Fourteen miles south of San Diego and five miles north of the land where Tequila pours like honey lays the surfing Mecca known as Imperial Beach –or “IB” as it is referred to locally. I sit in the Forum, the most southwesterly saloon in the emancipated Union. With a frosty Newcastle, freshly poured off tap, steaming crispy onion rings and lobster roll set in a row before me, I was a pleased-as-punch displaced New Englander.
Although born here on the West Coast, I was raised on the Eastern shore-board. Having spent many a summer on Cape Cod and on the coast of Maine, I have acquired as keen an appreciation for bottom dwelling crustaceans as any born and bred Bostonian. And although I can already hear my sister confirming that assertion, I don’t mean those of the human species.
Having had the ultimate pleasure of cracking many a coal steamed lobster on the wind whipped Atlantic pummeled shoreline, NORTH of Long Island where people still say “aunt” the way it’s spelled, I am admittedly not a crab person. I am of the sweet and succulent steamed lobster crowd and proud of it. I am of a people that think frying seafood a sacrilege. Cleanly steamed in salt water, dipped in melted dairy fresh butter, lobster never tasted better. Always felt pickin’ crabs a total waste of time; not enough reward for the effort. Last time I did it was for the undying love of a man. The time before that was to humor another. You get my point.
I came to IB, the once home town of Full Metal Jacket star Matthew Modine, to housesit. I keep coming back though for the seven miles of rarely populated oceanfront and the Tijuana River estuary that lies conveniently along the Pacific Flyway, attracting 370 species of birds including white pelicans, savannah sparrows, peregrine falcons, clapper rails, curlews, great egrets, and regal yellow crowned night herons. Just a stones’ throw away from the eighth most populated city in the country, I can walk for hours here through the salt marsh and along the sea down to the border surrounded by wildlife and not see a single person.
Imperial Beach and El Mirage
I didn’t come to the IB Forum Sports Bar and Grill to cook my own steak for which they are known (I'm a vegetarian), or because I’m into sports (I’m not). I came for no other reason than it seemed like the sensible thing to do once I heard that it was the most southwesterly bar in the States. I came because I’m drawn to superlatives.
The lobster roll came with a cup of clam chowder, thickly creamed potato-y stuff jam packed with huge chunks of freshly shell shucked clams. It is a rainy day so I sat at the bar rather than outdoors beneath the vine covered portella. Although everyone in the bar is complaining about the weather, I know that the southeasterly is nothing but a mist. Real rain falls by the bucketload, by the dumpster load in Texas, with the ferocity and velocity to leave bruises. But, in the land of eternal sunshine, a churning dark cloudbank, gusty wind and a few raindrops will set folks to battening down the hatches. Anything more than a few drops will make the evening news.
Come the winter months, folks will be pulling out their fur coats as if they were braving a weeklong Vermont subzero blizzard. I once saw a woman in hot pants and a spray tan wearing Uggs—in August--in Tijuana, no less. Yet, the average daily temperature in these parts sits comfortably around 70 degrees. I struggle to see how weather like that can technically be called winter…but after 16 snowbound seasons in Vermont, another 5 in the high desert of New Mexico, and the last 10 on the shores of the Chesapeake, I’m good with whatever you want to call it down here in this little seaside border town. Really, I am.
Founded in 1887, the beach town was once a cool haven for desert farmers escaping the summer heat simmering in neighboring Imperial Valley, (and thus, the borrowed name). It also seemed to be a good if not convenient place to set up camp for the thousands of workers that relocated from far and wide to construct the Hotel del Coronado just north of the Strand. With such mild winter temperatures, IB’s lifeguards are on duty year round and the town of just over 26,000 is understandably home to many a retired Snowbird and to North Country escapees like me.
The winter months bring serious surfers as well. Famed for its Boca Rio Beach with the second best surf in the Nation, the main drag is lined with a walkable Surfboard Museum with upright silhouettes of the many boards made famous by bare backed aces like Dempsey Holder, Woody Ekstrom, and Bob Simmons. The rip at the nearby Tijuana Sloughs during the winter months drew the wildest, most daring fanatics to what was back in the 1930’s a remote border town set against the sea at the mouth of the Tijuana River. Striped surf board benches equipped with informative plaques lining Seacoast Drive tell the story of the legendary Slough Riders that put this puny place on the map.
Man walking beneath IB Pier
Now renowned for its annual International Sand Castle Competition, IB also hosts the lesser attended dog surfing competition and Powwow by the Sea. And, like many places in San Diego County, IB, too, is heavily populated with military personnel. The Naval Outlaying Landing Field (NOLF), once known as the helicopter squadron capital of the world, is located in the southern part of town at Ream Field.
Surfing, however, will always be at its core. Kem Nunn used IB as the setting for his surf noir classic, Tapping the Source. His collaboration with producer David Milch resulted in the short lived 2007 HBO televised series about a dysfunctional IB surfing family with the odd title of John from Cincinnati.
In my eyes, however, IB will forever hold my heart as the place I spent the last of my lazy salad days, which sometimes stretched from dawn to dusk, roaming solitary along the sands amidst migratory birds and the more sedentary seals.