To get to Glass Beach, you turn toward the ocean at the Denny’s on the outskirts of Fort Bragg, Calif., and drive down the lane to park. Signage is minimal. This is not Big Sur.
The day we go, two local guys drive up and park next
to us in a Volvo that has seen more than its share of ocean salt.
"Need a bag?" one of them asks when he sees me rummaging in the
lunch supplies. He hands me a grocery sack from a bunch inside the
rusted trunk, then heads down the path towards the craggy headland.
We follow him along the edge of the abandoned town dump.
Near the cliff scarp where land gives way to the Pacific, the
ground has been recently bulldozed, covered with a layer of sandy
soil. We trudge across the loose dirt and pick our way down to a
small, rockbound cove. The ocean pounds into the beach in the
intimidating way it does along the West Coast. Waves boil hard over
rocks, slam into crannies, suck out with fierce power. It makes me
reach for the kids’ hands.
The tide is still high.
Only a foot or two of beach is exposed, and we cling to a
strange-looking ledge of sediment. The ledge is rust-brown, hard as
sandstone, and unlike any rock I encountered in geology class. I
coin the term "dumpstone," since it seems to be made up of
consolidated garbage. The "rock" is a matrix of dark grains and
metal tire rims, fragments of broken plates, the battered remains
of a metal cigarette lighter, chicken bones, automobile springs, a
doll’s head, the innards of a clock radio.
can see of the beach looks like wave-worn glass. The kids
can’t resist flirting at the edge, lured by the sparkling
glass, running back away from the next charge of ocean. They are
wet to mid-calf in no time. In one cove where the kids have to
climb on dumpstone to get far enough in to be out of the reach of
waves, they find a cluster of old marbles rolling around
There are several coves where the old dump abuts
the Pacific, where the ocean has torn open the treasure trove of
another generation’s castaways. As luck has it, the tide is
ebbing, exposing more and more beach, an expanse of glass winking
wet in the sun. I pick a spot that’s still damp but safely
out of the reach of surf, and lie down on my belly.
It’s surely sterile, I think, doused in salt. My hands comb
through the broken jewels of old bottles, plates, toys, stuff from
the kitchens and bedrooms and dinner tables of people whose
descendants may live in the houses we drove past. The glass layer
is several inches deep, mixed with sand. Among the glass,
there’s a rubber tire from a toy truck, a watch spring, a
worn glass doorknob.
A few collectors roam the beach,
recognizable by their undistracted air. No lying on the belly for
these folk. They know which colors to pick out, which fragments
have value. Some of them, I suppose, decorate their windowsills and
gardens with their finds. Others specialize in turning one
man’s garbage into another man’s collectible.
Rooting about on Glass Beach is both fascinating and faintly
repulsive. The glitter of it, the memories culled up — how I
remember mastering the one-handed flicking open of a metal
cigarette lighter as a 14-year-old, the schoolyard games of
marbles, a forgotten toy. At the same time, this is dumpster-diving
once removed. There is, too, something eerie about the place. It
offers a glimpse of the geologic layer our species is destined to
leave behind. Glass Beach is a suggestion of what will surely be a
future geologic strata thick with stuff, one studded with jet
engines, Wal-Mart signs, train cars, SUV door handles, what’s
left of the Space Needle, and my mailbox.
years from now, imagine the theories that might surface to explain
the remains of a jetski at the base of the arc of Hoover Dam, or
the neon facade of Caesar’s Palace. The Leakeys of the next
epoch have their work cut out.
At some point, before the
tide turns, my family has had enough. Besides, the bag is almost
full. I brush the shards of dumpstone from my pants and climb up
through the hard layer away from the Pacific, a paleontologist
ahead of his time.