happy to leave. the words of that guest speaker rang so true behind us as we departed on our trip. Once upon a time the town must have been all fire and energy,but that was back in the days when it meant something to be identified as a hippy. Today the hippies about time seem like sad relics. They have grown affluent, they have kept their town beautiful. They have their semi-legal weed, and now they sit in a haze and begin to embody some of the things they rebelled against. It is a sad place, despite the sun, the sweet fruit, the soothing rhythm of the ocean.

I heeded the words of wisdom and left Santa Cruz. It is a paradise of a holiday destination, somewhere to stop off and savour the flavours. But i felt very sorry for Lindsay who had to return. But saw the wisdom in the words, and she too will leave. The world is too big. Paradise is too small.
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