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The Seven Seas : Southern California and beaches. Like Mom and apple pie, right? Well, sometimes they're not all Beach boys and babes, as we discovered during visits to seven waterfronts. (Consider the oceanless beach in San Bernardino County.) Sometimes they're havens for stars and starfish, the fishing set or bodyboarders. Or they can be a place where a longtime Angeleno hasn't take a dip for many years. : The End of a 16-Year Drought : Dockweiler State Beach

August 17, 1994|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I most certainly do call myself an Angeleno. But, I have to admit, I had to ask someone how to get to the beach--more precisely, to the beaches where I spent cold mornings through much of high school, taking a run with one team or another, or simply taking five.

Yes, I know you just head west. . . . But I was looking for the exact spot, the lifeguard station, maybe a barbecue pit, something to summon something, to unlock some memory that would explain just why exactly I haven't put more than my tired feet in the sudsy surf in about 16 years.

Some reactions border on hot indignation. So why are you living here then? As if I'm taking up space from some unnamed soul who would love to have the ocean at his or her disposal--on a whim or a dare.

The beach as summer ritual was never something I pined for. I don't sunbathe. But I love the water. I'm a swimmer who prefers the calmness of a pool just before dawn--or, down to brass tacks, a mouthful of chlorine over the dirty surf. I've played volleyball, but I was recruited for my height rather than my prowess. And barbecue--well the back yard or a grassy park, sans sand, will do, thank you.

*

Here I am.

Gliding along Vista del Mar, shooting off into the parking lot at Dockweiler State Beach, I find the strand with little problem, a parking place with even less. Monday, even during the summer, is a good day to come to the beach. It's relatively quiet.

I stick out like a toddler in a mosh pit. Under-schooled. Improperly dressed. Yes, in shorts and tank, but with socks and high-top cross-trainers. With a bag, yes. But not filled with sunscreen or a towel or a best-selling bodice-ripper . . . OK, it's my briefcase.

Making my way to a solitary spot near the birds, which seem to have scouted their places as carefully as the humans, I'd almost forgotten how self-conscious I feel parading past people lined up on their towels peering out. It's almost as if you are passing in front of the biggest screen on Earth, disturbing the show.

As I make my way north along the sand, sinking deeper with each step, it all starts to come back: walk on the wet sand and you won't sink so much.

Moving to the damp lip of the shore, I'm careful not to crush sand-kingdoms, not to get snagged in the tangle of beached seaweed, not to slide in jellyfish jelly, and to thread my way through Budweiser cans that have been resting in the sun so long that the labels have faded to yellow and green.

The scent of the water is metallic. Big freighters moored just south loom like a ship graveyard. Above, planes skid across airspace. But you can't see them until they are right above, like a sudden cloud burst. Then they disappear like a ghost under the cloud cover, a smear of noise.

*

This is not the way I remember this beach. Or the beach in general. I don't know if my memory makes it prettier. I doubt it.

Dockweiler was the place where Culver City kids would end up. Venice was sort of off limits to us for "competitive" (read: turf) reasons. The northern and often prettier beaches--Malibu, Will Rogers, Zuma--required wheels, steely determination and/or hubris to get there. The unspoken rule: take only electives first period; if you linger too long, little's on the line.

Some of the more notorious coaches would require teams to take their morning runs in the sand. Dry sand. To build up those legs, the endurance. (Yes, I was one of those girls in unflattering striped gym gear chugging across the sand.) The memories? Trotting out at 7 a.m., inhaling all that brisk, salt air. The beach as backdrop to torture.

Back then, I realize, when you went to the beach you were escaping the city. But now the city has found the shore and it has dug in, in all its glory. The buzz and silt of construction work. Congestion. Smog. Pollution.

As I grew older, the visits tapered off. Maybe a beach party. More frequently lunch on Ocean Front Walk. Trips with friends who make ritual swims, while I take a slow walk watching a woman standing with her eyes closed, spinning endless circles in the sand.

While living in Northern California, I found that as a beach-goer, San Francisco probably suited me better. I went quite frequently with my roommate, both of us swallowed up in winter coats in August. Trips we always took near dusk. We'd take long walks into the wind, study the rocky water. The empty sand. Just us and the few "polar bears" in wet suits bobbing in the surf--staring into forever.

This is the way I best enjoy the ocean. Absent of activity. Late in the day, or very early in the morning. Quietly contemplating the edge of the Earth. I appreciate it as a stunning backdrop. Or a breathtaking view from someone's squeegee-clean picture window, framed by shaggy sagebrush and eucalyptus.

*

Sitting in the sand (yes, I forgot a towel), I realized I stopped going as frequently when my drive to the shore protracted from five to 20 miles. I stopped going when life became much more complicated than trying to figure out a way to smarm my way out of first period.

Although my visits are few and far between, having that huge blanket of steely gray stretching ever westward is contemplation fodder. Sobering. Knowing that it's there, that I can smell it in the air after I cross Lincoln Boulevard on a good day, is more than reassuring. It's revitalizing. I'd feel claustrophobic, hemmed in without its broad drama. One doesn't have to see it to revel in it, to feel it.

Just ask that woman spinning in the sand.

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