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Prodigal Sheep Boomerang Fast


Disappointment lurked.  It was Christmas, 1997. Our son, Nate, was living in California.  Could we possibly enjoy this spell-casting holiday so many miles apart?  Never!   Welcoming a confusion of seasons, my husband and I decided to join him in sunny San Diego.  We drove through Connecticut’s typical wintry slush to the airport, a morning of grey skies and windy cold. During the flight, we sat and drank and ate and mused.   We landed and stepped out into the heady air of the coastal desert.  We drove down the hills into the shimmering blur of Ocean Beach, the seaside town where Nate lived. Every cactus and palm tree on the road dazzled us with flickering lights: fluorescent greens, neon yellows and chili pepper reds.  Strings of funky beads hung from eaves and around doorways of stout stucco houses. VW buses, the painted ladies of the sixties, with their psychedelic hues and flower power garishness, clustered in the coarse prickly grass of sidewalk aprons. The smell of jasmine and mixed with the scent of eucalyptus and smokers took refuge on terraces filled with the crisscross bristles of cactus.

We called Nate as soon as we arrived at the Elsbree Bed and Breakfast, not far from the condo that he shared with Woody, an old buddy from college. 

“Nate, hi, this is Mom.  We’re here, I can’t believe it, I’m so excited!” I nearly leapt through the phone.

“Hey, welcome to California,” Nate replied, “so how do you like the B and B?  Woody do a good job for ya’?” Woody was a businessman of sorts.  He made his living working for a catering firm but hoped to forge a career as a photographer. On a neighborhood “after hours” walk, he swapped business cards with the owner of the B and B, took a tour and immediately booked it for our stay. 

“Nate, this place is fabulous.  Katie and Phil left candies on the pillows, cookies and fruit and a full refrigerator.  Wait until you see it.  There’s art everywhere, a London phone booth that really works, a fountain suspended in mid air…..Woody did great!”  Lucky us, Woody had a champagne appetite and beer pocketbook.  He had found a diamond in the rough.

“So, we’ll be right over to get you.  You must be starving!” 
 
We slipped through the white picket fence, followed the garden path to the sidewalk and crossed the street. Nate’s condo hunkered down among several whitewashed buildings, fronted by a narrow wall and parched palms with scaly bark. Telephone wires fraternized with low slung cable lines, strung between houses and aging wooden poles.  5056 Pacific Boulevard was a three room stucco box with a large picture window.  The wide expanse of glass framed Nate’s rope hammock, ingeniously suspended from the ceiling. His motorcycle was partially camouflaged by the grid work of sun and shadow in the open walkway. Nate greeted us and gave us the tour.  Inside, bikes leaned on walls and books and CDs spilled from makeshift shelves.  Old Persian carpets with a well-worn sheen covered the floors along with sleeping bags and piles of clothes, a BC shirt on top of the heap.  Tacked near the closet was a map of the United States, Nate’s route across the country traced in fire-engine red. Surfboards stood ready for that perfect wave. Guitars were propped by the doorway to the flat roof, the perfect spot for viewing astral happenings.  Aside from the folks milling around on this balmy Christmas night, things were very quiet and we noticed that the restaurants were already closed. But I didn’t expect that we would go hungry.  Nate miss a chance to have a meal? Hardly.

“So, what do you think of the place so far?” Nate asked as we ate Christmas dinner at the Chinese Garden. I felt the beginning of an end, an end of traditions as we knew them.  All the signs were there, I didn’t need a fortune cookie to predict the future.  Our son was grown, his life his own and his course was set in a direction that we had never taken.  We talked as we drank our smoky black tea and ate our way through cartons of steaming rice and Szechwan bamboo shoots and pork. Smelling faintly of peanut oil, we left around midnight.  We headed back for some much needed rest and made plans to meet the next morning.  Ocean Beach was Nate’s home for now and it had secrets I was anxious to learn.

And learn them I did.  Ocean Beach is not the trendy urban side of San Diego.  It is not a planned waterfront mecca, a convention center with manicured parks or elaborate flower gardens. OB, as it is known, is the last stop at the end of highway 8. It is literally the end of the road for some of its inhabitants.  An eclectic mix of people from all over the country, many retirees from the northern most states, lived in and around San Diego proper and meandered down OB way.  Some folks, however, hitched or hallucinated their way to the highway’s final exit and found shelter in small encampments near the beach. The homeless, young, old, pregnant and sick, illegal Mexicans from Tijuana and Rosarita, Asians refugees:  all congregated here on this scrap of coast line. The sixties live; love and peace reign. Everyone is mellow in this campy town and moves with a slow grace.

