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Big Sur Tales
By Robert Cross
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Robert Cross
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWHERE IS BIG SUR?
Ride past those final, fleeting hints of man
beyond his habitations and his hungers
-and then walk ...
Walk until silence becomes the canvas
the principle rather than the exception
Where even to think, even to desire
would be to shatter that silence
and render it absurd
-and then sit ...
Sit and breathe and know the aloneness
until it almost consumes you
and then you might
See BIG SUR
Copyright 1993 E.J.Childress Big Sur, CA
It takes poets like Emmet to make our world go round.
UP OR DOWN?
Ask any local if Big Sur is "vertical" or "horizontal" ... and you are liable to be told it is flat on a calm day at Pfeiffer Beach, vertical when scaling its jagged cliffs, and surreal for the rest of the time ... a state of mind in a time of life, or so I learned under a blanket of stars in the Esalen Baths.
Strange, isn't it: Anthropologists tell us that the Eselen indians who collected abalone along the rugged coastline had never fashioned a canoe, or seen a ship until Gaspar de Portola tried to find a safe harbor and failed. (Just like our Coastal Commission).
But then, they had never seen a wagon wheel until our Mexican ancestors came overland.
And so it can be said that while the European ships created North-South traffic, the indians never thought about it. However, in 1941 or thereabouts, the local ranchers found flint arrowheads from tribes East of the San Joaquin valley along the Little Sur riverbed-likewise abalone shells near Kings Canyon in the Sierras ... proving they at least knew how to trade East to West to East. Trading was simpler then ... even without the internet.
But it took the locals nearly a century after the first post office was established at Post Ranch, (at the end of what was then the Monterey Coastal trail) to transform Slades Hot Springs into the New Age mecca for the "human potential movement," now Esalen Institute.
So ... if you smoked any of the local weed at Esalen ... all this convoluted musing will make perfect sense to you. It did to me at the time.
Overheard at the Fernwood Bar:
"What's bright orange and sleeps four?"
"The CalTrans dump truck, Dummy!"
Off work, while standing next to that same truck:
"Hey, whaddya do that for?"
"Ya just crunched that big snail with yer work boot!"
"Oh ... him ... he's been followin' me around since I started my shift ... "
(told by Pat Chamberlain, resident CHP)
FOX N' HOUNDS ON HIGHWAY ONE
It was a lovely Fall morning in the Big Sur valley ... the river meandering along in my direction ... while impatiently I trolled my Porsche Turbo behind the California Highway Patrol's oldest patrol car, a Ford wagon of truly uncertain odometric calibration. The only red light was mounted in the driver's windshield pillar and hand operated. And Officer Ken Wright was trailing Gilbert's Volvo of equal vintage.
Now Kenny was a creature of habit, and so when it came time for his morning coffee, he turned off and headed uphill to Captain Cooper School where a fresh pot always brewed at the reception desk.
Gilbert was also a creature of habit, and-with the Highway Patrol now safely off Route One-he promptly proceeded to roll and light his midmorning weed of choice ... keeping a steady slow speed until the Big Sur River turned west to the sea at Andrew Molera park, while we bent right on Hwy 1 ... passing the 55 mph speed limit sign beginning a three mile straight two-lane run known locally as "Lighthouse Flats" ...
And I- whose nature was to "run watcha brung" -floored it ... passing Point Sur Light in less time than it took Gilbert to inhale ... and a puff later I had snaked through the sand dune, across Little Sur's bent bridge, shooting up through the hairpins past Hurricane Point, down across Bixby Bridge and clearing Palo Colorado's entry road ... all before Ken had swallowed his first sip of coffee ... or so I thought ... until I saw this tiny red iris of light speeding down from Hurricane, passing the Brasil Ranch driveway like he had an expectant mother for a passenger.
Now, on a narrow country highway, my choices were limited: backup quickly into Palo Colorado Canyon and hide out in one of the redwood lined sanctuaries that the the loggers had cut down in 1912 ... turn abruptly left downhill into the Rocky Point Restaurant's employee parking lot and hang with the employees until Officer Ken came in, full to his furrowed eyebrows with my antics ... or outrun him (too easy) into the Carmel Highlands where every cop West of Salinas could play cat and mouse with me until they slammed the cell door behind me.
Naturally, I did the Honorable Thing ... pulled over in front of the Morris mansion around the next curve ... and stopped ..and waited ... watched the fog roll in over the crashing surf ... through the cypress grove and waft across the road ... nearly covering me completely ... waited some more ... and finally, the tired Ford pulls swiftly in behind me, its red searchlight having found its mark.
