The marine layer always knows.
Like a foggy wet blanket, it declared the unofficial end of summer on Tuesday in Laguna Beach without equivocation.
One day it’s sunny with shirtless men and bedazzled women, tussling warm waves and overfed seagulls, traffic jams and standing-room-only trolleys.
The next day the coffee house line is nearly empty. Orders switch from icy cold frothy freezes to steaming hot swirling creations.
Locals in Laguna mark Labor Day on their calendars — more than Christmas, more than their birthdays.
It’s the day the majority of tourists leave. It’s the day locals creep out of their cottages, like bears in reverse hibernation.
Laguna in particular has only two real seasons: tourist and non-tourist.
And over the last few years, the line between the two has been blurring. Some residents argue that the tourist season is now year-round, and there is some truth to that.
But many locals still relish the initial exodus that occurs after Labor Day.
It’s a very palpable thing.
For one, there’s less overall noise. Remember that Laguna is essentially one big amphitheater. The surrounding hills contain and amplify every sound, every siren, every loud car exhaust — and there are many — that crowd Coast Highway like turbo-charged ants.
It’s disorienting, actually, to be high on a hill and hear a car two miles below that sounds like it’s just around the corner.
It’s palpable because it is real — for 101 little reasons. There are many secrets after Labor Day, which make them hard to say out loud for fear of breaking the local code.
But every tourist town has them. Indeed, up and down the coast, the same things apply in varying degrees.
The rules change between summer and winter for good reason. Some official, some not, the rules become more lax.
Dogs can run on the beach, unbridled, and do what dogs do. Officially? No. Unofficially? Kinda sorta.
The risk is worth seeing them dig, splash and shake. Throw the ball, throw the ball, they say. Pleaaase, throw the ball.
There are parking spaces for once, which means you can actually go downtown, assuming the destination is worth it.
And here is where it gets tricky in Laguna — and perhaps a little political. Some old-timers compare today with yesteryear when downtown had service businesses. So the point is, they ask, why go downtown at any time if there’s nothing that serves residents?
Either way, the service gets better everywhere, with no reservations needed. Bartenders linger and chat. Locals might actually recognize each other in a restaurant or shop.
The rhythms of the town start anew, like a pocket watch that just needed winding.
It’s as if the sidewalks get hosed down one last time, ready for normal winter use. The beach sands stay pristine, instead of littered with inland trash. Crabs and tide pool fish emerge and say hello. Everything seems happier and unafraid.
Perhaps that’s the crux of it. After the departing crowds, noise and traffic, it’s all about the things that remain.
The colder air, softer meadows, trepid deer, bigger waves, desolate coves and moody clouds.
Yes, after summer’s end, it is about the texture of winter’s secrets.
It’s the singular experience of staring at a vast ocean from your own private, quiet nook, reflecting on everything and nothing.
And on any given evening, the thing that most likely remains is an unselfish, dappled sunset over the white breccia cliffs of Catalina Island.