West Coast, Second Best Coast

Most of my knowledge of California comes from the hit 2000s show, “The O.C.”. While I might have been a little foolish to assume that our trip would just include a love triangle between a nerdy comic book kid, the prettiest girl in school, and a water polo player (season 2), I was unprepared for just how awesome the trip to California would be, even sans Seth Cohen.

Day 1

Not that I was entirely unprepared. Before departing we read Jack London’s Tales of the Fish Patrol, and John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. We studied upwelling and the Coriolis Effect. We talked about public access to the waterfront and the policies regarding fisheries. And then, we got to see the places we had read about and discussed at length.

First up: Piling into four minivans and beginning the drive from San Francisco to Monterey. Along the way, we pulled over for some leg-stretching and an introduction to our week. We stood on cliff taller and steeper than anything I know in Connecticut, leaning into the wind, as heavy fog misted our hair and soaked our faces. We also ate cookies and crasins–a tame introduction to the week of heavy snacking (and learning) ahead of us.

It was in Monterey that I began to realize what I was getting myself into. Every year, Williams-Mystic treats students to sundaes and chocolate at the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory. And every year, a few brave (read: gross) souls compete to see who can eat the Earthquake the fastest. What is the Earthquake, you ask? Only bananas, eight scoops of ice cream, and every sauce and topping known to man. You won’t be surprised to learn that I was among the competitors. Despite my team’s loss (by two seconds, people!), it was a valuable lesson. I discovered that all of us are willing to be disgusting when it is called for.

Day 2

Rest assured, some academic lessons were learned on our second day in Monterey. We saw the paths that novelist John Steinbeck and marine biologists Ed Ricketts walked. We spent a few hours in Monterey Bay Aquarium. Best of all, I achieved a life goal; I saw a sea otter–nay, a dozen!–in the wild. They were all hanging outside the aquarium, floating on their backs, gamboling you might say. As otters do. It was amazing.

Now, at this point I assumed I was done. My goal was accomplished, the rest of the trip – the rest of the semester – did not matter. Or so I thought. As it turned out, it only got better, because when we went to Point Lobos State Reserve later that day, we saw…. More. Sea. Otters.

But even beyond the otters, Point Lobos was incredible. It was stunningly beautiful, even in the downpour. The paths were covered in the iridescent shells of abalone. After exploring the cliffs, we went tide pooling and saw some incredible creatures that we just don’t find on the East Coast. I, for instance, found a sea lemon. I did not even know that was a thing to find.

Day 3

On our third day, I reached another milestone: Falling asleep in the vans. A classic field seminar faux pas, I know. I woke up to the van creeping along cliffs that shot up out of bright blue water, flecked with foam and dotted with surfers. (No sea otters, alas.) We gathered atop the cliffs for lectures on the history of surfing and the geology of the area. Dearth of sea otters aside, the moment felt special: one of those times it became clear just how interconnected our classes are, and how connected they are to the environment around us. We ended the day in a circle, reflecting on our experiences thus far. I’m tempted to call it too kumbaya-y. But in truth, I’ll admit, it was special as well.

Day 4

I love tugboats. I do not know why, though I suspect it has something to do with Thomas the Tank Engine. Other random obsessions and their suspected causes, respectively, include: the Golden Gate Bridge (The Princess Diaries) and Alcatraz (Al Capone Does My Shirts). Suffice to say, motoring past Alcatraz and doing donuts under the Golden Gate Bridge aboard a tugboat was one of the highlights of my life.

That said, I never really understood the West Coast. I suppose I’m loyal to New England. But oh my goodness, is San Francisco cool. I spent that evening exploring the city with my classmates: walking up Lombard Street, lurking about Fisherman’s Wharf, eating crab, eating yet more Ghirardelli, riding downhill in a cable car. Needless to say, it was great.

Days 5-7

The rest of the trip passed in a blur. A walking tour of San Francisco and frisbee on the beach at Bodega Bay one day. Singing “This Land is Your Land” in the redwood forests the next. Oysters, mole crabs, pillow basalts and more. (In case you’re wondering, the oysters were delicious. No mole crabs were consumed, but I can testify that they looked absolutely monstrous.)

The Aftermath

In case you haven’t gathered by now: California was amazing. So amazing that it took me forever to process and even longer to blog about. I don’t think I’ve mentioned half of what we did.

But I’d feel remiss if I didn’t mention returning home to Mystic. Traveling might be a highlight of the semester, but by the end of our journey I was so excited to catch up on “Project Runway” with my housemates and debrief about our experiences. As someone who has had a fairly rocky college experience and can easily – easily – count the number of friends I have on my home campus on one hand, it is so exciting and comforting to have a group of people I feel comfortable and happy with. It gets better, kids.

And as always, we travel ever onwards. In the wise words of Woody Guthrie, “From California to the Gulf Stream waters.”

In other words, folks, we’re going to Louisiana.

Author: williamsmystic

A one semester interdisciplinary ocean and coastal studies program integrating marine science, maritime history, environmental policy, and literature of the sea.

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