By this time I've killed the engine ... gotten out and paced around my "silver bullet" (locals named it) a few times ... and finally leaned against the rear fender.
Officer Wright was, by now, furious, having pushed the old wagon to over 97-within an inch of its life span-he leaps out of the car, nearly clearing the door with pent up energy: "MR. CROSS, he barks, "I CANNOT BELIEVE THAT THIS POLICE CAR ... AND THIS DOOR SIGN (he slams it and it nearly unhinges) DO NOT MEAN A GODDAMN THING TO YOU!!"
I force a wan smile, push my hands into my jeans pockets, and put on my best dejected frown ... staring at his polished boots.
I feel like I'm stuck in a cookie jar.
Our eyes meet ... "Now, Ken, just wait a minute ... and remember ... I stopped for you ... as soon as I saw you ... "
His breathing returned to normal ... thought about it a long, silent minute: "Your license and registration, please."
(As if he hadn't SPENT enough time chasing me to pull even my credit report, I thought ...)
"Now get back in your car" ... he turned on his polished heel in the mud where he stood,, nearly slipped, waited for my stonewall reaction ... I opened my door and got in ... immediately warming up, sensing the fog's bitter cold outside ... and my VERY high speed (maybe ... 140?) chase that I had put his poor car through ... and rolled down my window to accept my sentence.
"Mr. Cross ... this road is not your personal racetrack ... this highway is marked 55 ... (65 was my ticket! ) and I never want to do this again."
"I promise to try to be good ... it's just such a great road ... ."
(At least until they give you a better car....)
Over my 30 years driving in Big Sur I helped in some precarious highway accidents, but Ken and I never spoke of that day again.
And, yes ... they did give him a better car....
FISHIN' FER CHICKENS
As in most midwestern communities, the pioneers who left the dust bowl daze of the 1930's behind, the Trotter family, formerly of Missouri, settled along the wild and rocky shoreline of the "Great Land to the South" as it was known by the artsy inclined community of Carmelites to the North.
While now the State Highway One links Carmel with San Simeon, just less than 100 miles to the South along what has too often been called "the most spectacular meeting of land and sea in the world," in the thirties, the state's convicts were still busy dynamiting their way along the fragile coastline, past the Harlan clan's ranches at Lucia, beyond the Post Ranch homesteaders at the top of the grade ending Big Sur valley, and building the many arching bridges now made famous by television commercials.
For the record, I have been able to find only one death by dynamite: by a Bixby Bridge worker- still left standing in place-lacking his head, according to workers nearby at Bixby Creek.
The South Coasters used the red sticks more for clearing rattlesnakes off their new dirt roadway than for blowing boulders, according to Ed Plaskett's journals.
Life was a bit quieter for the young Trotter boys who still lived at the Grimes Ranch at the headwaters of Palo Colorado (Spanish for "Red Trees") Creek. After trying to raise his four boys and a girl, their father Sam had faked his own death with a cliffside accident that left the family in dire financial straits . Years later he returned, and married his wife's sister, causing a tragic ex-wifely jump off the Rocky Creek cliff.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, the boys, Roy, Frank, Walter and Henry , all managed to trudge up the corduroy log road in the canyon, up Murray Grade (then only a steep muddy logging track, further switch backed in the dense redwoods of the canyon instead of the still steep paved road of today.).
The grade was named after Miss Murray, the local county school teacher, whose two story redwood home had been built along side the canyon, serving all comers of school age, the Trotter boys among them.
While most of the kids carried tin lunch pails (top rounded for the thermos, hinged on the long backside, flat bottomed) full of mom's soups and sandwiches, often times at least one or more of the empty Trotter pails reflected the empty larder at home. Lunchtime was, however, a time of consumption for each student in their own way.
Being naturally resourceful, the boys would slip out the screen door onto the outside porch balcony, and quietly move around the side, out of sight of their young classmates ... and directly overhead of the chicken pens ... each lowering his white string, loaded with enough popcorn kernels to convince at least one unsuspecting chicken to consume more than its fair share.
Suddenly the unfortunate bird found himself swinging helplessly by a stomach full of food ... just flying high enough to be reeled in by the clan, one holding the string, one wringing a feathered neck, and then holding an empty lunch pail into which the hapless bird was quickly laid to rest.
And that's how the lunch pail became the dinner pail for a hungry family ... "and that's how we wuz always fishin' fer chickens," chuckled Frank, when he told me this story over a beer on his own family deck some fifty years later.
It's 1933 and Tony Brasil's father is on horseback.
He's resting on the hillside overlooking paving on top of the newly constructed Bixby Bridge (soon to be regarded as the informal "gateway" to El Grande Pais del Sur).
