Heart Talk


Early Morning Riser

By James Utt
By James Utt

“Early Morning Riser” was a song recorded in 1972 by the group Pure Prairie League. Sweet and soulful, with Craig Fuller singing lead, “Riser” is as fine a country rock tune as you will hear.

Recently, on weekends, I have become an early morning riser. This is partly due to my obnoxious cat that makes death rattle meows as soon as the sky begins to shed the slightest shade of darkness. However, my main reason for rolling out of bed so early is my recent interest in photography.

I want to catch Laguna Beach before it becomes midtown Manhattan.

In July and August, I am downtown by 5:30, camera in hand. To quote another classic rock song, this one by The Rolling Stones, “It was so very quiet and peaceful, there was nobody, not a soul around.” Well, that is not entirely accurate, but pretty close. I can stand in the crosswalk in front of the Hotel Laguna and not see a single car on Coast Highway. It is a “peaceful easy feeling,” but I know in two hours this stretch of pavement will resemble the Indianapolis 500.

I come upon another empty street. This time standing in front of the fire station, looking down Forest. There are no cars, moving or parked. Only the no armed bandits, I mean the city’s parking meters, waiting like Venus Fly Traps to ensnare unsuspecting tourists.

There are other early morning risers. Across from Tommy Bahamas there is a frail homeless man with a pathetically weathered broom and a long handled dustpan. Oblivious to my presence, this unofficial sanitary engineer sweeps the space where the street meets the curb. I believe he is doing this as a service to the city that allows him some degree of residence.

Walking north on Coast Highway, I come to the gas station on Broadway, the one with the mini mart. No one is at the pumps yet. My mind flashes back to this place a few years ago. Filling up my shiny new German car, I was approached by a man who asked for a dollar to help get him to the shelter in the canyon. As I fumbled for my wallet, he said, “So Mr. Utt, do you live in Laguna now?” He was a former student.

Half past six is probably too early for the spinning sidewalk surfer of Brooks Street, but I drive over anyway. Perhaps he is doing a sunrise service this Saturday. He is not, but across the street, slowly walking north, is another homeless person. Wrapped so tightly in tattered clothes it is difficult to tell the sex of this early morning riser. Using my zoom lens, I see I am looking at a woman. She is passing a window that says, Weddings, Parties, Events. Jarring juxtaposition, as she is very unlikely to attend any such gatherings.

There are people up and about other than the homeless this day. There are the joggers, dog walkers, and the guy with the metal detector, searching for whatever treasures the sand might yield.

There are also divers getting scuba gear ready. Most seem to have six-pack abs and bulging biceps.

I have to suppress a strong desire to hate them. The envy of the old for the young is a powerful force.

In the end, the natural beauty of Laguna Beach in the early morning hours is what takes my breath away. People are precious, but the photos I take without them move me in a deeper way. Crescent Bay at sunrise, the lonely emptiness of the Laguna Cinema with its missing letters, the waves striking the rocks at Cress Street at low tide, a bird standing watch on the post of a volleyball court. Especially beautiful are agave americana plants, often called century plants, growing tall and bold against the early morning sun. These are the things that draw me from my bed so early with my used Canon and rolls of black and white film.

Our town is among the best places to live in the world. But, all too often, we are inundated with people. Think about setting your alarm for just before sunrise some Saturday or Sunday, stumble out of bed, no shower necessary, and see Laguna before rush hour. It is worth the missed sleep.


Don’t tell the police, but James Utt jay-walks across Coast Highway early in the morning.



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  1. Nice article ! As a fanatic PPL guy here’s a little trivia for you on Early Morning Riser : It was the wake up call for the Space Shuttle Discovery, launched on Feb. 3, 1994 !

    The guys still play it in concert today and it sounds as good as ever . Truly a great band in all formations, they took country rock into the national music mainstream along with the Eagles.

    All the best,

  2. Jim, I loved this article. You always manage to insert bits of humor in your writing, but this piece does a wonderful job of capturing the pristine beauty that dawn can bring.


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