The afternoon I arrived in Santa Barbara, California, was a special day. It was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year – June 20, 2016. It also coincided with an extremely rare event, a full moon, called a Strawberry Full Moon.
Historically, a summer solstice full moon happens once every 70 years, about the lifespan of an average human being. This would be the only time I could’ve ever witnessed this visual spectacle. I had no idea this event was going to occur when I decided to walk to the beach, barely a few minutes walk from downtown State street, in the beautiful resort city of Santa Barbara.
It was a typical early summer day in the city named after Saint Barbara, when the Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino sailed through the channel near Santa Barbara on December 4, 1602 – St. Barbara Feast day. The sun was comfortably warm. The sky was clear and seemed to calm the restless waters of the Pacific. The palm trees gently swayed, and the flock of seaguls, always present on LeadBetter beach, swarmed tightly by the hundreds, as if participating in some aerial show for the many tourists. The hot sand tingled and momentarily sizzled beneath my feet as my anxious bare skin took some minutes to adjust. It was paradise, I thought.
I looked out and observed the many people playing beach volleyball. Some of them appeared to be professionals, practicing, perhaps. Others playing in the gentle waves, or children intently building their sand castles, dreaming of princes and princesses, in a time long past. The sunbathers were wrapping up, seemingly content after a long afternoon of absorbing the sun’s magical energy. The countless bikes whistled past in the adjacent park bike trails. I could hear the sound of laughter in every direction, the occasional playful scream, as the waves unexpectedly caught someone, and the waves endlessly wrestling with the shore and billions of tiny rocks they had relentlessly widdled into tiny bits of sand over millions of years.
Sunset would soon occur.
I sat on the beach, listening, observing, thinking, wondering. How magnificent.
I took a stroll along the beach before sunset would set in. I was in a fairly somber, reflective mood and I wanted to watch the sunset far away from all the chatter and tourists, bikers, and cars zipping by on Carbrillo Boulevard. I followed the path the waters allowed, seemingly guiding me to a destination. I climbed some rocks at the end of the long beach and discovered a hidden beach, completely empty, isolated by a fairly long stretch of rock and mild hills, protected by the crashing waves. There was noone there. So I stood next to, but just out of reach of the lapping waves, and watched the sunset. A visual miracle. A retinal sensation. Unforgettable.
As the sun barely dangled in the distance, partially sunk into the ocean tub, another person wandered over to the lonely beach. A middled-aged, white male, carrying a small black bag. He saw me enjoying the miracle of light struggling through the hazy atmosphere, dressed in a symphony of lights; he didn’t say a word to me. He setup his camera, two of them on tripods, in different locations, but aiming in the opposite direction of the sunset, which stirred my curiosity. They were set to auto expose every few minutes.
He cracked open a cold beer and asked if I wanted one, as he seemed axiously awaiting something I couldn’t figure out.
“Sure”, I hesitantly replied.
“Well, you’ll have to take a small one,” as he pulled out a rather oversized Foster’s beer can.
I smirked. “Thanks. What are you waiting for?” I asked curiously.
“Today is a blood moon, full moon, on summer solstice! Actually, it’s called a Full Strawberry Moon. Really rare event! I’m a photographer. The moon should be rising in a few minutes,” he said with a unmistakable calm excitement.
I was a bit surprised. I’m no lunar expert and thought the moon rise was much later in the night, not shortly after sunset. But this was summer solstice. So we both quietly sat, sipped our Fosters, and waited for the moment, chatting occasionally.
About a half hour later, a crescent of the moon appeared over the water, then little by little, more and more. Soon the full of the moon stood exposed in the eastern distance, just above the placid waters. The growing darkness seemed to hide the true nature of the ocean’s turbulence and discontent, only the growl of tumbling waves reminded.
The moon was full. Spectacularly bright. And vividly blood red. Wow. I could clearly see the craters on the surface with my naked eye, asteroids that had indiscriminately bombarded the soil, unimpeded due to the moon’s lack of atmosphere, perhaps millions of years before. I swear, it seemed like I could reach out and almost grab the moon, it seemed so close. Larger than I ever recall seeing.
I felt lucky I had accidently witnessed such a visual delight. Literally, a once in a lifetime event.
After some time, I finished my Foster’s, said my farewell, and began to walk back toward Leadbetter beach, which was likely empty by now. As I climbed back up the rocks resting on the gentle hill, an eerie feeling came across me. It was fairly dark, even with the the full blood moon. I suddenly realized a bunch of eyeballs were staring in my direction. It spooked me. A large number of folks were sitting with perfect posture on the rocks, facing eastward, toward the direction I was coming from. They were motionless. Just staring at the Strawberry Moon. My first immediate reaction was slight fear, not knowing what all of these people were doing, suddenly appearing out of nowhere, unexpectedly. After a moment, I realized they were all meditating and felt more relaxed. As I climbed my way back through the last of the rocks, I had to walk through some of the meditators, as politely as I could, apologizing softly as I went. When I had made my way back to the Leadbetter beach side, just a few feet from all the meditators – perhaps a hundred or at least many dozens – a woman smiled and gently approached me.
“Would you like to join us?” she asked, speaking softly. “We are practicing meditation. We’re part of the local Buddhist church here. The full moon is positive energy, healing. The sun is harsh and damaging our spiritual energy.” To be honest, I didn’t quite remember her exact words. I smiled, politely declined, and walked back.
I camped on the beach that night, without a tent, relaxing under the glowing red moonlight, just lying on my towel in my tee-shirt and shorts. The night sky was crystal clear. The stars sparkled like mega-carat diamonds. At some point, after hours of contemplating life, I eventually fell asleep under the blanket of stars.
I awoke early the next morning as the sun rose, casting a blinding ray into my dreamy eyes. The light warmth felt amazing. It had gotten a bit chilly in the night without a blanket, under the open stars. As the sun rose, the ocean breeze had chased away all the haze of industrialization, the specter of a beautiful morning sunrise left me breathless again.
I knew, this is where I had to be. Santa Barbara. The cozy little city, lost on a highway trail between Hollywood fiction and Silicon Valley bustle; where the beaches remind me daily of the most important reason for silicon – not for more gadgets and microchips, but so our toes can play without shoes; where time seems to move slower; where smiles seem more genuine; where life actually happens. Where the sting of life, sometimes piercing, feels less painful.
Santa Barbara, the city of Saint Barbara; the city where we can feast on life, sun, warmth, and the simpler things that makes it all worthwhile.