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. 


313 steps. I gazed down from the heights, counting each step as my eyes weaved along the summit. Its railings were tall and the winds, however fresh and strong, were not forceful enough to toss my glasses into the restless sea below. To my left were the stairs. To my right was a scenic overlook with views of the lighthouse below. Between them was a warning. “These steps are wicked hard,” the sign said. With that, I ventured left.

Earlier that morning, my parents and I were well past Stinson Beach heading north on the Pacific Coast Highway. The sky was bright and sunny with few clouds, and whatever clouds lay suspended in the sky appeared as soft as a blanket of snow on TD’s courtyard. Of all the days during spring break this year, we chanced upon the perfect one for an excursion to Point Reyes National Seashore. Designated as such by the government in the 1960s, the national seashore covers the region surrounding Point Reyes. Otherwise known as the Point of the Kings, it is situated roughly twenty miles north of San Francisco. It boasts a scenic beauty accented by a fascinating history as well as rich flora and fauna. 

We followed the Pacific Coast Highway as it moved through the coastline and wrestled with the hills inland until the road brought us to the Bear Valley Visitor Center, our first stop. The center, with its tall roof and rustic style, had both a gift shop and exhibits on the area’s history and biodiversity. After purchasing some souvenirs from the former and wandering through the latter, we continued northward toward Tomales Bay. As the bay came into view alongside the road, we were met by cyclists who boasted their agility and skill by effortlessly and expertly slicing through the winding twists and turns. Further along the drive, we saw families unloading kayaks on the side of the highway and launching them out on the bay. It was a perfect day to do so. The light of the morning sun shone and the waters were cool and calm. The kids laughed. The parents smiled. Their grins shone brightly as their colorful kayaks did on the water. 

The southernmost tip of Point Reyes has two ends, resembling an upside down “T.” The first is a western projection facing the open Pacific with the Point Reyes Lighthouse on its summits. The second, called Chimney Rock, is an eastern projection facing inland toward Drakes Bay. Our plan for the day was to visit the lighthouse before walking trails in Chimney Rock. So, for 20 miles, we drove through a series of rolling coastal pastures on the road to the lighthouse. There were also many historic and active cattle ranches on the route, and their presence was made evident by two things: the sight of black-and-white and brown-and-white cows against a canopy of green and an inescapable smell that further reminds you of your distance from the city. The surrounding environment was picturesque with glistening ponds on the feet of rolling hills crowned by copses of cypresses. It was like driving through O’Rear’s “Bliss.” With time, the ponds soon gave way to the seashore. The hills soon gave way to cliffs. The trees soon gave way to sharp summits. 

Reaching the western summits of Point Reyes, my parents and I parked our car and began the short trail to the lighthouse. To get there, we followed a path that offered an expansive view of Point Reyes Beach. That day, as I have illustrated, was meteorologically perfect. Thus, from the summits of the point, I bore witness to an unobstructed and unobscured view of the Point Reyes Beach. The day was clear enough that my gaze extended across nearly a dozen miles, the entire length of the beach. The sands were a bold tan. The waves were a prussian blue. They crested, leaving white wrinkles on the water that ran parallel to the beach, disappearing and reappearing as the tide rolled in and out. 

Awed by a magnificent sight, we were fascinated by another. As we continued walking the path, we found a series of cypress trees crooked and bent dramatically as a result of repeated exposure to the Pacific breeze. It is worth noting that the strength of this wind is no product of the imagination or of literary hyperbole. The forceful wind meandered through the rocks and heights around me, creating a strong and howling song. The point was singing in a language captured by the doleful cry of the Pacific air rushing through its jagged surfaces. The winds kept sifting and churning as we passed the lighthouse quarters and visitor center and reached the overlook leading to the lighthouse below. 

313 steps. There I was at the top of the staircase with my feet propelling my downward and onward. By the 312th step, I found myself entertaining an irrational desire to walk down the steps despite my irrational fear of heights. By the 300th step, gusts of wind began directing invisible uppercuts at my face. By the 250th step, I became James Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson in “Vertigo.” The handrail became a new acquaintance rather quickly, and I held onto it tighter than I would grasp a pen for one of my midterms. This new friendship between hand and handrail was evidenced by the moistened dust I collected between my fingers. The presence of dust told me that no one before me bothered to trek down the stairs with the assistance of the rails. By the zeroth step, all that changed — the rails received an overdue cleaning, courtesy of my dust-covered palms. 

At the base of the staircase, with the lighthouse in front of us, my parents and I began discussing the strength and resilience it required of keepers to maintain the structure and carry out their duties in various conditions. Whereas we made our way down on a modern staircase maintained regularly by the National Park Service at a tourist destination, keepers who called this place home completed their daily routines without any modern conveniences and without the option of leaving. Keepers lived in geographic isolation in an age when the modern infrastructure of transportation and communication lay in the distant future. Moreover, their lighthouse assignments would compel them to brave all types of weather. More importantly, however, was the magnitude of their responsibility: the difference between fulfilling their duties and not doing so meant life and death for sailors on board countless ships. Especially for a place like Point Reyes, the lighthouse and its keepers have changed more lives than one might imagine. 

“God help the hapless mariner who drifts upon it.” Referenced from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1887 and displayed on a sign alongside the lighthouse trail, the quote is a testament to the dangerous waters off Point Reyes. Ships have sunk beneath its waves. Lives have been lost beneath the tide. Built in 1870, the lighthouse has stood at its current location for more than a century to guide sailors along this perilous stretch of the California coast. Its small tower belies the size of its presence as a steadfast sentinel clad in an armor of red and white, where its sword was its light — a light that has pierced through thousands of nights, offering direction and hope to the thousands who have chanced upon its gaze. Without a doubt, its watchful keepers in its long history have steered and saved the lives of sailors — individuals whom they will never meet but people who they are willing to care for by way of their work. Despite the many storms it has weathered and the damage it has taken from a trifecta of fog, wing and rust, the lighthouse remains there today, a testament to the resilience of keepers. Their service despite their demanding lives left me offering my respect and admiration. 

313 steps, once again, lay before me. At the 312th step, I stopped. My eyes traced the staircase again, this time doing so heading skyward. Minutes earlier, I viewed them with fear. Minutes later, at their base, I viewed them with confidence. Jose Rizal famously stated, “he who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination.” My rational mind would have never propelled me to walk down the staircase. If anything, it would have advised me to turn back on my trek to the lighthouse. However, if I listened to that voice of reason, I would not have had the opportunity to understand the lives and legacy of lighthouse keepers in a way that was humbling and inspiring. In climbing down that staircase, I challenged myself to fight my long-abiding distaste with heights in a staircase scaling that would see me become enlightened and strengthened. The lighthouse gave sailors direction by steering them from danger. In a similar way, the lighthouse gave me direction by encouraging me to pursue paths that inspire fear and awe and in doing so, discover experiences bought by risk and reaped with reward. Looking upward, and looking back at where I came from, I could see my destination. With a new reserve of resolve, I started my ascent.