DRIFTING DOWN ALONG the Southern California coast, we arrive at San Clemente on the same March morning that, according to the radio, the swallows are "officially" returning to Capistrano (as if they've been waiting, just offshore, for the mayor's proclamation).

It's the end of a winter that never came to California, and the state parks seem to be filling up earlier every weekend. This park at San Clemente is a pretty one, set high on a cliff with a sweeping view up the coast. Our campsite is in the second row back from the cliff, and from here we can listen to the California Symphony in full orchestration: the drumbeat of the surf, the steady thrum of traffic on Interstate 5, the big bass crescendos of Marine artillery battering the hills of Camp Pendleton.

Many of the tenters here are young couples -- surfer families. Their campsites are strung up with clotheslines and privacy tarps: They seem to be living here. One surfer greets a buddy in the road: "Hey, Buckwheat! Where you been? You sure missed some great surf, dude!" A few minutes later I look over, and they are out on the bluff flying kites. Now these are grown men! Should we envy them? Laugh at them? Fear them? Join them? All I know is that they make me feel terribly sedate.

For 24 years now, off and on, I have been reenacting this pageant of exploration and self-definition, returning to a California that is no more real than any too-well-tended memory. It is the stock Midwesterner's romance that I cultivate, for a California that is forever warm and young and giving -- a romance so mawkish and unimaginative that I understand it to be no less than the epic dream of California's creation.

Yet, while millions of other Americans have played out this romance to its logical conclusion by moving to these shores, my vision has remained curiously stillborn. Almost every year I come back to the California where, one long-ago summer, I came of age to the world. I almost need to return. But then after a few weeks or months I force myself to go back "home," wherever that might be -- as if to stay here, like these surfer people, would break the spell.

I wonder: How many are there like me? Or: How many are there who, having followed the California Dream to its source, simply spend their days now dreaming upon some other better place?

Picture him: 18 years old, a virginal fuzz on his chin, a certain dowdiness to his clothing, an unconsciousness -- a boy so innocent of the cosmos that he has never even slept overnight at a friend's house. He is finishing his freshman year at college, has just discovered Steinbeck and Kerouac and is still waiting patiently to be discovered by girls. It is 1960 and Eisenhower is in his last year in the White House and the boy lives with his parents in the neighborhood of modest brick bungalows in northwest Detroit where he grew up.

Then one day, in early June, he spots a notice on the campus bulleting board. It is an index card which is hand-lettered and says:

RIDERS WEST

Driveway car leaving for

Salt Lake June 14th. Share gas,

driving. Call Dave: 635-8192.

Riders West? The boy gawks at the stranger's invitation and feels a strange rush of self-recognition.

That evening at the dinner table he announces boldly to his parents that he would like to be a Rider West -- to spend the entire summer, as a matter of fact, in that place called California.

His father protests, "But you don't know anybody out there!"

"I can meet people," the boy reasons.

"That's crazy. Somebody'll knock you over the head and -- ."

"No they won't, Dad!"

"But what are you going to do?"

"Work," he says. "I guess."

"At what?" the father asks, exasperated.

"I don't know," the boy responds, and truly he doesn't know.

"How about this?" Dad suggests. "Why don't you take the Pontiac and go up to northern Michigan for a week to two? Go ahead, son. We can get along with just the Buick for a while."

Such a generous offer. But his son doesn't want the family car to look after. He needs to get away from family responsibility. He doesn't want to go to the northwoods of Michigan again. Only California -- California!, the word alone! -- is far enough removed from here.

A week later the lad is packing for his journey. He finds a pillowcase in the attic and begins stuffing it with shirts and socks. His father comes upon this scene and wails, "You're going to look like a bum! Please, son! Take my good leather gladstone!"

But the kid doesn't want the gladstone. (Surely, Kerouac didn't lug a suitcase around.) He doesn't want anything from his parents, except their blessings. He just wants to go. And he does.

