Words by Don Cadora | Photos by Greg Mitchell
We took an alternate winding route to the Big Sur coastline. Highway 1 was shut down due to heavy rains and resultant landslides months earlier. I read the directions from a screenshot just as cellular service blacked out, “Keep left up dirt driveway past sign with rainbow to pot of gold...”
After too many twists and turns in blinding late afternoon sun, Jenny and I drove up a dirt road to our destination. At the gate, hung a landscape painting of the aforementioned rainbow and pot of gold. Another sign just above it, also hand-painted, read, “Enter at your own risk. Entry may result in serious injury or death.”
We were the first of our camping group to arrive at Mill Creek. We parked next to a wild garden of kale, fennel, tomatoes, and San Pedro cactus—without any particular arrangement. A greenhouse glimmered in the distance. A forested valley speckled with golden Foxtails et al. G, the proprietor of the private campground, greeted us with his two dogs. The male (dog) immediately started humping Loki, Jenny’s eleven year old female (dog). When Jenny pulled him off, he humped her. She left with massive bleeding scratches on her thighs. “Poopers are up there,” G, the proprietor of the private campsite, said referring to primeval wooden outhouses. In the outhouse a note politely asked you to cover your poop with sawdust scooped from a coconut-half. Nice touch.
G was so underspoken and unemotional that you couldn’t tell if he was angry or just taciturn. He was in a filthy oversized yellow button-up. His beard was overgrown, hair shaggy. Then there were his shoes; which looked as if they'd been fashioned from a potato sack. They were either the footwear of a medieval peasant or a hand-crafted version of the latest Santa Cruz surf-moccasins. Was this man a fashionista? Or just insane. I kept engaging G, in spite of his shadowy, monotone replies. I soon realized he had no ill intentions, but his strange manner made me wonder what state isolation could drive a man to.
G told us he’d been out in Big Sur for 3 years now. He moved here from Santa Cruz after grabbing the coastal property for a steal of a price. $450K for 10 acres with coastal frontage. G wasn’t alone. He had a girlfriend or wife (unclear which). But she was on some sort of women’s retreat. From what he said, she sounded like a solid lady. His mom ran the camping reservation business from Santa Cruz since G had no cell service or internet.
I later realized G must have constantly interacted with new guests at the campsite. He’d probably told his story a million times. He wasn’t that isolated. Nick later overheard a conversation between G and a chatty friend; they were discussing Amazon’s takeover of Whole Foods, not the current condition of their kombucha cultures.
G invited us to explore. Hens and a rooster cocked their heads at us in a chicken open. A white billy goat stared inquisitively. I would later discover that he was a friendly fellow. Like an enthusiastic child, I ran up to to black and white pigs foraging in the dirt behind a low fence. I was immediately repelled at the sound of their horrifying squeals. The pigs’ scrambling cries reminded me of Buddhist hungry ghosts. Hell is a place where you desire a thing and its opposite, but can truly have neither because of fear.
Leaving the animal farm behind, we came upon two towering teepees which would be our dwelling places. Mill Creek gushed beside us. Were it not a natural sound, you might think you were hearing an industrial fan’s loud and constant blow. The creek water, running in small boulders, was excellent for flash-chill bathing. We portioned off a part of the stream with large rocks so that our champagne and Modelos would remain ice cold for days.
The next day, the surfers of the group checked out Sand Dollar beach. Just three surfers out. It looked big. It looked messy. G was there with his dogs. He told us to check out GORDO’s. So we did.
No one was out at Gordo's. It looked smaller and more manageable than Sand Dollar’s vast abyssal churnings, but this was a reef break. Menacing rocks lined the shallows. I had no idea where one would paddle out, if one were inclined to. A crusty old local near his van confirmed that a sandy beach to the north of a small creek was the best entry point.
Once you hit a certain latitude above Southern California (Point Conception), Northern California wave-physics take hold. It’s as if the water itself feels more dense, cold, and powerful. A wave of equal size from the north will deliver a Superman punch, while a southern wave offers gentlemanly backhand slap.
