As a kid, no matter how spectacular my sand castles came out, there was always another 8-year old down the beach with wrecking balls for hands and nine ounces of snot hanging from his lip. He’d waddle toward my pending masterpiece and ask to help construct it. In congruence with my mother’s stern assertions to share and against my inner Frank Lloyd Wright, I’d acquiesce. Twenty years later I’d thank her for those constant assertions. She’d taught me to share the sand. As a surfer, I learned to share the waves. And as a human, I learned to share the ocean with its most amicable inhabitants.
Rewards have included: new friends, perfect surf sets, occasionally awaiting those sets within arm’s reach of a curious dolphin or seal — and knowing that the only things that are “mine” on these beaches are my board and my memories.
The sun is a siren here. She will lure you from beneath your roof nearly every morning onto mountain bikes, dirt bikes, hikes, surfboards, or sailboats to bask in her glory until she tires herself out at dusk. The key to outlasting her amidst the day’s endless activities is San Diego’s own California Burrito.
The 1.5-pound, calorie-loaded behemoth can be found at any of San Diego’s ubiquitous taco shops. It consists of carne asada, cheese, french fries, sour cream, a tortilla the size of a parachute, and a nourishing sense of victory that whispers carpe diem from your insides upon finishing.
Within just three days of being away, my gut begins going through withdrawals. So the first thing I eat within 20 minutes of stepping off a plane is always a burrito. They just taste like home. They’re also rad for curing hangovers.
Years before my generation would numb itself on the digital carnage of Grand Theft Auto III — ripping hijacked tanks across pixelated streets — Shawn Scott Nelson did it in real life. I remember watching the live news coverage from home, in horror and astonishment with eyes as gaped as my jaw. I was far from numb.
In May 1995, the 35-year-old Army Veteran lost his proverbial shit, thieved a tank from the National Guard Armory, and tore through suburban San Diego. Over the course of 23 minutes, he crushed everything in his path to the 163 Freeway, where he ultimately rendered the tank immobile on the median trying to roll into oncoming traffic. Police eventually busted the tank’s hatch open, shot Nelson, and dragged him out of the 57-ton weapon. He later died in the hospital as the only casualty.
I was still swigging on a baby bottle when Top Gun was filmed on location here. And though it’s been nearly three decades since Maverick and Goose sliced up the blue sky in F-14 fighter jets, aircraft theatrics are still very much alive in San Diego airspace — mostly on account of the concrete gauntlet that commercial planes run in order to touch down at San Diego International Airport.
Ranked as one of the most dangerous in the US, the airport sits on a harbor just west of Downtown. Pilots flying in are tested by a drastically steep descent over the eastern mountains, hungry skyscrapers, and the edge of California that abruptly ends in the ocean. In order to make it all work, they’re forced to fly incredibly close to everything on the way. As a passenger, you feel horrified and curious at the same time, it’s a rush. They might not be barrel rolling at 3-Gs, but those pilots do know how to make an entrance.
At 1,593 feet it’s definitely no Shasta or Mammoth, but Cowles Mountain can claim the title as one of the most popular hiking spots in California. Over a hundred hikers summit the mass of hot, sage-covered granite each day — a clear testament to the stunning views of Downtown, La Jolla, the Pacific, and Mexico that greet you at the top. Nobody debates its beauty, but they can’t agree on its name.
Some pronounce Cowles Mountain like “bowels.” Others pronounce it like “bowls.” And while this may seem like an innocent “Tomāto” vs. “Tomäto” paradigm, I feel obliged to pronounce it in the latter form on account of the history.
The story goes that George Cowles settled in San Diego in 1877 to begin career ranching. In his success, he established Cowles Town, Cowles School, Cowles Spring, and Cowles Mountain. With his efforts, the area now known as Santee began flourishing. His ranching business had become very wealthy and he had just completed railway negotiations before his death, due to an intestinal ailment.
Shortly after his death, his wife remarried a real-estate developer by the name of Milton Santee. With newly acquired wealth behind him, Santee changed everything named Cowles to Santee, and attempted to permanently change the name of Cowles Mountain to Black Mountain. After all of the turmoil the Cowles name has been through, I feel compelled to pronounce it the way George himself would have.
Regardless of where you stand on the spectrum of musical preference, it’s hard to deny that hearing Blink-182’s “Dammit” doesn’t light a fire in you. In 1997, I was just entering my own personal phase of pubescent rebellion, and “Dammit” was my adrenaline-infused anthem.
When my brother brought the album into my room and told me they were from San Diego, I got excited. When I first heard the album, I went absolutely ape-shit and punk-Footloosed in my room for hours until the neighbors complained. My dad even had to cut power to my stereo via the circuit breaker outside to shut me up. It didn’t matter though. At 13, to feel like someone ‘got me’ through crusty chords and throaty vocals meant the world. They were from San Diego, and so was I. It meant that I would be all right.
Twelve years later, I moved to Australia for a year. A bit scared and a bit alone in the first few days of my new residence, I found myself drinking in a bar. Eventually somebody threw “Dammit” on the jukebox, and the whole crowd erupted to sing the lyrics in unison. I smiled and immediately knew again that I would be all right.
There are moments when you’ll smile until your face hurts. Sometimes they’ll happen when you’re zipping up the 5 freeway with the Pacific over your shoulder and sea air charging in through your open windows. Or when you’re with someone you love, buzzed on the sun and a tableful of the city’s finest craft beers. Sometimes they’ll happen when you see the Sea World fireworks flash through the black satin sky on their nightly summer routine.
It might hit you when you’re huffing down Taco Tuesday tacos with your best friends, or when you’re sitting on the beach alone on Christmas, thinking about the friends and family who used to share the day with you.
Either way, you know these moments of realization are the physiological result of your heart, telling your brain, to tell your face how much you love this place.