A Lighthouse to Call Your Own

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It turns out that Pigeon Point was Whale Point until the Carrier Pigeon ran into it.

That was 1853, and the Gold Rush had begun with a bang, sending dozens of ships a month toward this hypnotically beautiful and rocky stretch of the California coast, 50 miles south of San Francisco. It would take several more shipwrecks before a lighthouse was built here, in 1872, to keep other marine vessels from running aground en route to the Golden Gate.

Today, Pigeon Point Light Station is protected as a California state historic park and a dark-sky preserve, and three of the light station buildings, once used by Coast Guard families, are now run as lodgings by Hostelling International. A strange perk of Covid is that you can now rent the entirety of one of these, which sleeps up to 15, for a discounted rate.

One weekend in early March, my husband, Matt, our two kids and I drove from our home in Berkeley to meet friends at Pigeon Point. From land, the approach south along Highway 1 past the rural farming community of Pescadero is a crayon box of color. First, golden fields of mustard. A parade of pale sand beaches: Pescadero, Pescadero Point, Bean Hollow.

Pescadero is Spanish for fishmonger — the coast is dotted with fishermen fiddling with poles planted in the sand. In between beaches, darkly verdant cypresses tilt obliquely, the cool sea-foam green a glint through the trees. Then the whole coast opens up in a dramatic curve of steep and rocky bluffs, anchored by that white brick lighthouse, tied at 115 feet for the tallest on the West Coast, a sentinel on the point.

As soon as we arrived, a great blue heron strutted past. Then a hawk flew overhead, a feathered kite suspended in the updraft off the Pacific. Between our friends and my family, we were five adults with six kids between the ages of 8 and 12. After we had unloaded our belongings at the hostel, the first order of business, it being low tide, was to head down to Whaler’s Cove to inspect life in the intertidal zone.

There’s something essential about the game of patience that’s required to unlock the treasures of this coast. Access is permitted by the ebb and flow of the tide; you have to wait for things to reveal themselves, at their own pace. A white-beaded orange starfish here, a clutch of mussels there. A turquoise anemone deciding it’s ready to open, flowering for a glamour shot. A single palm-size vertebra, its central lacuna heart-shaped, had us wondering about its origin story. (What, and when?) Sharp points of orange sandstone emerged from a layer of conglomerate rock — from a certain angle, it appeared to be a dinosaur-tooth greeting from the past. The quality of time here is different, accordionlike.

The accordion stretches wide, so that it can hold everything you see.

A contest was on to find the biggest hermit crab. Eleven-year-old Gus introduced me to his new friend Florence, a shy crab in a spiraled orange shell, thus: “She prefers the finer things in life.” My son Teddy, 10, announced his own contender, Dwayne — “yes, as in the Rock.” The crabs were gently deposited in a rock enclosure to await judgment, if it ever came. I don’t remember who won. Did it matter? The fun was in the finding.

Hours passed like this, just our three families tide-pooling alone on a Saturday afternoon during a sunny break in the rain. Gray whales pass by this time of year, but if they were there, it was hard to spot them in the surface chop. Seals, though, were present in abundance.

From our perch atop a pile of mossy boulders, our friend Sarah pointed southeast to the outcropping that was Año Nuevo State Park, where she and her husband, Steve, had taken their two boys to visit the elephant seals the previous day. It was the tail end of breeding season, and fat pups weaned from their mothers were marooned awkwardly on the beach, comically rotund balloons resting on their sides. Eight-year-old Fisher: “We saw a thousand weaners at Año Nuevo!” (Reservations for guided tours are needed through March 31, but from April to November, elephant seal viewing is self-guided, no reservations required.)

As we scampered back along the coastline toward the lighthouse, our footfalls timed in a staccato dance with the incoming tide, I heard Fisher’s chirpy voice. “I almost forgot there was a lighthouse here,” he said, merrily. “Because I was so focused on rock hopping!”

The lighthouse, though, was why we came. Some of the best magic of this place shows up only at dusk, when the park closes and other people depart.

I’m charmed by the fact that Pigeon Point Light Station still keeps its own unique time. Every lighthouse has a signature light pattern, or characteristic; at Pigeon Point, it’s one flash every 10 seconds, and it’s unusual in that it has kept that same characteristic since the start. For 150 years, it has done the good work of casting a glow at night, in an interval all its own, to reassure those at sea.

