The Lost Coast
One step back from the brink of madness
By Steve Hawthorne
Twin beams travel north through the opulent darkness spread in gentle folds between the Coast Range and the Pacific, past the bereft Seven Dwarfs architecture of Cambria’s north end, through the empty Wagon Wheel stoplight, past the Moonstone row of square hotels arrayed like plastic mausoleums in the salted starlight, and straight up the highway toward the point. A thin moon hooks the false-dawn glow from behind the Santa Lucias, casting long shadows through the cypress forests, the oak groves, and over the Hearst pastures fanning out to meet the uncertain shore.
Dana Pease hopes he doesn’t hit a deer. He rolls the window down, and the ocean-cold air engulfs the pickup’s interior with the scents of cypress, sage, fish and cow dung, bringing him more awake. He sips his coffee and glances west into an edgeless inky flatness punctuated with the odd wink of moonlit foam. Suddenly, out over the water, from out of the South, appears a red fireball. It looks to be about a mile offshore, bigger than a house, flying within feet of the water, traveling at about 100 knots, on a course parallel to his own. Dana thinks he sees flames tailing from the thing as it shoots by heading toward Monterey. In a moment it disappears beyond the dark hump of San Simeon Point.
Dana unlocks the back door to the San Simeon sportfishing operation, turns the lights on in the shop, goes down to the barn and rolls out the little John Deere orchard tractor used to haul the fishermen’s stuff out to the end of the pier for loading on the boats. In the afternoon it will bring back the moist gunny sacks belonging to laconic, seasick farmers from the Valley, who have coaxed the day’s catch from the hard bottom spots — puking their guts out — off the edge of America.
A south swell rocks the boats as the sports board from the iron gangplank under the pier. Their footing is unsure on the rolling decks, and they grasp their rent-rods like canes, for balance.
“Wierd day,” a deckhand observes, “outta the South — things are switchin’ around.”
When the last of the three boats round the point, the sea and sky are the same color gray.
David Dean, D.D.S., and two of his surfing buddies, medical professionals with lucrative practices, fasten their wetsuits between the vehicles parked at Dave’s Studio Drive home. (Dave and his wife, Tiffany, drive the Navigator and the two Beamers). They take up their boards and jog single file down the plank steps to the beach. The gunmetal swells are growing. They paddle out and sit silently on their boards in the glassy calm, feeling the ocean rise, waiting.
The buddies catch a few good rides, but Dave waits, letting a few sets slip through while he gets the rhythm. The fourth wave in the set will be the best. He feels the ocean expanding, the mountain growing, strokes into it, and drops over the edge. A brown pelican folds its wings and plunges like a collapsed umbrella into the backside. Dave thinks it’s the best ride he’s had for a month, and wishes he had more time to surf. He regrets some of the choices he’s made. His wife is not yet awake — seldom goes to the beach — doesn’t like the wind.
A scabby, blue 1952 Ford stepvan squats at the edge of a wide gravel shoulder along the road, above the lighthouse, close to Arroyo de la Cruz. The Pipe Man steps out and sets a pot of water on a butane burner set up on the ground. He opens the back door to the rig, exposing the interior lined with colorful tapestries, sets up a small folding table, and arranges the pipes in a pleasing order on the table top. They are beautifully carved from stones gathered at Jade Cove. Pipe Man hopes someone will stop with something to put in them.
A small brown man with long, gray hair and beard, wearing baggy shorts, Hawaiian shirt, and broad-brimmed straw hat emerges from under the Pico Creek bridge carrying a driftwood walking stick and a green daypack. He hikes to the San Simeon liquor stove where he takes a seat under a tree by the parking lot. His pack contains bits of abalone shell strung on small circles of bead chain. He hopes to sell enough of the key chains to buy a quart of beer.
Dana stands by the boat barn, gazing at the brightening cove, fingernail of beach, the cypress windbreak on the point … the scene reminds him of an oriental painting, crescent moon fading in the daylight background.
Crab-walking, pipe-smoking, black-hearted Capt. Chuck is outlining to Dana some of the jobs he wants done. They notice a boat coming toward the pier, a small salmon trawler, its sticks drawn up like alert feelers. “Fuckin’ Moriarty,” Chuck rasps. “They know they’re not supposed to use the ramp. A young woman with long brown hair, dragging a canvas sea bag, is hurrying down the pier to meet the boat. “Get on the Deere, run out there and stop them. They can use the ladder. Insurance don’t cover them using our ramp.” Chuck knows the old iron ladder isn’t safe, its fastenings rusted through — difficult to approach in a south swell.
