Alexander Medel

There is no sight more gratifying to me than the open road, for the open road allows the body to wander and the mind to wonder. It offers an escape for the imagination and a way of life governed by freedom and fueled by curiosity. 

My name is Alexander, and I am a first year in Timothy Dwight College studying political science. Naturally, my day is complete with writing papers, reading research articles and attending lectures. And as much as I am a Yale student, I consider myself a student of the world with the open road as my classroom.

This travel column, On the Road, recounts several of my adventures on asphalt and all the lessons I have learned from the people, places and things I have encountered on all roads, from those well-traveled to those not taken. 


The sea crinkles the sand as its waves edge closer to the shore. The sun radiates a warm glow from a cloudless afternoon sky. The breeze sifts through your hair to remind you that you are far from the embrace of the city and in the arms of nature. Laughter and screams emanate from the roller-coasters nearby. People of all ages and backgrounds dot the beach in their swimwear, featuring a palette diverse enough to represent the entire rainbow. This is Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz, a coastal town roughly thirty miles south of San Jose and situated on the northern end of Monterey Bay, is, in many ways, the quintessential California town. A star in California’s constellation of world-renowned surf towns, it typifies the image of California you would imagine from a long lecture on a wintry day in New Haven or from a travel ad that disturbs your late-night binge on HBO Max. Stretches of stunning beaches. Sunbathers and swimmers enjoying the Pacific sun. Surfers as innumerable as the sands on the shore. Perpetual games of volleyball that last from dawn until dusk.

Besides being a surfing destination, Santa Cruz boasts another claim to fame: the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The oldest surviving amusement park in California, it has entertained generations of locals for more than a century since its founding in 1907. Any kid who has grown up in the Bay Area during the 2000s and 2010s can remember, just as well as I do, the various commercials advertising the Boardwalk that would interrupt afternoon cartoons. Screaming adults on roller coasters. Kids laughing on carousels. And, of course, a catchy jingle encouraging us to have some fun “in the warm California sun.” Absolute nostalgia accompanies any of my recollections of the times I spent on the Boardwalk as a young kid.

I recall, in particular, one weekend in middle school. My parents decided to drive to Santa Cruz on a whim and visit the Boardwalk. It was a warm April day. Passing through the entrance, I found myself in the shadow of the Giant Dipper. The youthful gleam of its paint belied its age; the Dipper celebrates its centennial this May. Draped in pristine white, its wooden beams shook. Coated in red, its tracks rattled. Joined by the screams of its riders, its cars roared past. I gazed in amazement and awe. I was never one for roller coasters. Thus, anyone who can muster the amount of courage and thrill needed to ride one has my respect and my admiration.

The Boardwalk boasts a thrilling array of rides, from carousels and bumper cars for the young to more advanced machinery for the old. There are the usual fair games that offer stuffed animals as prizes, as well as indoor activities and arcades. That day, I decided to stay grounded on terra firma and enjoy an amusement park staple — funnel cakes warmed and cooked to a golden crisp, topped with chocolate syrup, vanilla ice cream and a generous dose of powdered sugar — before eating lunch.

Canvassing our options, we decided to head to the Santa Cruz Wharf for lunch. After getting our fill of Italian cuisine at Gilda’s, we stepped out and onto the wharf. Walking back toward the city, I saw a sailboat pass by, its immaculate mainsail beating against the wind as its reflection wrinkled across the ocean surface. I stopped for a moment and decided to watch it as it sailed out of the harbor, into the bay and out into the open ocean.

The sea is very much like the road, offering freedom in its vastness, solace in the solitude of its far reaches and a multitude of avenues for adventure. Unlike the road, however, there are no paths to follow, trails to pursue, or highways to dictate the extent of your wanderings. The sea offers no direction except yours, for on the open ocean, you are, as Henley eloquently states, the captain of your soul. You follow no roads in the ocean; you make them. No confines. No constraints. The freedom offered by the sea diffuses into life on the shore and is capable of infecting the restless and the rested with unshakeable wanderlust.

Following our momentary day trip, my parents and I took another a few days later and drove south of Santa Cruz to its neighboring beach town of Capitola. To the outside visitor, at first glance, this small coastal town would seem to be misplaced; its visage resembles that of a Riviera hamlet. If all hints of its location were suddenly erased — from the California license plates on cars to the American units on street signs — one would think that this town was located on the shores of the Mediterranean and not those of the Pacific. The town is charming, unique and well worth a visit for anyone who happens to be fortunate enough to be nearby.

It was a cloudy day when we arrived in downtown Capitola, but the skies did not deter the families at the town beach from enjoying the weekend. Parents relaxed in lawn chairs, their kids building sand castles and chasing each other. We walked on a coastal promenade through the town when we found a strange, amorphous and translucent mass floating languidly in the air. It contorted with every gust of wind as it danced above us, and its movements revealed a membrane reflecting shades of blue, green and pink.

