Highs and Lows – San Elijo

Oh man San Elijo, what a roller coaster you were.

Somehow I grew up about 65 miles away from San Elijo State Beach (pronounced “San E-LAY-ho” by two separate locals, so I guess that’s right?) and I never knew it existed until I was deep into the search for RV campgrounds in Southern Cal a few months ago.  It’s in Encinitas (actually Cardiff by the Sea), which is in the northern part of San Diego county, and has a popular campground which stretches about a mile along the coastal bluff, with multiple stairways down to the ocean.  There’s a surf school on site, which should tell you a bit about how the surf conditions generally are there.

This is another stay I had been looking forward to ever since I had booked it back in June or so.  I figured that if I hadn’t taken a surf lesson yet, this would be the place, and I envisioned bonfires on the beach and happy kids (mine) playing with other happy kids in the sand.


We pulled into Spot 1 (Spot 1!) after a short drive down from Crystal Cove and found ourselves right next to the general store, the entirely decent taco shop, the bathrooms/showers, the steps to the beach, and yes, the even the surf school.  BUT… no hookups, so no power or water.  And it was dusty / dirty rather than sandy.  That dust gets everywhere.  And the beach, while easily accessible, is the kind that is a bit muddy at low tide and disappears entirely at high tide.  A shallow reef extends out a few hundred yards, and is pretty much exposed at low tide.  There would be no bonfires.IMG_9644

But Spot 1!  And San Elijo!  I was excited.  Cautiously.


Keeper tends to be the arbiter of campsite taste.  He’s the one who will quickly assess the surroundings and give it a thumbs up or thumbs down.  His criteria are different than mine or Tacco’s, in fact his favorite so far was Pismo Beach and I’m still not sure why.  Cell coverage and wi-fi are important, as is electricity.  Good showers are a must, and by “good” he means, as far as I can tell and in descending order of importance: 1) No spiders 2) No ants 3) No other vermin 4) Reasonably clean 5) Not coin or token operated 6) Hot water 7) A strong spray pattern.  As he surveyed Spot 1, he seemed to be cautiously optimistic as well.  A good start — perhaps.

Then we went down to the beach with our Boogie Boards.  It was near low tide, and Keeper didn’t like that reef one bit.  He did have a point.  It was rocky and fairly uneven, and difficult to tell what you were about to step on.  Further out it was mostly covered by long sea grass, making it even more tricky to know if you were stepping on something dangerous or unsavory.  More importantly for him, though, the waves we wanted to ride swept us across the reef at an average depth of about a foot, and if you’ll recall, Keeper’s big hurdle to body boarding was his remembering being tossed over the front of his board a few times, resulting in his head getting ground into the sand.  Though I attempted to soothe his fears of getting a face full of seaweedy rock by noting how gentle the waves were once they got on top of the reef, he wasn’t having it, and insisted we head down the beach to where it appeared to be more sandy.

Not a bad plan at all, at least in theory.  In practice we bumped up against the fact that Keeper never really learned to catch waves by paddling with them, instead he would push off the bottom and sort of jump partially onto the board as it caught the whitewash.  It works in very specific conditions, but isn’t really transferable onto others.  So he struggled.  A lot.  At some point after getting rolled over by several waves and not being able to stay on his board, he loudly told me he was DONE, JUST DONE!  I tried to help him get back to shore, which he was also struggling with, by explaining that getting on his board and paddling was the easiest way to go, but that wasn’t something he’d learned to do, and trying to swim and drag the board behind him wasn’t working either.  Complicating things further, I realized at this point that we were stuck in what appeared to be a mild rip current, and were getting pulled out uncomfortably close to the lineup of surfers & much larger waves, and were well past the point at which we could touch the bottom.

After some struggle, I was able to help him get in finally, but he emphatically told me that he was done with Boogie Boarding, the beach, this trip, everything.  And then he went to take a shower and found that every single one of the showers failed 6 of his 7 shower tests.  He proclaimed this the worst shower yet and a crappy site and retired to his pre-adolescent cave to brood.  So much for bonding over Boogie Boarding…  all that progress lost.

Here’s something I realized with Keeper today, though, and it goes deeper than a frustrating day in the ocean.  He sat up in the front seat with me for part of the drive down from Crystal Cove, and happened to receive a call from one of his good friends from Maryland, which he then followed by a call to his other good friend back there.  He was thrilled to talk to them.  I was fortunate enough to hear his end of the conversation and get some unfiltered insight into how he’s doing with this whole endeavor.  He was surprisingly balanced in his assessment, but the one thing that stuck out is that he misses people.  He’s an introvert, but he was very clear that what is eating at him primarily is that he hasn’t been around a kid his age since he can remember.  And while my first instinct was to find counter-examples to point out to him after he was off the phone, I quickly realized he’s right, he hasn’t.  There were a couple hours at the football tailgater with the twin daughters of a school friend who are a year older and whom he’d just met, but as far as really hanging out with anyone who wouldn’t be gone in an hour or two, he hasn’t done that since our friends in West Yellowstone, back in August.  It’s wearing on him.  Likely Firebolt and Woodsprite too.  Which means it’s wearing on me.  Not the missing people part, but the “how does this affect our kids?” part.

