You’re on a two-lane state highway far, far out in the boondocks. There are hills, there are trees, there are farms. There may be an ocean. There isn’t much else.
But around the next turn lies a loose group of buildings scattered across both sides of the road. There may be a simple city limits sign. This “town” has no government and no particular facilities.
What you can hope for is a small grocery store, perhaps with gas pumps. And if you’re in tourist territory, that grocery just might have a deli, and a t-shirt. The Albion Grocery has it all.
Albion is a small unincorporated community on Highway 1 along California’s North Coast. The North Coast is noted for natural beauty, a dramatic and rocky shoreline, and big waves that eat people.
Locals call them sneaker waves. A set of average waves approaches the coast, one after another, but in the heart of the set sometimes lurks a monster that will shoot far up the beach, knock your feet out from under you, and carry you out to sea in its cold, cold arms. If you are unprepared.
Smart locals face the waves at all times. They flee inland immediately when a sneaker looms.
Pretty split-leaf philodendrons and hibiscus frame the t-shirt’s central image, a wave. But that wave is no pretty tourist image. That’s a wave of power: spitting, shaking, roaring. That’s a wave that could hurt you.
Fear it. I’m sure the locals do, while taking pride in the distinction that they bring. Sneakers help define the North Coast, like wind and crazy rocks and grim beauty and marijuana grows. They’re something bad-ass that you can warn strangers about.
Farther north in Oregon, coast aldwellers also speak of sneaker waves: certainly they do in Tillamook County, “Home of Cheese, Trees, and Ocean Breeze.”
They hunt in Tillamook; deer and elk roam in the plentiful forests. Inland among the trees on a two-lane stretch of US 101, the tiny unincorporated community of Beaver achieved something possibly unique: a combination firearms and grocery store.
Huntable forest surrounds Beaver; residents and tourists need their guns and ammo. They also want convenient groceries. At 150-ish people, Beaver might not support either a grocery store or a gun shop. But two in one? That worked. The Fox family ran Fox Grocery and Firearms for 47 years.
The family sold out in 2016. The new owners changed the name to Beaver Firearms and Grocery: note the subtle change in emphasis. “Come see us today for your grocery and 2nd Amendment needs in one convenient place,” their Facebook page says. All I know is that there’s no t-shirt.
From Beaver, we head south on 101 until we switch over to Highway 1 again to drive past the Albion Grocery and hundreds of miles beyond to the unincorporated community of Isla Vista, California — population 20,000. Isla Vista’s no speck on the map like Albion or Beaver. But this city has its limits.
It also has the Isla Vista Market. If you need a keg of beer for Saturday night in Isla Vista, IVM is the place to go. You might say it’s a major part of their business. The t-shirt sure does.
And this is indeed so, because Isla Vista is the “student neighborhood” adjacent to the University of California at Santa Barbara. Yes, the residents of Isla Vista are largely college students: thousands of them, living in shabby apartments. And they like kegs. A lot.
The mid-sized Isla Vista Market has little competition. The community was intentionally zoned against major retail; you’ve got to go to Goleta or Santa Barbara to find megamarts (and pay sales tax to those cities). As the sole full-service market in town, Isla Vista Market has a lock on All Your Party Needs.
And while Isla Vista the community lacks many services of a real city — and much control over its own destiny — it’s right next to the university. And the ocean. And the beach. The weather’s good. Sneaker waves aren’t common. For young college students on their own for the very first time, Isla Vista could look like Paradise.
With kegs. Lolling on the beach.