November 11, 2017

Crystal Cove
Crystal Cove, Newport Coast, April 2017 (watercolor, Inktense pencil and watercolor crayon on watercolor paper)

Last spring I visited my brother and his family while they stayed at Crystal Cove, near Newport Beach. This is the view from their little house on the hill, looking down a rather nice bit of California coast. Crystal Cove State Park includes a couple miles of Pacific Ocean coastline, some chaparral canyons and a number of historic beach houses that were built from about 1920 to 1940. I guess they started renting out these little cottages in 1979. When I looked up more details about this place a minute ago, their official site described Crystal Cove State Park as one of the last bits of natural seashore and open space in Orange County. I think I like adding this last bit in my narrative because there really isn’t much of our coastline that hasn’t been claimed by someone and/or developed with condos, hotels, businesses, golf courses and of course huge homes.

When I was a kid there were a couple beachfront areas, like Newport Beach (further north of Crystal Cove), La Jolla (San Diego) and parts of Malibu that seemed to have been reserved by the wealthy and/or famous. But even Malibu was known as the Malibu Colony back then and there were definitely some simple and unadorned houses right on the sand.

It’s always been so funny to me to see the seaside places that were once considered to be kind of dumpy, with the worst possible foggy weather, that now boast million dollar homes with continued terrible coastal fog. I mean, on the central coast no one went to Pismo Beach, Cayucos, or Morro Bay for a fancy “get away.” Those places always seemed to be “socked in” with fog, and only passable dives that served “greasy spoon” fish and chips. The sand-filled wind at the beach in Cambria in winter can literally blast the freckles from your nose, and yet lots of folks flock to that area these days. The California coast just north of Cambria (on the way to San Simeon) is pretty spectacular, with wonderful bluffs and no houses. But the Hearst family has tried, over the years, to develop that area–so far without success. Traveling south from here, near San Diego, there is Pacific Beach. And when I was young it had many scary looking houses near the water. It seemed that the only people who went to that beach back then were looking for a bar or a tattoo, or both. And of course there are Northern California beaches that weren’t particularly glamorous not so long ago. Santa Cruz had the beach boardwalk with some terrifying roller coaster rides, and the requisite bars and tattoo parlors. And there were lots of “white-haired” surfer dudes with beach dogs, riding around in old V dub vans. The downtown really changed after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. A lot of the brick buildings there were taken down because they weren’t safe anymore. And with that went some of the quaintness of that sleepy beach community.

Writing about the long ago beaches of California reminded me of a particular family SoCal summer rental. It was a little house in Sunset Beach, near Huntington Beach. I guess my grandfather and uncle picked out the place for us, site unseen by my mother. We actually have a home movie of us getting out of the family van and taking our stuff into that little house. There was just a tiny road between the sandy beach and our house, and I distinctly remember that I had the attic room at the very top of the stairs. I spent some amazing time in my little hidy hole reading a bunch of Mary Poppins books by P. L. Travers (aka Helen Lyndon Goff). And at night I could hear the ocean. My brothers and I thought it was pretty great. Of course, when my mom spoke of our little house she reminded us there were slugs in the shower and a mouse in their bedroom that could be heard chewing on the carpet at night. Poor mom! And it seems there was a rip tide in the ocean just in front of our house. I guess my dad was disappointed that his body surfing there would be limited. But aunts, uncles and cousins came by to visit and that all seemed pretty great to me. I can’t remember if my grandpa and uncle (that picked out the place for us) came by. I suspect my mom would have loved to tell them about the critters that were sharing the house with us.

Those little houses are all gone now. Sunset Beach and Huntington Beach has some really fancy condos, restaurants and shopping. I think the nostalgia for old California beach areas is why my brother started taking his family to Crystal Cove. He wanted them to see what was like to stay in a little house right on the water, minus the bars and tattoo parlors. I think getting a reservation at Crystal Cove isn’t particularly easy, compared to the many slightly dumpy places we rented when we were kids. Crystal Cove isn’t as cheap as it was back then. I guess people today expect to pay more, and probably wouldn’t think it fun if there was a slug or two in the shower.

Note about this watercolor: When I finished this watercolor, I sent it to my brother to hang in the vintage tugboat wheelhouse he has restored and placed in his backyard in Northern CA. He likes to go sit out there and smoke cigars. I’m sure he enjoys the view. (I guess I should add that you can’t rent any of the little houses you see here. They have fallen into disrepair. And if you look closely, you can see the faint outline of a chain link fence between the row of houses and the surf line. I’m sure there are more than a few slugs, mice and other assorted critters (e.g. termites and dry rot) living in those places right now.)

Note about Veteran’s Day and my dad: My dad was a vet, serving just as WWII was ending. He wanted to get the GI bill so he could go to UCLA and study physics and engineering. Thanks dad for your service and thanks for going to UCLA–where he met my mom.

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