The Refugee and the Refuge

In the darkness, a freight train woke my parents. They had fallen asleep independently, listening to hear if John and I were also asleep, then drifting off with the muffled surf melting into their dreams. My older brother John was five and he and Dad were nestled in sleeping bags under the stars. I was three, and Mom and I slept in the brand new 1960 Ford Ranch Wagon, their first new car. The back seat folded down to make room for us. The train thundered by without warning on the trestle above the campground where they had set up camp for the night at Refugio State Beach, north of Santa Barbara. It was late June or early July, 1960. We were on our way to see grandparents in Washington.

Mom is “pretty sure” we were on the way “to” Washington when we camped at Refugio, because they normally took the inland Highway Ninety-Nine when they were coming home each summer. The coastal route was much more fun for a young married couple. They cooked on the tailgate on a small grill that Mom painted and repainted over the years. Did I remember the grill? It’s a casual question as she thumbs through the Saturday Register. No, Mom, I was only three.

Yesterday was the first of March, 1996. As I turned the page on my glorious Ansel Adams wall calendar, there appeared a haunting view of that little stream at Refugio that feeds into the ocean near the main beach. The caption was “Refugio Beach, 1946”. Fifty years ago.

Last summer I returned to Refugio between quarters at college. The main beach, with its campground and amenities and kids on bikes, reminded me of Pismo or the Huntington Beach of the sixties, when I was young. Scuba divers stand around the parking lot under the palms gently removing heavy black and tangerine air tanks and regulators into teal Jeep Cherokees and black Ford Rangers. Relaxed, victorious tourists of the deep, they explode in simultaneous chatter of what they had seen together under the brown kelp beds could not vocalize while it was happening.

I walk along and turn right and go up the trail leading to the cliffs above the crescent coves of sand and aquamarine water. The train tracks are somewhere over to the right, hidden in the coastal chaparral. I walk along with the tall fragrant sage towering over my head, blocking out the cool, salty breeze. A dried yucca stem, a child’s forgotten excalibur, lay in the trail.

Startled, I flinch. A flock of brown pelicans with six foot wingspans rise above the sage. They glide effortlessly on the ocean updraft and move like a single organism. Now they are far ahead of me, moving just above the top of the brush. As they pass, the crickets maintain their steady chirp, but when I get near, the insects grow quiet until I pass. The soil is dusty and black and coats my deck shoes and my hair is messed up and it is exhilarating not to care about that or my potbelly, because I am here again, in my refuge from city life.

Later, I am down on the shore walking north and climbing over the rocks that border each little crescent beach I pass. Eventually, I come across the fantastic broken remains of a large storm drain that had tumbled down the cliff. It is sea-worn cement, a massive fifteen foot chunk six feet high and six or seven feet wide. Twisted rusty rods are spaced a foot apart, facing the open sea, but strangely they’ve been twisted backwards and to the right by the action of the tides. The overall effect is of giant, inch thick rusty iron stitches coming in and out of the concrete. A thoughtful Mother Nature has hid the seam to protect the curious children passing by. I clamber up a boulder and hop on top of the concrete block. On top is the date “1948” stamped deep into the cement when it was still wet a half century ago. I touch the numbers. It’s like a tumbled memorial to a giant. Two years before it was poured into plywood molds (whose fossil print can be seen all over the surface) Ansel Adams had come to this beach to snap that picture on my calendar. It was the year his friend Alfred Steiglitz (another pioneer photographer and Georgia O’ Keefe’s husband) had died.

As I hop down and continue my hike north, away from the crowd, a wavelet catches me off guard and sprays my canvas shoes and shorts. The water is cold, but the air is warm. After a forty minute hike, I plunk down my knapsack and sand chair and break out a 1955 Pantheon edition of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s ode to shoreline solitude: “Gift From the Sea”. In 1955 it had, according to the inside cover, belonged to Louise A. Chrimes and then to the Solvang Lutheran Home in 1983. The cover has little brown drawings of seashells and is the exact color of the sand. The spine is blue.

Where am I? Is it 1946 and Ansel Adams is just now setting up his tripod and Leica, just over there, beyond those rocks? Is it 1948 and the concrete back there is still up on the cliff, settling in its plywood mold, the workers resting for lunch? If I walked back to the parking lot right now, would I find a young couple camping with their two little boys in a new, 1960 white Ford Ranch Wagon? Or is it 1995? I hear the whistle and thump of a freight train moving on the tracks above the beach.