Those first few days on the road, he can't sleep for the excitement. He's never been west of Chicago before, and so everything that appears in the windshield is revelation. The first night they stop in a small town in Iowa to catch a few hours sleep in their seats, but the youngest rider roams the empty streets instead, marveling to himself: "Iowa! Is this what Iowa looks like? Look at me -- in Iowa, all alone!" The next night he finds himself in Wyoming, wandering into the sagebrush ("sagebrush!"), and the night after that he is lying in the back of some rancher's pickup, cruising through Utah, gaping up at the stars.

The boy is so unaware of the dangers of the world, so pathetically trusting, that he hasn't an inkling of fear. Once he reaches California he hitchhikes up and down the coast, sleeping in bus stations and parks or walking the sidewalks till dawn. Sometimes he hasn't a penny in his pockets, but people take him in and feed him. He comes to understand that these benefactors are often homosexuals who want his body in return. But the boy simply, politely declines.

Afraid? No, the kid doesn't care. He is too crazed by his own sudden self-satisfaction. He has made the miraculous discovery -- is making it anew every day -- that life, after all, is easy! It's not the way his father thinks. No, you can do whatever you want to do!

After a few weeks the kid finds a home of sorts, on the beach at San Clemente. He builds a tarpaper shanty under a railroad trestle just above the high-tide line, and there he lives, like a troll. He is ecstatic to have no one watching over his fate. There's no one to make him brush his teeth, and so he doesn't; no one to fret if he wears the same shirt for two weeks, and so he does. The choices that he makes are ludicrous, but at least they're his choices.

In time he makes friends with the man who runs the small fisherman's cafe at the end of the San Clemente pier. This man, Frankie, sees that the kid wants to feel useful and so he lets him wash the cafe's occasional dirty dishes. The boy leaps at the opportunity -- shows up for work when the cook arrives at 5 in the morning and is still there helping to sweep the floors at midnight. He fixes his own meals there, learning to work the short-order grill, and Frankie gives him a dollar a day, to make it official.

Frankie is a wiry little man, excitable, Italian, easily distracted. He is almost as old as the boy's father and yet not like a father at all. He likes having the kid around because it gives him an excuse to play hooky from the cafe. The two of them pitch pennies, chat with the fishermen, smoke cigarettes, listen to the Dodgers games, drink Olympia beer, hang over the edge of the pier watching the surfers. Frankie's wife, May, who does most of the work, complains: "No wonder you like that kid! He's just like you!"

The boy, inevitably, falls in love with Frankie and May's 16-year-old daughter. It is a hopeless love, for what girl would possibly be interested in an apprentice hobo who hasn't washed since June 13? So the boy merely pines for her under his bridge, and then one day he gets bravely, sorrowfully drunk in her honor and makes such a scene at the cafe that the police come and arrest him. He spends a night in jail, exclaiming to himself: "Look at me -- in jail! Hey, this isn't so bad!"

It is a summer made up entirely of primal experiences and thus it seems to be eternal. The weather is so consistently benign from one day to the next that the boy loses all sense of calendar or change. Eventually, however, the newspapers say that it's August. Then it's the end of August and the Dodgers are in the thick of the pennant race -- and the boy knows that his parents expect him to come home.

One afternoon he confesses to Frankie: "I don't think I want to go back."

"Then don't," says Frankie with a shrug.

"Just -- don't?" How could it be that simple?

"Call your pop and tell him you're staying out here a little longer."

The boy tries to imagine doing this. "Maybe," he ventures, "I could just take a year off school -- and then go back." He wonders how this would sound over the long-distance line.

But it's preposterous to even think of it. All summer the boy has written letters to Detroit describing his "restaurant job" and his "apartment on the beach." How can he now call them up and declare that he is giving up a free college education in order to be a dishwasher for a dollar a day in a greasy spoon at the end of a sportfishing pier somewhere the other side of L.A.? He can't bear to picture the dismay that would sweep over his poor father's face.

"No," he tells Frankie, "I better go back."

"If that's what you want," the friend replies.

"It's not exactly what I want," the kid insists.

