1970 Ano Nuevo: Russell Towle Finds A Shocking “Treasure”

Story by Russell Towle

email Russell ([email protected]

June, here’s another story from my years at Año Nuevo Point.

I had lived quite a wild life for a time in the 1960s, a life which among so many other things included riding freight trains all over the West, and doing light shows for a living, at times at the Old Fillmore, at Avalon Ballroom, and other notable venues, and also, taking all too many drugs. LSD in particular was, on the one hand, reputed, as in Timothy Leary et. al., to lead to religious or spiritual experiences and awakenings; one would finally hear the sound of one hand clapping; with a little luck one would levitate; and yet, on the other hand, it was quite a powerful drug and, for me, not conducive to social interaction. Yet I was often in social settings. I decided to lay off the LSD, and in 1968 and 1969 took it only once, as I recall.

Then came 1970, and the little driftwood cabin. The quasi-wilderness of Año Nuevo. Someone gave me a hit of acid, and one evening I took it. I would consult my Muse. I would commune with my new home. Alone.

Alone with the fog, the wind, the waves, the agatized whale ribs and vertebrae, the dunes and Indian mounds, the birds, the perpetual uproar of sea lions on the Island, all alone with my mile of beach and
its always-renewed palette of flotsam and jetsam. I was a nature mystic, and would “call” treasures to me. If ever I found a sea lion tooth, near some lonely little pillar of rock jutting from the sand, thenceforth every time I approached that pillar I would “call” for another tooth, for another treasure. And, totally tangential to the story, while calling for another tooth at that very pillar, once upon a time, I was amply rewarded by a killer whale tooth. Oh, was Hank Bradley, of Coastways Ranch, jealous. He borrowed the tooth, and mailed it off to eminent marine biologists, to obtain a precise identification.

So I had my little acid trip in my little cabin and all went well enough, except, I did not levitate for the umpteenth time, and all I heard was sea lions bellowing into the night, and waves thundering up and down the lonely beach. I called it a success. As dawn’s first light changed the depths of night into merely deep gloom, the beach seemed the place to be. It was, after all, only eight feet away. I bounded lithely down to the sandy expanse, and started south. Immediately, a small heap caught my eye, a couple hundred yards away.

“Something new,” I reflected, and, trusting to my inimitable, nature-mystic luck, I figured some new treasure would soon be mine. All mine!

As I drew closer I knew several things the heap could not be: it could not be mere seaweed; it could not be a sea lion, there was something blue; it could not be … .


What it could be, and what it was, became all too visible. A dead man. Weeks in the sea he’d been, just the right number of weeks, so that all flesh was stripped from head and arms and feet, but ligaments and
tendons still held them attached. A skull of white bone, two hands, two arms, of white bone, two feet of white bone, blue jeans hiding the legs, and yet a torso almost intact, a little battered, a little ripped, but basically intact.

This was yet another incredible find, yet another stroke of astounding luck. And horror.

I was not really so alone in my sand dunes. A couple hundred yards away was a driftwood tower, rising fifty feet into the air, built by the very remarkable young man named Pete Moss, a protégé as it were of Merrill Bickford. Pete Moss had attended Peninsula School while Merrill was teaching there. He was an only child from a broken home, raised by his mother, and he rebelled; he ran away; and here was Pete Moss, maybe seventeen years old, living in a kind of sorcerer’s tower he had constructed from driftwood. It had multiple “floors” inside, at various levels. If it had a forty-foot-long tie-died flag flying from its summit mast, as it did while Kesey and the Pranksters were filming their movie there, it could be seen from a long ways north on Highway One. Well. A few miles, at any rate. Two at least.

So. There was really only one thing to do, having found my horrible corpse. I must run and wake up Pete Moss and bring him down to see my lucky find.

I scampered up into the dunes, following a certain serpentine path, and soon arrived at the Tower. Pete was still sleeping but I shouted him awake, not yet revealing my important secret. He stumbled down a ladder from one of the upper levels, stark naked, as was not uncommon, at that remote time in history, and began eating a banana. I gave him about twenty seconds before I launching into my coy “Guess what I found on the beach this morning” routine.

“A DEAD MAN!!!!!” he screamed, and tore out of the Tower like a bat out of hell. I followed at an only slightly slower pace. After all, I was now an old hand at this business of finding bodies on the beach.

We stood and examined the body for a time. We agreed: someone would have to walk over to Cascade Ranch, the nearest telephone, and call the San Mateo County Sheriff. I ended up with that job. It was a good
hour’s walk to the ranch. I made the call. In another hour or so, it being a long drive “over the hill” from Redwood City or wherever, the deputy arrived.

I was barefoot, dressed in some kind of sturdy Army surplus pants, some kind of rough old coat to ward off the bitter, eternal, piercing wind, and of course, I had my long curly hair, and my long curly beard. The deputy was nice enough, though. After a brief recapitulation of my discovery, we drove down to the beach.

The road was fairly rough, and only got worse as it neared the beach, but the deputy was brave, and we wallowed through deep sand to the little turn-around where one could park.

Just so soon as we left the car, we heard the wailing of a saxophone. The deputy was filled with suspicion; he rounded upon me, he hurled questions. I explained that my friend Pete Moss played the saxophone.
This seemed to calm things down. But matters only grew worse when we reached the beach, where Pete Moss, still stark naked, stood over the corpse, playing a funereal dirge in the dead man’s honor.

I should say that Pete Moss was, even then, a very gifted musician, and played several instruments, including classical guitar; I learned a lot about the guitar from Pete Moss. He would teach me the chords to some piece by Bach, so I could accompany him while he practiced the fingering of the melody. And this all happened in our driftwood cabins, a million miles from anywhere, as it seemed.

The deputy was, rightly, I suppose, astounded, and rightly, I suppose, suspicious.

Things sorted themselves out rather quickly once we had a chance to converse. The Coroner’s van was summoned. More hours went by. The van arrived. Pete Moss had left the corpse for a time, and now he
returned, and began wailing on his sax while the body was rolled into a black bag, which in turn was lifted onto a gurney, which was, perhaps, not the best idea, considering the long distance, over soft sand, back to the van itself. So the coroner’s men were struggling along, Pete Moss was wailing on his saxophone, the Sheriff’s deputy was, himself, now an old hand not only at finding bodies on the beach, but at listening to strange young hippies play the saxophone, and I was just, well, observing, when the sound of drums, and yet another saxophone, wafted over the dunes.

It was some of our friends from Pacific High School, come to visit, and for some reason, they were dressed in black robes, long black robes, like medieval monks. They carried their conga drums and other instruments right down onto the beach, just as the corpse was being wheeled, if you could call it that, away. So there was a kind of Greek chorus of black-robed men, and Pete Moss, playing a Death March for the coroner’s men, and the deputy, and for the Spirit of the Departed.

Such was an exciting day at Año Nuevo Point, in early 1970. If I recall, the man had crashed his airplane into the ocean while doing stunts, some weeks before.

Russell Towle

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