Giant bubbles, like the ones we would see on Cross Campus from time to time, hovered over me like dirigibles taking flight. Guided by the breeze, they were the product of a bearded man on the beach. He exhibited an expert command of his wands, deftly slicing the air with the gracefulness of an artist’s brushstrokes and the precision of a conductor’s waves. His countenance offered no smile but a present humility in the face of amazement and wonder from the crowd. Young children ran to pop each bubble he produced, trying to catch their breath after chasing his newest creations. The bearded man also succeeded in resurrecting the youth in the old, with parents rushing for bubbles with the same enthusiasm and excitement as their kids. Sinatra once sang that “it’s worth every treasure on earth to be young at heart.” In many respects, the bubble-maker of Capitola Beach did not offer an episode of fleeting amusement; he gave new memories for the young and an opportunity to smile for the young at heart. His talent, however humble, gave all on the beach and promenade that youthful, glee-driven “treasure on earth.”

After watching the bubbles and popping some with my parents, we continued walking the promenade toward the Capitola Wharf, a local landmark. On the way there, we strolled through the beach alongside the Venetian Court, a set of Mission Revival apartments built during the 1920s. With its architecture and bright array of colors, it has served as an iconic sight in the region. On this particular day, the Court’s Mediterranean pastel palette was juxtaposed with the dreariness produced by the gray skies above. 

Soon enough, my parents and I made it to the wharf where we found a string of distanced fishermen. The wind formed wrinkles on their jackets that mirrored the wrinkles that crossed their worn and weary faces. Their eyes, squinting seaward, remained unfazed by the gusts of the sea breeze or the sprays that would swell from the waves that pounded the wharf’s posts beneath their feet. There was, in the air, a freshness both brought by the wind and the simplicity of life in Capitola. Time was fast in nearby Silicon Valley. Here, hours passed as hours, minutes passed as minutes and seconds passed as seconds. Time continued forward, and thus, my day in Capitola ended patiently and pleasantly.

For the outside observer, it is easy to see Santa Cruz and Capitola exemplifying the California Dream. For that stretch of coastline seems to be where beachgoing is the main profession, where the soundtrack of life plays to the Beach Boys, where the notion of tomorrow is a fantasy and where the experience of today lasts for eternity. But to idealize that paradisiacal world with ideas furnished by Hollywood and the marketing industry and to characterize it solely with such qualities is to ignore the great and underlying truth that realistically defines Santa Cruz and Capitola. Both are the quintessential California towns in the way that they both embody the California spirit of resolve.

During finals season last December, my study schedule was interrupted by news reports back home of storm events on the coast. California was hit by an atmospheric river that buffeted many coastal communities, among them Santa Cruz and Capitola, with harsh winds and pouring rain. These communities, the idyllic enclaves of fun and excitement for many, became the victims of the hostile whims of nature. Families evacuated their homes, forced to clean up the wreckage wrought by the storm upon their return. Streets of asphalt became rivers of mud-colored water. Stores were disemboweled, and their contents spilled onto the flooded streets. Santa Cruz Beach was covered with the remains of erstwhile trees. Capitola Wharf was split in two. The tide carried what debris it found into the bay, and with it, the memories of communities lost to the indifferent tide.

The accounts from the Santa Cruz Coast brought me undeniable sadness. And yet, despite this destruction and despair, there remained, beneath the rubble and the waves, hope. People from all backgrounds and all walks of life, with the sole similarity shared amongst all being their communities of residence, united as one and set out to rebuild their towns. They returned to their homes. They returned to their stores. Adults went back to work. Children went back to school. The streets were cleaned, and the beaches were cleared. These communities turned heartbreak and loss into hope and renewal. Resilience, as they have shown, is not an abstract or lofty idea; it was one brought down to earth by the humble citizens of Santa Cruz and Capitola.

The California way of life, as the communities of Santa Cruz and Capitola profess and illustrate, is the ability to respond to hardships with hope, to crises with confidence and to trials with triumph. Under every smile of the locals of Santa Cruz and Capitola is a reserve of resolve, a subtle strength and a conviction directed with courage that, while hidden to a passerby, is evident in their manner and to those observant and watchful.

Over the course of my travels, I have discovered that you learn the most about places you see by learning from the people you meet there. Therefore, to say that Santa Cruz and Capitola are the quintessential California towns is to pierce through superficial and constructed images of popular culture and to recognize the authentic qualities of their inhabitants. In doing so, you would realize that their courage and resilience are not unique or distinct, but shared in a way that binds them with other communities. Many other places in California exhibit the strength exemplified by Santa Cruz and Capitola, from the mountain towns that brave blizzards, the valley cities that have survived countless wildfires and sister communities on the coast that have faced the torrents of a Pacific winter. In reflecting about Santa Cruz and Capitola, I have not only observed the profound depths of the human spirit, but have learned more about the place I call home and the people I call my neighbors. I came to understand that the collective elan of Californians is one not born out of unrealistic idealism, but of experience, maturity and accumulated wisdom. It is derived from a fortitude refined and matured into a heritage and an inheritance that inspires inspiration, admiration and even, in the humblest of ways, reverence.