Day 12: A cat meowed in the night. I woke up at 7:30, local time Tuesday, September 7th, with the sounds of kids and cars outside the window. The school crossing guard whistles, which Dawn had described so accurately, began at 8:16.

I got to thinking about the different paths my life had taken. I'd made some good choices, and some not-so-good choices in my journey... but all of a sudden, the not-so-good choices didn't seem so bad anymore, because they were a part of getting me where I was, of helping to make me the person I turned out to be... So, maybe, I thought, I shouldn't feel so bad about the not-so-good choices; maybe I shouldn't dwell on them and feel so guilty about them; maybe I should just forgive myself, and move on with my life. "Abandon fear and doubt– live," said the sign at the Temple. Everybody makes mistakes. Everyone does things in their lives they wish they could go back and change... But none of us can go back and change those things. We're all made of what we've done, what we've said, how we've acted, both positive and negative– it's all packed away in our internal backpacks as we journey on through life. We're all in this together. Maybe the real lesson of Burning Man is: we're not alone. We might feel alone... we might actually be alone sometimes.. But we're not alone. We're all just people, doing our best, trying to live our lives as we all journey through life.

It was the 12th day of my westward journey. I got dressed in the last clean clothes I had and went downstairs. If I'd had some detergent, I would have asked to use Dawn's washer; I made a note to pack some next year. Downstairs, I logged onto the house computer and checked my email for the first time in over a week. I also made a post to my online journal that I was still alive. In the news, the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq passed 1,000. A thousand dead Americans, and for what? What a waste.

I had expressed a wish to drive the Pacific Coast Highway, and see the Pacific Ocean. I'd never seen the Pacific, so it was one of my goals for the trip. Dawn' wanted to take me down the highway to her old stomping grounds in Santa Cruz. She offered to drive my car; she already knew the way, and if I was a passenger, I could look at the scenery easier. That sounded logical. The first thing Dawn did when she got in my car was to check the parking break. That's what everyone in San Francisco does, by habit: set the parking break when they get out, release it when they get in. With all the hills, that makes sense. I tried to clean off as much playa dust as I could, but the front seat was still pretty dusty. I didn't realize how much the playa dust had penetrated every nook and cranny of my car until Dawn turned on the air conditioner– this big cloud of playa dust billowed out of all the vents. It took a minute or so to clear out.

Dawn drove us out of her neighborhood and onto the expressway. I was watching the dials on the dashboard. All the time I've had Satori, I've been very careful with the engine. I don't think I'd ever revved up the engine beyond 3,000 RPM's. As soon as we got on the expressway, Dawn floored the accelerator, zooming up to 80 miles per hour and red-lining the engine at over 6,000 RPM's. I kept expecting the engine to blow up at any moment. We took Highway 92 over the San Mateo Bridge and San Francisco Bay, and Dawn told me about the efforts to earthquake-proof all the bridges over the bay. Efforts were behind schedule. If a "big one" hit, she said, San Francisco might find itself isolated for years. Once on the other side, we crossed over the Crystal Springs Reservoir, which sits inside the crack in the Earth made by the San Andreas Fault.

Back in Oklahoma, while I was planning my trip, time was an important factor. I needed to know how long it took to get from one place to another. However, I couldn't find anything online about how long it took to drive the Pacific Coast Highway, only that the speed limits varied greatly. Ha! I didn't need to worry– nobody drives the speed limit in California! In fact, the norm seems to be to drive two or three times the speed limit. We sped along at 20 MPH over the speed limit the whole time, darting in and out of traffic like a grand prix racer. In the hills outside the Bay area, we took one 30 MPH corner going 70. Everyone else was driving like that, too, with plenty of honks, screeching tires and flipped fingers to spare.

We drove through San Mateo to Half Moon Bay and turned south on California Highway 1– and there it was. The Pacific Ocean! The blue expanse just beyond the hills was breathtaking. We stopped at a roadside vendor for some fresh-grown fruit. Everything looked so good. Before we left, I took a deep breath of the clean, salty air flowing in from the west. "Come on, Okie," Dawn laughed. "I'll show you the ocean!" We drove down the coast and pulled into the first public beach. I should've worn my sandals that morning, because it was kind of a hassle getting my boots off, but off they came. The breeze was cool. I walked across the deep, sandy beach. Nine weeks and four days since dipping my feet in the Atlantic Ocean,  the calm waters of the Pacific gently  lapped across my toes... and my ankles... and my knees!  I got soaked as a phantom wave suddenly rushed in at my legs. It was morning, so the tide was supposed to have been going out– but it came back for me! Dawn was laughing; I must have had a shocked look of surprise on my face. We stopped at another beach, which had some interesting cliffs and driftwood. It was a hazy day, and sky and sea seemed to blend together at the horizon. The sound of the waves and the kiss of the clean ocean air was intoxicating. We continued down the highway.