I don’t have a good solution to that one.  I had envisioned meeting people + kids on the road who were doing similar things, or at least were somewhat like-minded.  That has happened exactly zero times so far.  Looking at the whole with some experience now, I’m not sure why I thought it would have, and it seems like another oversight.  Though this one I don’t know how to fix.

There have been days, and so far we’ve all had them (except probably Woodsprite), where things just don’t seem to be clicking, and the nature of our situation amplifies the “bad day” vibe.  And as we’ve both mentioned, being so close to each other – all the time — contributes to our occasional off moods’ being infectious.  Also, it’s difficult to see from inside, but I would guess that being so far out of our normal comfort zone, with very little real routine or familiarity to fall back upon, intensifies the wild swings.  It doesn’t really make sense.  Logically I could explain to you at any given moment how fortunate we are to be doing this and what an amazing, singular experience it is, but that doesn’t make the flailing, when it happens, any less acute.

That’s where I was on Day 1 of San Elijo.  What on Earth are we doing, we’re wandering aimlessly, we can’t afford this, we don’t know where we’re going to live, we’re tainting our impressionable kids’ childhood, and off into the stratosphere…  Roller coaster.

That’s a strange mental place to be when you look out your window and see the below view, which should remind you to pull back and stop the damn thinking.  And to a certain extent, it did.

out our bedroom window

The flip side of wild swinging is that it can, and does, change on a dime.  I made a concerted effort to turn a corner on the day with a leap of faith and signed Tacco and I up for the next day’s surf lesson, even though it was pricey, this beach was less nice than the 3 we’d just visited, I didn’t feel like it, etc etc.   And the girls and I took a short night walk on the beach with the black light to see which sea creatures glow.  Turns out sand crab antennae are pretty cool looking.


Day 2 revealed perfect waves and a postcard view from Spot 1 after the best “sleeping to the sound of crashing surf” night yet.

IMG_9643I took a short bike ride into town and found a supermarket with 3 different kinds of fresh poke, rows of fresh fish, a wall of craft beer, and something called “Cardiff Crack,” which I guess is their take on marinated tri-tip that has gained some fame well outside of Southern Cal.  I could feel the optimism rising until we, and by we I mean 90% Tacco / 10% me, had to wrestle the kids through their homeschooling tasks.  Firebolt was the one digging in her heels the most this time, and as our surf lesson time approached (and the tide went back out, killing the beautiful sets of waves, and the clouds rolled in) we finally threw up our hands and told them we’d finish tomorrow.  Up… and down.

And then the surf lesson…  my leap of faith in beating back the negativity and booking it paid off.  It was one of the things I had identified as a goal for our trip back before we started.  One would think that someone who grew up in Southern California and spent a good bit of his summer time on the beach would’ve learned to surf by osmosis.  Not so.  I have plenty of time on body boards and playing in waves in general and am completely comfortable there, but surfing is something you need to be deliberate about, and I never was.  We put the kids down on the beach to play and headed up to get our wetsuits and longboards.

The first thing I discovered about surfing was that I needed this lesson.  I’d messed around on a board before and assumed it couldn’t be too hard to figure out, but not really gotten close to getting up.  Within 15 minutes I realized I had been doing it wrong every other time I’d tried, and probably wouldn’t have gotten there by myself.  We were in tiny waves – just the remains of what was breaking further out (and even those had diminished from earlier in the morning) – but that turned out to be a good thing for learning.  I actually found it pretty easy to get up once I was told how to do it, and caught many waves.  We weren’t really moving fast enough to do much maneuvering, but… dragon slain!


IMG_9688IMG_9712IMG_9698Tacco and I went to bed that night thoroughly exhausted and happy to have taken that leap.

Our San Elijo time was short and only semi-sweet, but valuable in hindsight.  Next up is San Diego and the end of the California beach phase of our trip.  I have a trip to fly over the weekend, but fortunately I was able to snag a trip that brings me back to San Diego for a 24 hour layover, so despite the cross-country commute, the disruption should be minimized.  It strikes me, as it has many times before, that I’m insanely fortunate to have a profession that affords me the flexibility and opportunity to do this sort of trip while continuing to work.  Roller coaster, yes… but I do like roller coasters, even if the twisty ones leave me reeling.


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