Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Light Station No. 496

When I travel, I have a strange habit. Inside my desk drawer, along with a few years’ worth of accumulated Sharpies, spare earplugs, now-arcane thumb drives, and last year’s birthday cards, there are several folders. Each folder contains the paper detritus of a trip or two, loosely bound by a pocket divider or binder clip: bleached receipts, transit cards, tickets, programs, random stickers, maps – any paper good that I could fold up and put in my pocket, until my pocket was too full, when they’d get wedged into my small notebook like an overstuffed pita.


Early this fall, Amelia and I took a pretty epic trip to Northern California (referenced in my previous post) – which provided the two paper scraps above. The first was a receipt (old-school dot-matrix printer, if you couldn’t tell) from a hostel in Monterey. At the end of our trip, we made a quick jaunt down the coast to explore parks around Big Sur for a day. Not having the coin to stay in a swanky, cliffside, masseuse-included resort (or a yurt fancier than our own house), we bunked (literally in bunk-beds, albeit with stellar memory-foam mattresses) at a hostel in Monterey.

A year previous, during my first coastal excursion with a group of dude-friends, we’d stayed at the same place. I felt a pull to return, and everything was unchanged, down to the slightly-salty elder sea-hippie at the counter, whose sockhat and sweater were as rumpled as 12 months ago.

Also unchanged? His check-in manner. Only one guest could check in at a time, which initiated an unstoppable-but-friendly 10+ minute sequence that involved an archaic computer system, a thorough facility introduction including safety & door lock warnings, bathroom token explanations, and brief tour of rooms. He also jotted notes down on your receipts indicating rooms and codes and (last year), even drew a brief map indicating a suggested restaurant. In short, the man is a champ...if inefficient.

Because as sure as the wind blows, when one backpacker arrives, they all do. And holding fifty-pound rigs while sitting four parties back in line, watching the check-in sequence over and over must’ve seemed like some sort of torturous performance art. I could only look back sympathetically before we went off in search of unadorned shrimp with some drawn butter and strong cocktail sauce.

Further up the coast, well north of the Bay Area, we’d stopped at the only climbable lighthouse on California’s coast. It stands neatly west of the coastal highway, across a couple miles of scorched coastal plain, small shrub stands and cattle woven into the foggy fabric and occasional sun-shower.

(The view from atop Point Arena.)

I have a strange, not unromantic attachment to lighthouses, as do many in landlocked areas, as evidenced by Indiana’s plethora of lighthouse-themed apartment complexes, storage facilities, restaurant/bars, and more. Not that I’m drawn to those simulacrums, or that I have a room full of lighthouse tchotchkes displayed on a prim shelf.

No, my predilection is if I see one that can be ascended – I need to climb that lighthouse. Growing up, my mom’s side of the family would rent a large house or two in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, big enough to stuff 25 or more of us into for a week each summer for the better part of a decade. In-between endless pancake breakfasts, jellyfish counting, and nightly euchre tournaments full of war whoops and dancing, there was always a trip to the famous Hatteras lighthouse.

Driving up through the lot, at an acute angle to the beach, this massive lighthouse almost seemed to rise from the waves, thrust out of the ocean by some giant hand that was unperceivable. In fact, at one point it was delicately moved back from the eroding shore, something that must’ve taken a couple years considering the tons of brick that made up the structure.

There’s a photograph of my younger brother and I atop the lighthouse, out against the railing that now seems very open, beneath 2014’s near-paranoia safety standards. We’re wearing soccer jerseys, wind in hair, sun in eyes, staring into the camera, maybe slightly past down the coast full of battered beach and a bunch of houses that were subsumed by a hurricane in the last decade-and-a-half.

No fog floats around, just sun and youth. I remember looking down at the parking lot and watching the ant-like people scurry back and forth, before looking down the tide as it ran toward the horizon. Time seems to pause when you’re inside a view that used to be the solitary blessing of the keeper. When I’m in a lighthouse, taking the stairs two-by-two to get to the top, I’m momentarily transported back in time to my younger self, looking at the beach, smelling the sea – a temporary fountain of youth.

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