A Fine Morning

It was cold and damp on the beach. You could hear the surf crashing at some distance, vaguely over there, behind a thick veil of grey. The morning sun had yet to rise above the coastal ridge. The Pacific Ocean a horizontal slab of endless grey behind the fog, grayer still in the shadow of the Humboldt coastal range. The town of Mendocino is on the bluff above us; clapboard Victorians in the throes of artistic revival. Mendocino was the town for a quick getaway, good food, good music, and dozens of quaint bed and breakfasts for those driving north on Highway 1. A perfect day’s distance from the Bay Area, it was the ideal weekend destination.

My partner and I had spent several days hitchhiking in order to experience the North Coast. The bed and breakfasts were out of our budget, so we had decided to camp at the nearby state park. Unfortunately, they were completely full and catered to vehicle-based clients. Sleeping on the beach seemed the next best option, even if it was frowned upon. The locals often built campfires on the beach in the middle of the piles of driftwood and gathered around the flames telling stories, playing music into the early morning hours. The fact that we fell asleep there was just an accident, not intentional camping.

Laying there in the damp sand, hearing and feeling the constant pounding of wave after wave had kept us awake most of the night, and now we were captured in a half-conscious state, kept there by the metronome of the surf.

Through half-opened eyes, I could see the black starless night had given way to gunmetal grey. I had vague thoughts of stirring the embers in the fire pit in order to heat some morning tea, but it would mean unzipping my sleeping bag, something unthinkable at the moment.

One last glance at the sky and then I snuggled in the sand, improving upon the impression I had made, smoothing out the last lump; then I heard it. At least I thought I heard it, because no sooner than it was there, then it wasn’t. I wasn’t even sure I knew what it was or where it came from. All I knew is that for a brief moment, it stood in stark contrast to the muffled damp clash of waves upon sand. Then nothing.

Animal, bird, sounds from the road above us? Nothing seemed to fit, and without a repeated event, I couldn’t even begin to identify the source. Then, faintly, it came again. It was a long ways off, the sound carried by the wind and muted by the fog. It was a cry. A tearful rending of the heart…or perhaps the last death screams of a small animal. Or maybe a red-tailed hawk hunting in the early dawn, missing his mark and shrieking his anger. No, it was far more plaintive than that.

By now, the sound was connected, continuous, but pulsing with the gusts of wind-blown fog, and it seemed to come from behind and above. I had unzipped my sleeping bag and I was standing in my stocking feet using the warm bag as a large slipper. I had turned toward the road and the rising ridge behind it. The sun was just below the horizon and the fog that had climbed to the ridge was being shredded at the top by the wind. The very wind that was now carrying the sound down to the beach. Bagpipes…bagpipes playing a mournful Scottish dirge.

I still couldn’t see the source, but the song was now very strong with a clear melody. Someone with a very large CD player? Just then, I could see a head and shoulders, arms carrying the bladder of a very real bagpipe, and soon the full figure could be seen, standing silhouetted against the morning dawn. Listening to the notes, watching the fog dissipate around this kilted figure, was one of the most compelling images I had ever seen. That’s right, not only bagpipes, but a full Scottish battle tartan, pinned on the shoulder, tucked around the waist. He played there on the ridge for a good solid five minutes.

We gathered our wits, stoked the fire, and made a strong Irish tea while the music played. Then he strolled down the hill, crossed the road, and joined us for breakfast. It was a fine meal.

Mystery Spot and Raccoons

The idea was to go to Big Sur for four or five days. I had read lots of Henry Miller, so I knew there was a history of alternative lifestyles, converted barns, artists, and writers deep in the woods, high on the cliffs above the ocean. We should go there!

Within a short while, we were in Pacifica, south of San Francisco, where Highway 1 would lead us to Big Sur. The rides were often short but friendly, and we didn’t have to wait long for the next one. Near Santa Cruz, we were left off by a billboard that was very familiar. For years, I would travel with my family on weekend camping trips. We mostly went north and northeast, driving the logging roads looking for the right spot to camp. Often we came upon similar gypsies with boxes tied to their roofs, bicycles lashed to the trunks, and sometimes, sometimes, they would have decals on their windows. Decals from the amazing places that they have found, tattoos of their memories to be read by fellow travelers. I envied their decals because my father never collected them.

Once we had stopped at the Trees of Mystery. It was a fabulous place, worthy of several decals, but I knew we would leave the place with nothing to show that we had been there. When we got back to our car, we were shocked to find that an employee had wired a placard to our front bumper. It simply said “Trees of Mystery, Klamath, CA.” My father just nodded and left it on all that summer. I was thrilled and I always looked carefully at the oncoming traffic to see if I could spot someone else who had shared our experience. And I did spot quite a few, probably more because we had one, but I was also intrigued by the presence of another placard.

