“Camping At Big Sur” – A Story -
I haven’t been up the Pacific Coast Highway in years, 1968 was the last time I had laid eyes on this scenic wonder.
That time, it was in a VW Bug and a tent, this time its an SUV and an Airstream, but I’m older and “roughing it” is only a fond memory and not a very realistic option now.
The surf and the cliffs are the same, the wild flowers and the tall grasses flow back and forth with the breeze just as they did way back then.
This trip is to be my swan song before I’m too old to appreciate it. And as I pulled into one of the many campsites along the coast, I spied a man already encamped with only a tarpaulin tent and a dilapidated VW camper van, a healthy fire burning in a pit nearby.
“Well, hello there”, said the man perched on a log next to the fire.
“Hello”, I said.
“You just pulled in?” he said.
“Yeah, you been here long?” I asked, wondering if my arrival would disrupt the serene campsite he had made for himself.
“Been camping for a view days, yeah.” this man said, bending down as he carved lines in the sand with a stick.
“Where you headed?” he asked, not looking up.
“No where, really, just doing the Coast Highway tour” I offered.
“Yep, me too”, he responded, a hint of nostalgia in his voice.
“You made this trip before?” I enquired.
“Long time ago; in the late 60s” he spoke as he pulled up a log for me.
“Thanks but I’d better get the RV settled first. Will you be around tomorrow?” offering a polite refusal for this evening.
“Yeah, I ain’t goin’ no where fast.” he said.
“Okay then, I’ll see you tomorrow.” I said.
“Okay, have a good night.” he offered.
“Thanks, I’m sure I will. Nothing like falling asleep to ocean waves breaking on shore, huh?” I confessed.
“You’re right there. Nothing like it.” he replied, not one for small talk, obviously.
As I got back into my Jeep and manoeuvred the Airstream into position, the old man I had just met kicked sand into his fire and retired into the tent for the night.
I thought having the company of one wouldn’t be bad at all. He seemed like a harmless fellow and we were on the same quest, it would probably be a good thing.
As the waves lapped over the sand below us, the last of the sunset dipped below the horizon, another perfect California day come to an end.
Photo: Graham Owen Gallery
Mornings come early on the coast.
Nothing to block the sun, even if it has to climb over the low lying hills which lie East of Highway 101, better known as the Pacific Coast Highway.
There are very few trees and exposure to the elements, whether from sky or from land, is all encompassing, but in a good way.
The morning tide seems to make more of a racket too, and it was with all Mother Nature’s noise and fury which woke me up from my first night’s slumber, on the road to my past.
The Airstream was well-endowed, I must say, and this, my second trek, up and down the PC Highway was certainly in style.
I stumbled out of my queen sized bed housed at the back of this shiny grey bullet and padded to the kitchen where I flipped on the coffee pot, easy as pie.
Sitting down in my swivel rocker, I gazed out my picture window to the ocean below, the waves as gentle as the moniker which was bestowed upon this watery beast belies – Pacific, Pacifica, Peaceful.
Having got my caffeine-enriched bearings, I dressed in a pair of comfortable, well-worn jeans, a white T-shirt and a blue checked flannel shirt over top, (as even on a mid summer's day, the ocean breeze can be brisk and chilly in the morn) with my trademark weathered moccasins, worn on that last PC Highway trek I did, all those forty plus years ago.
Hairbrush and shaver wholly neglected in my mini bathroom, I opened the creaky main door and screen door to find that I was not the first to rise, even at this early hour. The little dude I had met the night before had obviously been awake for sometime as he was in the midst of washing up his breakfast dishes.
I gazed at him un-noticed for a time, as if I was sure I had met him before but knew all the while that he was a stranger to me. His posture was poor, his back bent, his limbs seemed scrawny and his pallor extraordinarily pale. His still great mane of hair, although greying from age, was unkempt and wild, but in a good way, at least, what seemed like a good way for this guy. As I gazed at him bending down over a pail of wash water, it seemed like he was so at home with himself, so at peace with his surroundings; yet, as far as I could see, had no real reason to be. With every move of his body, he seemed to be celebrating an inner peace and contentment, that for an instant, made me feel a might bit jealous of this unknown soul.
As he turned to reach for a tea towel hanging over the limb of a wind-warped tree, he spotted me watching him and I waved over as if I hadn’t been spying on the guy at all.
“High there neighbour. Great morning, huh?” I instantly offered, to hide my previous lurking.
“They all are around here. There are no bad mornings on this trail, Man.” was all he said, but then again, I think those were more words than he had offered me last night, so the offering was well accepted.
