Getting cozy with the natural world can require money and vacation time. But it’s really sweet to tuck it into every week, at the cost of a bit of gasoline.
About a decade ago, I found a way to get my little piece of the Pacific every week — just enough to remind me what a great gift it is to live on the coast. If I got up reasonably early on Saturdays, I could beat the beach crowd to Santa Monica, park free (or for $1 if I took too long) in a public structure, jog about five miles along the ocean, shop at the farmers market and be home in time for any family plans or chores.
For about 10 years, I’ve guarded this time as fiercely as a three-headed Cerberus.
Every week, the same route: from the Hooters on Santa Monica Boulevard, to the walkway, then north to a water fountain in Will Rogers State Beach and back. In Palisades Park, I come to a cannon aimed out over the water (there’s no sign telling its provenance — but that doesn’t seem to stop tourists taking photos; the city says it’s one of a pair of 16-ton Civil War cannons that came to Santa Monica in 1908) and descend a stairway to a Pacific Coast Highway overpass. Soon the ocean noise overtakes the PCH traffic.
Every week, the same route: past the pink-and-purple house, the fancy-pants private club, Back on the Beach cafe, lifeguard towers, classical music streaming from Perry’s cafe and bike rental. The weather never matters; the jog feels new all the time.
If I’m out early, leaving Mid-City L.A. by around 7, the walkway might be foggy — with actual fog and with pot, smelling treacly-sweet for a second as I pass. Homeless people are packing up for the day, washing in one of the (blessedly well-maintained) restrooms in the sand. Serious bicyclists calling out “on your left” a second before they swoop by. Tourists, rarely in beach or workout attire, with take-out coffees. Spanish and Russian seem the most common of many languages.
Running north, I love looking toward the sandstone cliffs and towering palm trees. Going south, the Santa Monica Pier always looks more fun than it ever actually is. Once in a while I get a peek into a house on the beach.
After 9 a.m., the scene is more crowded: pairs of women, chatting about men and children. Pairs of men on bicycles, chatting less. Couples walking or biking, some with kids. The families carry mountains of pails and chairs and picnic coolers and boogie boards from their cars. L.A. Leggers and other running groups pass, with pace runners. Still more serious bicyclists, wearing helmets and pumping those amazing legs. It’s never them, by the way, whom I fear. They’re safe and skilled. But all the novices who don’t know how to share the walkway, often with young children not too accomplished on wheels — watch out. (Parents: If you want your kids to wear helmets, you need to wear them too.)
We are all supposed to share the sidewalk. Santa Monica says that when there is a single path, it must be shared. The city painted new signs on the concrete in 2013 — I learned then that it was my right to jog there. Nice to stop feeling like an interloper.
In January, a national ultimate Frisbee tournament was held on the sand. Young men in tutus, teams in neon pink tank tops, all with coolers and six-packs. They crowded my sidewalk, though they provided lots to gaze at.
These days, stand-up paddle-boarders are out along with the surfers and sunbathers; occasionally people fish. In clear weather, Santa Catalina Island is visible off in the distance. When it’s midsummer hot, people pitch little tents on the beach. For every patriotic holiday, U.S. flags fly from the beach club buildings.
When the Annenberg Community Beach House opened to the public (for a fee) in 2009, on the site of Marion Davies’ 110-room mansion, I stopped feeling quite so annoyed every time I passed the “members only” signs stuck in the sand at the stately Jonathan Club, where, its website brags, “members have enjoyed their own piece of the Pacific seashore paradise since 1927.”
I am joyful when I pass other joggers, but I can’t say I mind tagging along behind the well-built men.
And then there are those Saturdays — could be after a third-glass-of-Chardonnay Friday night — when ocean and mountains be damned. It’s all I can manage to keep my head down, eyes boring into the concrete, trying not to take in how much farther I’ve got left to run. I’m plodding and tired. But plodding and tired are somehow much more bearable in the ocean air. The Pacific never grows old, and when I look up and to the west, it seems like I can see forever.
Santa Monica beach tips
The Los Angeles area obviously has thousands of places to exercise outdoors. But if the Santa Monica beach calls to you, here are a few tips.
Parking. Santa Monica’s parking garages are a short walk to the beach and a bargain: 90 minutes free, $1 for the next hour. Other rates apply for evenings and special events. Paid parking, not as cheap, also is available along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Annenberg Community Center. A beach club open to anyone who pays the daily entrance fee. Pool, activities, cultural events. Fees vary, but general entrance for the pool for the day is $10 for adults, $4 for children, $5 for seniors. No charge for babies under 12 months.
Activities. There are kiosks along the beach for food and for bikes and other rentals. Lifeguard staffing varies.
Amenities. There are plenty of restrooms, and they’re well-maintained. Water fountains are outside. Outdoor rinse-off showers have not been shut off, as have some others in the state because of the drought.
You can even hold your wedding on the beach — no permit needed for fewer than 150 people. Spots are first come, first served.