A winter sunset in Pleasure Point.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Coast Life

Wallace Baine: Drop the remote — the cure for our latest viral malaise awaits us right outside the door

Whether it’s the quality of the air on a hike in the redwoods, the high clouds and low angles giving the season’s light a unique character or a different tone in the ocean’s roar, getting out into our life-affirming Monterey Bay winter is a balm we’re lucky to have.


Without tangible evidence to prove it, I can nevertheless confidently tell you where I was the last time the San Francisco 49ers won the Super Bowl, back in the mid 1990s. And it was nowhere near a TV.

It was probably the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in fact. Or maybe at Henry Cowell State Park. It could have even been a visit to Carmel. Back then, my wife and I, with our two young daughters, had a strategy when it came to midwinter football: When the Niners were in the playoffs, we would take the opportunity to go to those places that we normally avoided on any other Sunday afternoon of the calendar.

While the whole Bay Area was zigging toward Super Bowl parties, we (and a few other intrepid nonconformists) zagged. And the result was usually a wonderfully mellow afternoon free from the pressures of being part of the usual hordes.

The most recent time the Niners played in the Super Bowl — the one they lost, just a few years ago — I threw my bicycle into my pickup truck and drove up to San Francisco. It was there I had what you might call a peak experience, zooming confidently through the weirdly empty streets of the city, from the Presidio to Golden Gate Park, something I wouldn’t dream of doing any other day of the year.

Nowadays, of course, the impulse to avoid crowds comes from a different place. Thanks to a certain infamous coronavirus, extroverts and introverts alike might actually be nostalgic for a good, cracking Super Bowl party. Sounds like one of the simple, carefree pleasures the pandemic has robbed from us.

But those adventures going against the grain did instill within me a value that still holds today, an idea I turn to when I get down about living in the most expensive region of the country, a realization that still has currency even in the unusual and unnerving era of COVID-19:

The winter in Santa Cruz County, and Northern California generally, is glorious.

Flags fly along the beach at Rio Del Mar
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s too easy to forget that for the majority of Americans — save for a few ski bums and Minnesota ice-fishers — winter is a season to endure rather than enjoy. As someone familiar with what’s known as seasonal affective disorder — a medically recognized condition of mental lethargy and melancholy associated with winter weather, appropriately labeled as “SAD” — I can barely imagine what it’s like to spend months out of every year under blankets of snow, or under relentlessly steel-gray skies.

If I lived in, say, Buffalo, I’d turn into Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” sooner than I’m willing to admit.

If I lived in, say, Buffalo, I’d turn into Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” sooner than I’m willing to admit.

It’s especially pertinent for this reminder during the current winter more than most. Omicron and its aggressive contagiousness has people freaked out all anew about gatherings and crowds. Isolation at home is the best course for one’s physical health, but not so much on the mental-health front, particularly after nearly two years of virus wariness.

Those of us in Northern California have an option that many don’t. We can savor our winter.

People who visit from other parts of the country often marvel at the upside-down nature of the California winter, namely that it’s green here in the winter and brown in the summer, which flips the script from most other places. But we’re not just talking about an absence of winter weather in the winter months, as is the case in, say, Palm Springs, or Baja California. There is a winter here, distinct from the other seasons. And, at least in between the various storms and atmospheric rivers, it’s exquisite.

Connoisseurs of the NorCal winter might notice, for instance, a specific quality of the air. Visit the redwoods at Henry Cowell, Nisene Marks or elsewhere this time of year and you’re likely to connect to a distinctive chill under the canopy. It’s freakin’ cold. But it’s an invigorating cold, a cold that propels you to move, to get your blood pumping.

The higher and more vigorous flows of the creeks and the moisture in the duff create a loamy aroma that no one will be able to bottle. The occasional envelope of sunshine knifing through the shade can give you a moment of warmth that can feel like God’s own love.

A path through a Santa Cruz County forest
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The beaches also present a unique feel for those attuned to it, the high clouds and low angles giving the light a special character. Maybe I’m imagining it, but I sense that the ocean roars at a slightly higher range in winter, the waves feel closer and more powerful. The king tides of winter can open up new adventures for the regular beachcomber. The vast beaches south of Rio Del Mar, to Seascape and La Selva, offer up a desolation that is breathtaking if you don’t let yourself get too accustomed to it.

Here’s where the paradox of the Santa Cruz winter comes to play. Along with the more obvious spread of the virus, I sense there is an epidemic of loneliness, borne of isolation, unique to this period. We miss each other, the electricity of connection in public places.

It combines with a certain dread of the future — in terms of the pandemic, of climate change, of the precarious state of the country’s democracy — to create a sense of foreboding and depression that can be hard to escape plugged into the online world or cooped up at home all the time. I certainly feel it, and I talk to people all the time who feel it, too. To the degree life is good now, there’s a gnawing sense that that good life is as vulnerable as never before.

It all creates a potentially crippling mental state from which I can often only find one way out: to get out into this beautiful, life-affirming Monterey Bay winter. It can provide you satisfactions and comforts that no football game could ever hope to match.

More Sunday columns from Wallace Baine