Laguna Beach, California: Identity and Geography

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Laguna Beach, California: Identity and Geography

My father remembers as a child that California was a suspect land, where strange things happened and people were, well, liable to do something weird. It was never clear what kind of weird, but spontaneous combustion didn’t seem to be out of the question. The land of the Wobblies, I believe it was called. This didn’t stop him from marrying into California blood. Anything, it seems, was better than being from Illinois. He pronounced it Illi-noy, but as children we knew that it was Illi-noise and it was the beginning of the East Coast.

The Midwest began on the west side of the Mississippi and ran through to the Rockies. West, it went without saying, was west of the Rockies, except Arizona and New Mexico, which were different, special, and went by the name Southwest. And then there were California and Texas, places which required their own names, so as not to be confused with the real world.

The South didn’t exist; at least it and divorce were never mentioned in polite company. We were the special ones, southwesterners, being from Tucson, the land of sacred mountains. I once had a major, friendship-threatening, argument in my thirties with displaced New Yorkers who told me that the Southwest was Texas. This is clearly a strong argument for the National Geographic’s push to put geography back in the classroom, except this time around they had better get the names right.

I was meditating on geography because the driver of the San Diego airport van, a twenty-something young lady, probably born somewhere on the east coast, perhaps in Illi-noise, informed the passengers that the driver holding things up in front was a Zonie, that is, someone from Arizona.

I liked that. I wondered if we had been Zonies when we were young and came over to Grampa’s beach house to escape the July desert heat. I am disappointed later when my grown-up, ex-California, cousin Martha assures me that we were never Zonies, at least not in the 50s and 60s.

California still is the geography of the disoriented. I know this for a fact because I just flew out to San Diego where I was attending an environmental conference and all of us environmentally enlightened people were standing one mile away from the ocean admiring a tidal pool made from concrete which had a gush of water in precise minute intervals accompanied by the taped sound of a muted ocean. The tidal pool had no sea anemones in it. I wanted to weep and run away and it’s because of that tidal pool that I end up in Laguna Beach, playing hooky.

The South didn't exist; at least it and divorce were never mentioned in polite company. We were the special ones, southwesterners, being from Tucson, the land of sacred mountains.


I haven’t been to Laguna Beach in years and I’ve never just driven through on my own, parent-less, sibling-less, dog-less or, later in life, husband-less and child-less. I feel young. I have a rental car, unfortunately not red and not a convertible, but I do have red sunglasses and a sunburn. My hair is still long and sometimes at night people think I’m in my early thirties.

This is my last chance to be a California Babe. But driving the 10 lane freeway between concrete walls doesn’t create an epiphany of Babeness. I can’t concentrate on it because I am at the check point between my immediate past and immediate future. I am mentally stamping my passport between the San Diego world of environmental teachers (all women, some of whom laugh a lot and tell dirty jokes about their husbands) and the Los Angeles world of electrochemists (mostly men who laugh some of the time, really do talking about molecular modeling and diffusion equations, and rarely mention their wives.)

These are the two different cultures I inhabit. Mostly if you ask me what I am I would tell you that I am an electrochemist, but sometimes now I might answer that I am a teacher.

I got caught one semester when trying to figure out how to make freshman chemistry relevant and decided to use lead to instill an understanding of chemistry. This has grown to be an obsession to know all trivia and science related to lead.

My social friends, all non-chemists, bring me gifts of stories about lead the way that people used to bring flowers to a dinner party. I have been informed that the first dog Mille of the Bush era had been lead poisoned when the vice-residential home was renovated.

California still is the geography of the disoriented.


Another set of friends looking for a home heard from their real estate agent about a parakeet that died from pecking leaded paint on a door frame. I know how the ancient Chinese made white lead based cosmetics from wine and horse dung. It seems that I find lead everywhere. I think that I am known as the lead lady to the undergraduates, but to the electrochemists I think that I am known as the kitty litter lady because I use electrochemistry to study clays a main component of kitty litter.

