I’ve seen it in the old photographs found in those San Francisco souvenir guidebooks, and in too many watercolor and oil paintings: Ocean Beach used to be a grand place, with a boardwalk like the one at Santa Cruz, Sutro Baths nestled among the cliffs by the sea, and a train to ferry people back and forth. Now the beach is a bit more desolate, vast, and cold, and the seaside bluffs are home to ruins of a former era. I feel it’s better this way, having the lonelier natural landscape over a carnival.
In this city of constant change, the beach is one of the few places that has moved in a more simple and natural direction.
I live in the Outer Sunset, and Ocean Beach is just a twenty-minute walk from my house. It’s almost always chilly there, and the beach is frequented by surfers and joggers with their dogs along with a few parents with their shrieking kids running in and out of the tide. Sometimes there are fishermen with buckets of sardines they’ve hooked, and sometimes there are beachcombers. When I was in sixth grade, my house was getting renovated and when it was done, the walls were painted light blue (or “Azure Mist” as advertised on the paint bucket). The color inspired me to give the house some ocean-themed decoration, so I took my bucket and shovel, and left to find treasure.
I didn’t want to go to Pier 39, buy a bag of conch shells and corals painted in whimsical colors and call it a day. Ocean Beach has never been the place to go if you’re scrounging for fancy seashells or hermit crabs. It’s for splintering driftwood, crab shells picked clean by seagulls, polished stones for skipping, great dark ribbons of kelp that stink of salt, odd green bits of mussels, tiny broken shells as pink and brittle as bone china, and sand dollars scattered everywhere like abandoned pennies on a city sidewalk. In the dark, damp sand where the water washed over tiny holes (that I heard were air holes for hidden shellfish and other creatures), I spent a good half of a day doing nothing but digging into those holes, hoping to uncover something but finding nothing.
Into my little plastic red bucket, I collected bits of driftwood, shiny stones, and assorted pebbles. (I decided to leave the crab, mussel shells, and kelp alone.) I did gather a species of seaweed called Turkish Washcloth though, which felt and looked like brown pieces of a ragged washcloth. Most of the sand dollars were shattered or cracked. I picked up as many whole ones as I could find, even if they were chipped at the edges. I rinsed them off in the surf and tapped them off to remove the sand. I thought the sand dollars were beautiful in their bleached bone color and intricate flower-like shell designs.
I found my real treasure as I trekked down the beach towards the bonfire pits. Washed over by the ocean and miraculously free of hovering flies and crawling bugs was a pelican skull, its beak and cranium intact. I picked it up at once, admired it and put it into my bucket. I was about to return home and show off my prize when I remembered that even though the pelican skull was bare bone and free of insects, it was probably slathered in germs. I remembered hearing on the news that people were catching avian flu and dying because there was no cure. Reluctantly, I put the skull back where I found it and left.
When I got home, I showed my parents what I had collected and they threw everything into the compost bin except for the sand dollars. They didn’t like my idea for an ocean-themed house. I thought about the skull and realized that the rest of the pelican wasn’t there. It probably was washed away into the ocean. I had a feeling that I should go back to the beach and bury that pelican skull or take it home (avian flu be damned!). It’s stupid, but the thought of that skull sitting there alone on the beach made me really sad. I found another pelican skull a few years after that, during my freshman year while walking on Seal Cove Beach, just off of the Land’s End trail near Ocean Beach. There were still a few feathers stuck to it, and lots of flies buzzing around it, so I didn’t even dare to pick it up.
Earlier this year my little brother Steve hosted a foreign exchange student from Xi’an, China. The exchange student’s English name is Jerry and he only wanted to do two things while he was in San Francisco: eat American food and go to the beach. Being from Xi’an, Jerry and his classmates had never seen the ocean before. Parents from my brother’s class organized a bonfire we could bring the exchange students to, so Steve brought Jerry and I tagged along because I heard something about s’mores.
It was August. The sky was streaked with magenta and kites flew black against the sky like ravens. A film of fog covered most of the Marin headlands in the distance, but we could see the sunset perfectly, melting away its final seconds on the horizon.
Steve and Jerry disappeared and I reunited with an old friend named Hilary whom I rarely got to see anymore due to her jam-packed schedule and my overall laziness. She also had a younger sibling who was also hosting an exchange student. I messed up the s’mores and she tried to help me get over my fear of fire by nearly pushing me into it. I asked her about her life at the School of the Arts and she told me that she was taking an astronomy class. Her homework was to go stargazing each night with a hot mug of tea. I felt a little extremely jealous of her.
The exchange students ran shouting through the surf, the adults huddled near the flames and talked, my friend and I wandered. Up in the sky came a spinning of stars. Down the dark beach, bonfires speckled the sand with their own clusters of people as we walked through the outskirts of their flickering shadows.
Words and images by Serina Fang