When Dana gets there, the Moriarty is maneuvering toward the restricted ramp. The girl waits on the platform. Dana knows it’s the safest place for her to board. He doesn’t want to stop them. He envies the young skipper with the sun-bleached hair operating the immaculate, graceful, Monterey-hull trawler. “Hey!” he hollers to the skipper. “They don’t want you using the ramp.”
The girl looks up at him, doe-eyed, frightened. The skipper yells back at him, “Are you a moron? I’m pickin’ her up, here, and I don’t care what you say.”
Dana wants to ask the skipper if he saw the fireball, but doesn’t say anything while the girl hands the bag across, then springs aboard the Moriarty.
Capt. Chuck, blood veins standing out on his neck, spittle droplets fleeing from his bitter mouth, rages at Dana for failing the mission.
Dana tells him to stick the job up his ass, goes over to the Sebastian Store, buys a twelve-pack and walks down to the beach.
The cove at San Simeon is the first place the sun breaks through the coastal gray. The sky is an iridescent pearl, blue, pink abalone shell.
Wing Lee, an old Chinese nudist with shoulder length white hair and long thin beard, a regular at the cove, sunbathing alone, speaking to no one, passes the driftwood pile where Dana sits with his beer. A gnarled old willow, he walks by like Confucius, moving up toward the end of the cove where he bends to remove his clothes, revealing a long thin penis, a yellow noodle, dangling almost to his knees.
Dave Dean takes his after-surf shower; he plans to drive Tiffany up to Big Sur today. She’s upstairs in the kitchen having her coffee. French Vanilla creamer. She won’t drink it any other way. Her dark hair is smartly clipped in a pageboy, parted on the side, the ends brushing her neck. She is Texas-born and raised: Dallas, Methodist, Republican. Her daddy is a minor wheel at a plastic injection molding company and, after some convincing arguments from the mother, paid for the topside work that caught Dave’s attention, initially. They met at a Methodist college, and within a week of meeting Dave, Tiffany changed her course of study to dentistry, so they could have classes together. She tried going into practice with him after they graduated , but she proved inept, and decided that she hated working in people’s mouths, anyway. She has been feeling increasingly depressed lately. She is certain that it is because of the sinks. The sinks not being right. Marble sinks. That’s what she needed. She knows if she had marble sinks the depression would go away, and her life could get on track again. She wants Dave to earn more money. Not surf so much.
Beyond the eucalyptus where the surfers park, a thin rivulet leads you to the broken bones rocks of Hazard Reef. The diminutive fresh-water trace is all that’s left of an ancient river that flowed broad and powerful to the sea, depositing a deep, golden delta. The little stream pours into a tidepool holding gray and yellow stones with perfect holes all the way through them — sacred stones to earlier people; it was said that if you had a question, wanted to know how things really were, you could look through the hole in one of these stones and see the answer.
Freddy Gleason rinses his surf booties in the tidepool while the mountainous swell crests and rushes over the reef. The booming assault echoes from the yellow cliffs. He is wondering if his wife will beat the cancer. He has dyed his hair blue, to match the sea and sky.
Dana is on the seventh beer when one of the Cambria girls arrives at the cove. She spreads her blanket up the beach between him and Wing Lee, slips off her India print dress and black tank top, and shakes out her thick black hair. She is beautiful — chestnut brown and full-bodied, with round breasts that feature spacious areolas, larger than a man’s palm, like she dipped the front half of her tits in chocolate. Dana notices that the triangle between her legs is thick, untrimmed.
The young woman crosses the beach to the water, wades out, then dives through the face of a breaking wave and swims like a brown seal. She emerges from the water dripping cold diamonds and walks back to lay on her blanket. When the sun warms her loins enough, she receives a curious notion regarding Wing Lee. The thought flares, she entertains it for a moment, then chases it away.
Breezes rise to whip the waves lashing the wild shore, buffeting the affluent lines of traffic flowing on the bright highway.
At Montana de Oro, three boys hike a trail that cuts through sage, greasewood, and scrub oak, leading them along the edge of a yellow cliff rising 80 feet above the beach. Their chunk of trail breaks away from the cliff, and the boys drop. The portion of trail dissolves, mid-air, from under their feet, the illusion of solidarity dissipating like a dream as they fall. Two of them land against soft sand and will be all right. The other splits his head wide open against a rock.
The injured boy will recover, but not before his mother makes a deal, pledging a ponderous atonement.