The sight of the Denny’s in San Clemente transports me to a third world, that of my childhood. I remember when the Denny’s was built, I remember when the freeway was built, and I remember how we laughed at the cattle crossings, that they ran over the top of it so that the ranches weren’t cut in half. Denny’s marks imminent arrival. Soon you exit and go up the Coastal Highway, Route 1.

In Dana Point if you had been dozing (a remote possibility with three kids and 1 dog all in the back seat smelling the end of the hot 9 hour trip) you woke up because the road up the hill was concrete and the tires went thunk-a-thunk-a, thunk-a-thunk-a. And when you got to the top Route 1 swept around a yellow desert brush covered hill and there was the ocean. There were deer in the brush and when you walked up the hills you could smell the desert sage mixed with sea mist and snag your sneakers on the holly bushes. Once Dad even saw a bobcat in the early morning hills.

Now the ocean is hidden and the subtle hue of the desert has been carpeted in green crayola. The coast is covered with ferns from Puerto Rico, banana trees from Mexico, eucalyptus trees from Australia which are watered with water from Oregon. And where the hills are not covered with plants and lawn they are covered with houses and concrete poured to look like dirt to protect the houses from slipping onto the road. I think, “Thank God for the Marines.”

Camp Pendleton, the marine base between San Diego and San Clemente, is the last segment of coastal desert left and has a new sign: “The Marine Corps: helping to preserve California’s environment.” It used to have signs warning you to keep out because of artillery practice.

In Laguna Beach I exit Route 1 and glance up Highland Way and am relieved to see Grampa’s beach house, the one Mom designed when she was young and still filled with architectural dreams, remains the same. The red bougainvillaea cascades over the porch. The plant had been old when I was a child, I had thought perhaps 100 because of the thickness of the vine, but it couldn’t be more than 50 even today. The house is swept away as I run the car under the highway and toward the beach.

The entrance to the beach is still hidden and secretive. Nobody can find this beach unless they are one of the initiated. The stairs down smell slightly disgusting, just as always. I have never figured out if it is bad sanitation or the decay of eucalyptus leaves.

Now that I am a chemist I can draw the shape of the molecule that gives the characteristic odor of eucalyptus. It looks something like a sting ray with a shark’s fin. Like the sting ray it is poisonous, so the tree is worthless as an eco-habitat except for the koala bears, which they forgot to import.

The stairs down are 94. Every year I would count the stairs. Every year I assumed that Grampa was the same age: 93 and never changing. They don’t seem so many on the way down, but I know that on the way up I will gasp for breath just as Grampa used to. The stairs are flanked by lush foliage from the homes on each side, and then suddenly dig into the side of the cliff to spill out onto Victoria Beach. It is not a large beach and it is not particularly friendly.

The California cousins always preferred driving down to San Clemente once they had graduated from skidboards to surfboards and body surfing. In San Clemente the waves are large and break a quarter mile out to give a gentle ride in. Those are the California glory beaches with miles of sand populated with lithe volleyball players and California Babes like the ones I aspired to be.

But we weren’t real Californians, we were desert prickly Zonies and we stayed mostly faithful to Lady Victoria. She is haughty and jealous and pounds the beach angrily. The danger of the waves is real as Victoria suffers children only partially. Mom got a concussion on this beach when she was a child and has never since been at peace with water.

Victoria’s waves never harmed Dad. This was only right and proper because while he despises the military he would have made a great biblical general capable of parting the ocean. He was the drill master of the forced weekend marches who parceled out lunches only when we straggled to the top of a desert mountain peak. He is not, however, invincible. The desert, like the waves, takes its toll and he once was felled by heatstroke.

Despite this he still lives within the desert. Mom and Dad have moved up into a scruffy little town in the high chaparral of the Sonoran Desert. When we go to their town we pass the Midwesterners in their exile communities safely moated behind sterile green golf courses. They fill me with a sense of impotence and they remind me of a Texan I once met who told me he loved everything about Mexico, except the Mexicans.

