I get married in 16 days. In itself that’s exciting, but it also means that in 13-14 days much of my friends and family will be making the big trek across the country to California, the Golden State. I realized today (thanks to some stellar Instagram action) that this will be the first time to the West Coast for my favorite full-blooded sister*. It will be the same for my mother. I’ve known this about my mother since we first started planning the wedding — she’s afraid to fly, so I’m fairly certain she has only been west of the Mississippi once or twice, maybe just as far as the West Bank of New Orleans. But somehow the news about my sister was a surprise.
Upon making this realization, my first thought was: oh, I need to make sure she touches the Pacific Ocean.
When you think about it, that’s an odd first thought. She’s coming to California for the first time ever — there are so many natural and man-made wonders in this part of the country. The scenery is so stunning, the history and culture of the Bay Area is so rich, but the only thing I really need her to do while here is touch the ocean? Touching the Pacific was one of my big “bucket list” activities upon moving to California. It was a big deal when I finally did, some nine months after moving here**.
Water plays an important role in my life. My soul just reacts positively to water. Growing up near it, in a region whose identity and culture contain endless nods to the sea, perhaps this is just a function of being a Marylander. Maybe it’s more a result of my parents’ lifestyles, particularly my sailing, seafaring, occasionally-swashbucklin’ father. Whatever the reason, I’ve always felt a special connection to the water, in whatever form I find it: River, sea, ocean, or otherwise. When I’m stumped on a project or a piece of writing, I take a shower and I get clarity. It’s just deep within my veins.
But back to oceans. Coming from the East Coast, I do and always will think of the Atlantic as the Original Ocean. It’s the first American ocean, the one that people crossed to create our country. It’s the one we drove an hour or two to play in. It’s the one upon whose tributaries we lived. Every gutter in my mother’s neighborhood says “CHESAPEAKE BAY DRAINAGE DO NOT DUMP.” Everything runs to the Chesapeake, and the Chesapeake is a big, blue and beautiful arm of the Atlantic. But it wasn’t the Atlantic, it was just the ocean. The Ocean.
If the Atlantic is the original American ocean, the Pacific is the new ocean. For better or worse (often for worse), much of American history was defined by the push west. The Pacific Ocean was the endgame. Manifest Destiny told us Anglo-Americans that we had the right to everything from sea to shining sea, from east to west, and so westward we marched. Who cares what people were there already, if the French or the Spanish or the new Mexican Republic or, heaven forbid, indigenous people had preexisting claims on those lands. We marched west, and even still this is considered good and normal. There is, after all, very little nuance in the old Oregon Trail games.
There’s also the migrations from the Gold Rush, the Dust Bowl, and the San Francisco-centric counter culture. American history, it sometimes seems, has two overarching trends: wars with Europe and movement towards the Pacific Ocean.
Even today, going west is what one does. As an East Coaster (and former Gulf Coaster) living on the West Coast, there is something regressive-seeming about going back East (unless you’re going to try to make it in New York.) It’s a rhetorical trick — there isn’t anything regressive about it. It’s over 100 years since the last of the contiguous 48 states were added. The continental US, as it is today, has been set for a long while. This is your country. Move about as you please.
Still: it’s a Great American Thing to go west. It’s a $500 flight to go east.
(Related: my favorite West Coast thing is the way people here — including those who have never lived a day outside of California — refer to the East Coast as “back East.” Back there: that’s where we began***.)
Water is the lifeblood of a society. It explains why we live where we do. It feeds our economy, from transportation to agriculture to industry to tourism. It creates defining cultural symbols. It feeds and nourishes us, literally and figuratively. As a nation borne out of Anglo-European colonies, the Atlantic nurtured and raised us. But we grew up with — and toward — the Pacific. It made us who we are.
So if your sister is about to be on the Pacific coast for the first time, of course she has to put her feet in it.
*I have three sisters. Technically one is a half, one is a step, and one is a full, but they’re all just great.
**I may have had my feet in the Pacific once before, one a brief trip to San Diego in 2008. I can’t recall.
***I recognize that this discussion of the Pacific coast as defined by migration from east to west ignores all movements from Asia to the United States across the Pacific, or to the Western US from Mexico and south. I am intentionally regurgitating the understanding of the West Coast as understood by a middle class white kid growing up “back East.”