Aspen Princess: Lifetime of waiting rewarded by a child’s first journey

Alison Berkley Margo
Aspen Princess

When I announced my plans to take a 16-hour road trip with my 2-year-old son, I was met to a chorus of groans.

“You are brave,” said one friend.

“You are crazy,” said another.

“This is the part where you’re supposed to keep your thoughts to yourself,” I replied.

Sometimes, when you’re expecting the worst, that’s when the best things happen. At least that’s what I was thinking as we rolled into Pismo Dunes just as the sun was starting to set over the Pacific Ocean. The sky blazed with deep shades of fuchsia, coral and cerulean blue as if god herself painted this masterpiece in front of our very eyes with the ocean horizon as her canvas. With each minute, the colors intensified, the design of the clouds became more intricate and the light danced and played across the sky as the sun slowly disappeared.

Pismo Dunes is the only beach in California that allows vehicles on the sand. Normally, this idea would not appeal to me, but considering the whole point of this trip was to camp on the beach in the rooftop tent we’d just purchased this summer, the idea of literally camping on the beach was a dream come true.

Still, the reviews weren’t stellar. People complained about the beach being too exposed to wind and sun, about the constant noise of ATVs buzzing around, the huge RVs parked one on top of the other, the vehicles getting stuck in the deep sand and the party atmosphere that sounded a little too much like Burning Man. I’d also heard that camping on California’s beaches required reservations made months in advance, and the fact that 1,000 vehicles per day were permitted here did nothing to quell my anxiety that this might not be the best place for a 2-year-old.

Still, I had lived in Southern California for seven years and knew that Californians think that a two-degree variation in temperature (otherwise known as “winter”) and the idea of being cold sends them into a total panic. This is why it’s normal to see people cruising around in Ugg boots, puffy coats and beanies when it’s 66 degrees outside. I knew chances were good that the idea of camping in November probably would not appeal to the good people of the Sunshine State.

Turns out I was right. We rolled up to the entry gate and the nice kid working the booth looked at us with a confused expression when we asked if there was still space available to camp on the beach.

“Ummm, yeah. Tons. That’ll be 10 dollars,” he said, handed us a brochure, and sent us on our merry way.

Though there were several vehicles and tents already setting up camp, the beach itself was massive with soft sand and ample views of the coastline in both directions. Within minutes, we had our toes in the sand and beers in our hands just in time for sunset.

“The only thing missing from this picture is a fish taco,” I said.

As if it materialized out of my sheer will, a Mexican restaurant appeared at the entrance to the park.

When we laid down to sleep that night, the sound of the surf so loud it drowned out any other campers nearby, my thoughts softened with a three-beer buzz, I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

From there, it was on to Big Sur, where we met up with Kate and Brett at their favorite beach. I had never been to Big Sur, even after all my years in California because I wanted to save this section of coast for a special occasion. This, it turned out, was it.

“We better get Levi’s motion sickness bands,” I said, realizing I was the one who felt sick. This winding road, which meandered along the precipice of steep cliffsides over the ocean where the surf crashed violently into large rocks below, was gnarly even by Colorado standards, making Independence Pass look relatively tame.

As crowded and overpopulated as California is, this relatively remote section of coastline felt wild, almost other worldly. We camped on top of a ridgeline, suspended, floating above the expanse of ocean below where our young children ran through tall golden grasses glowing in the setting sun, the sound of their laughter the soundtrack to a moment that may have been the closest thing to perfection I have experienced so far in my lifetime.

“I want to go in the roof nest and lie down,” Levi announced as the darkness closed in. I helped him up the ladder and settled him in, under the flannel sheets and king size duvet we’d bought just for the occasion, the multi-colored string lights emanating a festive glow. I zipped the windows closed and climbed down the ladder without any protest from my toddler whose bedtime routine often felt like a battle of the wills, going on for as long as he could will himself to stay awake and monopolize my attention.

But not tonight. High on this coastal perch, almost 2,000 miles away from home after we dragged him on a 16-hour drive and slept in a different place every night (including a Wal-Mart parking lot in St. George, Utah), he also seemed to experience true contentment. Traveling with Levi had been nothing like I’d feared. He reveled in the joy of discovery, entertained not by us reading to him until our voices were hoarse or until his eyes glazed over from staring at the tiny screen of our smartphones watching some inane show on Netflix but with the world around him.

The next morning I’d watch my boy squeal with glee as he ran through the wet sand dragging a large piece of seaweed behind him, dancing in the morning sun. I knew I had finally arrived at the place where I’ve waited my whole life to be.

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