1970s: Remembering Ano Nuevo by Russell Towle (2)

Story by Russell Towle

To live for two and a half years in that tiny cabin … shivering through every summer under that constant northwest wind, whipping wetly out of the fog bank, just offshore … quite memorable.

The Steele family, I see, enters some of your blog posts. I knew some of them, and even lived for a time at the Steele Ranch at Green Oaks Creek, years after my time down in the dunes. They had burned down one of their old barns, and it had not all burned, but in the wreckage were a number of hand-hewn redwood 12X12’s, dating, I’d guess, from the 1880s or thereabouts. I rescued a few of these, and one of them is scarcely six feet from where I write this. So, Año Nuevo stays with me.

The Steeles had a collection of amazing obsidian spearheads, probably ceremonial and ritual in provenance, which they had gleaned from the dunes of Año Nuevo, back in the 19th century. Several of these spearheads were six inches long. Perfectly made.

Yes, in my little hexagonal cabin in the Sierra, three of the six interior walls are paneled with tiny little redwood laths, liberated from a property line which marched across the dunes, now all part of the State Park. The laths are intricately colored by lichen and iron stains (they were laced together with wire, originally). I carried these laths in giant backpack loads across the dunes, back in 1975. They had long since served their original purpose, to shelter a line of Monterey Pines and Monterey Cypresses from the eternally howling winds.

Yes, Año Nuevo. My first time there, in 1966, maybe 1967, several friends of mine and I dropped acid in Los Altos and drove across the mountains on Page Mill and Alpine and La Honda roads, turned south on Highway 1, and parked at the south side of Año Nuevo Point.

It so happened, it was the very day that the Beatles’ single, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” was released, and the radio station was playing it over and over and over as we made the long drive over the Santa Cruz mountains.

We wandered into the dunes, and for the first time in my life I saw Indian mounds, which are everywhere out there, littered with thousands of flakes of chert derived from the Miocene-age Monterey Shale Formation. Chert, and shells, and bones. And this wilderness of sand dunes and Indian mounds was slathered, all over, with wild strawberries. Which we ate. While listening to the new Beatles’ song. In our minds.

We wandered far to the north. Ah those beaches which face the island. Stinking with masses of rotten seaweed, stinking with sea lion feces, swarming with flies. I had never seen the like. Eventually we reached the North Beach, where years later I would live.

The sun set into a mass of fog and the howling northwest wind ushered us away. In the dim light after sunset, all of us lost, except me, being gifted with a fine sense of direction, all of us stoned out of our minds, just as I pointed the way back into the dunes which would lead us back south to where we’d parked, a mile away still, my friend Milton Taulbee spotted a monster on the beach.

“Look,” he screamed, “a sea lion … hurt, injured in a storm perhaps… look at its mouth! Look at its head! Oh, the poor thing! We must help it back into the ocean, where it can die in peace!”

That was Milton. He was like some knight from the Middle Ages. He had the kind of courage which insists upon what is right, no matter what the consequences. Milton was a warrior. Tall, thin, and platinum blonde.

But it was not an “injured sea lion.” It was, in fact, a sea elephant bull, taking a quiet nap on the beach. It did not need any kind of rescue. We gathered around it in the deepening gloom and it took the combined efforts of four young men to convince Milton it did not need to be, somehow, rolled back into the waves.

Failing to convince him, I led our party into one of those infinite valleys, leading south into the dunes, with Milton standing staunchly there on the beach, a patriot of patriots, a hero of heroes, until finally he too followed.

Such was my introduction to Año Nuevo.

Russell Towle

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