An ocean of emotion

Reflections on daily life along the Great Highway


My parents met at Kelly’s Cove, just after high school (Lincoln and Sacred Heart, in case anyone wants to know) but this isn’t their story or mine: Ocean Beach and the Great Highway, like the daily tides, are a driving force in our San Francisco lives.

“I spent my whole life hanging out on the Great Highway. This is a beautiful beach,” said Matt Lopez, surfer and owner of White Cap, one of the new wave of artisanal cocktail lounges, though it’s hidden out on Taraval Street. “It’s also one of the dirtiest beaches in California and in the world.”

Like pretty much every other part of life in The City, the matter of an eroding, trash-filled beach and the indefinite reopening of its seaside highway is full of confusions and contradictions, its fate as uncontrollable as the tides, paying no mind to what you or I might think. With our city officials seemingly losing their minds and our public process in complete disarray, longtime residents, small business owners and beach lovers are left fending for themselves. It’s been that way for a long time by the beach, and some of its folks like it that way. But the pandemic — and inevitably time — has forced a sea change.

A surfer heads toward the water at Ocean Beach. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

A surfer heads toward the water at Ocean Beach. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

“We were seeing the business get busy earlier in the day, and on the sunny days,” said Lopez of the pandemic influx of people to the closed street. “But it lowered the quality of life for people in the Sunset. People are driving on 46th, 47th and 48th Avenues at 60 miles an hour. We live out here because we want quiet. But traffic, trash, and the homeless situation all worsened during the pandemic,” he said. “We keep putting Band-Aids on the leak.”

Growing up in the inner Sunset, Lopez caught the L with his board and rode it down to 46th Avenue. There’s surf at Taraval, though it’s still about three miles from Kelly’s world-famous breaks.

“As soon as I was 16 or my older friends turned 16, it was on,” he said, pointing to the cove. “This is an epicenter for surfing.”

More than 50 years ago, Kelly’s attracted athletes and daredevils. Kids gathered to perform feats of strength and surf the world class waves. People famously burned tires to stay warm when the chill set in. Kelly’s is also where Jack O’Neill had the idea to create the world’s first wetsuit. But the beach was also a scene of tragedy: teens falling to their deaths from cliffs, riptides and undertows sweeping others out to sea and the woman who walked into the sunset to meet her death, leaving her boys to fend for themselves on shore were some of the stories told to me.

These ghost stories and several more still haunt the caves and shore, keeping watch on the side of San Francisco that is too often portrayed inaccurately, at least in my experience, though author Bill Finnegan got it right in the ‘90s when he described the Ocean Beach waves as “a string of potential landmines,” its white water like “a barrel of gritty ice cubes” poured down his back.

I asked my mom how dad likely made his way to the beach before they met. “Walked or got a ride,” she guessed, though she definitely traveled by car, from her family home in the Ingleside. “Straight down Sloat then right on the Great Highway,” she said. “My uncle told me if you went 32 miles per hour you could catch every light.”

This was the exact kind of family wisdom I could use in my early driving days, though by the time I came of age, the scene moved to Baker and China beaches and down to Santa Cruz. Now of course it’s impossible for an average kid to drive a beater, pay to insure it and store it in The City. Young people ride transit and choose to contribute to the world’s wellness instead of destroying it like we did.

Lopez and I talked more about the past and future of the beaches and I wondered if maybe our dads had crossed paths living as they did within a few blocks of each other, not far from the Sunset Reservoir.

Ghost stories haunt the caves and shore at Ocean Beach. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Ghost stories haunt the caves and shore at Ocean Beach. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Known to me as “the resevoy,” as my grandmother inexplicably called it, from the picture window of her modest home with a million-dollar view, I peered at the Pacific through binoculars, hoping to catch a glimpse of my grandpa working on deck of one of the ships that docked in the Bay. Facts were, old man Sully worked overnights in the boiler room and rarely saw daylight.

My coastal roots run deeper: Two sets of maternal great grandparents arrived here by boat and by train, depending who you ask, then took the traditional immigrant route to success, American-style. Their grocery businesses and roadside stands dotted the landscape and eventually turned into restaurants. My grandfather ultimately employed his own father, my grandmother, other immigrants and locals; he staked a first beach business for the nephew he adopted when his sister died, “back in the old country.”

“All the people who have moved to the Great Highway now don’t have to work,” said Lopez. “They have money. Stressing and driving through the Sunset isn’t part of their day. They’re like, ‘I’m going to walk my 3-year-old and I want to go out and walk on the Great Highway.’”

It was from my grandfather, who also played the role of grandmother and dad to me when both passed away, that I learned about philosophy, democracy, civic responsibility and the dirty deals that make San Francisco run. His words were spoken over kitchen tables and on rides, from Rockaway Beach past Land’s End and to Sausalito, where he had family and friends, the people who used the Great Highway.

Jose Castillo has owned Chino’s, up the hill from Kelly’s beach, for 30 years. During the pandemic, he opened a second restaurant, Cielito Lindo, serving regional food from his native Guanajuato. Castillo knows his neighbors, watched their children grow. “I spend more time here than I do where I live in the Ingleside,” he said. “The easy way to get to my job is on the highway. Closing it was good for families but now, I think it’s time to open it.”

“I feel for the people who still need to get to work,” said Lopez. “Is leisure time more important than people’s ability to work?” That’s a question for the (very) vocal drivers of the argument that our streets (not to mention Golden Gate Park) should stay closed to cars.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence our shores are known for rip currents. Ocean Beach literally rules our lives as San Francisco does, its rise and fall thing, sometimes gracefully, and other times, like now, more forcefully and inelegantly. Standing by as our civic leaders brawl from the top down, and our neighbors reportedly cancel each other over decisions or lack of them about the Great Highway, the sun, the moon and the sea still rise. We’re all wave riders. Though some of us still insist on driving.

While some enjoy relaxing walks on the car-free Great Highway, others, who drive to work, want the road reopened to vehicles.<ins> (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)</ins>

While some enjoy relaxing walks on the car-free Great Highway, others, who drive to work, want the road reopened to vehicles. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Against my better judgement and yours, I ride the rip currents of my mind while driving, whether cross town, across the park, across bridges, occasionally north, and more often south, and there is one turn that never fails to calm the storms raging inside me. Taking the left turn on to the Great Highway after the four-way-stop on Skyline, the road crests, and there it is, the vastness of our ocean — the source of our survival and my reminder of all that’s been lost here, and all that remains. None of it is for us to decide and never was. But for now, that patch of highway is still here. And so are we. May the road rise with us, until our work here is done.

Denise Sullivan, an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions,” can be reached at

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