“Would you like a cup of Joe? I have a new pot on.” I offered back.
“Surely would, Thanks.” he said.
“Well, come on over, Charlie, and sit a spell with me, if you have the time, that is.” I offered again.
“Time, heck, that’s all I have is Time.” Charlie mumbled as he pushed back that great mane of hair of his, rubbed his hands down the side of his hole-infested jeans to remove any lingering wash water, and walked with a kind of light and nimble step over to my trailer.
He was a mystifying presence, I thought to myself. Old, in years, yes, but somehow agile and powerful like a 30 something man, his small figure belying his strength, it seemed.
We both sat out at the picnic table positioned in front of my trailer and before the cliffs that hurled down to the sandy shore, both of us gazing out at the wonder before us, drinking our coffee, taking in one perfect sea breeze breath after another. Words failed us for a long time, or just weren’t plain needed. I sensed the latter in both of us.
“What’s your plan for today, Charlie?” I queried.
“No plans. I never have’em. They never work out anyways when I do, so better just to be ready for whatever, you know.” Charlie responded, and yes, I thought I knew.
"Well, I’m heading into Monterey for some supplies, you wanna come with?” I offered yet again. It seemed to me like I was offering more than he, but that somehow, that kind of unbalanced relationship was expected with this old unassuming man.
“Nah, sorry, Man, but I think I’m just gonna roam the shore in search of firewood for tonight. I got me a chilli on the cooker. I make real good chilli and it ain’t got no meat in it neither!” he said, with almost a high-pitched, prideful yelp at the end.
“You a vegan, huh?” I said.
“What?” he asked.
“You’re a vegetarian, I guess?” I qualified.
“Oh, yeah. That’s what you call’em, do ya, ‘Vegans’?” He said with a chuckle, like it was some kind of inside joke, he’d not bother to explain, for he knew I’d never get it.
“Yeah, where ya been Charlie? That’s no secret word, ya know.” I quipped.
“Away. I bin away, is all.” He stated, very matter-of-fact but with a forlorn tone.
“Right.” was all I said, sensing this dude was not to be queried with too long.
“Well, you need anything from the stores in town? Groceries, anything?” I offered, yet again. Something made me want to mother or help this guy, it was weird.
“Cigarette papers and some lemons for iced tea and some fresh veg if it’s available would be nice.” Charlie stated, not so much as a request, and not offering money in return, just as a statement of fact.
“You smoke, Charlie?” I asked.
“Hell no, them’s for doobs, ya know.” he replied, with a glint in his eye.
“Oh, yeah, right.” I stated like I knew but smoking pot had never been my thing.
“Okay then, I’m off. Take care of the place for me and you’re welcome to anything in my trailer while I’m gone.” I said, having noooooo idea why I just offered my entire Life to this 5 foot 2 inch stranger.
“That’s awfully nice of ya but I think I’ll be headin’ on down to the beach. See ya when I see ya.” was all he said as he rose from the picnic table, threw out the last dregs of his coffee onto the sandy grass below and sauntered off in the direction of his cooker, not one “Bye your leave” offered as a salutation in his departure.
The morning was wearing on and I did have several chores to undertake, so I got myself ready for public consumption and jumped into my SUV to head to Monterey, my chore list in hand and my thoughts basically vacant.
Except for that man, that tiny little guy, collecting driftwood by the sea, a man who didn’t seem to have a thought in his mind, beyond the present or the future and who seemed well away from his past.
As I drove out of the campsite and back on to the Highway, I looked out my driver’s side window to see my new companion padding towards the cliff pathway which heads on down to the sandy shore, his back slightly bent, his head down, his arms at his side, awash in that contentment I knew he had, that I wish I did.
Maybe our newly found companionship in this journey together would teach me a thing or two about achieving contentment, and if not, I was positive it would be a trek to be remembered, one way or the other.
He driving behind me and my Airstream, we headed south along 101 and didn’t stop until we hit…
Charlie had honked at me and blinked his headlights at the first intersection on Beach Street, so I pulled into a small strip mall to get off the beaten path.
Charlie’s VW van sidled along side my SUV , he rolled down his passenger side window and told me properly park my silver bullet behemoth, so I did.
“Hey Man, is there any extra dough for say, a CB or some two-way radio get-up?” Charlie asked.
“Why?” I asked.
“Just so I don’t have to play no charades with you, Man, to know where we’re headed and where we’re going.” he coyly said.
