Montana de Oro State Park, Pacific Ocean waves meet the California coast

scenic route 101: the annual migration


If you listen closely, you'll hear places calling your name. Actual coordinates on this earth longing for your presence. 

Big Sur was the first to teach me this, and it took me a decade to realize it. 

I'm from the Midwest, the land of fields and great lakes. Not salt water and sea breeze. How could a place like Big Sur come to me? 

The answer? A dash of my father's home, a cup of teenage Tumblr use, and a tablespoon of interstellar magic (with plenty of Full House and The O.C. playing in the background).

My parents met in Ireland, the setting of my dad's origin story. Ireland was the first place I visited at just one month old, programming this little body to look for salt-laden air. They brought me there to be baptized in the church behind my grandmother's row house. However, it wasn't the holy water in that church that christened my skin; it was the salty rain and untamed sea. Throughout my childhood, Ireland was our second home. We'd stay in little bed and breakfasts or inns, different every time, and yet I felt like I could navigate the town as well as our little piece of suburbia. 

In the Midwest, I longed for the sea and her people as I noticed those who lived by the ocean had a different way of being. They were always laughing, singing, and welcoming. They felt more honest, connected to a truer way of life. I enjoyed that kind of fullness. They continued to thrive through the rain and the damp chill even if the clouds didn't break for days. I remember seeing a woman pushing her baby's buggy down the street in the middle of an afternoon downpour - a smile on her face. I can still see her now walking through the grey scene as if it was cloaked in gold. The town was filled with the best hot drinks, soups, and potatoes I'd ever tasted. Tea, toast, and potatoes at every restaurant... horses, sheep, and dogs at every corner... fires in the hearth of every home... this setting seemed apt for my story. The cold sea created this environment, this climate, that made the people warm themselves with community and peat. I felt like I was living in a safe kind of wild, one that knew how to unite human and nature as they did in folklore.

While in Ireland, I longed for the family computer, the living room TV, and the movie theater and ice cream shop down the street. The radio stations, American TV shows and films, and diners with fluffy pancakes and crispy hash browns... they were a part of the Midwest that I loved. The collage of a dream, not a story. There was something safe and calming about Saturday morning cartoons while the smell of pancakes floated through the air as I looked through the newspaper for comic strips, horoscopes, and crosswords. There was a world of brands and advertisements I recognized were absent from Irish days, even though their one sliced bread was better than any of the fifty options lining the Jewel-Osco by the mall. While it had that safe feeling, I was aware at least part of it was a lie... one that could only be maintained for those who couldn't experience how other humans in other places lived and thrived. 

As time went on, our trips to Ireland decreased in frequency, and my computer use switched from family shared desktop, MySpace, and AOL instant messenger to my personal laptop, Facebook Messenger, and Tumblr. Tumblr was the first digital place that felt like my bedroom. It was a place only for me, quotes and photos I wished to hang on my bedroom wall, and the very few (as in two) friends who I felt comfortable letting in. I kept up the Tumblr habit for years, from high school through college, and it was in college where I first saw an elopement video of a couple in the mountains. I immediately copied the link and showed it to my housemates. This, this is how I wanted to get married... just my partner and me walking through nature to a place that called to witness our vows. My grandmothers had passed away while I was in college, and I could never picture having a special event without them. This seemed like a way of initiating a vow in a deeply personal, intimate way in a place more holy than a church. We'd be in nature where the spirit is always free and easily accessed. I could picture myself standing on a cliff by the sea eloping with the spirits of my loved ones there with me. 

Fast forward to a few years later: my boyfriend made a comment that he could only see himself getting married that way (as in the way Jim and Pam did, running away from their wedding to get married alone on a boat in front of Niagara Falls). I immediately stated that I could only see myself eloping by the coast, how ideal that would be. So we decided to do just that, during our Big Sur/Yosemite trip that summer. I did have one caveat, though. I wanted this photographer I had followed on Tumblr to capture our day. I had sent her an inquiry, and we spent an hour talking about Interstellar (the film K and I had seen on our first date) and Big Sur. She was available one day that week, so I built our trip around that date. We would elope in Big Sur after spending a couple days in San Francisco.

When we were driving from San Francisco to Big Sur, I started to get this feeling of home around Monterrey, which grew stronger and stronger the longer we drove down the coast. As soon as we hit Carmel, the clouds hung so low it was like entering the waking fog after a vivid dream. The cliche California sun was put on hold, and we turned into this diner, where I ate the most delicious pancakes I've ever tasted - large, spiral discs of fluff and cinnamon sugar. We continued along Route 101 towards Big Sur with our eyes opened wide. These winding roads, golden cliffs, and endless ocean views were warm and inviting. Each sight asked us to stay a little longer than we initially planned. I tried to capture as much as I could with my camera and my iPhone notebook. Sometimes K would nap in the car as I sat on a rock overlooking the sea, words just coming to me. Other times, we didn't stop at a view, so we could continue cruising with the music. Sometimes we would sleep early to make the most of the sun, and other times we would stay out late under the stars and find the dust of the milky way glittering in the sky, a sight neither of us had ever seen. Every decision felt naturally certain. Every decision felt like it gave the highest reward for us at that time. I felt like I naturally knew how to navigate this place I'd never been.

