Tomales Bay in May: RV Life

The next time we take the trailer out, we go to the coast. Applying the lesson we learned the hard way, we check the weather beforehand, which should be sunny and in the fifties and sixties. We pack accordingly and go to a place we scouted on one of our drives: Lawson’s Landing in Dillon Beach, California.

The Dillon Beach goes on for miles, literally. Dunes ebb and flow, crowned by hardy grass growing in bunches like a teenaged beard, softened by fennel and yellow lupine. Our campsite is right on the water, and with the trailer pulled up to the break wall, I can look out the back window directly into the still, briny green expanse of Tomales Bay.

Unlike our previous sites, this one in full sun and I immediately slather on the sunscreen and put on a hat. We extend the built-in shade off of the trailer, a new experience that immediately yields a small patch of sun protection. Liko promptly rolls in the sand and assumes the dun color of the dunes. Seagulls perch nearby, eyeing us for edibles, their beaks sharp as scissors and their eyes, even more so.

Lawson’s Landing is a big campground and RV park with hundreds of sites, and it's the weekend. Taking a walk through the area, I’m immediately struck by the way people advertise their alliances via flags, logos, bumper stickers and other means.


A margarita with ITS FIVE O’CLOCK SOMEWHERE snaps in the breeze; a blue banner urges COEXIST, and the back of one of the trucks is set up with two flagpoles on the bed: a red confederate flag decorated with a snake and Don’t Tread on Me, and an upside down American flag. I’m looking at a message I just don’t understand, and don’t want to, and I keep a distance from that campsite and the truck’s owner in his Keep Calm and Carry Concealed tee shirt.

Mike goes crabbing, immediately returning to roots he remembers from growing up in this area and living here more than thirty years ago. I meanwhile, continue on a walk out of the RV park, in spite of evidence of loose cows, one of my few phobias. Cow patties liberally sprinkle the sandy path, and hoof marks track the edge of the bay, a silty expense of littered with sand dollars and clamshells, pockmarked with the mysterious breathing holes of mollusks.

A little boy runs up to me, asking to pet Liko. My dog is an attention getter, with his soft fuzzy coat and pop-eyed grin. The kid shows me the bucket of sand dollars he has picked up, and I tell him how much our kids would have enjoyed doing what he was doing, at his age, and I feel a genuine pang.

They would love it here, and they would have loved it even more at this kid’s age. Those days are gone, never to return, something that seemed impossible when I was living through those turbulent, busy years.

The boy has two brothers who run over to chat, and I tell them that clams are hiding where those holes are and that my husband and I are going to be trying to catch some later.

Mike has brought a clam gun, a mysterious contraption based on simple science: a six inch wide tube of galvanized metal ending in a crossbar with a hole in the hollow handle. Work the crossbar down into the seafloor until the tube is filled with sand in the likely spot, cover the hole with your finger, and pull. The clam gun comes out with a sucking noise, and when you let go of the hole, wet sand comes slurping out, depositing a clam.

The boys’ mother, a wispy woman in a parka, her pockets filled with snacks, approached us.

“Three boys. You are so lucky.” When my kids were their age, I might not have thought so, overwhelmed as I was at the time. Knowing what I know now, I envy her riches. “This is the perfect place for them, or they can basically run amok all day and go to bed tired.”

She smiles. “That's exactly the plan. We're down here almost every weekend.”

I waved goodbye to my new friends and continued on, enjoying the proliferation of California wildflowers in the salty marsh edging the bay, the unfamiliar birdcalls of tiny avians in the bushy grass, the soft quiet lap of the receding tide. The light had a quality to it like gold dust filling the air, and the sky above was Madonna blue. If I’m not in Hawaii, I was still on a pretty darn good beach.

I passed two teens, talking animated animatedly, carrying bright plastic snow sleds and headed my way from a huge sand dune. They fell self-consciously silent as I approached.

“Were you sliding down the dunes on those?” I asked in delight.

One of the boys ducked his head in embarrassment. “Yes.”

“That sound sounds amazing. I wish I had a slider.”

He slanted me a glance that was halfway to an incredulous eye roll, probably picturing me attempting such a thing, but I grinned right back. I’d do it in a heartbeat. I remembered that age, caught between the impulse to play like a kid, and the need to seem cool and mature. Maturity is overrated!