“Oh, yeah, I see what you’re saying. Hey, yeah, let’s find a hardware place or something. They usually have those kinda of walkie-talkies for sale.” I offered.
So, we left the vehicles and wandered around the frontage roads ‘til we found what we were looking for.
The day was crystal clear and despite the early hour, the California sun did not disappoint and we soon became searing spots on searing pavement…gotta love Cali-for-NY-A!
Once the shopping was done and a cold couple of Starbucks Iced Mochachinos in our sweaty hands, we wandered back to Beach Street.
Without even a pause, Charlie took off his sandals and headed for the sand, in the direction of that huge rock that signals you’ve arrived at Morro Bay.
I followed, but slowly, kind of too mesmerized by the actions of this diminutive man to concentrate on walking…
He ran like he weighed a feather while not really making a sound in the process. He ran and people on the beach didn’t even notice him at all, yet his straggly hair, that white button down shirt with the tail hanging out, his frayed jeans and that freaky coloured vest of his screamed “Flower Power” when no such style is normally viewed, nor palatable, today.
Charlie reached the edge of the beach and stopped. He let the quiet surf roll in over his baggy pants and as he squatted there like an Indian guru, silent, still, slurping his iced java, gazing out on that domed rock, his black beady eyes focused so intently I thought he was conjuring up the power to move it.
I eventually made my way to him and we both stood there, me looking down on the sparkly specks of beach sand and the odd sea shell and Charlie still trying to move that rock with his mind, I felt.
Breaking the silence, I said, “So where you think we should park for the night, Charlie?”
“I got people I know in Pismo Beach. How ‘bout we head there for the night?” he offered.
“Sure, Pismo Beach it is!” not really caring and not having a goal in the world, other than to tread all over where I had trod before.
We got back into our respective vehicles and unwrapped our new communication toys, tested them and headed south once more…
The highway was as surprisingly calm as the Pacific Ocean that day. Despite the “California Dreaming” I was doing, I did notice that my memories of the coast highway were a far cry from the reality of today. More touristy boutique-like places, more strip malls, just more population dotting and pushing its way on to what was really almost endless stretches of land and water when I had last visited.
I didn’t really approve of the effect but I guess nothing in Life is supposed to stay static…even that big blue rolling hunk of water to my right.
All I knew is that it felt right to be back on the 101 again, other than my disgust at myself for waiting this long to have it happen in the first place.
As the miles ticked by and the curves left and right swayed and undulated under my feet, I would pop into the CD tray one 60s tune after another, in a feeble attempt at denying 2010, and with my ethereal focus, I almost think I succeeded!
I would occasionally look in my driver’s side rear view mirror to check on Charlie. but as always, he was quietly behind me, two or so car lengths away, our walkie talkies in the On position but neither of us having the need or want to talk. Maybe he felt, as I did, that when cruising the 101, sounds beyond Mother Nature’s ocean breezes and rolling waves, were just meddlesome noise.
It wasn’t long before we slid into the outskirts of Pismo Beach and a crackling sound came over the walkie talkie with Charlie’s voice saying to pull over and have him lead the way. On the first patch of ground wide enough for my Airstream to fit, I pulled over and let Charlie pull ahead, his rusty old VW making a grating, chugging, spurting kind of sound as he lurched it up to cruising speed.
It was only minutes really when he barked at me over the walkie talkie once again where we were to pull over. We were parked in a rest stop that over-looked the Pismo Beach area to the south but that had these strange cliff/cave-like structures viewable from the beach.
Charlie got out, stretched his waif-like body and waved me on to follow.
He marched directly for one of these caves in the rock wall, took out what I figured was a joint and began to smoke it at the entrance of one of these caves as we sat looking out on to the ocean. He offered me his little cigarette but I told him I was from the Rat Pack Set so that kind of thing was not my thing. He shrugged his shoulders, not really caring one way or another, and he began to talk, which had you been with this little old man for the days I’d been, you’d know this wasn’t his natural posture.
“I used to come here on trips, Man, when things just got too tight down south.” was all he offered.
“Oh yeah, too tight from what?” I snuck in an inquisitive jibe.
“Ah, you know, shit, from little shits. The Man. Life.” he retorted…like that was supposed to make all the sense in the world to me.
“Well, yeah, Man, anyone could use a reason to come here. How did you know about these caves, Charlie?”
“Ah, shit, that ain’t nothin’. I’d park where I could and sleep where I could find some shelter, you know. These caves aren’t exactly hidden, Man.” Charlie offered.
