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Dispatches From the Road: Camping During Covid

July 2, 2020
Chris Marshall

By Chris Marshall

Western Bureau Chief for Courthouse News Service since 2014. San Francisco Federal Reporter and Northern California Bureau Chief from 2006 to 2014. Passionate about photography, camping and history.

The faded numbers remain, and lines marking the sites dash past the metal fence, off the jagged cliff and into the frothing surf below, but the RVs are long gone.

I made the short trip to this breezy edge of the continent to escape, but not from Covid-19. Large swaths of society might be in denial, but there is no hiding from that invisible menace. Rather I sought a break from the heat of my inland city and the encroaching walls of my little house, opting for what I hoped would be relaxing socially distant camping with some old friends set to arrive a day after me.

Approximately 15 miles south of downtown San Francisco, Pacifica is a favorite of surfers, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Hills to the east and south partially envelope an often fog-covered valley that ends at towering bluffs above thin beaches.

If the name sounds familiar, you might have seen videos a while back of houses falling off eroded cliffs at the edge of the city.

The coast has been losing land for ages, but El Nino storms, sea-level rise and decreasing sediment from the San Francisco Bay have sped up the process in recent years.

When the city condemned multiple apartment buildings and houses, some people refused to go. But unlike with Covid, the residents could see this slow-moving disaster, and eventually left.

The loss of cliffside sites at the San Francisco RV Resort opened up the ocean view for the rest of the visitors to congregate at picnic tables near the fence, particularly at sunset.

After setting up the camper I ventured out with Klaus the dog to explore our temporary neighborhood to the unmistakable din of drunks in the distance. I figured a group had gathered outside one of the huge RVs that remind me of a rock group’s tour bus, but no, they lined a stone wall at a house abutting the park. Down from San Francisco for the weekend, I speculated.

Realizing I was going to come close to people I pulled a bandana over my mouth and nose. A young man going the other direction stared at me.

Fashioned by thousands of passing feet, a steep sandy trail led to the beach. I stood to the side to yield to a maskless family struggling up the path. A young man without a mask kept going, almost brushing against the young girl and her parents.

A few dozen people had spread out across the beach. I lowered my bandana. Klaus said hi to an adorable dog who had stalked him, tail wagging, before sprinting over, saying hi and running back to his human parents.

Klaus the dog relaxes after a walk along the ocean in Pacifica, Calif. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

Fishing poles stuck into the sand. Most people sat talking, some drinking. A few hearty souls swam in the chilly water. A normal Saturday at the beach.

I found a quiet spot, plunked down and took a few pictures before losing myself in the quiet rhythm of the waves.

A shout. The drunken revelers had made their way to the beach. They played in the surf and hammed it up for a guy taking pictures.

I covered my face again and lumbered up the incline as Klaus climbed ahead. Once on top we continued north beyond a nursing home with a “Heroes Work Here” sign out front and a construction site for an ambitious seawall designed to slow down the inevitable. We turned around at a sign indicating the path ahead was closed due to crumbling cliffs.

The next morning, I exited the opposite end of the park. The ruins of a large graffitied storm drain lie on the beach below, victim of nature’s victory over human designs.

A storm drain lies in ruins and covered in graffiti below an eroded cliff in Pacifica, Calif. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

I knew it was possible to access the beach because I had seen families returning to the park this way the day before, but I couldn’t solve the puzzle of broken earth, pieces of pipe and detritus.

A young surfer came in from the ocean and looked up as I considered jumping to a spot 10 feet below, elderly schnauzer in my arms. I waved for him to go first. He deftly avoided the obstacles, placing his feet in well-worn footholds, holding his surfboard in his left hand so his right could use the cliffside to balance around a narrow spot, then whisked past.

Thankful for the expertise he had unwittingly bestowed, I picked up Klaus and maneuvered beyond the tight area, put him down and followed the path.

To the north cliffs loomed over a thin strip of beach. Sewer pipes from the erstwhile RV spots jutted out from the sand. An electrical line swayed in the wind. Near the far edge of the property waves lapped the land.

To the south I could see the foundation of one house perched above. Approximately 10 feet of yard remained in the neighboring property, but what looked like a shed had collapsed. Part of it sat on top, some remained partway down the hill with the rest a debris pile on the beach.

On a run the next morning I noticed signs advertising apartments a stone’s throw from the imperiled houses. When I made it next to the buildings, I realized they were manufactured homes that could be moved when the time came, though a small seawall should prolong their stay.

A small seawall offers protection against erosion in Pacifica, Calif. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

Since hearing around a month ago that some campgrounds were opening at limited capacities I had been conflicted. Desperate to get out of my house and into nature, I didn’t want to chance carrying the disease to rural areas with few to no infections. This trip to a nearby county, one with similar rates of infection as mine, seemed a good way to test out camping during Covid.

And despite the maskless majority, a friend who insisted on coming closer every time I stepped back to maintain a safe distance and the lack of fire pits at the RV park, it was a success.

The fire we built in a substitute charcoal grill was smaller, the scene more urban, the freeway too close and the physical distance greater than normal, but after months cooped up inside it was a boon for the soul.

One night after a few beers we discussed meeting up as soon as the following weekend, but the plans fell through. Probably for the best, I thought after returning home. Careful I’d tried to be, yet I felt we might have come close to the edge.

But I’m not done with camping this summer. Far from it. Already plotting more trips to the coast, this time I’m bringing along only the dog, my constant quarantine companion.

Categories / Health, Op-Ed

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