Leaving San Diego (eventually)

From Monday’s Union-Tribune, May 26, 2014:

San Diego: Loving and (Eventually) Leaving It

 

Nope, it’s not there any more. Here’s the piece:

It is always summer in Escondido. Locals claim four seasons, but I’ve been able to identify only one. There used to be a fire season, which threatens to extend beyond November, and countywide conflagrations will soon be no more seasonal than earthquakes. Summer stretches from January, when the median temperature hovers around 60 degrees, to December, when it does the same damn thing. The rainy season (winter, so-called) is easy to miss, and there is no fall at all. Autumn arrives only in theory. Families troop up to Julian to admire the “foliage,” since some leaves do change color, but they do not do this in a magnificent way. For magnificence you need sugar maples.

I moved here from Rhode Island when I was forty-one, a widow with a small child. My family was in Escondido, so here is where I had to be. I bought a house and planted trees, took in dogs and a cat, settled in. But not for good. Even after twenty-five years, I’m still just visiting.

Once the place was paradise. In 1970 my family, minus me, moved here to escape the snow and so my dad could grow everything under the constant sun. At home, his garden had produced as many rocks as it had tomatoes. Here he planted kumquats, mandarins, white peaches, pluots, raspberries, grapes, nectarines, figs, persimmons. He grew flowers too, roses and plumeria, epiphyllum and iris. Persian melons the scent of which could madden you on the hottest day. I loved my yearly visits.

And all the days were hot, and all the nights were cool. Back home, in the dog days, when the humidity topped 95 and the nights were as sweltering as the days, the mayors of Middletown and Newport would sometimes throw open the state beaches so people could stagger, some fully clothed, down to the waterline, lie in the surf, and get a few minutes of sleep. Hardly paradise. Paradise was dry heat.

And swimming pools, accoutrements of only the wealthy in New England, here as middle-class as propane barbecue. The summer sky was always blue and when the sun got to be too much, I could sink into the pool. I always returned home with a tan and looked forward to coming back the next year.

Whether you fall permanently in love with San Diego—a love that takes you from youth through middle age and beyond—really depends on how much the outdoors means to you. The first time I saw swimmers frolicking with dolphins right offshore, I was enchanted. The same with gray whales and coyotes, bobcats and eagles. Birdwatching is much easier here than at home: there’s water all over Rhode Island, so the birds have the great luxury of being where you are not. Here they have to put up with people roaming the lagoons with binoculars and bags of stale bread. (Once, at high noon in July, I saw a kingfisher staking out a birdbath on Felicita Avenue. In Rhode Island he’d have commanded a trout stream.) There’s a whole lot of nature out here, and that’s not including the Zoo and Wild Animal Park, which I refuse to call anything else, and where I spent hundreds of happy hours with my son. But this is not my home.

Although I do see the allure.

They get you with the jacarandas. Fragrant trees the size of oaks, exploding all over May and June with outlandish lavender blossoms. Jacarandas look like Disney trees, dreamed up by the animators of Fantasia. Giant bouquets the color of Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes! My favorite shade, even though, according a test I took when I was a kid—it was in McCall’s– if your favorite color is lavender, you’re immature. Jacarandas look like Nature took a day off and one of her kids just went crazy.

They get you with fruit fresh-picked from the trees, trees you can plant yourself in your own back yard, because everything grows here and every season is a growing season for something. On a typical summer day in Escondido, ripe grapefruit will roll down my hilly street unmissed and unremarked, because there are so many more where they came from. Rhode Island has fruit trees, but only apples and pears get the chance to ripen fully. The first summer I came out to Escondido, my dad’s neighbor invited me to pick a peach. “Just cup your hand around it. Don’t pull. If it’s ready it will come to you.” And it did, I can still recall the weight of it, a freestone the size of a softball and the color of a New England sunset, its flesh perfectly soft and obscenely juicy, so that biting into it felt like the sort of thing you shouldn’t do in public.

They get you with surfing and swimming and skiing all on the same day, which must knock the socks off of people who surf, swim, and ski. And you can plan outdoor parties, dinners, weddings, pretty much without Plan B. This would be a serious plus for social types. Not so much for hermits.

I do get annoyed by the anti-California bias of people back home. I know more than one New Yorker who won’t even fly out here for a weekend because of imminent earthquakes. There’s something absurdly Biblical about their conviction that any minute California will be punished for its sins and they’re terrified of being caught in the righteous apocalypse. As though the rest of the country, the non-California part, didn’t have its own sins. Others say they would miss the seasons. I miss them myself, but not enough to move away.

It’s the sky, really.

They don’t have good clouds here. They’re mostly very high up, wispy or mackerel or absent entirely. I miss the drama of low clouds, whether threatening or friendly, black or ivory or bright white. The sort of sky you can lie on your back and watch. Here, at a certain time of the year, you can see great big clouds in the distance, but they’re fenced in by the mountains.
And the blue never seems to change. It’s a pleasant blue, your basic sky blue, but I distinctly remember a sky whose hue could deepen at a whim. At home the sky was small, hemmed in by buildings and trees, but its color changed unpredictably. The sky wasn’t background there. It was spectacle.

And the sunsets! Please, I can’t number the times a local has said, “Look at that beautiful sunset!” I hope I smile agreeably. Okay, there’s a modest wash of yellow and some orange and, if we’re really lucky, a cloud or two to set it off, but it’s just your basic sunset, and anyway you’d better look fast, since around here night drops like a felled ox. In order to have a gorgeous sunset, you need clouds. Lots of them, intercepting the sunlight, playing with it, passing it on to us, not for our sake, of course, but what a happy accident! And I still remember an otherwise unremarkable afternoon in Greenville, R.I., must have been more than forty years ago, when the air around us, not just the sky but the air, was pink, as though motes of water suspended in the humid air encased us in sapphire.

When I leave, I will miss a great deal. The night sky, far richer with stars than the sky I remember. I’ll miss the scrub jays and the coyotes and the possibility of rattlesnakes. I’ll miss the runaway grapefruit and the obscene peach. And the jacarandas! But in the twilight of my life, I insist upon a twilight sky.

2 Comments Leaving San Diego (eventually)

  1. Elka

    Night drops like a felled ox to avoid confusing the sandstone bluffs.

    I wish I had a manuscript and $200 for you to read and comment on.

  2. Bettyjane Wylie

    Well, we have something in common. I was widowed at 42 with four children to finish off (aged 12, 14, 16 and 18). I had always written, plays mostly but then I had to get serious so I wrote journalese for a living planning to write plays in my spare time. No one told me you can’t make a living writing.

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