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Begin at the Beginning

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Manhattan Beach is a special spot for me, and that’s why I’ve chosen to start this chronicle there.

For one thing, it was my home for almost a decade and a half. I rented two different beach apartments there, one from 1983-1993 and another from 2002-2005. Both were, in the odd slogans used by realtors in beach communities, “steps from the sand.” The first apartment was actually 72 steps from my front door to the sand. The second apartment was maybe twice that far.

For another, it was the first beach I remember going to as a kid. My mother didn’t like driving on the freeway, and Manhattan Beach happened to be at the western end of the arterial highway closest to where we lived, a 30-minute drive that felt in those late 50s day like an overland expedition in a station wagon filled with kids and towels and a picnic basket.

El Porto at Manhattan Beach, CA - a sliver of beach on Santa Monica Bay that has retained its identity.

But most of all, it was there at the north end of Manhattan Beach, a section that was in those days more than a half-century ago known as El Porto (and still is to many who frequent that beach), that I had several revelations about the ocean. These were revelations of a distinctly kid variety. To an adult, they’re merely observations of the obvious.

The ocean is immense. The evidence I’ve stacked up over the rest of my lifetime underscores this one. Four-fifths of the earth is covered with water. The Pacific Ocean alone contains nearly 150,000,000 cubic miles of water, which by one estimate works out to 187,189,915,062,000,000,000 gallons. Even if the estimate is off by a factor of two or three, it’s still a lot of water.

The ocean is powerful. This dawned on me the first time a wave knocked me down. It’s been a recurrent thought every time another wave knocked me down. Clearly, in a fight with the ocean, the ocean would win every time.

Lifeguard station at El Porto

The ocean is relaxing. The sound of its waves, the ebb and flow of its tides, the rocking of its swells—all induce peaceful feelings. Even the glimmer of sunshine on the water is calming.

The ocean has a mind of its own. Seeing your first sand castle swept away by the surf leaves no doubt of this one. And my own professional life of seeing the results of angry seas—landslides, storm surf, swamped beaches and roads—have confirmed it time and again.

Surfers hitting the late-afternoon swell at El Porto

I thought about these things again as the breeze kicked up one summer afternoon. Everybody on the beach seemed to get it. Everybody has an implicit understanding of what came to me as earth-moving observations fifty years ago. The surfers sure got it as they thrashed in the chop. Those napping on the sand got it. Even the kids playing by the water’s edge, some every bit as young as I was when these realizations popped into my head, got it.

Why did these seem like such huge revelations to my eight-year-old mind?

My journey is now underway, this voyage to see every bit of coastline in the continental U. S., all 5,089 miles of it. It’s pretty clear to me by this advanced age that not every observation is piercing, that the waves won’t stop for every revelation (or, in fact, for any revelation), and that if you have to look at something, the ocean is, for so many reasons, an amazing thing to look at.

Sometimes, as Freud observed, a cigar is just a cigar.

Surfer catches a ride at El Porto while oil tanker offloads offshore at adjoining El Segundo.

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