I had my thick-fat wave theories. Salinity. Mineral content. Icy cold water. Greg pointed out, “Nor-Cal swells come from deeper water.” The extreme ocean-shelf drops DEEP, just off the coast. In Los Angeles we’re protected by the Channel Islands.
We opted to go back to Sand Dollar, because, at least, we had surfed there before on previous Big Sur trips. But now, no one was out now. It was like paddling out into a washing machine. Nick, our freshman surfer, paddled out into the big surf. “Oh shit,” I thought. I had better stay out and make sure he didn’t drown. Nick took the punishment like a champ, but got slammed over and over again. None of us caught any waves.
That night we cooked sausages. We gathered by the fire with Art-Don and Rebecca. Art-Don was an artist. He threw art parties every monday in an industrial elevator. So I heard anyway, having not made it to one yet. That night by the campfire we learned that Don had German parents who had immigrated to Florida in the 80’s, having “really bought into the American Dream”. By American Dream, Don meant the Miami Vice dream; his parents were Miami Vice superfans, with an additional penchant for David Hasselhoff and anything he touched. His parents had named him after Don Johnson.
We heard a raccoon rustling near the teepee. Don shined a red beam from a massive flashlight.
He said animals couldn’t see that frequency of light. The raccoon stared, confused, probably thinking, “Holy shit, my powers of invisibility are gone!” My sausages were missing. We called “all hands on deck” to secure the food. Don used some sort of high-tech rigging mechanism to seal two coolers together. Nick was still concerned about how to store the food overnight.
“Aren’t we overdoing it?” I asked. “They’re just lil’ raccoons.”
“With opposable thumbs!” said Nick. “There’s something you don’t know about me,” he added, “I once had a job where one of my duties was to secure garbage from raccoons. You wouldn’t believe the things we did to keep that shit safe.”
We found my sausages. Don had put them away, mistaking them as his own. I was relieved.
But while we were scrambling to secure our rations, the raccoons had snuck into a teepee and stolen Greg’s toothpaste, a fresh bag of Intelligentsia coffee, and-though it was still present-they had attacked and even munched on some of his organic rolling tobacco.
“They’re gonna be up all night!” Nick said like a concerned mother.
“Raccoons are nocturnal,” I thought.
Our second day of surfing was better planned. We knew where to enter the water at Gordo’s. The waves were better too, about head high, with a clear channel for the paddle-out. G was there with his dogs. He had already surfed. He was wearing the yellow shirt but had worn different shoes for the occassion. They were a real-shoe version of the potato sacks he had on before; vans or sanuks. His version of dressing up when going out.
G’s tone was perkier as he talked surf-shop with Greg and Nick. Maybe the surfing, plus ice cold water had enlivened him. Or maybe the San Pedro tea had worn off. We veered between the grapefruit sized kelp bulbs that bobbed atop of some sweet lefts and took our fill of heavy North Pacific swell.
Later, we met up with the others for a day on Sand Dollar beach. One of us had procured teonanacatl, as the Aztecs called the psychoactive mushroom centuries ago. Two of us didn’t eat any. I took my ration and proceeded to fall in love with a particular jade rock the size of a bowling ball. I cradled it like a baby. I wanted to take it home.
Rebecca said she had read a book titled Hot Rocks of The National Parks. It compiled numerous stories of the bad luck that befell visitors after they pocketed minerals from National Parks.
“A National Park doesn’t have any spiritual power!” I said.
Why not State Parks? I could understand taking something from an Indian Reservation and being cursed by ancestral spirits of the land. But a National Park? Is Smokey The Bear going to come at me in the night, setting my teepee on fire in recompense for the sin I’ve committed? Man-like abdominals aglow in the light of my burning flesh. Most likely not.
I’d heard of lava rocks from the Hawaiian islands bestowing thiefs with bad luck. My cousin from Washington state had to mail his back (Only after breaking several bones did he finally part with the lava-stone.)
That scenario made more sense to me. The Hawaiian islands were peopled by deeply spiritual inhabitants before colonizers or tourists arrived to ravage the beauty. Pele, goddess of fire, might have had some agreement ensuring disrespectful haoles go home. And stay home.