By Michael Kew
What’s beyond that gate? Off to the right fork?
“Oh, she’s just a grower,” Paul said. “She wants to be left alone.”
He walked me to a few trailers, a small cabin, and a mobile home. All were for rent, month-to-month, and available now. Each had its own unique view and quirky '70s vibe. Only one piqued me.
“How much for this trailer?”
It was $285 per month, plus a $75 cleaning deposit and monthly expenses for gasoline for the small generator, and propane for the refrigerator, stove, and water heater. The water was drawn from a spring reputedly tainted with agricultural runoff. Officials warned to not drink it.
“We all drink it,” Paul said. “We put it through a filter, and nobody’s ever gotten sick.”
Right then, through the trees, 1,700 feet above a whitewater triangle, I peered into sanctuary.
The rain was ubiquitous, continuous, monotonous, formless. Then the sky cracked late for a soft pink sunset over the sea beyond the rivermouth, where I sat and watched rights peel along the new sandbar, occupied by gulls and seals. A rare wave, also one of the most dangerous. Still, the rivermouth comforted me. Some places are like that.
By night I had made another fire, crackling and spattering while I sat on a log and sucked cheap merlot from the bottle. Only the rash of crickets were heard, the occasional frog, the shoosh of wind through the woods. Warm smoke from fir buffeted my face; the torquing oranges and yellows the only things visible. There was immense value to such peace.
The next morning, I found a locked gate. Perhaps karma for me not paying the camping fee the two nights I stayed in the desolate campground. Perhaps because authorities don’t want people stranded down there in winter.
I saw a ranger and asked him about it. He said not to worry, that surfers go to a spot nearby that was a better than where I was headed.
“It has a lot of reefs and shorebreaks—just terrible things,” he said.
He told me where to go and walk, so I did. Parked at another gate, stuffed my wetsuit/booties into a plastic bag, grabbed a towel and surfboard, and hiked.
The ranger was right.
One-hundred-and-eighteen years ago, on this grassy terrace of cows and trees, a palatial hotel was set for construction. Its decadence was to surpass all of California’s elite lodgings, well-advertised to the world’s well-heeled, set to arrive en masse to enjoy the crème de la crème this side of Marseille.
There was also a town to be built here, an “Exquisite Summer and Winter Resort”—luxurious cottages were advertised, with wide boulevards and leafy promenades, close to the Southern-Pacific railway, yet to be laid. And, of course, there was the blue sea and its allure, sparkly with sun.
From the town’s promotional brochure, circa 1887:
The sea beach is a clean white sand and gravel; and gently sloping into the ocean affords better opportunities for enjoyable sea bathing than can be obtained elsewhere. Along these clean shining sands are strewn wondrously rich salt sea algae and often the cliffs are carved into fantastic caves and coves of great beauty.
But nothing was built, credited to a number of reasons, primarily the developer’s gift for over-dreaming and under-doing. Hence the hotel and town became nothing but a draftsman’s paper city.
Today, one would have to look south for the mentality required to blueprint 54 giant luxury homes, 16 of them blufftop, precisely where I stood one fine winter day.
PIT VIPER POINT
Dusk brought fog from afar, the blues and greens of a late-October day gone within seconds. Hours before, a spontaneous hike to a surf spot warranted shoes and long pants and shirt: rife with poison oak and sharp twigs and ticks and other pests unseen. (I am immune to poison oak.)
The reef was almost working, with occasional glimpses of glassy surfability. The peak would pop and trip, pitching yards from black boulders, completely hidden, surrounded by perhaps a half-dozen more unridden surf spots.
Pre-fog, sunny heat drew sweat as I pondered the afternoon’s options: tide, wind, swell, light. Nature photography is an unending pursuit—at times it is enough to drive you mad.
Later, beneath a black, drizzly sky, I focused on sound. The surf was a white noise, the air damp and still. Again the fire cracks, the wood burns, the smoke rises. Some logs are louder than others, some burn slower, reluctantly.
Writing in a forest aside the sea on a cold mid-week night harks of a different aura, a different era—pure life. Purity undiluted by trappings of today.
Drunkenness stems pensiveness and its threads of epiphany, steadfast without influence, snuffed temporarily by headache and sleep. Dizzily pissing into a bush under the stars accelerates the desperation of a wholesome doze, those precious eight hours I rarely catch.
And then it was dawn.
It was at that moment I realized that somewhere in the modern world, far from here, roared the insanity of morning rush-hour traffic—drivers commuting to jobs they may or may not like. But as I sipped my instant coffee, trying to identify birdsongs above, the world was gone.
