Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Gypsy Adventure Up The California Coast

Photo by RuthAnn*

 We’ve just returned from a fantastic week of exploring the scenic wilds of Pacific Coast Highway in Calliope the Wonder Wagon!

What a gorgeous landscape! Rolling hills carpeted in lush grasslands and shaded by majestic California oaks, rugged mountainsides cloaked in fog, dramatic sea cliffs and rocky tidal shores where the waves roil and crash, more serene beaches where smooth-worn pebbles glimmer and lazy sea mammals sunbathe, and out to the west – the Pacific Ocean stretching out to the horizon (a blended blur of marine layer between sea and sky), with nary an oil rig or motorizes vessel in sight.

We settled Calliope into a spot at the San Simeon State Park Campground and spent the first few days exploring Cambria, CA. 
I’d visited this small town many years ago, and I had fallen in love with it.  Its Main Street is flanked by numerous delightful galleries and shops, restaurants and businesses.  I couldn’t spot a single fast food chain restaurant or large corporate franchise.  There are flowers everywhere, bright colors and welcoming architecture.  The folks are friendly and the town looks prosperous, but not too “fancy”.   
In the back on my mind, I had this little fantasy that some day I’d end up living in Cambria.  This trip did nothing to dispel that dream.  I can already picture the Gypsy Mystery Gallery, painted in vivid colors and patterns with Calliope parked out front.

Surrounding the town are rolling hills filled with contentedly grazing cows and horses – even a few llamas!  Thick patches of forest are hung with dripping moss.  In the afternoons and evenings fog rolls in from the sea.  Along Moonstone Beach Drive are numerous seaside motels and restaurants, paths for walking and riding, beaches made of wave-smoothed pebbles or rocky promontories with tide pools to explore. 

Seals, otters and whales are commonly sighted along the coast here.  Inland, wild boar, bobcats, foxes and coyotes, mountain lions, bunnies, possums, skunks, squirrels, quail and more roam the wooded valleys and rolling grasslands.   Huge turkey vultures circle overhead, majestic as they ride the swells of air.  They share the sky with crows, hawks, bluejays, sparrows, chickadees and daredevil swallows that zip and dive in dizzying aerial displays.
What a joy to escape from L.A. traffic, smog and the rushed pace of city life.  This place - where nature surrounds and shares space with human endeavors and creativity abounds – feels more like home to me than any other place I’ve visited.

Across from our spot at the San Simeon campground was a van occupied by a fellow named Charlie.  He’s perhaps in his mid-to-late 60’s (he wouldn’t tell!), bearded and a bit rumpled, and when we offered him a beer and pulled up our campchairs for a visit, we discovered that he was a trove of truly extraordinary stories. 
He’d been in the navy (and awol from it), worked as a cowboy in the Ponderosa (and was fired because of an hours-long attack of compulsive laughter that he could not control), almost got hit by a meteor and had numerous hitchhiking adventures.
He had a harmonica and a guitar with Van Gogh’s Starry Night printed on the front of it.
He’d been wandering this part of California for decades, and knew the land well.  He was a wealth of knowledge – and much of what he told us I knew to be true, or was confirmed later by other sources. His tales were tall, but they seemed to be true.
He’d been let go as a campground host a couple of months previous, and was having trouble adjusting to life back on the road. He got some benefits, which sustained him, but only at a level of bare survival. His van needed to pass a smog check in order to renew his registration, which would probably require repairs, so he had settled at the campground until he could get his ride back on the road.

He was so pleased to have some company.  Most folks avoided him.  He wasn’t smelly or dirty, but he did have that kind of fuzzy, weatherworn and layered look that comes with living in the open, without full time access to showers or a real kitchen.
I think he tended to avoid company most of the time, too.  He had a tenuous relationship with the local state and federal officers that kept watch over the roads and wilds.  He could be a delightful character, but he could also be belligerent and cantankerous.  The locals in Cambria didn’t want him hanging around their tourist town. 