Frankie claps him on the shoulder. "Sure it is!"

''But I'll be back!" the boy pledges, fighting back tears. "Next summer -- or after college. I'll be back!"

Well, you know how that goes. Reality intervenes: career, marriage,

children, Rya rugs, seat belts, two- week vacations with the in-laws. Our 20s are often a time to be practical, not young. I move still farther east, to the Nation's Capital, and become, by way of atonement, a Closet Californian. I watch the Bing Crosby Open on the tube every January just for a peek at the landscape; become a secret fan of Koufax and Kareem; stare vacantly at the ads for Jantzen, Coppertone and Rice-a-Roni; flinch involuntarily whenever I hear mention of romantic place names, like San Luis Obispo or Twenty-Nine Palms, that aren't even part of the dream. At the age of 27 I read "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and grieve to myself, "Boy -- you missed the bus." Incredibly, a full 10 years pass before I find my way back to California.

This time I have a wife with me and we have only six days to cover the whole state. Still, I'm eager to show Carol that special beach in particular -- the place where once I'd been more contented (if only I could tell her this) than she herself has ever known me. So I drive her down to San Clemente and we take off our shoes and roll up our slacks, and I march her down the surfline to the sacred railroad bridge. We sit there for a while, under it. Then we walk out the pier to the cafe and have the ceremonial Oly. But nothing is even remotely the same, and I feel a little silly dragging her from one shrine to the next.

Frankie LaBianco has since sold the cafe and now runs a barber shop in San Clemente. Se we find him there, and he remembers me. But he keeps looking at me with a fishy eye, as if I've changed in ways that my bushy beard can't hide. I tell Frankie about our two children, about our smart townhouse in Reston, about my fine position at The Washington Post. But he isn't impressed (at least not as impressed as my father would have been, if he'd lived). Finally, Frankie gets it out. He turns to my wife and remarks, shaking his head in wonderment: "You know, we always thought this kid was going to turn out to be a bum!" He actually seems a bit disappointed.

That night, our last in California, Carol and I take a motel room in San Clemente. But I hate it now -- this going tourist class, seeing someone else's California. Frankie's words have reminded me of too much. Eventually, around 11 o'clock, as "Marcus Welby, M.D." is giving way to the news, I can't take it anymore. I leap up and, dramatically ripping the sheet off the extra bed, announce to the woman who shares this room with me, "I'm sleeping under the bridge tonight!" I expect she'll try to stop me, but instead she's amused. She advises, "Take the room key, just in case," and I laugh in her face.

With unerring instincts I make my way down to the beach, to the bridge and stretch out the sheet. Then I sit there for a while, waiting to be overcome by some magnificent truth. But nothing like that happens. In fact, it's kind of boring. There's nothing to do here, apparently, but go to sleep and get it over with.

A couple of hours later I wake up, cold and stiff. I hadn't remembered the breeze being so biting, the sand so unyielding. I roll over and try to return to the dream, but it won't come. So I stroll the beach and then, at about 2:30 or 3, trudge back to the motel.

Carol has, thoughtfully, left the door unlocked.

The subject is 32 years old. Three summers have passed since his return engagement fizzled in San Clemente. In the meantime he has torn his life up by the roots -- left his wife, his children, his job. He is living with a new woman in Connecticut when he declares at the onset of another gray Eastern winter that he is, indeed, "moving to California!" It is understood that the woman might follow in a few months, but the subject himself can't wait. No, he has waited long enough! So he strikes out in a hippie van, gravely aware of this dashing new image he leaves behind.

The 3,000-mile drive to the coast is pure ecstasy, his shapeless hopes leaping out beyond the headlights like startled jackrabbits. But then, once he meets up face-to-face with the Pacific, the subject unravels. Standing on Fisherman's Wharf gazing out to sea, he is overwhelmed by an excrutiating sense of loneliness like he's never felt before. He wanders around San Francisco, but the loneliness seems to be etched into every face he encounters.