The desert is being loved to death by those who will not tolerate it. Mom and Dad do not have palm trees, lawns, rose bushes, or even swept dirt and gravel cactus gardens. They do however, cut back the oily, red, smooth-barked manzanita, the burning bush of the desert. And they have built a rock cairn within leaping distance of the roof and put in four special doors for Spot, the cat, to escape from coyotes and the rare roving bobcat. In this high desert place, the teeming shore line between ocean of desert and mountain island, Dad lives like the pirate bandit I imagine he always wanted to be.

The desert is being loved to death by those who will not tolerate it.


On Victoria’s shore my brother and I were also pirates. At the end of the beach, where the stairs come out of the hill, is Sugarloaf point. The cliff used to have a little hollow which my brother and I would pretend was our pirates’ cave. It has collapsed now and there is a fence around the point with a sign announcing restoration of this historic scenery. More concrete, I suppose. It had always been a narrow walk around Sugarloaf point to the Rich Peoples’ Inlet and it was narrower now because of the fence.

The tide is high and I am still wearing my professorial leather pumps and have to jump quickly on the jagged edges of the rocks. Past the Rich People’s Inlet is the mad dash to the base of the Pirates’ Tower with its Jolly Roger flag where the tidal pools begin. The dash reminds me that I am a cruel person.

When Sandi, one of the Illi-noise cousins, came as a teenager to live with us, my brother and I brought her down the night we arrived to show her the ocean. The tide was at its highest, a full moon tide, the waves frothing in the night light, and the sound filled you up pressed you till you gasped, making the dash truly terrifying. If you didn’t judge the waves right you could be hurled against the rocks at the base of the Pirates’ Tower. We could smell her fear but we wouldn’t let her back down. We insisted that the tidal pools were worth the effort, but mostly we were paying her back for making us pronounce Illi-noise as Illi-noy.

Past the Pirates’ Tower was the cleft. You skirt the end of the cleft and stop to wait for the spout hole to steam. I remember Grampa bringing me here the first time. I had waited and waited and waited forever. The tidal pools were off limits to the really young, and since I was the youngest of all the cousins I was the only one forbidden the tidal pools. But one day Grampa took my hand and led me off.

He showed me the spout and he showed me where the abalone liked to hide in the crevices and to watch out for the purple sea urchins with their poisonous spines and how to poke your fingers into the soft insides of the sea anemones and feel them curl up around your fingers. He picked up a star fish, all orange, and showed me the fingers underneath.

I was hooked and from that summer on I spent most of my time at the tidal pools. I collected the abandoned homes of baby abalones and sea urchins. By the time I was seven or eight I had a collection large enough to require a cigar box. Grampa gave the cigar box and took a picture of my collection. I no longer have the cigar box but do have the sea shells and the picture.

I rarely look at the picture because if makes me sad. I had spent an hour arranging the shells and then he went and took the picture from the side when I wasn’t even looking at him. You see few of the shells I collected in the picture. Only the painted ones I bought for a quarter at the tourist store are visible. And all you see of me is the back of my head and my orange swim suit encased body with its large childhood tummy; just like the one my daughter has today.

Shell Collection - Laguna Beach PIC: AF

Shell Collection – Laguna Beach PIC: AF

No one else is out on the tidal pool flat to see me jumping to avoid the salt water on my leather shoes and trying not to scuff them. I would take them off and go barefoot but I would cut my tender middle-aged mid-western feet. I stand for a moment to orient myself and to ask a prayer that I will be given a gift today. I feel in need of it. I feel, well, disoriented. It’s that California feeling, all that missing coastal desert, and all those shifting identities. I allow myself one hour to find my gift. It is futile because of the hose and the leather pumps and high tide, but I look anyway.

The sound is deafening. There is a large wave for about every 6 or 7 small waves. It is predictable enough that you can plan your jump to the side of the lower tidal pools and avoid being drenched. Because of the waves, the moments of transparency to the bottom of the tidal pools are tantalizingly short.