He leans back in his saddle and takes a full swig of wine from his leather bota , and he mutters to himself, "Vayamos nosotros rancheros!" ("there goes the neighborhood!")
His quiet rancher's life was changing before his eyes ...
Eventually the Trotter boys all graduated, or the family moved South , just past the Post Ranch, where a group of wealthy San Francisco attorneys and affluent Berkley intellectuals were subdividing some oceanfront, blufftop properties along Rattlesnake Ridge.
And, also below to the South, along the county trail at Mule Canyon, where father Sam found employment carving out what are now the paved trails of the gated community of Coastlands, and clearing the south knoll for the Trails Club log cabin, now the family living quarters above a world famous landmark restaurant.
Have a drink at the Nepenthe bar's "Dirty Corner". As the locals knew it in my time, and you'll find yourself staring at the club's original log outer walls which stretch outside overhead, passing the tiered concrete abutments overlooking what is arguably the best public mountain, redwood canyon and ocean view from any luncheon terrace along the southern headlands of Monterey County's Big Sur coastline.
All was not cappuccinos and lattes for the Trotter boys in the forties, however. In the summers they helped their dad split redwood for local housing and picket fences, moving as far South as Frank Partington's ridge, where the old man hauled huge redwood log sections-collared and chained behind his ancient truck, using their weight to slow the truck around the dirt track of the road's perilous canyon curves- until it finally reached the cove 1500 steep feet below. (Talk about tense coastal driving, nothing tops this!) Eventually the logs were floated out to a waiting boat,chained between two massive rock outcroppings marking the cove's open sea entrance.
According to Walter Trotter, he once spied a WWII Japanese submarine, surfaced for repairs in the cove. And perhaps some fuel ... previously stored there by some of Monterey's Japanese "mosquito fleet" fisherman, often thought to have their allegiance to Emperor Hirohito.
Since few phones existed along the coast road, open only to locals during wartime, it took Walter more than a couple of hours to reach the Highway Maintenance Yard in Big Sur Valley, and a few hours more for the U.S. Coast Guard to send a ship to intercept the sub, long since departed the cove. This was one of only two known landings by the Japanese Navy along the entire Coast, and yet the event was never acknowledged by our Navy. If I had not heard the story from Walter at the Coast Gallery, perhaps it would have been forgotten forever.
Wartime winters were not so eventful, and with the road closure, the Trotter boys went to Monterey for the school year, a common practice for ranch kids along the coast.
What was not common practice, however, was another food gathering trick of the resourceful young men who, despite rationing, even managed enough gas in Walter's Model A Ford coupe to chug over to El Estero's lakeside grassy park in the middle of downtown Monterey.
Most old-timers credit Doc Roberts for not only the completion of Hwy One along the coast, but also for convincing the good people of Monterey to drain a swamp, formerly an estuary of mosquitos.
This provided a civilized viewing area for huge migrating duck and geese flotillas who wintered part-time in the park's splendid setting, enjoying munching on the tall native grasses along the lake's edge ... along with a foray on shore underneath a certain black wheeled "lunch wagon" offering the birds who would venture forth, a dessert of-you guessed it- POPCORN!
No doubt the best seat from which to view all these quackers exploring their newfound just desserts was from directly above, since Frank and Walter had quietly removed the car's wooden floorboards from harm's way ... and could quickly snatch enough of the feathered foragers for a week's worth of dinners.
So it might be said that Doc Roberts had become a special friend of the family in more than medicine.
Apparently, neither the game wardens, nor the Sierra Club, ever caught on, for the Trotter boys all graduated from Monterey High, and at least three of the four went on to studies at the University of California at Berkeley, both Frank and Walter on football scholarships, and Roy moving on up the Bay to Albany with an engineering degree.
Roy later retired in a Palo Colorado Association redwood home, with a three-legged garage, whose claim to fame is its redwood tree supporting the entire weight of the forward section of the structure. (I hope it lasts forever, about a half mile in, on your left.) Apparently the Monterey County Planning Department was a bit more casual back then.
In fact, I know they were, since I knew Jake and Rosa Goetz, who had built their log home at "The Hoist" four miles back in the area at the front of Long Ridge.
Jake once regaled me with a group of tales that would fill another book ... suffice to say that when he applied for his building permit, he was told by phone to just give them the home's exterior dimensions on a post card, and to "Just mail it in"-along with the Township and Range Number showing where the place would be located on a U.S. Geological Survey Map. Thereafter, Jake was assigned an Assessor's Parcel Number and his permit, making everything all hunky-dory with the Monterey County Building Department.
Excerpted from Big Sur Tales by Robert Cross Copyright © 2010 by Robert Cross. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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