Smokey one-way glass windows hide the interior of a tour bus idling in the Ragged Point parking area while its cargo of tiny Asian visitors cluster on the cliff edge like penguins on an ice chunk. One old woman remains on the bus, refusing to come outside. She is terrified of the steepness.
A heavy-set woman from Fresno sits on a public toilet at the Montana de Oro parking area. She thinks she sees a light flash from between her legs, raises from the seat, peers into the hole, and discovers that she has just peed on a man’s face. He’s looking back at her from beneath a sheet of clear plastic, hunkering in the blue filth, clutching a digital movie camera. A perfect oval urine drop clings to the plastic over his forehead like a saffron jewel. He has the saddest eyes she has ever seen. She pulls a cell phone from her pocket and dials 911.
The operator relays the call to the park rangers at Montana de Oro, and they arrive before the man can escape. They are the same rangers who responded to the incident involving the injured boy, earlier. They order the man out of the shitter.
The balding man is a photography instructor from San Luis Obispo, possessed of an obsession he cannot get a handle on. He’s been shooting some interesting footage down in the hole. He’s sorry and says so, over and over again, reciting the apology like a mantra, bobbing his head to the rhythm of it.
The rangers wear plastic gloves while they put the handcuffs on him.
Tiffany Dean exits a store in Cayucos bearing two bottles of flavored drinking water, and bounces into the seat of the claret Navigator.
Dave would rather they’d driven one of the BMWs.
Tiffany doesn’t like the seats in the Navigator, but knows that the road to Big Sur often falls from the sides of the mountains, into the sea. She thinks the four-wheel drive might come in handy if it happens.
Dave reflects on the life insurance policies they’ve recently purchased. If something happened to Tiffany, he wouldn’t have to receive so many patients, could surf more, drive the BMW up the highway to Big Sur….
They drive north through town, passing a street where The Oblivion Poets gather in the backyard of an old beach shack. They’ll assemble in a circle of steel chairs, drink until they are red-assed drunk, then roast a chunk of flesh on the fire.
Two hours past the high tide, old Henry climbs the ice plant-covered bluff above one of the pocket-beaches between Moonstone and San Simeon. Reaching the top, he stands to catch his breath; a carved heron, watching the cars flash by on the highway. He carries an 11-foot, caramel colored, Harnell surf rod. On his back rests a black rubber pack containing about seven pounds of Barred perch and few thin Calico surfperch — the whole thing worth about 10 dollars to the fish buyer in Morro Bay. Heavy loads of perch on other days, and a hip replacement, have diminished his stature, but he is remarkably healthy for 85. Nobody going by in the cars knows anything about the commercial perch business, and none will choose it as a career. He thinks, tomorrow, he’ll try fishing above the lighthouse, at Plastic Beach.
Nuances of wind, tide, and geology converge at Plastic to produce an eddy in local ocean currents. The prevailing Oregon Current sweeping down the coast is loaded with the wooden debris carried down by river and flood: Branches, logs, stumps, the timbers of old homestead barns. And with this comes a considerable amount of man-made items, particularly plastic: Chain with legs missing, garbage containers split from rim to bottom, fuel containers, milk jugs, juice jugs, bait jugs, soda bottles, water bottles, parts of dolls, torn tarpaulins, sheets of clear plastic, medication bottles, hospital bracelets, the occasional syringe , Big Gulp cups, lids, straws — the plastic gathers in the eddy, and washes ashore on Plastic Beach.
You park at the turnout, get through the barbed-wire fence, then cross the Hearst bull pasture to the bluff overlooking the beach. From the bluff , you are delighted to see a parti-colored crowd of Saturday beachgoers thronging the warm crescent — umbrellas pitched, blankets, towels, jugs, beach balls and Frisbees® laid out.
When you get down the bluff to the beach you find a forlorn, windblown, wrecked-circus landscape, where the multi-colored, indelible plastic quivers against the tangled driftwood, laced with drying, sandblasted kelp. The beach balls are flattened. Frisbees® broken. There isn’t a soul.
The yellow sun floods through gum and cypress branches to splash against the peeling, false-front Sebastian Store. The string of Tibetan bells nailed to the door tinkle as Dana swings inward.
A pretty, middle-aged woman stationed by the ornate cash resister greets him.
She is braless — breasts, peak-of-life-ripe beneath a red T-shirt advertising “Sebastian Store, San Simeon.” The nipples poke the red material like two gumdrops.