One of the most rewarding decisions was when we decided to look for help the morning we woke up to no electricity in our Big Sur Airbnb. It was early and a bit chilly with the inversion layer hanging below us, and I thought we must be able to find someone on the property if we just walked along the dirt road. Soon after, I noticed a driveway I hadn't seen on the drive up, with a little wooden house at the end of it. K didn't want me to intrude, but as I started up the driveway, a springer spaniel came running towards me. My soul pup was a springer, and this one was less than a year old, just as mine had been when he was brought to me. I hadn't seen another springer since mine passed away in college, so I was extremely moved when I saw this one. A little family was about to take him to the ocean with their toddler, but they'd help us figure out our electricity issue first. It brought me so much joy to witness their life that morning: the springer and the toddler, both brimming with vitality, and their parents who shared with us how they came to live on the property and how they built their own home. They planted another dream in my heart that morning while giving me the gift of seeing a springer again... alive and well, as I did the day my mother surprised me as I got off the school bus.

Since we eloped, we've returned four times. For those cinnamon-crusted pancakes, for that place we can't yet call home although it suits our tongue. 

During COVID, we had to cancel our annual trip. It was a pretty devastating blow at the time, for my mood and our relationship. It was a branch I was desperately holding, and it snapped, leaving me to hit the ground and figure out how to climb again, without that branch in place. I grabbed some fantasy books, my journal, and my laptop. I remembered my forgotten Tumblr login and decided to take a look. I found exact photos I had taken before I had taken them, reblogged by a younger version of myself who didn't know where that composition was located (there weren't any geotag short cuts). I scrolled deeper and deeper, pausing and screenshotting every image that looked eerily similar to one in my own photo library. 

These photos, once reblogged on Tumblr by a teenage version of myself, served a triple purpose. The images resonated with the teenage dreamer; she reblogged them because she wanted them to be a part of her life, of her story. She wanted them to be the setting of her story with the The O.C. mixtape as the soundtrack. She felt like some part of her belonged there in the salty blue and golden cliffs.

Then, not four years later, they were the setting of a very special piece of her story. The chapter where she felt the most hope, on the precipice of a vow, surrounded by salt-laden air and the spirit of the ocean. She didn't know where they were when she hit reblog in 2010, and she didn't know they were going to be the setting of her own annual migration beginning in 2018 or another place she could easily navigate, as Ireland had been to her when she was younger. 

When I compared the Tumblr photos to the ones I had taken myself, it thrust me into my own story, to seeing myself as a character with her own arc to complete. I had a past, present, and future. In fact, I had many... some of which I can't or won't remember. This setting, once on the "bedroom walls" of my Tumblr, was in my waking life and hanging on the walls of my adult home. I had stood on the side of the road, cliff, or ocean and felt compelled to capture the moment and all the fleeting feelings and revelations, which that moment contained. I wanted to document all that I saw and felt through any medium I felt skilled enough to use as a translator: photography, poetry, illustration. 

I think that's the most intriguing and most ordinary bit of it all... looking at evidence that someone has stood exactly where you were, before you were. That you are not completely original. You've been copy and pasted eight billion times before you could even realize there's another duplicate out there... before you could realize you, yourself, have already been copied. Someone will stand where I stood. They'll likely take the same photograph I did, just as I had unknowingly taken the same photo I had reblogged years earlier. They will likely have the same thoughts I had when I felt poetry pouring from my soul as I stared into the oceanic horizon. They'll feel compelled to make a more purposeful move in their life or at the very least, feel more inclined to be a better steward of the land on which they walk.

There is just something magical, spiritual about a natural setting. It allows for completely replicative moments throughout time. As long as the setting is protected and conserved, these "copy and paste" moments can be given to anyone who visits and experiences said setting with an open heart and appreciative soul. These natural places are ones of union, communion, and transcendence. They allow for greater human and natural connection.

The muse lives in wild places and is waiting for visitors to commune and share with her. She's asking for a witness and an open ear... to be seen, heard, and understood. She wants to be cared for in a way that protects her wildness and those who call her home. If you answer her call and visit with care, you'll be given the setting for an experience of a lifetime. Your life will change for the better of your own character arc. It will change for the better of our naturally wild and human world. You'll know better, and you'll do better for yourself and for others. At least, that's the hope. 


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