California Field Seminar


by Amy Shmania, F09

Day One: Travel

They didn’t warn us about the minivans.  Before the trip we had talked about van cliques and co-pilots.  We had seen the schedule with all of the places that we were going to drive.  But we could not anticipate what the van caravan really meant until, standing outside the San Francisco Airport, we watched four minivans pull up to the curb in unison as Rachel’s walkie-talkie announced: “We’re pulling in.  Load ’em up.”  As we piled into the vans, put in the first mix CDs, and listened to Glenn announce over the radio that we were moving into the right lane, we realized we were part of our own little minivan mafia.  There was no turning back now.

That was a good thing, because I don’t think any one of us had any intention of turning back.  There were too many things to see and do—a schedule so packed that to follow it seemed an impossible feat.  Yet, in all the commotion of zooming from place to place along the coast, this adventure would have ample time for soaking up the views from rocky cliffs overlooking the ocean, for dance parties, for morning swims, for Ghirardelli ice cream, and for midnight walks across the sand dunes.

Day Two: Point Lobos

Look out from the cliff, down the slope at the kelp beds, at Whaler’s Cove, at gray and black and tan cliffs covered in vegetation, at Monterey.  Pick up a shell left over from a Native American’s dinner and watch a sea lion bark where whalers used to drag their catch.  Sit here and think, but not just what comes into your head.  Think about the rocks you sit on.  Think about the use of land and water.  Think about the people, and the plants, and the animals which have been here before you.  Ponder the sublime.

Day Four: The Crowley Tugboat

I don’t think that many minivans drive into the Oakland container yard.  I don’t actually suppose that many people whose work doesn’t involve container ships would ever consider visiting the commercial port or be invited to do so.  Looking through the van window as we drove in, I saw more machinery than I had ever seen in my life.  There were massive container ships and huge cranes made to load cargo, which loomed tall and white across the sky.  Even though I had driven past the container yards near New York City several times, I had never taken a moment to think about why all of the containers were there.  Now, here we were, watching ships get loaded with cargo from and for other countries, the east coast, our wardrobes, our backpacks, our kitchen sinks.

Never passive observers, our foray into the cargo world did not stop in the shipyard.  Our destination was a tugboat owned by the Crowley Maritime Corporation, which operates the most tugboats and barges of any company in the world.  The boat was red and white, with large black tires on the sides.  The main deck was wide and open both fore and aft.  In the middle arose the three story cabin area.  The first floor housed the kitchen (as big as Carr House’s), a dining area, storage, and a head, among other things.  The next floor, which was smaller, held a few sleeping rooms, a head and a small office.  The top floor was walled-in by windows and contained computers, compasses, controls, and steering wheels for getting the boat where it needed to go.

While watching a classmate steer the boat, I learned that the tugboat is propelled by two “eggbeaters” which, when held at different angles, move the boat in different directions and at different speeds.  I also took a trip to the engine room, which was massive.  Located below decks, it took up more space than the downstairs of our house.  We could see where the “eggbeaters” were housed, and look at the engines, the generators, and the fire safety system, all brightly painted and humming noisily.

Crowley Engine Room

Back on the deck I watched a container ship get loaded from the shore.  A man in the operator box of one of the giant white cranes would reach down with a magnetic claw, pull a container off of a truck, lift it up and carry it to a new resting place among hundreds of other containers on the container ship.  Each container was moved with precision from place to place, the transaction only taking a few minutes.

Containe Ship

For a couple of hours, we had free reign of a commercial tugboat, something very few people get to do.  We got to see in action how it’s possible that my t-shirt is from El Salvador and my computer power supply was made in Taiwan.  And they gave us hats.  Which were made in China.

Day Seven: Point Reyes Lighthouse

There are over three hundred steps to get down to the where the Point Reyes Lighthouse sits overlooking the ocean, but the view is worth the hike.  To the south, lost in the fog, are the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge.  To the north are Bodega Bay and giant hills covered with brown, yellow, and green, cows and scrubby plant life.  Directly below are tan cliffs, a few lost hats, seals, seabirds, and rocky stacks.  To the west are the Farallon Islands, ocean, and fog.

Point Reyes

Point Reyes is one of the foggiest and windiest places on the Pacific Coast.  It is isolated by the ocean and rocks and rolling hills.  It would be a lonely place to be a lighthouse keeper.  The wind on the descent to the lighthouse could be dangerous, deadly.  I wonder who would want to live there with no company but the ocean and the rocky cliffs.  Maybe the staggering beauty of the place and the purpose of saving ships from the rocks was enough.

Day Nine: Home

Walking back across the Seaport’s parking lot to Carr House, it feels good to be home, to see the leaves turning orange and red and to feel the crisp fall air.  In my pocket are rocks from a beach in Bodega Bay and in my bag are sand and dirt and salt and notes and diagrams of plate tectonics and clothes still damp with the Pacific Ocean.  It feels good to be back, carrying little bits of adventures among my socks.

To see videos from our California trip visit:

Author: Williams-Mystic

An interdisciplinary ocean and coastal studies program integrating marine science, maritime history, environmental policy, and literature of the sea. All majors welcome and 100% of financial need met!

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