Further on, I came across an abandoned short metal shovel used for clamming. I picked up the shovel and on my way back to our parking spot, ended up meeting the mother with her busy brood. She'd acquired another child, a tiny girl of two or so, who is in no hurry to chase after her brothers. Instead she paused to inspect everything along the road, her mother patiently keeping pace with her. The boys ran far ahead, heading for the pier with fishing poles and crab nets draped around their bodies.

I like a mom who lets her kids be independent: near enough to prevent total disaster but far enough away to allow a full range of exploration. “I found this shovel on the beach. Do you think the boys would like it for clamming?”

“Definitely. Thanks.” She took the shovel, but the toddler walked up and pried it from her hands, promptly turning to dig in the hard, sandy road.

“You've got an independent one on your hands.”

She rolled her eyes. “They all are.”

That may be true to a degree, but her style of parenting lended itself to increasing that trait. As a child therapist, I always encouraged my clients to intervene in their kids’ play  only when preventing harm was involved, to let them gain the skills they need for life in freedom and safety. That's not the fashion these days. Many parents cater to and entertain their children until they stop being able to entertain themselves on their own, a trend whose repercussions will only be shown in the decades ahead.

Mike and I went clamming when the tide is fully out, around two p.m., paddling our cheap new Walmart kayaks, already modified by Mike to include paddle holders, pole holders, and tie up brackets, along with anchors and floats, all the way out to a huge sandbar revealed by the receding tide.

The water of Tomales Bay was the pale green of an appletini, teased by the tiniest of breezes that’s just enough to keep me cool. The long, sheltering arms of Point Reyes National Seashore look like the green velvet couch we used to have back in the nineties, draped with feather boas of incoming fog, and trimmed in lacy evergreens.

“What kind of clams are we looking for?” I panted, unused to the paddling but remembering the rhythm of it from our trip to Alaska, and a memorable paddle in the ocean off of Glacier Bay National Park.

“Basically anything we can find,” he said. “There are horseneck clams and Geoducks out here. Good eating. I'll make a cioppino with them and the crabs I caught today.”

Mike’s homemade cioppino is a family legend, his grandfather’s recipe passed down. My mouth watered at the mere idea, and being able to make it with crabs and clams caught just today is kind of amazing.

We grounded in shallow sandy water and climbed out. Mike removed the clam gun from his kayak. “We used to make these out of old fire hydrants with the bottoms cut off,” Mike said holding aloft the heavy metal tube with its built in crossbar at the top. “Now these are 29.95 at Walmart.”

We stay out there longer than our bodies are really ready for, lured by the bubble and jet of hidden clams under the surface, the frenzy of working the clam gun over the anticipated spot, the workout of pulling the plug of sand and hopefully clam out up from the silty bank, and then plunging an arm into the hole to try to capture the frantically digging clam before it can get away.

Clamming is kind of like a treasure hunt for edible gold coins that can move.

By the time we call it quits, I'm trembling all over, covered with sweat and silty mud, and wishing I had taken that kettle bell workout class offered at the gym on Maui—because the action of pulling up the clam gun is pretty much like a dead lift.

The tide turned and we're still a long way off from our campsite against the freshening wind and tide, so we and decided to walk the kayaks back along the edge of the bay. Mike, with his usual MacGyver-ish inventiveness, tied the two kayaks together with string around his waist, and walked them along the edge of the sand while I pretend to be cross country skiing, pushing through ankle deep water in my rubber boots.

Needless to say, the nap on our cozy bed back at the Casita has a quality of exhaustion like being clubbed on the head.

Mike spends the afternoon and evening after that crabbing off the pier, bringing in rock crabs and Dungeness crabs with every drop of his net, while I sit in the trailer and work on Smolder Road, the final installment in our romance thriller series.

I'm not sure I can compose new material while traveling this way. It’s too stimulating, distracting, and full of experiences to be able to shut out and focus in on an imaginary world. But I can notice what's happening, enjoy it, and record the experience to share with others who may never experience kayaking, clamming, and crabbing on Tomales Bay – and that feels worth doing. Oh, and the pot of cioppino Mike makes for the two of us? Sublime.

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