The coastline of California was exceptionally beautiful. Soft, rolling hills, dramatic cliffs, and the wonderful, blue ocean, stretching on forever. Most of the land along the coast was farms, ranches and vineyards. I was surprised it wasn't overrun with hotels, casinos and housing additions. Dawn said people in California like their coast, and work hard to keep out that sort of commercialization. On the side of the road was the old Pigeon Point Lighthouse, which had been converted to a hostel. We topped a hill overlooking a bay, and the sunlight reflecting over the waves made the water look like it was stocked with a million sparkling diamonds. We drove into the lovely college town that is Santa Cruz. Dawn lived there going to college;  I still had copies of her little newsletter she used to send out. She pointed out various places where friends used to live. Driving down the narrow, bustling downtown streets, it was hard to believe 90% of the buildings were destroyed in the 1989 earthquake. She showed me the spot where her friend was crushed by falling walls. She had been working overtime when the earthquake hit, shaking most of the downtown area down. Dawn and several friends donned hard hats and dug through the rubble for their friend, to no avail. Except for that one empty lot, there was no other sign of the devastation left by the earthquake.

We parked, and I dusted the sand from my still-wet jeans and put my boots back on. Dawn took me to Zoccoli's, one of her favorite restaurants, where we ate sandwiches outside by the street. Trees, flags and colors were everywhere down the busy streets. The trash cans were marked for stuff that could be recycled and those that couldn't. After we ate, we walked down to Bookshop SC, one of many bookstores in town. Dawn spoke with Neil, the shop's owner, who also happened to be a former mayor of Santa Cruz. Neil's son was running for city council, which Dawn found amusing-- until she realized his "little boy" was 30 years old now. From the bookstore, we drove through the winding, twisting street up the hill towards the college, but Dawn had something to show me first. Up a long hill, we pulled off the side of the road and crossed through a break in the wire fence. From there was an impressive view of the whole city, the seafront, and the beautiful Monterey Bay, the peninsula of Monterey far off in the hazy distance. I could see why Dawn hated to leave that town. I was starting to fall in love with the place myself.

We drove onto the campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz, which looked more like a modern ranch than a college. (In fact, some say UCSC stands for "Uncle Charlie's Summer Camp.") The sloping grassland rose to an expanse of redwood trees, with campus buildings scattered amongst the forest. One building advertised the college's upcoming Shakespeare festival. It was yet another reason to love Santa Cruz: a place where you could find culture, the ocean and the forest, all in one place. We parked the van, and climbed through a gate next to the lot. We hiked up a steep firebreak road and deep into the forest. I'd never seen redwood trees up close before. Their trunks shot high into the air, their branches looming over us with a bored indifference. The bark of the trees was uneven and ragged– as if the redwoods didn't care how anyone thought about them. When you live for hundreds and hundreds of years, you don't have to impress anybody.

It was calm and cool in the shade of the redwoods. We trekked deep into the woods, into what Dawn and her fellow students used to lovingly call Elfland. It did seem like a magical place; holy, even. That was when Dawn went off the trail and took me down a grassy slope. She said she used to pull leaves and branches behind her as she went, to hide the path, but someone had long since cleared the grade. Down the slope, she led me to a group of redwoods which had grown together in a ring about 12 feet in diameter. Branches and twigs stacked between the trees turned the circle into a small enclosure. This, Dawn explained, was Cat's Cradle. When her beloved cat died, Dawn buried him in this place out amongst the aged trees. It was in the enclosure that Dawn made a little memorial to her cat, and left behind a notebook of memories, safely sealed in an airtight container. When she returned years later, Dawn found several notebooks. People who had come across Cat's Cradle while wandering the woods had written down their own memories of beloved cats long gone. The memories had grown to several books, and two containers. People from all over the world had visited and left their mark at Cat's Cradle.

A short walk away from the Memorial was a totem pole. It had originally stood on the highest point of Elfland, place there by people forgotten years before the college acquired the land. When the university announced plans to develop the spot, Dawn and her friends filed injunctions against the state to preserve the site, to no avail. So, late one night, somebody snuck up to the top of the hill and dug up the totem pole. It turned out to weigh a ton, and it was a major engineering feat to remove it, relocate it, and replace it in the ground of that once-hidden spot. That was also where the local coven used to meet, and many artifacts remained. It was called Caer Ellilon, and the sign Dawn erected years past commemorating the site needed repair. Dawn insisted I make an offering, so as to please the spirits of the forest. I didn't have anything with me... until I found a state quarter. It was for Connecticut, and it had a tree on the back. That seemed fitting, so I stuck it in a crack of the totem pole. She said I should also say something, and left me alone to have my say. I couldn't think of anything sacred or profound, so I just said, Nice place you got here. The spirits of the forest seemed to reply: Word.

