Editor’s Note: Charmaine Coimbra is not only an official Friend of the Elephant Seals of Cambria, California, but also a friend of last year’s community service road trip. She recently quoted me in her volunteerism column for the local newspaper, The Cambrian; the column also includes 10 reasons to volunteer. You can read her column here — and below you can read more about her reasons in an adapted excerpt from my manuscript about the road trip.
A year and a month ago, I’m driving up California Highway 1, following my friends Ted and Chella up the gorgeous two-lane alongside the sea from San Luis-Obispo to Monterey. We’ve agree on three places to both pull over, but we’re such creatures of habit, I could’ve predicted the first just based on past history — the Elephant Seal Beach near Cambria.
By the time we get there, in one of those crazy California coastal shifts, the weather has changed from sunny with a gentle breeze to a light fog being blasted over us by stiff winds. A local woman who knows the ways of this weather, the volunteer ranger is well-prepared; Charmaine Coimbra is bundled up in a purple hooded jacket, beneath which is tucked a round-hat that comes down to her side sunglasses, leaving only her pink cheeks, chin and lips exposed. I see so little of her, I don’t know if I’d recognize her indoors.
Even her voice is altered; she’s practically yelling above the wind to answer the questions of the hundreds of tourists who have pulled over to gawk at the scores of elephant seals, who have traveled a long way themselves. They migrate clear from Alaska every year to mate and mote. The first, with all its raucous competitiveness, is over – but the second is still in progress. As the massive seals loll side by side in the sand, even in the grey light, it’s easy to see the golden brown outer coat peeling away to expose grey slick flesh beneath. Most rest, but a few flap about a bit, and two young bulls rise up and play-fight, emitting a few deep howls in the process, practice for mating seasons to come.
While many of the seals are so inert as to appear dead, Charmaine proves quite lively. She gives me a new appreciation for what they seals have gone through to get all the way down here every year. During their long landless swim, they lose bone density; the prolonged time on this beach rebuilds their skeletal support. Paradoxically, this healthy instinct comes at the expense of exercise – so they also fast. They thus adjust diet for their exercise level – which is one way that even the two-ton elephant seal has healthier habits than this human.
Charmaine tells me that she didn’t wait until retirement to start volunteering – her career in community service began at age 3, when she accompanied her father in tap-dancing to “Me and My Shadow” at a Grange fundraiser. She’s been involved in various forms of volunteer work in the decades since, and upon retirement, it didn’t take long for her to focus on her beloved elephant seals. “I’m a California girl,” she tells me, “and I love the sea.”
When I line her up for a picture, and she jokes about not exactly looking her best, a woman behind her interjects, gesturing toward the seals. “Hey, don’t worry – we all look beautiful compared to these guys!”
Charmaine doesn’t exactly rush to defend her seals’ attractiveness. When I ask if she has a favorite, she laughs.
“To tell you the truth, they all look alike to me!”
Charmaine is more helpful than she knows. When this tandem drive up the central coast is over, Ted and Chella will head back south, and I’ll be on my own again, with very few friends waiting to see me on the way home. But Charmaine reminds me of all the trip’s earlier blessings, all the conversations with strangers who come something like friends, sharing one of the best sides of their selves – their desire to serve something larger than themselves. And while those encounters are fleeting, sometimes something sticks. Within 24 hours, Charmaine will friend me on Facebook, setting the stage for her to treat me, along with her other Facebook friends, to a steady stream of wondrous scenes from California Highway 1.