From June until September, when the temperatures soar well above 100 degrees, most Phoenicians suffer a kind of amnesia about why they live in a desert city where, for most of the year, the weather is the kind that people from rainy, grey places covet. In the summer, all hot and bothered, we retreat to our air-conditioned offices, and grumble that our backyard pools aren’t quite cool enough. I know – ‘first world problems.’ Invariably, someone in Phoenix, probably someone on vacation who has never encountered such sizzling temperatures, will make a point about the excessive heat by attempting to fry an egg on the sidewalk.
On June 26, 1990, Phoenix recorded its all-time high of 122 degrees – people still wear T-shirts commemorating the day. I remember telling Ken I couldn’t take one more day without seeing the ocean and smelling the salty air. So that Friday evening after work, when he said we should just get in the car and head for the coast, we did. And we kept driving. Not just to Southern California, which would have been most convenient, but farther north. Ken wanted to take me somewhere that might feel a bit like Ireland.
After about nine hours driving, we were walking along the wooden pier at Pismo Beach in San Luis Obispo County, eating steaming hot clam chowder out of sourdough bread bowls. We checked in to a little motel and slept for a few hours before heading north to Monterey. This was before GPS, Smartphones, and “selfies”; we didn’t even have a map. We didn’t need one. We had a tank full of gas, a fresh roll of film in my camera, and we were madly in love. Off we went, taking side roads and scenic routes along Highway 1, stopping at a lighthouse where we got out of the car, balanced the camera on top of a fencepost, set it on self-timer mode, and posed for a photo. I can almost feel Ken’s blue work-shirt tied around my waist.
On we went, driving along breathtakingly beautiful coastline, as the fog lifted. I remember telling Ken that if the Antrim Coast had such weather, it would give Pacific Coast Highway a run for its money.
We drove all the way to Monterey and all the way back to Phoenix, because Ken had to go to work the next day. We could have reached the northern coast of California in a fraction of the time if we had just hopped on a plane, but much of the appeal of America – for me and for Ken – lies in its vastness, its states connected by highways that seem to stretch on forever, ‘from sea to shining sea.’
It wasn’t until 2004 that we visited the lighthouse again. Again, it was an unexpected surprise. By this time we had a little girl, and we had already taken her to Southern California – to Disneyland and Sea World. We didn’t want to go to either place again. Sophie had no time for Mickey Mouse and, even then, wanted to free all the animals from Sea World. We needed a different place entirely, a place that could become our family vacation spot.
Online, I had discovered Morro Bay, a sleeply little beach town half way between LA and San Francisco, known for its landmark Morro Rock, the “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” one of a series of ancient volcanic peaks, the Nine Sisters of San Luis Obispo Count, all in a row, for over 20 million years. I knew Ken and Sophie would love it. Both nature lovers, they would enjoy exploring the tidepools and looking up into the trees in the eucalyptus grove that provides sanctuary for several hundred species of land, sea, and shore birds.
Somehow Ken and I had managed to miss Morro Bay in 1990. I don’t know how. One day, on our first vacation there with Sophie, we were headed just north of San Simeon to see the rookery where the elephant seals rest. On the way there, a lighthouse caught my eye. Sure enough, it was the same place where Ken and I had taken our “selfie” fourteen years earlier. This time, Sophie took the picture for us. Things had come full circle, and it seemed we were right where we belonged.
For eight summers, our little trio travelled to Morro Bay, where the living was always easier, our days beginning whenever we decided the time was right, with idle conversations about what we would order for breakfast at Good Tides and a scan of the local newspaper for news about people we didn’t even know. The only schedule of any import was that of the local Farmer’s Markets so Ken could make his annual pilgrimage to Atascadero for his favorite avocados.
What I love about Morro Bay is its constancy. It remains the perfect place for bird watching and beach-combing, for tide-pooling and thrift-store shopping, for sampling freshly picked strawberries and California peaches at the Farmer’s Market on Main Street every Saturday afternoon, for 4th July Fireworks on the bay. For mango lattes from the Top Dog coffee shop, pizza and beer at the Pizza Port, and pockets-full of sand-dollars from the strand. And for the stunning sunsets. Morro Bay doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It doesn’t have to.
So this past Father’s Day, Sophie’s first without her dad, exactly seven months since he died, she and I did what he would have loved to do with us. We hit the road.
Before, it would never have occurred to me to drive across the desert at night – fearing coyotes and escaped convicts, I suppose. Still, there was just something about the big, beautiful “honey moon” that compelled my daughter and me to get in the car after midnight on Thursday and drive all the way to Morro Bay, a big sky awash in pink-amber moonlight, and her dad’s favorite songs filling our ears.
When we arrived in Morro Bay, the temperature was around 70 perfect degrees, perfect for a drive to Pismo Beach and a walk along the pier with our dogs. We asked a stranger to take our picture, just as Ken and I had done some twenty-four years ago. Two spots of time, forever frozen.
Instead of Highway 1, I took the Los Osos Valley road back to Morro Bay – the road less traveled. I never take that road, so I like to think Ken had something to do with it, with “Gimme’ Shelter” playing and Sophie looking up from her phone just a moment before the sun slipped into the sea. I don’t think I have ever seen a day burn out so beautifully.
And to think we almost missed it . . .