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Above It All : Laguna Beach, Like the Ocean It Overlooks, Is Always in Motion Yet Never Seems to Change.

August 10, 1986|T. Jefferson Parker | T. Jefferson Parker is the author of Laguna Heat (St. Martin's Press, 1985)

Suspended above the sidewalk on the busiest corner in Laguna Beach is a small, white gate, made of wood slats, with a message for the hundreds of passers-by who move daily--and almost always unknowingly--under it:

This gate hangs well

And hinders none

Refresh and rest

Then travel on.

The sign's air of permanence suggests a sense of the transitory about those who walk below. It both welcomes visitors and reminds them that this little city will be here--clinging to the coast in its own tentative way--long after they depart. It harks back to a day when life was a tad less frenzied.

But there's really no reason to get nostalgic about Laguna Beach. Like that sign at the corner of Forest Avenue and Coast Highway, the city has somehow remained above it all. What Laguna once had, it still does have, and what made it unique among California beach towns is still here. Sure, the traffic is heavier and the city swells with tourists a bit earlier each spring, but that is only the skin. Just under it, the city's heart still beats--not untouched perhaps, but certainly not undone, by a century's rush to the West. As far as the essentials go, Laguna Beach hasn't changed a bit.

First, there's the land itself. Consider for a moment the peculiar stamina with which Nature has resisted our attempts to improve it. This raw, knotted coastline, with its dark, adamant rocks and hidden beaches, is unyielding to change or utility. There is no harbor. There is no fun zone, no marina, no pier; there are no docks. The cliffs that press right down to the water have not been planed off for tract homes. Laguna Canyon, which stretches eight miles inland from the city along California 133, is still occupied almost solely by deer, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, skunks and cattle. The hills that frame the canyon and continue west to abut the coast still have the craggy individuality you can see in old photographs of the city. There are houses on some of these hills, to be sure, but they tilt and huddle together like nervous guests at a cocktail party who wonder whether they really belong. Sometimes--as in the big Bluebird Canyon slide in October, 1978, when more than 20 homes were destroyed--the land lets us know that we've become a burden, and it shrugs us off. People haven't dominated Laguna Beach so much as they've simply stuck themselves on, anemone-like, bound to the rocks and ocean.

One afternoon not long ago, a painter set up his easel at Heisler Park--a narrow, manicured stretch of green that offers unfettered views of the coast for miles north and south. Below him the ocean surged against the rocks, foam hustled over smooth crescents of sand, pelicans waited like sentinels on the outcroppings just offshore. In front of him, rose bushes bloomed, dabbing the scene with red and yellow. When the artist had just about finished a charcoal rendering of a view that has graced countless post cards, snapshots and paintings over the last few decades, he was asked if it was hard to see the scene in a new way, given the precedents. "Yes, and I don't want to," he replied. "I've drawn this a hundred times, and I'll do it a hundred more, probably. It's one of those places you really can't improve on."

From this unrepentant beauty and the resulting sense of tenancy and vulnerability stems the Lagunan's passion for self-expression. "There are more writers in Laguna than readers," a resident remarked rather scornfully. The same can be said for artists and appreciators, dancers and dance fans, poets and lovers of poetry. Statistics on self-expression are hard to come by, but when the UCI Friends of the Library recently honored Orange County writers, Laguna Beach, with a population of less than 19,000, claimed the most published authors of any city in the county for 1985 (five). The telephone book lists 17 art-supply shops and 93 art galleries, dealers and consultants. Local artists exhibit at the annual Festival of Arts, Sawdust Festival and Art-A-Fair, and they produce and enact the Pageant of the Masters. Nature's considerable beauty lures them here and engenders them. It is difficult to witness Laguna Canyon on a morning drive, or a winter storm blasting the beach at Rockpile, or the achingly pure light of a fall evening and not want to add a little something of your own.

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