He regrets that he ever left the woman in Connecticut, and he tries to phone her, but the babysitter says she's "out." The patient, in a mounting panic, jumps back into his van. He needs to drive on, to feel the promise of what lies still ahead. But there is no westbound highway left, and so he drives aimlessly up to Mendocino, pressing against the coast line like a tiger to the bars of his cage.

By the very next morning he is driving back to Connecticut, perplexed, his residency in the promised land having lasted approximately 18 hours. He vaguely understands this part of the joke: Every time he sets out for California he leaves behind some unfinished business which, regardless of his grandest intentions, will summarily yank him back like a dime-store yo-yo.

San Clemente today is a city of nearly 30,000 people -- 10 times as many as lived here in the summer of 1960. But it's still, to my satisfaction, a small town. There are no parking meters on downtown Avenida Del Mar, no rush-hour tie-ups, no alternative newspapers, no night life to speak of. Situated halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, it has escaped the glamorous intensity of both. I stroll past the city jail and its only two prisoners are out in the sunshine washing down the cop cars, just as I'd done a quarter-century ago. An easy town in which to kill some time.

The municipal pier was torn in half by the storms of '83 and has now been rebuilt. It's a couple of hundred feet shorter, and the cafe at the end is gone. About a half a mile north of the pier, toward Capistrano, the low wooden railroad trestle is still there, and when I'm in San Clemente I stop by at least once just to make sure.

Frankie LaBianco sold his barber shop soon after I saw him in 1970. He and May got divorced and he moved to the Tahoe area. Their daughter, I heard, had two marriages that failed. Frankie died two years ago of a heart attack.

But none of this means much any longer. I stand on the beach looking around, trying to remember how it was -- some building that's familiar, or the shape of the cliffs, or that sense of rascality -- yet I can't get any more juice out of those old batteries, and it's just as well.

California, though, still floods the imagination with billowing expectations. It must be the tension between dream and reality -- between the irresistible surge of humanity meeting the immovable ocean -- that gives this place its special, open-all-nite-charge.

The true Californian, of course, plunges right into that sea. The surfers are out there at daybreak, bobbing among the swells in their wetsuits like so many slap-happy seals, and they stay out till dark, always hoping (or so I've been advised) for a wave more perfect than the last.

The pseudo-Californian is content to linger at the ocean's edge, wondering, as a father might: "Don't they get cold? Don't they get tired? Aren't they afraid of rip tides?, afraid of swallowing a mouthful of water?, afraid they'll get conked in the head by their boards?" At the age of 43, he proudly wears the surfer-fashion shirts that his stepchildren give him for his birthday. This, he has heard, is the way it's done in California: by force of the image.

His second wife (the one who drew him back to Connecticut) enjoys visiting the coast, too, which is more than mere coincidence. But he is only grateful that he has finally come to some kind of terms with California. He realizes that to love her is not to be stuck with her forever, because in an age of instant mobility people can come as often as they want, and stay as long as they wish, and still not give up either their notion of home or that final option of "moving" here. They can claim to have two homes -- one in the mountains of Colorado, say, and one in California -- even if the latter is little more than a state-run, $8-a-night hobo camp.

The goal is to preserve the freshness of vision of the newborn babe. But this isn't easy. I remember, when I first moved to Washington, seeing people walk past the White House without even turning their heads in that direction, and I recall thinking: "How can they be so oblivious? How can they not at least sneak a glimpse? How do they know the president himself isn't standing in the window?" And yet it didn't take long, after driving past the White House every day on the way to work, for me to stop looking, too.

Given the choice, I'd rather not let that happen with the more fabulous spectacle known as California. When I catch myself forgetting to watch the sunset for two evenings running, or when I find myself going deaf to the din of the surf or bitching about a winter's day that's only 62, then I know I'm ready to turn my back on the show for a while.

For some of us, California is just too good to eat all in one sitting. The anticipation itself is precisely half the enchilada. That's why we have to keep leaving this place -- to give ourselves the excuse, yet one more time, to return.