As the sun went down, we got cozy: Steve and Sarah heated up the kale-and-white-bean soup they’d brought for dinner, while Matt and our friend Jenny played a round of hearts with the older kids. Because of Covid, there are none of the basic shared ingredients you’d typically find in a hostel’s utilitarian kitchen, so we were glad we came prepared.

The building we rented was called the Dolphin House, and the décor inside accurately reflected this: dolphin everything, if it wasn’t already lighthouse-themed. All the kids piled into one of the two large bunk rooms, which had six beds; the five adults divided themselves between the other bunk room and a third bedroom with a double bed. The dormitory, clean and no-frills, stood up admirably to six medium-size children playing strenuously athletic hide-and-seek in and around its many closets, well-worn couches and linoleum floor.

I couldn’t help but think of Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” the slim yet infinite novel that has been with me since high school, which unspools the life of an English family over two summer days in the Scottish Hebrides, a decade apart. Eudora Welty once described “To the Lighthouse” as possessing a view that is multiple, “time-affected”: “Here, with this houseful of family and summer guests, on these few miles of shore and sea, with Lighthouse, life has been intensified, not constricted, not lessened in range but given expansion.”

Over the course of the weekend, I found myself mulling the nature of time, and how spending that time with friends you have known for many years, over many stages of your life, can make it seem to fold over on itself. Amplifying this feeling was the setting, where, as in the book, a lighthouse shines a steady light over its charges: a visible hand, sweeping around and around as if on a clock face. But what these clock markings signify is not hours, minutes, or seconds, but something else entirely.

Maybe each marking signifies a shift in mood. The place itself — on the coast, with a propensity for mercurial weather: bright sunshine and bluebird skies, yes, but also intense blasts of rain, wind and hail — means that you live in the rhythm of those changes.

When it rains, you (the children) impatiently wait for your friends to arrive. When it hails, you (the adults) call the children over to watch little ice chips ping off the picnic table by the back kitchen door while you fry up eggs and flip pancakes for breakfast. When darkness falls, you (everyone!) play charades under a blanket, laughing so hard your stomach hurts. When the sky clears, long after sunset, you (Matt) haul out the telescope you packed into the trunk, ask your astronomer friend (Steve) to help calibrate it, and marvel at the awesome lucidity of the night sky.

Everyone takes a turn examining Jupiter, Venus and the nearly full moon. The conversation moves on to the Trapezium Cluster — the stellar nursery under Orion’s belt — and the delimiter, also known as the moon’s sunset line. It’s this dramatic, crater-pocked edge between day and night on the moon, with its extraordinarily high-contrast topography, that gets the biggest raves, from all parties.

You (by which I mean me) are radiantly, un-self-consciously, happy.

The lighthouse is now in the midst of a $19 million restoration — when complete, it will allow the public to climb the tower for the first time in more than 20 years. The next morning, I went to the visitor station, in the recently refurbished fog signal building, to see the lighthouse’s original, first-order — as the biggest versions are called — Fresnel lens on display. (The current light source in the tower is an automated LED beacon.)

The wonderful park interpreter working that day, Elizabeth Crowley, was a middle school teacher in a previous life. Ask her to tell you about fog signals through the ages, and about the 1,008 glass prisms that make the lens sparkle like a giant’s eight-foot diamond, capable of throwing the modest light from an oil lamp 20 miles out to sea.

Once Pigeon Point Light Station is restored to its former glory, the Fresnel lens will be returned to the top of the tower. In the meantime, you can come for a visit, and stay. The great social experiment of bunking in a youth hostel is forever worthwhile, even for families. It’s an exercise in getting along. The hostel’s ancient, out-of-tune piano, missing many keys, drove us all batty, but it’s one of the charms of the place. Much glossier and more luxurious are all the delicious things to eat at the Pie Ranch farm stand, just seven minutes away by car — pie and ice cream, of course, but also garlicky cheese breadsticks for the savory-minded.

At the end of the weekend, we all packed up for the hour-and-a-half drive home. None of us had traveled very far, and two days isn’t much, chronologically speaking. But perhaps you’ll find, as we did, that the many different ways of keeping time here — tidal, meteorological, seasonal, astronomical and geological among them — make that time feel full.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel has three vacation houses for rent; each three-bedroom building sleeps up to 15 people and has a kitchen, two bathrooms, a living room, a dining room and an outdoor picnic table ($1,200 a night). At the end of May, the hostel will once again accept individual reservations for bunk rooms, private double rooms and family rooms, with shared access to all other living spaces. Full house rentals will continue to be available.

Bonnie Tsui is the author of “Why We Swim” and “Sarah and the Big Wave.” @bonnietsui

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