Every once in a while, I would see a bright yellow sign with a black ball and the words “Mystery Spot, Santa Cruz, CA.” I wasn’t sure where Santa Cruz was, but I thought we must certainly stop there, because a car with Trees of Mystery on the front bumper and Mystery Spot on the rear bumper was a car to be reckoned with. And now, ten years later, we were standing in front of a billboard that told us the Mystery Spot was three miles up this road.

It was near the end of the day and a three-mile hike didn’t seem much, so we went up the steep road. It was a very long three miles, and by the time we arrived, the place was closed and no one was around. The mystery to the Mystery Spot was in the buildings that you could walk through. Weird angles created the illusion that you were taller at one end and shorter at the other. There were dozens of strange optical illusions that we encountered because we simply jumped the small fence and walked around. A few buildings were locked, and of course, the gift shop was closed. No decals available. After 15 or 10 minutes, we got the idea of the place and decided to get back down to the highway. It was also getting very dark with no moon. 

Perhaps it was just the dark, but we both started to feel pretty creepy. The buildings were twisted and misshapen; coupled with the dark, we decided to run. Running down a dark road was not the most intelligent thing to do. After several hundred yards and dozens of near collisions with trees, poles, and guard barriers, we stopped and collected ourselves. We had no flashlight (a clear planning mistake), we had a candle that blew out immediately and only lit our hands, and the dark was super intense for at least two more miles.

However, instead of matches, we had several magnesium fire sticks. We would shave small bits off with a knife, then scrape sparks to ignite the bits with tender to create the fire. Since both of us had fire sticks and both of us had knives, we descended the road striking sparks that looked like old-fashioned flashes for cameras. All we had to do was ration our sticks until we hit the main road. Every step further from the park eased our spirits and the sparks almost created cheer. Someone at a distance must have wondered about the splashes of light coming down from the Mystery Spot. But then again, maybe not.

The next day, we were in Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park looking at the available camping spots. Attempting to rough it by going off-road was not too appealing; the dense brush and undergrowth made it very difficult. We found a decent campsite and settled in with our ground cloths and sleeping bags as we went tentless. We had not seen the artistic side of Big Sur, only a few disdainful looks from the local shopkeepers. Apparently, there have been some problems in the recent past, something about lazy good-for-nothing shoplifters. Hmmm.

It was growing dark and perhaps we would find something interesting in the morning. After a decent evening meal, we had a small fire, talked some, then stretched out to go to sleep. After about 15 minutes, I felt someone grabbing at my feet. I gave a little kick and told my friend to cut it out. He responded from the other side, “What are you talking about?” A little freaked out, I grabbed my fire stick and flashed a quick spark. About ten feet away there was the biggest raccoon that I had ever seen. And he had friends; dozens of them. We were entirely surrounded by masked bandits.

We discussed that now that they knew we weren’t trash bags, and, that we had the power of fire, that they would certainly move on to other campsites in their nocturnal search for food. Yeah, that sounded reasonable. So we moved closer together in the darkness and tried to go back to sleep. I may have had my eyes shut because it was so dark that it didn’t matter, but my ears were wide open. I could hear the faint crunching of leaves all around me. And the crunching was getting closer. Soon I felt some more tugging and the crunching was getting closer to my head. I popped up and immediately flashed the area. The raccoons were caught frozen in the light, and it seemed as if their numbers had increased, with several big ones within arm’s reach. After yelling a little, the flash revealed that they retreated a few yards but were still very close. We decided to get up and start the fire.

The raccoons did not approach the fire. We could see their glittering eyes just beyond the small ring of light, so as long as we stoked the flames, they stayed back. Unfortunately, that meant that they would approach us from the back. So we made a small fire on the other side of our bags. Within the hour, we had a small ring of campfires completely surrounding us. It took all our effort to keep feeding the half dozen fires. When we could lay down, we still saw dozens of glittering eyes pacing back and forth, just beyond the light. Throwing pine cones and twigs only seemed to make them angry. We were under siege and the final attack would come when the last branch burned to ash.

After several hours of stoking the fires, we fell asleep, hoping that the flames would somehow burn on to morning. I’m certain that they did not, I suspect that they died out and the final assault hit us somewhere about 3:00 am. We were probably groped, prodded, and mauled, but we were so exhausted that we never woke up. When we did open our eyes, it was morning, and we were surrounded by ash piles from the fires and no evidence that the raccoons were ever there. I did feel a little violated, but perhaps that was just a dream.

We determined that we would pack up and leave that very morning. Another night under siege was not something that we were going to tolerate.


For all installments of “On the Road Again,” click here.