The Provincial Guide of Dana Point

Falling in love with a person is much different from falling in love with a place.  Sometimes, it takes others, outside the bubble, to help us appreciate new  and old, surroundings.  It takes others, whom I respectfully call Provincial Guides, to show us the inner magic of their own surroundings.  Provincial Guides are people who may never have left their own homes, like many of my childhood friends, happily living in Vermont, where I grew up.  Or, like my mother who lives in Ireland, they may find their soulful place, on the other side of the world.

When I speak with these Guides, specifically about their true homes, I realize they have found space in the world, their own Liberty Lane.  They have a twinkle in their eye and think there is no better place in the world, than their home area.  After moving in with my Forever Partner Darren, from Los Angeles, to Orange County, I was experiencing a bit of culture shock.  To assist in the transition, we we’re lucky enough to have such a Guide.

Living in a beautiful loft-style home atop a ridge which lends itself to sprawling views of the Pacific only 10 miles away, I found myself feeling out of place and homesick for Los Angeles. Within our happy house, Darren would spin records, while our pups sniffed the ocean air and I blissfully danced to Against Me! while splashing wine.

But every time I stepped outside, with my rainbow-colored hair and punk attire, I found myself  feeling a bit insecure, surrounded by cold suburbia. After a year of feeling this anxiety,  the attitude was altered, with the help of Darren’s old co-worker Chris, by his opening of the door, and becoming our Provincial Guide of Dana Point.

We were overlooking Laguna Beach, which was gently twinkling to life, as the last remnants of the sun slipped into the Pacific. Taking the sun’s queue, I slid into the pool, whose surface was a perfect reflection of the rainbow splashed sky.  The chlorinated water was the same temperature as the evening air. I recall doing a few laps to warm up and then rested at the edge, to sip in the spectacular and peaceful view.  We were celebrating Darren’s birthday, and had kindly been invited By Chris, into his 1960’s condo. We were perched atop a massive bluff, know as Dana Point, which has always reminded me of the Cliffs of Mohr on the western shores of Ireland (Mohr on that another time!)

That evening, Chris told us about the surfing in Salt Creek, which I thought was a trendy restaurant, but actually a beach cove below, which we passed on the winding way up to his condo.  Recounting a time when he was a lifeguard, our guide painted a fond memory of when a visiting surfer pulled a knife on a younger local, because the punk was cramping his waves. The cavalry was called in, (because apparently surfers are very territorial) and when the knife puller came to shore, he was faced with an angry gaggle of locals, ready to violently remove the tourist. As I shivered in the cooling sea-wind, and munched on a grilled sausage, supplied by our host, I realize there is much to be learned about this small coastal town.

After this story, it dawned on me that Chris did not see what I saw; which was a massive landmark, peppered with mansions, overlooking a yacht-filled marina, in the middle of the southern California coast. As I listened, it became apparent that he saw way beyond the material wealth which I had been close minded on.  He saw history, waves and magic. Seizing my opportunity, I remembered reading an article about an elusive waterfall in the area and I ask the guys about it. “Yeah, I know where that is.  I can show you!”  Bingo! We’ve found the Provincial Guide.

As the inky sky turns golden from the lights of the California coast, we wrap up our celebration. Sipping the last of our gin and tonics, and breaking the ice between our teeth, Chris and I agreed to meet later in the week to show me the waterfall. “I’ll take you all around!”  He had peaked my curiosity and I was excited to explore the offerings of Dana Point and thus report my findings back to Darren, the pups and You!

We met up again at Chris’ condo, a few days later.  A resident of Dana Point since 1991, he got out of his blue E-Golf, in a manner not rushed, but of trained patience, like waiting for the next big set of waves. A natural blonde from decades of sun and salt, which also shaped his kind smile-line face.

Guided by the cool ocean breeze, afternoon sun and a few circling hawks, we headed to the Dana Point Interpretive Center, located on the south side of Dana Point.  We pulled into the parking lot of the Center, which overlooked a gated community of a few multi-million dollar homes, only a stone’s throw away.

