There’s a stretch of highway reaching through the Santa Cruz mountains down to the coast that I find myself returning to each summer like clockwork. California Highway 9 winds through redwood forests and hugs steep drops into the San Lorenzo Valley, spanning a number of miles leading through tiny towns and campsites into downtown Santa Cruz and the vast expanse of the Pacific. It takes me and its other travelers from the sweeping views of mountain peaks to the warm sand of sea level in a matter of minutes.
To me, that stretch of highway means summer. Whenever I find myself navigating its twists and inclines, I’m traveling for a day on the beach with friends, celebrating my birthday with my family, escaping for a short camping trip or making my way to the summer camp I’ve worked at on-and-off for years. I’ve traveled that road while on a break between two busy high-school years; I traveled it the week after my high-school graduation; I traveled it most recently the day before returning to UC Berkeley for what I know will be another semester of stress, exhilaration, failure and — hopefully — triumph. Playing the same songs on the car’s stereo each time by a force of habit that turned into tradition, taking in views of the same places that have become sites of myriad memories, spending time with the same unbelievably important people, I’m given a sort of personal litmus test: Because I only return in the summer, I’m constantly reminded of who I was when I was there a full 12 months ago.
Either taking the reins as a driver or sitting passively in the next seat over, I finally have time for the reflections my busy schedule doesn’t always allow. The turns in the road become routine; I can start to predict when the sun will blind me or when it will hide behind the trees and create an equally debilitating shade. With the windows down and the mountain air pumping into my blood, I remember how I felt a year ago. And every year, I’m shocked by the ways things have changed. My goals, academic, personal or otherwise; what I want from my future; my priorities — they’re all versions of one another, but they’re different just the same. And when I was there most recently about two weeks ago, I realized that I rely on this stretch of highway to tell me if I’m headed in the right direction. Do I like who I am now, compared to who I was last time I was here? Am I proud of the year I had? Did I accomplish what I set out to do or have a legitimate reason — i.e. not procrastination — to not accomplish it?
The answer is usually a resounding “eh.” Last year, I would never have anticipated having the year I had: the opportunities presented to me, the people I met, the challenges I faced. I got a lot more done than expected. But despite overcoming those unanticipated obstacles, there are things I planned on that highway years ago I still haven’t followed through on. Regardless of what my highway reflections show me about my ability to get things done, though, I need them, if only to remind me what’s been important to me for years — the goals that carry over from year to year and the values I prioritize haven’t changed, so at the core, I guess, neither have I.
These Highway 9 sojourns have become like a recharge station. I run my battery out during the year, and taking the time out during breaks, even if only for a day, to return to the comforting forests and soothing ocean that I have come to count on gives me time to refuel. But when I’m traversing those roads, I don’t feel as though I’m recharging a battery — I feel like I don’t need one. In those moments driving along the highway, I don’t feel like a student, an editor, an employee. I don’t need a store of energy to get me through my day or to push myself through my tasks; I’m content to just be. I feel at peace, not only with who I am, but who I’m planning to be. A calm sense of focus washes over me.
This year, driving along the highway, I seriously considered pulling a Walden. Who wants to go back to a demanding university or a stressful job when you’ve got acres of redwoods to hide out in and explore? I definitely didn’t. I didn’t want to leave; I could drive up and down that highway, watch sunsets, maybe a sunrise, and be content there for long enough. But like every summer, the trip had an expiration date, and I left. But I didn’t want to leave the calm focus behind.
So the goal I made this year was different from other years: Keep that sense of purpose I find driving up and down Highway 9. Not the manic purpose that comes with a planner scribbled full of random to-dos and inane scheduling, but the purpose that comes with realizing what you really care about — that tranquil purpose that comes to me as I stare out the window at the wide expanse of California redwoods, and that, now, I’m going to keep when I’m staring out at the bay.
“Off the Beat” columns are guest columns written by Daily Cal staff until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.