They were legendary Wednesday nights, stupidly destructive in their hedonism – to both a fragile environment and fledgling grade point averages – but still revered by those who attended, in the special way that new freedom is. You couldn’t party in the dorms, so the party moved to what is known around UCSD as “The Cliffs”: a gorgeous patch of unspoiled, sandy bluff high above Black’s Beach. Soon the setting became as anticipated as the occasion. At night the whole extension of La Jolla and Mount Soledad to the south stretched out like a dim orange finger magically illuminated against the wide, black curtain of the pacific. Drunk, utterly thrilling and otherwise dark: This is how we first remembered it.


Staring down from the cement-block perch of a residential hall onto the tops of the gleaming mansions below, it seemed unlikely that they would ever part for our sake. A cliff-top public space seemed too obviously enticing to exist, especially in La Jolla Farms, whose serenity was already severely threatened by the barely-clad surfers perpetually passing through to Black’s beach. Discovery of The Cliffs (we freshman were first led there by our house advisors) immediately produced solemn resolutions: here we were living a 10 minute walk from what was, for all we knew, the most beautiful spot in the entire world; we better go there to eat, nap, study, exercise and watch the sun set – at the very least daily – in addition to keeping up the now-burgeoning Wednesday night social hour.


We took out-of-towners there to brag on penetratingly bright summer days, when the bothers of the terrestrial world were sandwiched to irrelevance between tranquil deserts of blue. Under clear skies, staring down at the white doilies of foam spreading out far below from the crumbling edge, the imperfect wisdom of Southern California was rendered in its stunning geography: that perspective forgave the traffic, the pollution, the expense and the insanity. “I’m sure glad you didn’t go to that college in Portland,” our parents told us.


Even without the intoxication of either sunlight or alcohol, The Cliffs facilitated a persistent desire for surreal escape, tolerating an optimism that the aged rationality of our campus home frequently discouraged. Plan-less Saturday nights were spent with sandy dirt under our backs while looking aimlessly up at the night sky, mistakenly identifying far-off airplanes as sparkling planets. Ambitious schemes – magazines, radio stations, novels, conquests – hatched themselves horizontally, rarely withstanding the hurry and distraction of vertical life.


Later, The Cliffs became useful for purposes other than consuming our own vanity. The daily jog was never more exciting than at the moment the trail hung an off-camber right turn to continue straight along the waterline as the whole azure vista came hurling into view. Lungs and legs didn’t care so much about pain when the crashing waves were cheering them on from far below. The sound of the wind and the beach encouraged leaving the iPod – as well as the watch – at home. It sure beat a treadmill.


Yet we destroyed as we enjoyed. Our Wednesday night slosh fests left hideous evidence strewn over the endangered landscape. The frequent trips by dozens of stumbling, flip-flopped students eroded the fragile trails that let us access the beauty. Spotlights from the “Ralph’s house,” a colossal Spanish-style mansion on the other side of the canyon, took notice and probed our debauchery with angry megawatts. As much as we loved the place, we were unwilling then to understand that loving it meant preserving it, not wringing out of it every possible ounce of pleasure. When we came once to find the trails sealed off due to erosion and plant damage, we knew some end would come.


A year to two later, they (I don’t know exactly who) built a fence across the entrance to Scripps Coastal Reserve (The Cliffs’ proper name) that could be locked at night. As a safety measure it certainly was wise, but it signaled the end of an era for UCSD students, who lost a (legal) cliff-top refuge for when on-campus life inevitably becomes too constricting. I like to think that this occurred more to protect the natural environment than to placate angry residents, but I’m pretty sure that the fence isn’t completely effective either way.


On schooldays still, The Cliffs provide a peerless escape from the bustle of the area. They continue to support a giddy gang of revelers on school holidays, loyalists who learned and never forgot the worth of a 10-minute walk and the uniqueness of a priceless space where no one can tell you what to do. As long as the place is preserved – which hopefully will continue as long as it’s owned by the University of California – The Cliffs will contribute a wondrous transcendence to the La Jolla area. Looking back on the time I’ve spent here, however, I pray that future generations of UCSD students enjoy it more charitably than mine did.

Send your own tips about San Diego’s curious public spaces to Ian Port at ian.port@voiceofsandiego.org. Or send a letter to the editor.

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