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“My soul is full of longing for the secrets of the sea, and the heart of the great ocean sends a thrilling pulse through me.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In the huge sprawl of Ellay, I’m many miles, three buses, and about an hour and a half from the beach. One day I had to–had to–smell and hear the sea. I also wanted a day trip, so I jumped on Amtrak and ventured to the farther unicoast. Two hours out of Union Station, I disembarked in Oceanside, just north of San Diego.

(Shameless plug: Amtrak Surfliner. A great way to see the southern unicoast and meet people from all over. Good coffee, too.)

In California’s annual June Gloom, the sea and sky were a wide grayness, the hues ranging from the water’s slate sheen to the opaque not-quite-white of the clouds. Who cared? The waves roared and crashed and the air had a salty tang.

Oceanside’s long, tar-scented wooden pier has none of the tarted-up commercialization of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf or Santa Monica’s amusement pier. At the entrance you can buy bait and rent fishing rods. A chain diner with a roughly New England Fishing Village architectural style stands at the end. Anglers lined the full length of the pier on both sides.

Strand Beach is narrower than San Francisco’s almost desolate-feeling Ocean Beach. It’s very hometown compared with the determinedly hip-and-cool Ellay-area beaches with all those gorgeous movieland bodies and the amped-up tourism. Just a few stands offered ice cream, hot dogs, cold drinks, and bike rentals.

With summer just beginning, scads of kids ran and squealed, built sandcastles, threw balls and Frisbees (and sand, at each other). The surfers found waves to ride in the languid sea. Families stretched out under circus-colored umbrellas. Young men with buzz cuts were in abundance. This is a military town.

I walked slowly from pier to jetty and back, picking up a couple of shells along the way. There was no sign of the sand dollars that blanket Ocean Beach after high tide. Strand Beach mostly sported rocks large and small, rounded from tumbling in the surf.

The gloom began to burn off in mid-afternoon. The sea glinted luminous green in the sun. The horizon split the view in a sharp straight line below billowing gray, blue-gray, and white clouds. The gray canopy overhead lightened more and more, and patches of blue sky emerged. By the time to get the train home, it was a beautiful blue-sky beach day.

San Clemente, a little north, was a picture postcard from the train window. My next trip, maybe?

On the unicoast, life’s a beach. And then you shake the sand out of your sneakers.