Running in Place: Isla Vista

Finding Old Memories, Forgotten Beauties, Bikes, and Beer Bongs

Credit: Emily Henderson

This past month I took a break from running the streets of Santa Barbara and headed out to my old neighborhood, the unincorporated community of Isla Vista. I moved there in 1998, my second year of college, and lived in rented apartments. When I recently joined a Facebook Group called, “I Partied in IV ’98-02,” I started to become nostalgic for that time in my life between youth and adulthood. 

I first arrived in I.V. only a few months after my mother passed away from breast cancer, and since my father had died when I was 4 years old, I was feeling all alone in the world. The moment I unlocked my apartment door and stepped into that apartment, it hit me that my life was very adult. Too adult. I felt as though some grown-up should be with me, helping to unload my car and set up my bed. I was an SBCC student, but my roommates were all going to UCSB, which didn’t start until the following month, so I spent the next four weeks in the apartment alone.

This is when I discovered running. There used to be a huge field where the San Clemente Village now stands. I’d run around its circumference, blasting Alanis Morissette, trying to hold my Discman flat to keep it from skipping. At 18 I didn’t have the emotional tools to even recognize, let alone process, the trauma of losing my mother. Running helped me to pass the time and clear my head.


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On the outside, Isla Vista today looks different from when I was here in the late 1990s. Some of the buildings have been remodeled. The Blue Dolphin Café is gone. Homeless men and women have set up a tent city in the middle of People’s Park. Del Playa looks shorter to me now, but more beautiful. I guess when you’re young, everything feels bigger and more difficult to appreciate.

During my years in I.V., I was in survival mode, but I didn’t know it. I’d shuffle along to the next class or the next party, but I never stopped to ask myself what I needed or what the town had to offer.

Despite all the changes between then and now, the streets still feel familiar. I ran past a group of students sitting in the sunshine, laughing and eating burritos out of Styrofoam boxes, Lauryn Hill blasting in the background. The patio at Sam’s to Go is still packed, beer pong tables sit in almost every front yard, and surfers ride around on cruisers with boards tucked under their arms. If it weren’t for the haircuts and masks, I might think it was still 1998. 

Credit: Emily Henderson

When I ran down to Sands Beach and saw the exposed rocks and tide pools, I flashed on a field trip I took long ago with my Marine Biology class. The professor walked along the rocks, talking a mile a minute, when suddenly she reached down into the water and pulled up an octopus. My mouth hung open as I wondered how on earth she knew it was there. Now, when I take my kids to explore the same tidepools, I tell them what I learned about limpets, clams, and muscles. I’ve shown them how a sea anemone closes up at the slightest touch, but I have yet to find an octopus.

Last month marked the 20-year anniversary of the vehicular homicides from 2001. I ran past the memorial in Little Acorn Park dedicated to the victims. I didn’t know any of them personally, but I was in I.V. that night and felt the emotional shift on campus that lasted for months afterward. As I read each of their five names, I said a prayer for the lives lost and for their families and friends. It was nice to see a few roses and candles there, keeping them company.

My run through I.V., spread across four days, ended up close to 19 miles. With every step, I was reminded how much Isla Vista is a place of contrast. Beautiful, it is filled with the wonder and curiosity of young people whose whole lives lay ahead. I felt a little bit of youth breathing into my 41-year-old soul, but I also know darkness lives here too. 

Credit: Emily Henderson

In this roughly one square mile of densely packed houses and apartments, Isla Vista is one of the most expensive places to rent in the nation, with constant battles between landlords and tenants. Students have always faced substance abuse and sexual assault, but with the fallouts from the pandemic, they are now experiencing more uncertainty than ever.

Despite all this, as I jogged back to my car, thinking I should come here more, I realized I was coming away with the feeling that Isla Vista still remains, and truly is, a place of Endless Summer.

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