The most remarkable thing about the place was how peaceful it was. There was no sound at all– no bugs, no animals, no branches rustling in the wind. It was absolutely silent. Also, inside the ring of the four elements, nothing grew. There was no grass, no weeds, no typical forest undergrowth at all. It was a holy place, one of few in the world I've ever really visited. From there, Dawn and I hiked through the forest, stopping at various memorable places. She took me to Satan's Hand, which was a tree with five trunks, like a huge hand reaching out of the ground. We passed the Upper Meadow, a remote clearing of tall grass frequented by amorous students on muggy summer nights. The place looked like something out of Tolkien. I half expected a hobbit or an elf to come out from behind a tree. A trail led us down past the Wayfarer's Den, another circle of trees on a long slope. Down the hill was the Bridge to Heaven, a thick tree that once supported a trail across a small creek. It was obvious how much Dawn loved the place, and how heartbroken she was at the buildings dumped there by the college. The irony was: if Dawn were to complete her studies, get her degree, and get a teaching job at the university, her office would be in the very buildings she fought so hard to keep out.

We finally made it back to my van, where I found a parking ticket on the windshield. I put it in the glove compartment. What were they going to do, keep me from parking there again? I might not be back for years. The van was an oven, sitting in the hot sun, and we rode with the windows down all the way to the wharf, down on the edge of the bay. It was a long pier, stretching out from the beach, with basically a mall's worth of shops and restaurants. We went to Dawn's favorite ice cream shop, Marini's Munchies, which boasted that it had every kind of candy. They even had chocolate covered bugs. The scenery was tremendous. Gulls and pigeons patrolled overhead, looking for handouts. We had ice cream shakes and admired the lovely ocean view. When we finished, Dawn led me down some steps to the water's edge, and what I saw under the wharf was a total surprise: sea lions! Dozens of them! Huge animals, the size of refregerators, just lounging about on the support beams mere feet below the tourists on the wharf. It was an amazing sight.

We walked around the pier, then she took me on a little ride around the West Cliff area, which had lots of fancy houses– and at least one that was just inches away from falling into the ocean. It was for rent (cheap!). The whole seafront at Santa Cruz was slowly eroding into the ocean. The Natural Arches, which for years stood just off the cliffs, themselves eroded into the sea years past, leaving only the stumps behind. Dawn drove me over to meet her friend Gunilla, who ran a website-making business. She just returned from Burning Man, and it turns out we were only camped a few streets apart. She laughed when she saw the playa dust all over my car. We followed her to her little apartment (rented at a price that would get a good-sized house in Oklahoma). She and Dawn caught up on local news while Gunilla's daughters played outside. By then, the sun was getting low, so we decided to head back. On our return trip, Dawn took Highway 17 through the hills, and even in the fading light there was some impressive vistas. On the road, we passed the Lexington Reservoir, a dammed-up lake high in the hills. One good earthquake, Dawn noted, would crack the dam apart and flood all the towns below it. Night was something of a relief, since I couldn't see as much to be scared about anymore. As a point of information, I do know the way to San Jose.

By the time we returned to San Leandro, we were both hungry, but neither felt like cooking anything. So, we got take-out from KFC before goring back to Dawn's house. The funny thing was, Troy and Lon also got KFC to-go. We feasted on chicken while watching an old Errol Flynn movie; it wasn't one of his better ones. Dawn was wiped out after hiking half the day, and she crashed early. I hung out with Lon and Troy. I got along with them great. In the middle of the movie, a lady friend dropped by. Her name was Yvonne, and she seemed really neat. When the movie was over, I thanked the guys for letting me crash there. They said they were glad to meet me, after hearing Dawn talk about me for so long. I excused myself and went upstairs, hoping my internal clock would wake me in time to beat the traffic on the highways. Dawn later wrote in her journal it was "A wonderful day spent with someone I have always felt comfortable with."
Crystal Springs Reservoir, the lake made from the crack of the San Andreas Fault
My first view of the Pacific Ocean
The Pacific Ocean finds me
Santa Cruz, on the shore of the bay; that's Monterey in the misty distance
Heading into the redwoods
The view from Cat's Cradle

  Prologue -- Day 1 -- Day 2 -- Day 3 -- Day 4 -- Day 5 -- Day 6 -- Day 7 -- Day 8 -- Day 9 -- Day 10 -- Day 11 -- Day 12 -- Day 13 -- Day 14 -- Epilogue
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All original content (c)opyright 2004 by Tim Frayser