I am wishing my children were here. I am wishing my Grampa was here. But mostly I want that ½ inch long shell of an abalone that didn’t grow up. In the one second when the water in the tidal pool turns glossy, the mother of pearl will glint. Although the color of it will be the same as the boring, overly abundant, mussel shells, I will know it when I see it because of the ridge of holes that curl around it and in that moment I will plunge my arm down and grab it and pull it up through the froth of the next wave.

The sun is beginning to set and as I face warily west to keep an eye on the waves I feel the skin begin to peel off my burning forehead. Soon I will have to abandon the chase. I still need to drive up to Los Angeles and check in. I finally leave. I do have a gift in my pocket but it wasn’t what I was expecting and I don’t know quite how to interpret it.

When we go to their town we pass the Midwesterners in their exile communities safely moated behind sterile green golf courses. They fill me with a sense of impotence and they remind me of a Texan I once met who told me he loved everything about Mexico, except the Mexicans.


When I get to Los Angeles and tell my electrochemistry friends about this trip and the gift none seem surprised. One tells me I am lucky that I didn’t get the abalone shell because it is now illegal to take empty shells from tidal pools. But Al, my husband, on the phone back in Illinois, recognizes immediately that the gift I did receive is an example of true California weirdness.

I have brought it back home. My gift sits on my desk now as I write this. It sits next to a welcome home drawing my six-year-old son, who pronounces Illi-noise as Illi-noy, made of the most important geographic landmark in his life, the Sears Tower. The drawing is carefully and colorfully covered with rows of windows that trail at drunken angles up the side of the building. A charitable chemist describes this as a good example of a shift in the crystal phase of the building with the change in colors indicting, perhaps, a transmutation in elemental composition.

I will leave my, in retrospect, inevitable gift, a 2 inch long 4 oz. lead fishing weight, on my desk as an experiment to see if it will transmutate into a gold abalone shell, or, perhaps, spontaneously combust. It is, after all, from California. I expect these events to occur long before I expect Al to bless my attempts to convert our lawn into prairie.

He will travel soon and I will move the border of Illinois wild flowers to what I hope is an un-noticeable inch further into the lawn. This is guerrilla warfare for where I see man’s enforced sterilization of Mother Nature Al sees only God’s lush abundance. Al insists that the turf grass (imported more than 100 years ago from cool, moist, temperate, England) is native here, which I suppose to him, born and raised in Buffalo, it is, just as the ferns and eucalyptus and banana trees are native to the twenty-somethings in California.

Alanah Fitch

Alanah Fitch

Dr. Fitch grew up in hiking the mountains around Tucson, Ariz. and spent her summers combing the beach in California for seashells, experiences which contributed to her world outlook. She left the west for the first time to go to college received her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology/Latin American Studies in 1975 from Antioch College, Ohio. During the course of her undergraduate studies she lived for a total of two years in both Colombia and Mexico. Her original post-college goal was to work in international development which moved her from Anthropology into Soil Fertility (1977, M.S. University of Arizona) to Soil Chemistry (Ph.D. University of Illinois Champaign Urbana, 1981, Frank Stevenson). Her chemistry experiences inspired her into a career in chemistry (postdoctorals in Electrochemistry, 1981-1984 U.W. Madison (Dennis Evans) and 1984 Northwestern University (Don Smith and Rick Van Duyne). In 1985 she joined the faculty at Loyola, becoming full professor in 1995. Her research focus (60 publications to date, EPA and NSF funded) uses clay-modified electrodes to study transport phenomena in thin clay films. This work has applications in natural phenomena, remediation of polluted environments, support matrices for sensors, and microelectronics. Dr. Fitch was named Loyola University Faculty scholar in 2000. In 2004 Dr.Fitch was awarded an NSF Discovery Corps fellowship to bring Loyola's GC-MS online for use in joint teaching and research with institutions in East Africa. Fall 2006 she was awarded the Gibbs Award for Promotion of Excellence in the Teaching of Analytical Chemistry by the Analytical Chemistry Division of the American Chemical Society. Her current research grew out of the East Africa experience: recovery of energy from bacteria has the potential to provide energy in areas with minimal infrastructure.