Upon entering the tiny Center, there were small exhibits lining the interior, depicting wild and sea life.  There was also a large, colorful mural on the back wall, which depicted men, who were known as Droughers, (dudes who threw cow hides) down the famous bluffs, to sailors on shore, and a large ship, awaiting its supplies.  Approaching the help desk, I pointed up to the looming painting. Before saying anything, a friendly woman leaped to life, but seemed reluctant to share information. She stating, “Oh, I can’t really, help – I’m just a docent.” She then ushered me to the small Park Ranger’s office, next to the immortalized snapshot of the Droughers. As the Park Rangers awakened from their desks, I called back to her, “Docents are people too!”

Laughing, an older Ranger quickly approached and did his best to answer my questions about the history of Dana Point.  Before exiting, he eagerly recommends a book; which he assures will answer my questions –  Home Point for Romance, by Doris I Walker.

I found Chris, on the balcony, patiently peering out at the mansions, obstructing any view of the Pacific. Back in the car, with the wave of a magician, Chris casually hands me Doris’ book.  As I excitedly thumb through the yearbook style pages, he tells me the author’s own story.  “Doris was a bit of a hoarder and the unofficial local historian,” he states quietly.  “Unfortunately, she and her husband perished during a fire in their home, not long ago. They were in their late 70s.” He then put the car in gear down the steep hill overlooking the harbor.  After a moment of respectful silence, he pointed south, towards our next stop.

We pulled up to the area known as Blufftop and walked up to a massive stone with a bronze historical marker, telling any onlooker that this rock is dedicated to the city’s namesake, Richard Dana. The plaque states that Dana was here in 1835 and the author of Two Years Before The Mast.  At our last stop in the Interpretive Center, the ranger told me a little about Dana.  “He was an affluent Harvard law student, but due to some kind of eye issue, he couldn’t read the books.  So, he went on a two-year expedition as a true seaman which was unheard of for someone of his stature.  He depicted Dana Point so romantically, that it brought attention to the area, hence the namesake.” I asked Chris about this information; he pointedly looked towards the blue reference in my hand. After a quickly fact checking with Doris, her book provided one change to the Rangers story; Dana had had a bout with Measles, which ultimately lead him to the sea (81).

Past Dana’s honorary rock, in the distance, we could see the breakwater. This jagged line of boulders was added to the harbor, in 1968. It now serves as a protector from the tumbling ocean, for the many sailboats and yachts anchored there.

Chris pointed to end of the rocks, connected and overshadowed by the massive ledge of the Point. “I rescued a man and his son, from there once.  I was with my kids, who were young, and I saw a huge wave coming in. It knocked the guy over and cracked his head on the rocks.  I grabbed him and he was bleeding. While I was holding his head, I could see my daughter, but not my son.” Chris told me that he yelled for his son, as another large wave broke apart on the rocks. “He yelled back; ‘I’m here Dad!’ and he popped his head up, just like a crab.” Chris then humorously mimicked his son, with a relieved crab-like smile.  Asking the fate of the man, he told me that; after being e-vac’d by helicopter, he did survive.  A few months later, the County of Orange called him and, thinking he was in trouble, was relieved to find out that he was being awarded  him for his bravery.  “I have the thing, I’ll send it to you!” And with a humble laugh, he attempts to show me an invisible piece of paper.  Later, he emails me a picture of “the thing.” It is an intricately designed, gold-plated certificate which recounts the actions of that day and confirms that Chris, is a Good Samaritan, local hero, and definitely, per my own research a Provincial Guide.

Still overlooking the Marina, with the breakwater in the distance, he moved his arm slightly closer inland, and pointed, “That building down there is the Orange County Marine Institute, where Marine Biologists study. Stephen Hillenburg worked there….” Chris stopped to see my reaction, which was one of engaged listening, but lacked full comprehension.  After a suspenseful beat, he gleefully stated; “Hillenburg created Sponge Bob Square Pants!”  We both giggle with fanatic appreciation.