He loved Calliope, though her close proximity to his spot disconcerted him a bit, since she attracts a lot of attention. He’s used to flying under the radar, and here we come with our brightly colored curiosity-beacon, making fast friends with every Sherriff, ranger, camper and maintenance crew that rolled or strolled by.
Dillon also camped near us. In his early 20s, accompanied by his delicately fastidious terrier Timber, Dillon was a photography student who was “on a spiritual journey”, spending some time exploring himself and the wilds.  We hung out a bit with him, and he and Charlie spent some time around the fire together while we retired into our cozy wagon for the evening.

It was interesting to find that without TV or internet access, Dore and I both were content to spend long hours snuggled up side by side, just reading.  This week of solid togetherness found us developing the art of companionable silence as we wandered.  We spoke when a thought arose, and had many wonderful conversations, but were often content with long stretches of quiet contemplation or observation, often merely making eye contact with a grin that communicated without the need for words.

As we drove along PCH toward Hearst Castle, Dore put on the brakes as folks ahead of us began slowing and pulling off the road.  I looked over and saw a small herd of zebras grazing near the highway.  I literally did a double-take.  I was NOT expecting that!  They seemed quite content grazing these grasslands far from home, though.

When we took the Hearst Castle tour we learned that the zebras are descendants of the small zoo that was once kept on the grounds.  The grazing animals were free to roam the vast ranchlands, and there are still antelopes, Barbary sheep, Rocky Mountain elk, and those startling zebras enjoying their privileged home.
The Castle was interesting, though the tour lays it on awful thick. I enjoyed the art and architectural details.  The film included in the tour really added to the experience because it gave you some background on how the family fortune was built and the motivations behind the extravagant project.  I was also pleased to learn that the estate is dedicated to keeping most of the huge tracks of surrounding land they own undeveloped as a natural preserve.

A short way from Hearst Castle was the Elephant Seal View Point – a stretch of beach lined with wooden walkways and railings that allow you to look (but not touch) the hundreds of fat, lazy sea mammals that reside there at different times of year.  We caught them at the beginning of molting season, when the females take their ease after several months of sea hunting without touching land.
They were relatively calm and amicable.  Mostly they lolled about, flipping sand over themselves to keep off the sun or stuffing their faces into the sand, galumphing around with their peculiar rippling land locomotion.  Once in awhile two would get grumpy with one another and start up with the awkward rearing and wrestling and peculiar grunting/blatting noises.  This usually lasted no more than a couple of seconds, then they collapse on top of one another and snuggle. 

When we first arrived, we approached the railing and the one right below up let off a monstrous seal fart.  Thanks for the enthusiastic welcome!  All in all, we found them quite charming and hilarious.

Our next stop was Big Sur to meet up with some friends, but before we left, we said our goodbyes to Charlie.  I was a bit sad to leave him.  He seemed so lonely.  Much of his life these days was spent away from human contact.
Earlier, he had given me a beautiful scarf for my hair.  It had been left at the Lost and Found during his time as camp host at Pfeiffer Beach campground and he’d held onto it, waiting for the right time to pass it on.  I wanted to give him a gift as well, but was having trouble thinking of what we could offer him, beyond the art postcards I give away to everyone we meet.  He didn’t have much room for stuff, and he had everything he needed to get by. Then Dore pulled out a CB radio that he’d inherited from his father when he’d passed away earlier this year.  It was the perfect thing and Charlie was pleased with it.  I hope he can find some friends on the airwaves to keep him company.

Then it was off up the wild coast to Big Sur.  The road was twisty, snaking along the rugged mountainsides, but Dore enjoys that kind of driving, and Calliope rode well, despite the ocean winds. 
I kept my eyes peeled for whales and otters, but alas, twas not meant to be.