Gale warning today; already gusting to 33 knots in the channel. Sole chance for surfing existed at a delightful little pocket beach at the mouth of a creek. There I found a painfully inconsistent right-hand reef riddled with kelp and boils. Swell was a mixture of west and north, about head-high, but hollow and hidden.
Lunched on stale doughnuts just up the coast. Sea and sky coalesced as four shades of blue, the lower two turquoise then darker, the upper baby blue to azure.
I fell into conversation with a scruffy fisherman who called himself a “sea gypsy”—but his boat was wrecked. He and his wife collided with another vessel inside of a fog bank two days prior, and he was attempting to repair it and sail south tomorrow.
He asked me about the surf here, and about my colorful board.
“Found it,” I said. “The airbrush is supposed to scare sharks.”
The sea gypsy rattled off all the things wrong with his sailboat. Then: “I’m gonna get to San Francisco, fix it, then sell the damn thing so I can get a bigger boat. Sailed that thing to Hawai’i once. Just came down from Seattle.”
His fleshy face was sunburnt and stubbly. His head was bald. He wore coke-bottle glasses, a blue beanie, sandals, gray sweatpants and a green flannel shirt. His voice was loud and obnoxious. His wife, who I saw later, had blue hair and tattered clothes. She smiled often.
Turns out he was a tattoo artist, and skin art was his primary source of income.
What did he do? Tattoo fish?
Spilled half of my lunchtime beer onto the van’s carpet floor, soaking some mail and my laptop bag. So the van smelled like a brewery, fouled by wet booties.
Met a bubbly little hippie girl named Alyssa who pulled into the same turnout. She was from New Hampshire, living here for the summer. Soon headed to the Burning Man festival in Nevada, then to Santa Cruz for dance school. Tomorrow’s her 21st birthday. I told her my 25th fell a couple of weeks back.
“Oh, I just love Leos,” she gushed. “We’re such sun people, aren’t we?”
Her skin was a soft, smooth olive brown. Long, thick, blonde hair, large-breasted, with dull hazel eyes in a round, smiling face. Bouncy, loose voice. Tight shorts, tank-top, sandals, shell necklace, bracelets, rings. Just back from yoga down at the famous Esalen Institute, where patrons enjoy hot springs and massage under the stars, high above the Pacific. Alyssa worked there part-time, so she’s granted key-access.
She handed me a card with her name and phone number written on it.
“Give me a call when you come through again; we can go down there.”
Now…backed into another turnout, this one for sleep. Cliff and sea at the rear; sun blocked by an offshore fogbank. The spaces between cars grow longer and quieter, and the sea fills the ears—as it should.
PRAIRIE FERN FALLS
Spring rain douses the car’s roof. Not another sound. Life seems at a stand-still here in the rain forest, though the woods evolve constantly. The ground is awash in green ferns and clovers, crowding the wide tree bases. Above, old-growth Sitka spruce limbs twist heavily with beards of clubmoss. To my left, six elk graze in dense undergrowth.
The rain intensifies swiftly, then stops. Again it falls, feeding the 200 inches of annual rain this place receives.
The only thing dry here is the inside of this car, where I lounge with the seat eased back, taking in the ancient tranquility, bringing sleep.
Awakened by the hoots of an unseen owl. At dawn I strolled along a trail, snapping photographs in misty solitude. Salmonberry, once the subsistence of Indians, flourishes thick at thigh-level, with herbs, ferns, lichens and fungi…moss everywhere, surviving on moisture and air-borne nutrients, never penetrating the tree bark. Fallen trees are unique nurseries, providing a foothold for saplings, ferns, herbs and…more moss. The dripping big-leaf maple trees are the most lush, drooping over the trail.
Aside from the random bird and gurgling stream, the forest is silent enough to hear the high-pitched ring in my ears. The streams are pure, healthy, swirling mirrors of the woods above. I took a drink.
Hiked down the steep trail and headed south over deep black sand, which was difficult to walk on. Tide was incoming. I approached a creek and admired its nearby surf spot. There the waves broke not far from shore, all rights. A gnarly, rocky reef. The swell was a clean 10 feet at 17 seconds; the day was cloudy and windless. I was intimidated from paddling out because it looked ominous. I wasn’t prepared—hungry, thirsty, paranoid. Returning was never a question; nature redeemed me on sunnier days, in spirit and in time—wilderness time.