Moving on, we ended up a dash south, atop another bluff.  There was a walkway, with an inviting bridge, overlooked by blue and white clapboard condos, stacked upon each other like building blocks.  “Well,” Chris pointed to his left, from the middle of the bridge, “This is the famous Dana Point Waterfall.” Sensing a touch of irony, I peeked over the edge.  My imagination had definitely overshadowed reality.  Instead of a stream or even a trickle of water, there was only overgrown vegetation and rainbow bits of garbage.  Having seen my flicker of disappointment, Chris ushered me away, taking me to The Ruins.

The Ruins, as they are known by locals, were just on the other side of the bridge, and were large concrete arches. These arches had the potential to be the face of a massive luxury hotel from the 1920’s but fell victim to the Great Depression and were left behind, like an unfinished thought. As Chris began to climb up the steps to our next stop, he turned around, “Wouldn’t that make a pretty picture?” After passing under The Ruins, we saw the mystical Dana Point, jetting out into the sparkling Pacific, perfectly framed through the pointed and ivy swirled arches – yeah, I took a picture.

At the top of the stairs was a bronze statue, which transported me back to the large mural in the Interpretive Center, our first stop. This was the actual spot, where the dudes known as “Hide Droughers,” threw the cow-hides off the bluff, to the ships below.

Today, the water has been pushed out about half a mile and below us was now a sea of grass.  The massive statue had a shirtless, upper torso, who’s toned physique was glowing in the afternoon sun.  He was frozen in mid-hurl, tossing an enormous cow-hide, forever caught vertically, in the wind.  As I fondly admired the statue, who reminded me of a shirtless Darren, Chris excuses himself to take a call.  The wind shares Chris’s conversation with me. It is his 20-year-old son, visiting from Venice Beach.  “Ok! Yeah, I’ll put in the order in a few minutes – steak burrito and fish tacos? What does your sister want?  Ok – yup, I’ll be home a bit later.  Ok, love you – bye!”  It sounded to me like the perfect SoCal family dinner.

Heading down a windy road, we drove into the Harbor, to get a closer look at the swaying sticky ships and families splashing around in the gentle turquoise saline.  As we passed the state beach parking lot, Chris stated, “Oh wait, that’s my friend. I have to talk to him.” We quickly flip around and pull in, next to a huge, freshly waxed truck, the type that is better suited on ranch lands but are staples in many California beach communities.

“Hey! Did you do the Power Race?!” Chris demanded from the driver of the truck –  a man with the polished look of an executive surfer. With a lazy smile, the gentlemen responded with a snicker, “I did the Power Nap…” “Pussy!” Chris jeeringly whispered. We all laughed, and he introduced me, “Hey! I’m being interviewed!”  His friend gave us a flash of his big pearlies and waved as we spun away.

On the way back up the hill, I asked Chris how he ended up here.  He told me that after growing up in New Jersey, he traveled to Australia and Hawaii, but after one visit to Dana Point, he knew it was “the place for me.”  And after spending a few hours with him, I understood completely. The magic I witnessed as a glimmer the evening of Darren’s birthday, was amplified by Chris’ stories and enchanting provincial knowledge.

Wrapping up our tour, Chris drove us back up to our starting point. With the cooling afternoon rays of sun on my face, I realize I now can feel the magic of Dana Point, as well.  Dana Point and the surrounding area is not just a pretty place to live, with expensive plantation shutters drawn and judgmental eyes piercing through, but a space that is inviting and if you allow yourself to open your heart, it will welcome you with open arms.

Since the tour with Chris, my Provincial Guide of Dana Point, I have a whole new, colorful view of my ‘hood. I now look up when visiting the harbor and excitedly point out to my friends and Darren (each time!), the nuggets of history, looking down on us.  When coming home, I now get out of my car, and proudly look to those once spooky windows and smile up at the 20-pound cat, happily perched upon her sill, keeping an eye out for us all.


Works Cited

Walker, Doris. Dana Point Harbor/capistrano Bay: Home Port for Romance. Dana Point, Calif. (Drawer 546, Dana Point 92629: To-the-Point Press, 1995. Print.

Dana, Richard H. E. N. R. Y. Two Years Before the Mast. S.l.: VALUE CLASSIC REPRINTS, 2016. Print.


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