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. 


With the Point Reyes Lighthouse and its staircase of 313 steps in our rearview mirror, my parents and I continued our exploration of the Point Reyes National Seashore by driving to the eastern projection of the point, Chimney Rock, where elephant seals find shelter amongst its beaches. Resolved to find some, we followed a trail to an overlook where we might spot them.

The lighthouse and Chimney Rock trails, I will learn, are as different in temperament and disposition as Yale and Harvard. Compared to the boisterous winds at the lighthouse trail, the trails at Chimney Rock were quiet and serene. And in contrast to the jagged and angled cliffs where the lighthouse rested, Chimney Rock offered a view of the soft, sinusoidal summits of the sandstone cliffs overlooking Drakes Bay. The water below the lighthouse churned and crashed. The water of the bay was still. It caught the rays of the afternoon sun and sparkled brilliantly as if someone scattered diamonds across its surface. It was gentle to the beaches it caressed, and on those beaches lounged the elephant seals we were looking for.

Adults and pups. Large and small. Brown and gray. Elephant seals dotted the beach. Most were asleep, save for the few who barked on occasion. To see more, my parents and I walked to an old Coast Guard lifeboat station on the other end of the trail. Sheltered by the hills that towered over the beach it was built on, the lifeboat station — like the lighthouse — was painted in a radiant white that suggested youth and vivacity in the face of its age. The station’s launch, which jetted out into the bay, was a strong yet weary brown.

Approaching the station, we were greeted by a pair of affable volunteer rangers. One directed us onto a platform to see elephant seal pups on the beach. Some seals slumbered. Some sunbathed. One barked. Out of these, however, was one that lay directly below the platform. It basked in the attention it received from the observers. As the volunteer ranger explained the biology and life cycle of elephant seals, the pup continued to watch us and stared at us with wondrous eyes. It would blink, forming a countenance belonging to cluelessness, and twist its head as if it just asked a rhetorical question. The pup, blanketed by our affection and fascination, posed as if it were on the cover of TIME. And for all its friendliness, we bade the pup farewell as the day settled further into the afternoon.

On the road back inland, we stopped for a moment at the iconic cypress tree tunnel. Located a few minutes north of the point, it has grown in popularity over the last few years. From appearing on wedding photos to postcards, it has enchanted many earning keep as a photographer’s paradise. Dodging the families, videographers and freelancers trying to capture its beauty, we headed for our last destination at Point Reyes: the Inverness shipwreck.

The remains of an old, deserted fishing boat left beached and abandoned atop a sandbar, the Inverness shipwreck has brought fame to the small bayside community it calls home. The shipwreck has accrued attention, and with that attention have come many visitors: social media users, travel bloggers, curious journalists and a writer for the Oldest College Daily. To get to the shipwreck, I took a short walk from the parking lot of the Inverness Store to the edge of the bay. I made my way to the shipwreck and, with the bay conveniently at low tide, it was visibly perched on the sand. Its white paint, cracked by the sun, shone through rotting wood. What other colors the shipwreck had left proved its age. Its streaks of yellow were a contribution of growing moss while brown rust followed traces of metal nails and hinges. On the bridge of the shipwreck was a graffitied image of a green skull and bones, an uncanny yet fitting, reminder of the shipwreck’s impending fate.

Just a few months earlier, the Inverness shipwreck had an intact hull, offering a physical presentation of what it must have looked like in the life it once lived. As a result of the storms that battered the California coast last December, what little structure the shipwreck retained was reduced to a crumbling mess. Its lifespan was already short, and whatever time it had left was shortened further by nature and fate. Standing a few yards from the shipwreck, I spent some time tracing every discernible angle and shadow of its ruins, trying to preserve what I could of this disappearing piece of history in my mind.

Seeing the shipwreck reminded me of how easy it is for history — its people, places and stories — to disappear. Sometimes it is sudden, as seen with the damage dealt by winter storms on the Inverness shipwreck. Sometimes, it is gradual and a product of time. Regardless, there exists a great sorrow in watching history disappear progressively, before our very eyes, as it crosses over from the world of the remembered to the realm of the forgotten.

Before walking to the elephant seal overlook at Chimney Rock, I came across an old sign near a trailhead. It was peeling, its paint warping in the heat under the scrutiny of the sun. The wind helped too, as evidenced by the holes that dotted the sign’s surface. It was difficult to read the sign, but after some squinting, it read the following: “Lives of Sacrifice and Service are Honored Here.” The sign offered a brief history of the Coast Guard lifeboat station I would go on to visit and the story of the courageous crews who risked their lives to save others. And despite the strong narrative the sign presented, the sign itself was weakened by time. Photos were fading away. Words were missing from the sign. The faces and feats of the coast guardsmen and the memory of the lives saved and lives lost off the Point Reyes coast became as fleeting as the tide. History was disintegrating and disappearing. 

History is mortal. Its survival is dependent on public recognition, recollection and remembrance. Time’s wear on history is worsened by our unwillingness to remember and our tendency to forget. To forget history is to subject that history to a fate as serious in magnitude as death, but far scarier — for the dead are remembered, but the forgotten are not. The past must not suffer this fate. We cannot sit idly by and watch history begin its journey across the Styx. We must paddle upstream and make an effort to bring it back to the land of living memory.

Travel allows us to deeply understand people, customs and ways of life and to immerse ourselves in the rich heritage of a certain place. Travel, then, offers us an opportunity to resurrect the past and to remember history. There are no defibrillators needed, nor is a knowledge of resuscitation necessary. An open mind — one that is willing to feel everything between appreciation and apprehension and between reflection and inspiration — is all it takes to bring history back to life. In the end, we must be willing to remember and, in doing so, preserve stories quiet to the busy ear that whisper softly and gently in the wind, observed as closely as a seal with a cocked head might.