We stopped in at Nepenthe for a drink and a piece of pie.  I’d been here before on my trip up the coast many years ago and wanted to share it with Dore.  It’s a lovely, laid back place with a café, restaurant and giftshop perched on top of the cliffs.  Ample seating overlooks the spectacular views of forested mountains, craggy coastline and pristine sea. 
There were a couple of cheeky bluebirds zipping around here, but they were too quick for me to get a photo. We chatted with our waiter, who said that most of the employees lived on site, in some cabins on the property.  After our snack we sneaked around and explored the little conclave.  What a fabulous way for a young person to spend a summer!
 I could have spent hours in the Phoenix gift shop, with its handmade jewelry, art and clothing, books, toys, ritual objects and musical instruments.  Bob, the friendly former Los Angelino who worked the fine jewelry counter informed me that the general merchandise buyer wasn’t there that day, but gave me her contact info.  I could see my pendants doing well there.

We met up with our friends at Kirk Creek campground, atop a cliff at the edge of the sea, adorned with pines and bushes entwined with morning glories (and no small amount of poison oak). 

As usual, our rowdy bunch of hippies made ourselves at home.  We only took up two camp spots, but as one friendly fellow camped nearby put it, we “filled the whole campground…in a good way.”.  That meant we were laughing a lot, and loudly. 
At the 10pm quite hour, the gruff camp host came by and told us to keep it down so as not to disturb the other campers, and then it was a giggly struggle to keep the volume down while shushing each other like angry librarians, which just elicited more stifled giggles.

The next day our companions went off to explore the many hiking trails in the area, but Dore was more inclined to spend the day doing pretty much absolutely nothing.
So we set up our camp chairs next to our gypsy wagon and got out our books.
As we sat there quietly, the local denizens came to accept us as a non-threatening part of the ecosystem. 
Dore found some stale cashews in the wagon and soon we had ground squirrels, blackbirds and even a shy little baby bunny hanging out with us.  We watched their interactions with interest – our own private nature soap opera. 
Two squirrels (who I pegged as a “married couple” because they constantly harassed each other, but stayed close), were particularly charming.  The busy little male stuffed his cheek pouches to bursting with our offerings, even coming up to put his tiny paw on Dore’s boot and exploring under his chair.
One blackbird who clearly thought he was King of the Hill would claim a patch of nut bits with a queer little hissing sound and puff up his body feathers like a little balloon, then deflate. He was quite comical with his eyebrows that made him look terribly grumpy when he looked straight at you.
The brown females twerped and nagged each other, sometimes doing an odd little dance of stiffly vibrating wings and raised tailfeathers.  We were even treated to a little romantic interlude with some furtive courtship displays and a half-second-long mounting.  Ah, romance!
Every once in awhile, some unseen creature would give a piping cry and everyone would scatter for cover.  Eventually they’d venture back out.  We tried to locate the piping, which at times went on like a metronome for several minutes, but we couldn’t track down where the sounds were coming from.  I thought it was a squirrel hidden in the bushes, but Dore thought it was a bird in the big pine tree.  Neither one of us could be sure.
The baby bunny was too shy to step out more than a couple feet from the safety of his bush, but he was content to nibble in our company, maybe 5 feet away.
We spotted some large birds circling way up over the hilltops and thought they might be big enough to be condors, but couldn’t be sure.

The next day the weather was turning cold and windy and wet.  But we had enough time to get some good shenanigans in.  Party games to honor the birthday girl involved Depends undergarments decorated in our team colors, gnome hats (that thankfully wouldn’t fit on my head), balloons, duct tape, cowbells, hard boiled eggs and plenty of undignified behavior far too silly for civilized adults.  That’s how we roll.

It was starting to drizzle, so we battened down the hatches and got back on the road to head home.  We stopped for lunch at the Whale Watcher Café, which had a perfect view for when the grays and humpbacks pass though on their annual migrations, but it was the wrong season for that, unfortunately.

The trip home was uneventful and we returned to find the house still standing and the Cat alive and happy to see us.

It was a truly wonderful trip.  We met lots of interesting people, had fun showing off Calliope, communed with nature, took it easy, ate delicious meals in little cafes and pubs and soaked up the creative inspiration. 
I’m full to bursting with ideas for my next artistic venture, and dreaming of perhaps one day claiming our own little patch of coastal country paradise.

109 year-old pine at the Cambria Historical Museum
 *Special thanks to RuthAnn from Michigan, who we met in Cambria and who emailed me her photos. A pleasure to meet you!

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