Nate took us on a tour of a town where most people are barefoot, smile at you from behind their Oakleys and stroll the sidewalks with the lazy gait of folks with no where to go.  We went up and down the few streets where storefronts and displays looked sorely dated, suspended in time by chrome and cement facades. Cracked plate glass windows mended with yellowed tape exposed used goods and pawned items of some for whom the road ended suddenly. Faded posters of dead rock stars gave the town a nostalgic sixties feel. But I could see that Nate loved OB. He saw it though the eyes of a young strong and healthy man who greatest joy was to walk one block to the boardwalk and surf the waves of the Pacific Ocean.  He saw it through the eyes of a new and fresh adventurer who could ride his motorcycle across the beach, over the mountains and across the desert in wild and joyous bursts of freedom.  He saw it through the eyes of a curious and open minded thinker who did not judge and was not judged, who was tolerant of others and held out his hand to those in need.

“Hey, man, Nate, what’s happenin dude’?”  I turned in the direction of the hoarse voice and saw a teenage couple, fresh from sleep, sandy and rumpled.  They were carrying their few possessions in a worn backpack.
 “Hey, how are you guys?  Did you find a safe place to sleep?  I’m glad you’re OK.  Did you get to the clinic yet?”  Nate talked to the pair as though he knew them.  The girl coughed and hacked, looking at me with her rheumy eyes.  I took a few steps back.  Obviously Nate had helped them before and they were seeking him out again.

“Well, I’m doin’ OK but my girlfriend here is pretty hungry.  We thought you might have some more of those mashed potatoes.” The boy spoke softly, his frame slouched but leaning forward in a hopeful way. 

“Oh, yeah, sure.  Wait here I’ll get you guys some food,” Nate assured him.  This was just like Nate.  He would order an enormous meal, then give the leftovers to the homeless man in his Boston neighborhood.  I was relieved that he was as cautious as he was generous.  I felt both comforted and proud.  We waited with the couple until Nate returned with some of the left over food from the catering job he had with Woody a few days before.  The tray was mounded under its cover of tinfoil and the couple was pleased to have it.  We left them on the corner, still homeless but perhaps less hopeless.  The free clinics and services would be their support.  Nate was but a temporary lifeline.  Many others like them, transients and displaced souls, find their way to OB.  It isn’t hard; it is the end of the road, after all.

Ocean Beach, however, is a paradise, a patch of nature’s playground. Steep hills rise directly behind the town. The boardwalk leading to the pier was a mix of people who shared the camaraderie of living in the moment, worshipped the sun and were at peace with the world.  The pier extended out into the bay and was dotted with pelicans that fished alongside their human counterparts.  Groups of fishermen reveled in the sport of it while intergenerational families fished for sustenance, cleaning, fileting and stowing their catch for the evening meal.  Surfers in sleek wet suits rode the waves into the shore. Artists created fantasy realms out of water and sand.  A sculpted Goldilocks and three bears was surrounded by exquisite caricatures of winged creatures. Dogs roamed free on Dog Beach.  Christmas trees anchored in the sand were decorated with beach balls and mammoth lights.  People of all ages in tie-dyed T-shirts roamed the park, roller bladed on the paths, played Frisbee and catch on the scruffy and dusty fields.  What a glorious day in December, southern California at its most charming.

“So, are you hungry for some real Mexican food?” Nate asked.  “There are a few little places run by Mexicans who came over the border and can really cook!”  The one taverna with the open air bar that looked like it could have been in Boston would have been my first choice, but Nate was eager to share his favorite haunts with us.  OB was a relic of the sixties. The cost of living here was minimal and eating out was a downright bargain.  Providing you liked spicy food with lots of beans.  Over a dinner of burritos we made plans to go to the Anza -Borrego desert the next day.  The short winter-solstice days of low-angle sunshine, clear blue skies and pleasantly mild temperatures made the desert a perfect destination. It was about a 2 hour drive and we wanted to leave early so that we could stop in the mountains and hike through the arroyo.  

“Great!  I haven’t been there.  Woody has the day off, I bet he’d like to come and shoot some pictures.” Nate was enthused about the daytrip and the promise of some food and drink to boot.  We agreed to meet at 9.

The next morning we pulled up to Nate’s place and saw Woody’s jeep parked at the curb. Their neighbor, Joe, was settled in the middle of the back seat, contentedly munching on chips and guzzling Ginger Ale from a liter bottle.  Nate had introduced us to Joe earlier, a young man of 39 still living with his mother, a Hollywood starlet of 54, who had moved down from Vegas, leaving that “plastic” lifestyle behind.  Joe and his mom were challenged by life and somewhat altered by the use of various recreational drugs.  Joe failed to notice that the Jeep was listing heavily to one side due to a very flat tire.

Nate and Woody appeared, carrying the photography equipment, deep in conversation.

“Hey you two, good morning!  I think you guys should come with us.  Looks like you have a flat,” I pointed to the left rear tire. 

