Picture this—a young couple on Pacific Beach, dancing. Him twirling her into an unstudied, unsteady dip and singing in extemporaneous celebration: “We live in San Diego! We Live in San Diego!” It sounds like a lazy ad pitch to the chamber of commerce, except that I saw it happen. And I only noticed because I grew up in Arizona, where thousands of middle-class kids make secret pacts with their best friends and girlfriends to one day dance those very same steps, in that very same sand. The locals call us “Zonies” and they probably hate us. We don’t care.What really clenches San Diego’s place in my heart forever is that sea air.It’s not just that when it’s 108 degrees in the landlocked, sun-baked desert cities of Arizona that it’s often a pleasant 75 degrees with a cleansing sea breeze in San Diego. It’s not just that a mere six-to-eight hour drive (or a puddle-jump flight of three hours or less) from Arizona will take you to your rented bungalow on the beach, where the local bikini girls, surfers, and beach bums cruise by your front stoop all day and night along the Pacific Beach boardwalk. It’s not just the seafood at Anthony’s Fish Grotto on the sunset canvas that is San Diego Bay, or the koala bears at the San Diego Zoo, or that famous Killer Whale with all his splashing tricks, or the verdant, sculptured corners of Balboa Park. It’s not just the cool, gas lamp-lit downtown with all its hip restaurants. It’s not just the Padres and the Chargers—which often filled the fan-shaped holes in the hearts of Arizona boys before our own Cardinals and Diamondbacks ever did. It’s not just those night walks to the end of Crystal Pier, with the dark, heaving Pacific Ocean beating greetings and warnings against the creaking pillars below.
All of these attractions combine to make San Diego my favorite city, and I know I’m far from alone in feeling this way among other life-long “Zonies.” But what really clenches San Diego’s place in my heart forever is that sea air. I swear I can smell it coming on once I’ve left Yuma behind. It is wet air, cool, salty and fishy—and packed with personality. The air in Arizona, especially during the summer months, is nearly always dry and quiet, hot and empty. I’m not complaining, mind you. Arizona has considerable charm. But in the summer, when the desert heat shuts down our cities, our minds, and our lives for about four months, there’s nothing better than a mini-break in San Diego. To me San Diego is like an unspeakably beautiful, laid-back woman I’ve never been able to shake for good, and once a year or so we dance together on the beach, singing in celebration.