“Yeah, you’re right.” and I left it at that, never wanting to push too far with this skittish hare, that he might feel the need to bolt before he should because I pushed too hard. He was kinda growing on me like some kind of anthropological science project…or a mean rash…whichever…but I wanted to see this through – our 101 adventure – it felt like it would be important to me…in the end…
“Hey, man, I know we’ve got a real pad tonight because I’ve got a connection here. Contacts I had back in the day I wanna rekindle, ya know.” he said.
“See that wharf over there, on a back street straight up from there, there’s a house that sits on those hills. My contact lived and ran his business outta there.” Charlie points out these locales to me, like some kind of psychedelic tour guide, with his tiny pinkie finger, the one that has this ungodly long finger nail.
“Ah okay, Man.” was all I could say, not even broaching the fact that his head seemed to be firmly mired in the 60s and this was 2010…and the odds of…oh, well…never mind…
With that, Charlie got up and headed back in the direction of our cars. I just followed. It seemed like my trip had become his and I was willing to go along for the ride. I think I was thinking that if he had a magic bullet to turn back time, even for me, I’d like the chance to have the chance…you know?
We left our vehicles where they were and took that walk. Pismo isn’t large and very laid back, with sun worshippers and tourist shops, still not fully what you would call an urbane locale, still representing a slice of Pacific Coast Americana… and I was glad for it.
Charlie had no more to say, intent on getting to his destination, his eyes focused yet again, his body language taut and agile, allowing me, for a moment, to see what he must have been like when he was just a young man, invincible, unwavering, a man, who in his eyes, could probably do no wrong.
We got to the street that he had decided was the right one and as we walked down it, I could see him hesitating and then eventually stopping between the gate to a small suburban park, the kind you will see interrupting a row of houses from time to time.
He just stared and stared at this piece of land, and eventually I figured it out that this MUST be where his friend’s house must have been back in the day. I didn’t dare say a word, for I had feared this outcome for him and I knew this realization must be hitting him hard.
After a time, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Come on, Man, let’s hit the road. I ain’t in no mood to meet people today anyway. Too damn hot to be walkin’ around…let’s split.”
And with that, we went. I did look at him looking back at that park a couple of times yet I dared not offer a penny for his thoughts.
A 1969 penny wouldn’t be worth much in 2010 anyways…
Our 101 Wonder Tour, as I decided to coin it, was well underway, both Charlie and I saying a fond Hello and a rather brackish Goodbye to Monterey, Morro Bay (Chapters One, Two and Three), and just recently, Pismo Beach. Whatever ghosts had been haunting this old man from that long-ago vacant property in Pismo seemed to be dead and buried, now, for good.
We weren't on the road for more than a few minutes outside of Pismo when I heard the squawk, squawk, squelching of the walkie-talkie.
“I wanna take a detour, okay? There's another friend I'd like to see, you know, a guy from back in the day. He's over in San Luis Obispo, and yeah, I know, a backtrack, but if you're into it, it might have good vibes.”
“Sure, sure, Charlie, sounds great. We just sped right through today. I haven't spent any time in that place for years. Let's go back”, I cheerfully agreed.
No real cheerful exchange was offered in return. This little man didn't know from cheerful. The best you could hope for was a slanted, thin-lipped smirk or a Cheshire cat wide-mouthed grin. Cheerful, I think, had been knocked out of this guy a long time ago.
So without further ado, I followed Charlie's lead and hit the next interchange to have us head back up the 101 - San Luis our next port-of-call. I was getting the feeling this Tour wouldn't be very linear, which was great. Old people do linear, young people, with no fear of life, do not. Charlie was old but he breathed young.
And beyond the mere attraction to the randomness of this adventure, I somehow felt Charlie's goals were just more important than mine for now. Hell, if I hadn't stumbled upon this wee dude, I'd probably have given up on this 60s retro road-trip and found myself doing lame 21st century things, like antique-hunting in boutique-themed coastal shops or sipping overly commercialized Napa wine on the deck of some overly-priced shack over-looking the waves. Not that there is anything wrong with that, if you're THAT kind of guy. But I'm not that kind of guy, nor do I want to be, not now, not on this trip. I just knew that if I truly wanted to return to the Past, feel it like I had all those decades ago, I'd need the courage Charlie was carrying around so casually in his back pocket. My “citified” ways would just fail me when it counted.
I was all geared up to head back into the town proper, halfway back to where we had started at Morro Bay, when all of a sudden Charlie threw his rather hairy left arm out the window of his VW and waved me to a roadside turn out. I guess the urgency of his desire left no time for the squawk-box.