Those little black and white start-stop shorebirds over there are snowy plovers. I love to watch them chase the wavelets in packs as they feed on the sandcrabs, living waves whose life is only sustained by the death of the creatures they tear from the sand and swallow whole. Their jerky movements provide a visual counterbalance to the shimmering sweep and hiss of the water sweeping the sand in broad circular strokes. I can taste the salt. Curiously, there are very few shells in the sand. Lindbergh’s essays are all about shells.

As I sat there reading Lindbergh. I began to unwind from finals and work conflicts and think about water, the kind you can drink. The cold Pacific shimmers and thunders in the afternoon sun. I’m a little thirsty.

Time and consistency, and pounding surf, can bend iron, like the iron stitches of the useless storm drain that itself will one day drain into the deep. Jesus the Nazarene has stitched up my hurts, but I can still feel His iron stitches in my heart, and they keep me gasping and grasping out for His arm to lean on. Time itself draws creases in our faces and around our eyes and, perhaps, around our mouths because we smiled often. I pick up the sand chair and stuff and head back. I walk on, back to the truck and the kids on the bikes and their parents starting up the barbeques because the kids are starving after all that swimming and biking around. I am alone; I am not alone, Thou and I walk together. Am I happy? Am I sad? I am certainly at peace. And You promised we will always be together. Even now, wherever now might be.

He is to me the fabled Fountain of Youth, this Jesus of Nazareth. He is the Incarnate Answer to Dylan’s song “Forever Young”, creative and resourceful beyond all expression. His feet trod where no religious Pharisee would go, to the traitorous taxgatherer’s house, to hang out with the publicans and sinners, to share their food and wine (wine!), to joke with them (never dirty, but so funny they cried), much to their amazement. Here the Empire’s swindlers and whores drank pure water as the thirty-something rabbi spoke of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of the sad parent waiting at the twilight crossroads once again looking for his prodigal son, a kingdom of pariahs restored, incurables cured, the unforgiveable atoned for, not with silver temple shekels but with blood untainted by sin’s destruction, His own blood, a King’s blood. Here is a Kingdom indeed, and a King whom I have found very approachable. Now let me introduce one of His subjects.

Raul’s smile was a tight grimace as he struggled with pain caused by inoperable tumors. But his eyes were bright as we chatted about the Savior’s goodness in our lives, over food at a coffee shop, comparing notes. We saw He never sheltered us from our choices, which were real choices, but warned us, and was always there afterwards to pick up the pieces.

Raul’s church group called less and less as his symptoms worsened. They were probably afraid. His phone calls went unanswered. He and I spoke candidly about sin and Christ’s atonement, about heart-felt forgiveness, and about immortality. I remember laughing with him, but I can’t remember the joke. My memory of Raul is overshadowed by the last call I ever made to his number. A woman told me firmly not to call there anymore (a tremble in her voice?), that there was no one there named Raul, and there had never been.

I like to think Raul died with his parents present, at home, surrounded by his things, the priest properly administering the Last Rites. But that last phone call makes me wonder. Perhaps his parents were ashamed and just went on with work and shopping, as if he was laid up with a bad case of the flu. Perhaps he died alone while his parents, ashamed, went on to work on that last day. Either way, I don’t think Raul’s name will ever find its way onto a square in somebody’s quilt.

Here’s your square, my friend.

Raul, you now know Him as fully as He always knew you. I walk on Refugio and I think beyond that cloud-draped horizon that looks like a gate to heaven. Were we deceived? Was that rabbi a liar? Was He God Incarnate as He said? Is He alive still? You remember that young rabbi we read about? He Who offered Sychar’s outcast daughter living water? What does it taste like, Raul, what is that stuff anyway?

Is there an ocean of life where you are, pure as a mountain lake? And did He, that young rabbi, keep His promise to dry all your tears? Perhaps, Raul, you’ve found that church group fellowship where you can relax, and the friendship and loud laughter you longed for. Are you the friend of a King? Can you hang out in His approachable Presence whenever you aren’t discovering new worlds? Or do you need an appointment because He has, uh, only so much Time? The sun’s low in the sky and I’m curious, Raul. What is it like? What is it like, friend?

Over the next bank of rocks to my left is the main beach at Refugio. I drop the chair and knapsack and plop down in the sand. I pull out Lindbergh’s book, read for a page or two, and lay it facedown. Out beyond the surf, a pelican glides by silently. Suddenly she folds her huge bat-like wings and her long beak pierces the blue water. A moment later, in a glittering spray of crystal droplets, she reappears, a fish invisibly wriggling in her pouch. Head tilts back, the wriggle is gone, the pelican floats content on the waves. A mundane fish sacrificed to perpetuate the pelican’s life. Out of death comes life. What have you found, Raul?

In my knapsack I find a bottle of fresh water and I drink.