High above the Pacific Ocean, a wooden railing juts out of the mountainside, bearing testimony to lovers past and present. Dates, names and hearts have been carved into a long-lasting potpourri of amour.
It was here that Jose Ruiz and Amayrani Figueroa's eight-year relationship took an unexpected turn Sunday — well, unexpected at least for one of them.
The Riverside duo arrived at Main Beach at 11 a.m. to compete in the Laguna Beach Art Adventure. They weren't crowned victors of the three-hour scavenger hunt, but Figueroa walked away with spoils of her own — a 2-carat diamond ring, to be exact.
Ruiz, 24, first contacted John Hennessy, producer and director of CityRace Urban Adventure Hunts, in 2012. Although certain about proposing to his girlfriend, he decided to wait a year until they completed their education.
"We really wanted to be done with school and have something stable before we took the step of getting married," Ruiz said. "Our parents are not very financially stable, so we wanted something stable for our families, ourselves and our future."
Earlier this summer, Ruiz graduated with an engineering degree from Cal Poly Pomona, while Figueroa, a criminal justice major at California State University, San Bernardino, got her diploma the same day. With step one of their shared plan achieved, he reached out to Hennessy again.
"He wanted a location that would be very beautiful and romantic, and, of course, I immediately thought of the Laguna Beach hunt," Hennessy said. "There are clues in Heisler Park and Brown's Park, and I thought both of those locations would be great to stage a proposal. They're up high with great views of the ocean and coast. I would propose there!"
Based on Hennessy's recommendation, Ruiz explored both sites and selected Brown's Park. With its tree-lined path leading away from the hullabaloo on South Coast Highway, he saw the area as an ideal fit.
With that taken care of, Ruiz mentioned the competition to Figueroa, who instantly shot him down.
"I don't think it's fun to walk around in the sun," she said, gesturing to an umbrella that shaded her sensitive eyes from the glare. "I was like, 'I'm not going to pay $40 to go and burn myself.' So I told him we weren't [going] unless he won the tickets."
Determined not to give up, Ruiz made the purchase without Figueroa's knowledge, and Hennessy sent the couple an email declaring them — falsely — winners of a Facebook challenge hosted by CityRace, earning them two free passes. In reality, Ruiz had entered the contest but lost.
Because it was going to be such a special moment, Ruiz wanted loved ones present. So he invited Figueroa's parents and his family for a beachside picnic on the big day.
Say it in Styrofoam
Working closely, albeit surreptitiously, with Hennessy, Ruiz also bagged a "special" clue booklet before setting out on the day's journey.
"Typically, the clues can be done in any order, but in their booklet, there's a special note with that clue that says: 'Clue No. 25 will lead you to your final CityRace clue. Complete Clue No. 25 last, and only between the hours of 1:30 and 2 p.m.'" Hennessy said.
Dressed in matching khaki sweaters and jeans to signify their team effort, Ruiz and Figueroa made pit stops at the coastal community's murals, taking pictures with locals and solving puzzles. Like other scavenger hunt participants, they went to Brown's Park, but they were the only two who didn't return to the contest's starting point at the lifeguard tower.
Once at the site, Ruiz encouraged his soon-to-be fiancée to abandon her interest in plaques describing the scenic spot and instead walk toward the vista point — ahead of him so he could pull the ring box out of his bag. Amid the call of seagulls and a lilting breeze that teased the ends of her long, dark hair, Figueroa looked out and noticed not only a glinting expanse of water below, but also her name.
Pieces of Styrofoam embedded in the sand a few steps from where the waves crashed declared — in pink letters — "Amayrani, will you marry me? A&J.;"
Turning to her beau, she found him on one knee.
"Baby, you know I love you," he said.
"Yes," came the reply.
"You know I want to spend my life with you?" he prodded.
"Yes, yes," she said, as her face began to redden.
"Are you sure?"
"Will you marry me?" he asked.
"Yes!" Followed moments later by: "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!"
'I still want to finish the race'
Figueroa couldn't stop smiling, and Ruiz couldn't stop looking at her. Together, they couldn't stop stealing kisses.
And despite bickering like an "old married couple," they can agree on this: Their relationship had always reflected an easy camaraderie.
"I always tell her that she was the very first person I saw as soon as I walked into class," Ruiz said, referring to Advanced Placement Spanish at Fontana High School. "I'd seen other good-looking girls, but there was something different about her. I said to myself, 'OK, that girl is going to be my girlfriend.'"
Figueroa, on the other hand, thought Ruiz, a popular football player, would be conceited. She changed her mind when she met him.
Spanish club provided a link between the two, who progressed from classmates to best friends. Every year since becoming a couple, they've celebrated their connection on Oct. 16, be it with a meal or a movie. For his proposal, though, Ruiz knew that the date would give his plans away.
So he opted for a slightly earlier one.
"He's so romantic," Figueroa reflected later. "He treats me like a queen. He's just the love of my life."
Heading down to the water's edge, Ruiz and Figueroa paused at a bronze sculpture of a table and chair to recreate their magical moment.
"Are you all right?" he inquired as they walked away.
"Yes," she replied. "I'm still in shock. I still want to finish the race — we were doing so well!"