Dana stumbles across the splintered plank floor to the cold-case. The door clinks again and Tiffany Dean bustles in, marches straight to the case, selects two bottles of flavored water, brushes against Dana’s arm on her way to the cash register, pays for the water, and the door tinkles shut again. Dana grabs a plastic-wrapped sandwich and a six-pack of beer. He won’t eat the sandwich. Doesn’t need the beer. The stuff in the case blurs, the store tilts dangerously — he is having a hard time walking on that damned slanting floor. He finally makes it to the counter and lays the things down. The woman in the T-shirt smiles. But the smile don’t seem right. Nothing is right. He reaches across with both hands, grasps both nipples between thumb and forefinger, and twists, like turning the knobs on a radio. He thinks the reception is out, a little.
A tattooed man trudges north toward the Big Sur highlands, shouldering a heavy, dirty red backpack. A turkey vulture rides a thermal, circling, its head tilting, eyes sharp for roadkill. The pack contains everything the man owns. Among his things is a worn copy of the “Seven Pillars of Zen.” Dave and Tiffany pass without seeing him. He doesn’t turn his head.
“It’s about this long,” Dave says, spreading his arms to full extension, illustrating for Tiffany the length of the male elephant seal erection. Dave is tall and athletic, but his voice is the curious, mewling falsetto that you hear so much nowadays; a voice that men used to reserve for speaking to kitty cats and very young children.
The great seals lay like beached submarines along the shore by the lighthouse. A man with a huge belly, wearing a cowboy hat and boots, performs a taunting dance directly in front of a behemoth slug, knothead bull. He’s removed his shirt, and is waving it in the seal’s face like a bullfighter, leering over his shoulder at a group of friends who are egging him on. Dave and Tiffany, watching the scene from behind the rope that is supposed to keep the visitors and seals from mixing, are frozen, when the bull, fed up, lunges with amazing quickness, attacking the tormentor.
The cowboy manages to pull out from under the seal and crawl back — but a knee is bit half off, lower leg broken, and his foot crushed.
Countless silver wave tops disintegrating in the incessant afternoon wind, the lonesome bluffs, the open sensuous roll of foothill pastures, combine to produce an undefined sweet longing, a strange melancholy that doesn’t lie heavy, but somehow, lightens the heart. There is a vague promise at land’s end, compelling the traveler to question boundaries, and drop inhibitions.
You can drive through here. You may buy a home here. But you can never really connect to it, Tiffany is thinking. “It is a lost coast, isn’t it?” she whispers, starting to think about the marble sinks again.
Pipe Man stands up from his table as they pass.
The Morro Bay cops have cornered two skateboarders in the Lemo’s parking lot. The skateboard kids are without helmets. Backup was called and two more units respond.
Tiffany Dean rinses her mouth with some of the flavored water as the Navigator negotiates the tight curves between San Carpoforo and Ragged Point. The steering wheel is sticky from Dave’s palms.
Two people jog on the beach at Morro Strand, coming from opposite directions: As their paths intersect, they make eye contact, and a spark of love ignites in both. They never stop, but continue to jog in different directions, their hearts aching.
Dave Dean parks the Navigator on a dirt turnout at the edge of a high cliff, not far from Pacific Valley. It is a 300-foot drop, down to the waiting rocks.
It is the same turnout where, in 1970, a wild-eyed guy wearing a Navy P-coat flagged down a sheriff patrol car in the middle of the night: The cop rolls his window down and asks the guy what his problem is. The wild guy tells the cop that he does, indeed, have a problem. That said, he produces two severed human fingers, pops one into his mouth and chews, “Ima canbull,” he says, talking with his mouth full.
They stand one step back from the brink of the promontory. The ocean spreads out like milk. The verdant mountains jutting from the continental rim, behind them and, north and south as far as their eyes can see, are dangerously angular, inhumanely steep.
The ocean surface reddens as the orange sun settles to a balance on the horizon line.
Dave’s hand slides against Tfffany’s shoulder. He glances toward the highway. His arm tightens. His brain is on fire.
The white confetti gulls wheel below them.
The moment passes. He’s afraid he won’t get away with it. The only thing holding him back, preventing him from performing that irrevocable push is the fear of being found out.
“I’m scared,” she says. “We’re too close to the edge.”
He draws her back to a comfortable distance. They watch the world’s atmosphere distort the light, flattening the sun against the sea. §
Steve Hawthorne is a freelance writer who lives in Morro Bay and has seen all sides of The Lost Coast.