Santa Cruz

This is my happy place. It's a Monday morning and the beach is barren, save for the surfers who are out at The Hook. When I first came to Santa Cruz, Pleasure Point was the first beach I climbed down to and I sat amazed on a large sea soaked rock at the strength of the waves crashing around me. I was high up enough that they wouldn't touch me; the wind that accompanied was misty and gentle on my skin. I can remember in that moment, deciding that this place and it's surrounding towns and farmlands- this was where I was meant to be.

At the time I was working at a camp in the Santa Cruz mountains for adults and children with developmental disabilities. I had done behavioral therapy with children who had autism in the past but this camp was something different entirely. It was magical. It gave these individuals a place to be themselves. And that's all humanity needs, isn't it? A safe, loving environment for people to be themselves, to express their unique talents and interests in a healthy way, to have support and genuine care. We all need to be celebrated for who we are, what we're striving to be and who we will become. Sitting on the beach today, reminiscing of my time living in this community, it astounds me how time has flown by. 

    Five years ago I moved to this beautiful place. I was seeking my own journey; away from my hometown and everything I knew. It's been nearly two years since I've lived around these happy places. I miss the beach more than anything. The damp breeze and the fog. I never would have expected I would be living in Las Vegas again but I am completely content. So far life has been wild, exciting, often painfully scary but all of these seasons have led me to this moment. I am immensely grateful for my time in this town. There is no place like it.

    This year I am 27. I am getting ready to marry a man who means the world to me. I had known and loved him long before I found this happy place, but I hadn't loved myself. So much has happened since moving away that first time. I lived the life I'd always imagined- near the beach, calmed by the water and spending late nights with my roommates cooking in our big-windowed kitchen. We sometimes cooked fresh vegetables and herbs that we grew in our own backyard.

With happiness comes dark times too though; living this life I'd imagined came with challenges I didn't anticipate. Being in this special place navigating hard things forced me to be vulnerable and embrace the learning that comes from adversity. I began ignoring that voice in my head that said, "you can't" to anything I knew in my heart I was capable of. I fell in love. I fell in love not with a person but with living spontaneously and trusting that life unfolds as it should when I just trust. My relationship with God was strengthened immeasurably in this place and I learned to accept myself and all of my flaws. I found that when I focus on the present moments, the journey- that the destination seems to reveal itself naturally. 

    In six weeks I will marry the man I first loved. He is sweet and kind and he understands my empathetic nature. He admires my need for constant growth and adventure. He keeps my feet on the ground and supports me in my wild dreams and endeavors. He loves Jesus and he agrees that our love story is the stuff of movies. He makes me laugh like no one ever will and has a heart of gold. It's unreal how our journeys led us back to each other. 

Five years ago life was so different and it was where I needed to be. I saw glimpses of potential in myself but I had emptiness that needed to be filled. In this moment now, sitting here in the sand where I first began truly living, I am again just where I need to be. I am in this happy place again, but have found so many happy places, people and moments since my first time here. I can feel the breath in my lungs breathe in crisp, salty air. I am present, I am thankful, I am in awe.

Ashley Ayala