“Oh, man, again?  I have to get that fixed or I’ll miss work.  Worse yet, I’ll get stuck out at some catering job in La Jolla.,” said Woody.  Hmm, I thought LaJolla….Ocean Beach.   What is the problem here?  We’d been to LaJolla, home of Theodore Geisel, harbor seals, plush coffeehouses, cliff mansions, Torrey Pines, the rich and famous. 

Nate and Woody decided to forgo the daytrip; their livelihood and meal ticket was at stake.  They traded the camera equipment for some sockets and a jack, preparing to solve the problem at hand.  Joe was quite unaware that the trip was aborted.  He continued to snack, slurp and gaze out the window at the unchanging scenery, head swiveling to take it all in.  Joe’s Mom, in a stained robe enjoying her morning scotch, waved goodbye to us as we abandoned our plan for a family excursion and headed off into the hills on our own.

Southern California is everything to everyone.  To New Englanders in December, it is a luxurious quilt of sea, sand, mountains and desert.  That day we left the Pacific Ocean (begrudgingly) and drove into the mountains where an overnight snowfall had attracted families with skis and sleds to every hill and knoll along the road.  We reached Julian, a small mountain town with a lusty history from the days of the gold rush, now famous for its apple pies and the piano magic of Jim Brickman.

At the base of the mountains was the entrance to the Anza-Borrego desert.  Borrego is Spanish for ram and Anza was the name of the Spanish captain who led an expedition through the valley and eventually founding the community of San Francisco.  We expected to see a barren, inhospitable place with blazing sun, three-digit heat and blowing wind.  But there were secret places in the oasis filled with lush vegetation and cool soft breezes. The Visitor’s Center building on Palm Canyon Drive is underground, a place of inspiration and education.  Volunteers and videos helped us plan our visit. Naturalists offer suggestions and information on hikes, trails and desert safety.  The Anza-Borrego is one of the few remaining places in the country where open camping in the wilderness is permitted and here the backcountry is pristine and accessible.

The canyon was filled with birdsong, scurrying mammals and lizards warming themselves on rocks. The desert is home to the endangered pup fish that only hatches when a puddle forms, eggs sometimes lingering years between rains. Flowering plants with intense hues like brittlebush and chuparosa attract bees and hummingbirds.  The deep violet crown of the male Costa and the rose-red throat patch of the Anna stand out in the mesquite thickets. 

We hiked the Palm Canyon trail and marveled at the sure-footed peninsular big horn sheep that live on the rough rocky canyon walls.  From the summit of Yaqui Pass Road we could see the “lambing area”.  Using binoculars, we scanned Pinyon Ridge and spied their silhouettes against the sky.  Anza-Borrego is one of the last refuges of these sheep and ongoing programs for them include constructing water sources and fencing boundaries.  They have lived here for thousands of years, the first flocks migrating from Siberia.  Their numbers have declined, however, due to mining, depletion of water holes and homesteading.  The Bighorn Sheep Squadron patrol people are like shepards, pilots of the California Sate Parks who monitor the sheep from planes outfitted with electronic devices.  They are able to travel the rugged terrain and vast wilderness in fixed wind aircraft and helicopters, locating the sheep by signals transmitted from radio collars.  

Spindly ocotillo with vibrant red flowers and cheesebush, a member of the sunflower family, dot the boulder strewn plain and outcrops of tilted slabs of beige and orange-tinted sandstone.  We were amazed by the grove of California fan palms and thankful for the coyotes that eat the fruit and help to spread the hard seeds, thus creating a new palm grove some distance away. We returned to OB that evening enriched by the exotic charm of the desert. There was message waiting for us on the machine. Nate and Woody had fixed the tire and driven to Julian for a blast of winter fun after all.
 
 
 The phone rang early the next morning. 

“Hey Mom and Dad, want to go and see my rickshaw?” Nate’s voice was tinged with amusement.  He knew this was a sore point with his father, the man who had sent him to college with Wall Street in mind, not the San Diego Zoo parking lot.  

“You bet we do!” I answered.  Soon we were on our way to the Zoo and its environs, the place where Nate picked up a little extra cash delivering visitors to the front gate from distant parking lots.  

“I sit under a tree and wait.   Along comes a car, I pedal down alongside, ask if they want a lift and let them set the price.  Most people are pretty generous.  My rent for the rickshaw is $15 a day.  Once I cover that expense the rest is mine,” he explained.

“So,” encouraged by this bit of entrepreneurship I asked. “How much do you clear in a day?” 

“Oh, I’ve never worked a whole day.  Just enough to get some cash to cover any expenses I might have.”  Hmm, if this isn’t living hand to mouth, I don’t know what is.  And Wall Street it’s definitely not.  I could just imagine the thoughts going through Jim’s head.  It is always the mother’s fault, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure.

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