Slow Times in Santa Cruz

IT’S PITCH DARK, probably sometime around 3:00 a.m., and I can hear a rustling outside the tent. I quickly try to recall whether I closed the cubby with all our food in it – I did, and I turned the latch. But then I hear a crunching, and what I’m pretty sure sounds like packages of Pop Tarts being opened. Nick stirs from sleep. “Hey man, where’d you put the pretzels?” he asks.

“In the cupboard man, and I latched it.”

“Fuckin ‘coons.”

Nick steps outside with the lamp to use the bathroom (aka, the bush), but not before knocking against the side of the tent and making growling noises to scare off any critters. Then he investigates the scene – it’s bad: an empty box of pop tarts, a half eaten bag of pretzels strewn on the ground.

In the sleepy morning, I sip orange juice and ponder the implications of raccoons not only possessing the superior intellect to understand the function of a lock, but also the dexterity to compromise it. Eerie.

Nick and I roll into town (we’re driving, feeling lazy and without a good night’s sleep) to find some breakfast. Right along the beach in Capitola we find Mr. Toots, a cozy second-floor cafe with good coffee and and a fantastic balcony facing the coast. We order bagels and sit out in the sun for a while, reading and reflecting. It’s surprisingly breezy – so much so that when Nick puts a Tolkien novel on the ledge of the deck a gust carries it away and into the water. The barista comes out (he saw us jump up) and asks what fell. We tell him a book. “Ah man, that sucks,” he says. We don’t tell him the book was the cafe’s. Oops.

We take that as our cue to leave and head towards Santa Cruz. As we cross the river and begin to take in the scenery, I’m a bit surprised – SC is pretty suburban, and while it maintains a laid-back appeal it’s also a far cry from the beach bum, hippie town I envisioned.

The University of California Santa Cruz is tucked up into the woods, several miles from the coast. This means the actual city has less of a college feel than one might expect. There is, of course, a main drag of shops and restaurants similar to those present in any college town (the Ave in Seattle, Telegraph in Berkely, and Pacific Avenue here), but beyond a new-agey shop selling some pretty cool handmade journals and a pretty phenomenal pizza joint, there’s nothing much to write home about. The one treasure I do find is a CD I’ve been on the hunt for since Los Angeles – Television’s ‘Marquee Moon,’ an album that will become the anthem to our journey.

***

The next morning we thankfully find that raccoons, however smart, do not yet have the cognitive ability to crack combination locks – I threw the combo I used at hostels on our food cubby latch, and we still had peanut butter, bananas and bread for breakfast. But another night of sleeping on the ground with makeshift pillows (clothes wrapped in jackets) necessitates caffeine.

We hop on the bikes and roll west towards Santa Cruz, back to a quaint cafe we passed the day before – the Windmill Coffee Spot – and take a few reflective breaths before pounding our way up a painfully gradual and seemingly endless hill towards UCSC. Riding a bike with one gear suddenly seems like a bad choice…

The campus is quintessentially Northern California: the university’s concrete buildings are nestled among dry grass, rolling hills and dense patches of ancient Redwood trees. Nick is pondering getting his masters in ecology, so the prospect of having such close access to a range of ecosystems makes UCSC a top candidate for him. We step in the biology building hoping to see something exciting, only to find the soft-lit hallways and drab paint that seem to make up the majority of university buildings everywhere. Oh well.

As we prepare to descend, we gaze out on Half Moon Bay, and spot a ghostly and beautiful mountain range looming off on the horizon.

After a fast-paced and rather hairy ride to the bottom (bumpy roads, tiny tires, hills and traffic make for sketchy situations), Nick and I stop at the Seabright Brewery for a happy-hour pitcher of a stellar amber ale and a delicious (and cheap) pepperoni and jalapeno pizza.

Up until this point I haven’t quite warmed to Santa Cruz, but as we lazily ride back towards camp I spot a scene that changes my perspective – roughly fifty yards out from the rocky coast, a gaggle of surfers floats and cuts along the waves. Among their ranks are wet-suited teens and old salts, and groups of folks sit sipping beers and watching the action. A woman with tattooed ankles calls after her small dog, which barks up a storm as we roll to a stop and take a minute to soak it in.

This, right here, feels like the Santa Cruz of my imagination.

As the sunlight fades Nick and I take a couple beers down to the beach, find a log and look out onto the lapping ocean. It’s our last night in California. Though we’ve spent not three weeks on the road it feels like we’ve been away for months, and we revel in that feeling – a feeling we haven’t had since the days when life was simple, and summer stretched for years.

***

Yes, TDT is still recapping the Tour de Cascadia. We’re almost at the end of the road…look out for the final installments of our journey this week.

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