My previous familiarity with San Clemente was its being known as “The Western White House” during the Nixon Administration. So imagine my surprise and delight to discover a thriving beach town of charm, historic Spanish architecture and elegance, as well as magnificent Pacific sunsets that wash away for me its former association with cynicism and paranoia. Plus, it’s only about a twenty-minute drive from our house in Lake Forest. Also, Amtrak stops right at the entrance to the town’s wonderful pier! (Yes, an arrival by rail is in our future plans.)
Carol and I stay right across the street from that Amtrak stop at a restored Spanish hacienda that dates back to the 1930s. The little studio apartment we’ve been able to reserve twice now includes a patio area, complete with chimenea and an angled view out to the ocean. A flower-filled garden separates the studio from the main house. The beach walk runs north and south just across the street, and stretches long enough to justify an earlier-than-usual start to Happy Hour.
For Carol, San Clemente harbors quite concrete memories. There is the Miramar Theater, opened in 1938, unoccupied now, but can’t be torn down due to its designation as an historical site by the San Clemente Historical Society. Mike Madigan once owned the Miramar, operating it as a concert venue where he once booked acts ranging from Les Brown, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ricky Nelson, to The Association, George Thorogood, The Knack, and the Spencer Davis Group. Carol had also entered and won a newspaper’s contest Grand Prize of a limo-driven dinner for her and Mike to a former Italian Restaurant that was now celebrating a Grand Opening as a wine bar. We stopped in for a Happy Hour glass on our last trip there. Carol’s daughter was married at the historic Casa Romantica at the top of the hill. The Madigan family describe Mike as a larger-than-life figure, and his presence remains both large and alive here. I would have liked Mike, and coming to San Clemente does make me feel that I’m getting to know him better.
For me, though, the memories are more vinyl than concrete. Its the nearby surfing beaches of Doheny, San Onofre and Trestles. Fans of the Beach Boys may recognize those names as they were sung in the hit “Surfin’ USA.” Like most of the Beach Boys I never surfed (only brother Dennis Wilson did), but something about their music always exhilarated me as a teenager amidst the swamps of Chalmette near New Orleans. I don’t know, being so near those fabled beaches at long last makes me feel sixteen again. (In fact, driving through Huntington Beach recently - known around these parts as Surf City - I found the Jan and Dean hit on youtube and blasted it as we drove through.)
Like the Pacific tides that remake the beach anew every day, Carol and I are making new memories - our memories - here now. The different nostalgia that each of us can conjure from a visit here is like the beginning of one of the town’s brilliant sunsets. It grabs our attention, but only as a reminder of what is to come in that final blaze of color before the sun dips below the horizon, marking the end of another day together, as well as the beginning of another magnificent evening of candlelight, wine, a Broccolini Genovese perhaps at Sonny’s on El Camino Real, and then ending the evening with a fire in the chimenea out on our patio with the strains of the Beach Boys Greatest Hits cranked up on youtube.
Oh yeah, If everybody had an ocean...