“Hey, what's the deal, Charlie?” I asked, void of any real concern.“We ain't goin' all the way back into town, Man, I'm takin' this road here” as he pointed to the left, to a rather unremarkable, rather deserted highway I had never even noticed before.
“Okay”, was all I said.
Hey, I knew that I would just suck the fun out of my time with this guy if I knew, as he knew, what it was we were about to do.
I again followed his lead, casually taking in the undulating, low-lying, rather barren if not altogether water-deprived hills of the countryside, when all of a sudden I read a very unassuming sign, yet very stark and to the point in its design –
Department of Corrections California Men's Colony.
All of a sudden this “adventure” seemed to up its game and not in a good way for my nerves.
Charlie wasn't hesitating one bit. He continued to drive forward, heading for the gate that I could see, even from this distance, had severely scary barbed-wire fencing and an electrified gate. My itinerary trip down Memory Lane hadn't seen this coming.
I pull off to the right hand side of the road, just waiting to see what would happen to Charlie and his VW wagon at that gate -
he pulls up to the wicket, he talks with a guard there, the guard has this rather business-only look on his face, Charlie smiles wide, right back at him, reaching out of his window to overly shake the man's hand (that was weird) and then surprisingly puts the van into reverse and does a U-turn back towards where I was parked, idling.
“They won't let me in. I ain't on the List, they said. You gotta be on the List to get in. And you gotta show I.D. and I ain’t got none. They said this was like a resort, an easy stay. I guess it ain’t all that easy. Texas wouldn't put me on the List even if he knew I was here, even if he knew this was the last chance to see me, I bet…fool idea”, rather mumbling, now, to himself, more than talking to me.
Charlie's look was, well, hard to describe - his head – endowed with such an insanely shiny, healthy mane of hair for a man his age - rather downcast as he hung out of the driver's side window, not that he was really sad, I'd say, more like he was genuinely concerned; but about who or what was not mine to guess.
“Yeah, I've heard about that before, those Visitor Lists”, was all I could add, thanking God Up Above that he didn’t get a Pass.
“The Man said I could call him, maybe, not sure now if he'd take my call even. He has this “thing”, you know, some new-fangled high and mighty reputation, they’ve been saying, like shit can't stick on him anymore because he has “found God”. He's playing a New Game...”
“There's a time for living
Time keeps on flying
Think you're loving baby
But all your doing is crying…
What a mad delusion
Living in that confusion
Frustration and doubt
Can you ever live without the game
Can you feel
Are those feelings real
Look at your game, girl
Look at your gammmme, girl
Charlie just segued into song and not one I had heard before.
He was doing that thing that Nixon did when Tricky Dick made his Farewell Speech in the East Room of the White House, not looking into the camera, just staring off into space, talking, or in this case, singing, to an audience-unknown.
He could carry a tune, of that there was no doubt. It was rather a folksy jingle but somehow it suited this guy.
I looked down at him as he came back to reality. He looked startled to see me as if my face just didn't belong to whomever he was serenading in his mind.
“Yeah, okay, let's jam outta here. I've had enough of this shit”, was all he said, not even waiting for me to give the nod either way. Without another glance my way, I ate his dust as he burned his already thread-bare tires across the sun-baked, dust-ridden asphalt, all eight of those cylinders in his Hippie-mobile doing their utmost to make like they were inside a Jaguar.
I looked ahead, sighed, watched for traffic that didn't exist and a long, slow U-turn did I make with my silver bullet behind my SUV. It didn't seem right all of a sudden, more not right…even more than it did before. It was as if I was a disturbance, a ripping destruction I was making through this man’s fabric of time, just being in his presence. He had his journey and I had mine and my existence in his reality felt almost cannibalistic – the slow, menacing feast of something purer than myself.
Well, in for a penny, in for a pound, I always say. And my new friend hadn't come back on the walkie-talkie, yelling for me to get the hell out of his Dodge City fantasy, so follow, I did, to another destination by his lead. The day’s light was dimming now and we still had to find a place to hang our hats for the night, set up camp and maybe forget what needed to be forgotten from today. Darker clouds loomed over the western horizon, odd for a California sunset and the sight made me even more uneasy.
At this moment and without planning, The Doors' “Riders On The Storm” came on my MP3.
Man, could there be any more perfect description to where I was in this moment and with whom I was heading....
To Be Continued…
Photos, in order of appearance, courtesy of admissionblog.usc.edu, totaltrafficla.com, kcoy.com, and fineartamerica.com