David Nash was quaking in his shoes. The Navy officer had left a Washington winter for a conference in California; now he was bouncing in sand so cold it might as well have been snow.
He wasn't complaining, though. Washed clean by the past night's storm, the beach along Oxnard Shores in Ventura County was practically pristine.
In the pink light of dawn, the shells and rocks and driftwood--even the Bic lighters and beer cans tangled in the seaweed--appeared purified.
"The solitude, the quiet--that's why I run anyway," Nash said. Then he jogged off, his footprints the first human impressions on a new day.
And what a day.
In summer, a day at the beach bleaches the edges off brain matter and bakes the body into a stuporous lump of contentment.
But a stormy winter day beside the Pacific invigorates and inspires. The air fills with wildly sensuous aromas. Renegade currents dredge the ocean bottom, and the sky becomes the stuff of Wagnerian drama, stirring up potent emotions from the brooding depths of the soul.
On days like this, the weekend cognoscenti scan the dismal horizon, and, without a trace of irony, proclaim: "Perfect beach weather."
The idea is simply to immerse oneself in the richly gloomy setting. But most people prefer to rationalize their attraction to such perfect bleakness by coming up with something to do. Moving down the coast from north to south, here are a few excuses people use for being at the beach in winter.
Fat raindrops pelted the glassy swells rolling through the kelp beds at County Line beach, sending concentric wavelets out through a cluster of surfers.
"(Expletive) cold," one said, greeting a new arrival to this break north of Point Dume.
"Cold," another said, conserving energy.
"Wet is wet," said a third surfer whose tortured face reflected the fluorescent purples and blues of his wet suit. "This is the one sport you can do in the rain," he said. Then he whipped around and launched himself down the face of a foam-sputtering wave.
On shore, steep hillsides caught light filtered through belligerent clouds, radiating neon shades of green. Surfboard-laden cars lined a dirt parking lot on a bluff, and sensible types watched the waves through foggy windshields.
"Ooohh! Ice-cube headache time," a young man from Newbury Park said as a wave swallowed a surfer. Clapping his gloved hands, shifting from side to side in his wool-lined apres -ski boots, he watched the waves. But he and two buddies decided to forgo getting wet.
Instead, they jogged across Pacific Coast Highway to Neptune's Net, a cluttered joint with a bumper sticker near the register reading, "Working is for people who don't know how to surf." All morning, tourists, local cowboys and shivering surfers wandered in. Most sat for a while and pondered the drizzly day, looking almost blissful as steaming clam chowder or hot coffee reheated them from within.
"Winter's definitely the best time down here," said Daryl Reiman of Woodland Hills as he scanned a gloomy stretch of coast below the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu. "It's more exciting. . . . Anything can happen at any time. Anything can wash in on the beach. . . ."
Wearing rubber boots, heavy pants, a down jacket and headphones connected to an expensive metal detector, Reiman was a technologically advanced version of the standard beachcomber. Oceanographers say heavy winter surf creates "littoral currents," which pull sand from beaches and carry it south, carving a more rugged and rocky coastline in the process.
Why nature decides to deposit its treasures where it does is a mystery, Reiman said. "There's an infinite combination of factors. You match wits with the ocean, the moon, the tides, the alignment of the planets, the currents, the wind, the configuration of the bottom. It's like a piece of infinity, and you're there, the detective."
Sometimes as Reiman strolls the beaches in winter, nature throws in entertainment. Recently, seven porpoises surfed the waves just off shore, he said. "They were doing back flips, somersaults. That was memorable."
"At first we thought, 'What are we doing, going to the beach in the rain?' Then we thought, 'Ah! How romantic!' " a writer said as she sat with her father and a friend beneath the red-and-white striped canopy of the Sidewalk Cafe at Venice Beach Ocean Front Walk.
"What has really been lovely is watching the transitions," she said. "It started raining, and everyone scurried inside. Then, when the rain stopped, we watched as everyone gradually re-entered the world."
"I rarely go to the beach in summer," the writer's friend said. "I'm not a sun bunny. I can't just go out and lie on the sand for hours and hours." But the beach does have a "magnetic attraction."
"This view is the magnetic attraction here," the writer said, pointing to Ocean Front Walk.
"It's a snapshot of California."