Camping The Californias

A Collection Of Thoughts On The Act Of Sleeping In The Dirt

Photo: Maassen

The coyote was the size of a large German Shepherd. Under opaque stars and what's called a "smuggler's moon"--a crescent moon bright enough to see by, but not bright enough to easily be seen by--I perceived the animal, at first, only as a motion, a disembarked piece of the landscape. Sea mist encroached to create an atmosphere both murky and blue. Once it blew away, I saw that the creature was closer.

My tent was set in the trough of a desert bowl that crumbled into a right point. I'd left my tent during the night to "throw the water," as they say in these parts--and that's when I first caught the moon and then the movement below it. The coyote looked at me. It was a giant. I raised my arms up like a ghoul in order to appear bigger. I growled. Dying embers in the fire ring crackled and spit. The coyote circled the wall surrounding the camp--casually, I thought--a confident gait that led me to doubt its species altogether. There was also talk of an onza, a combination lion and jaguar nobody sober had ever seen. Was this it? If so, it wasn't shy. The creature finally sauntered off like a streetwalker, aware of better prospects downtown. Once it was gone, I crawled back into my thin, fabric house, zipped up, listened intensely, and watched the moon set over the hill and into the Pacific.

When I woke at first light, I again stepped out of the tent and scanned the hill. My gaze tracked around the low bowl following the same trajectory as the night before. The landscape was empty. Then the white of my overturned surfboard caught my eye. It lay next to the tent. In the center was a gathering of muddied paw prints, each one nearly double the size of my fist. The creature had paid me a visit in the night. This was a direct example, I thought to myself, of the problem many people have with tent camping: the image of a claw, or a serial killer's dagger, tearing through the synthetic fabric. The tent is not a shelter then, it's nothing more than the soft, leathery shell of a turtle egg. And we know what happens there. Later, a wilderness buff suggested that the creature approached my surfboard to lick the cool condensation from the smooth surface. It could easily have licked my scalp.

The following evening, after a long day in the ocean and the dirt, a character named Scotty approached the campfire as my mind's eye was busy exploring the craggy heart of the embers. When I looked up, Scotty's head became a flaming orb of white and orange. Meeting another surfer on a campout is a social conundrum. You've both come here to get away, and now you're together. The other person contains all of the potential bullshit you've fled and are sleeping on rocks to avoid. You know this person; they just have a different name where you come from. For surfers, there is the established territorialism of the lineup and this conflicts directly with the convivial spirit of the campfire. Like a couple of dogs that circle each other in order to piss on the same spot over and over but then lay down to share the same piece of shade, you finally relent and get to know one another. Scotty's fiery head cooled into that of a longhaired skater-type. Turns out he was a fireman who looked like he rode a fixed-gear bicycle. He said he'd been over at the other camp talking to those kooks about the fact that they'd failed to bury their own feces. The sheets of their used toilet paper had scattered in the wind and were caught on bushes, flapping about like prayer flags. Once the flies got into it, we'd all get hepatitis, which was a clear sign of stupid surfers in the desert. "Anybody who goes camping without a shovel is an idiot," he'd said. But then, changing the subject as quickly as he'd appeared, Scotty asked, "Hey, did you see the lights last night?"

"No," I said. "What did they look like?" I imagined a sprawling, misplaced aurora borealis.

"They were just points of light, but they didn't shoot across the sky like satellites. They zigged and zagged--maybe four or five of them--sometimes parallel to the horizon, sometimes perpendicular, stalling and speeding up. White, red, green lights...completely unnatural and crazy."

"What was it?" I asked.

Well, that's the 'U' in U.F.O.," Scotty said with a flick of his long hair.

We discussed alternative sources of the lights, the condition of the sky, and the phase of the moon. Shooting stars? No. Spy drones? No. This is when I realized Scotty had seen his vision about the same time in the night that I'd seen the creature. From this perspective, I understood that I hadn't encountered a giant coyote at all, but a loping alien scout who'd beamed down to the ridgeline. And if this was the case, its visit to my tent was instantly more unsettling. I may have been abducted, or injected with something. Either this, or both Scotty and my visions were explained by a powerful and ominous third option: that we urbanites sometimes seek out wide open spaces so we can see our deep-seeded delusions more clearly.

A strange phenomenon, this camping thing: the very image is a signpost of youth, summer, nature, purity, a communion with wild things. In reality, the concept is so shallow it may not even exist. Take gypsies, for example--whether dancing before a horse-drawn carriage in Transylvania, or gambling before a circle of caravans in an Irish car park--are they camping? The estimated 50 million Native Americans who inhabited North America before 1491, were they enjoying a 20,000-year campout? What about the modern homeless, or migrants? What about Africa's San people? Is it necessary to have access to a solid structure to consider sleeping outdoors an act of leisure? Why does camping from a car so closely resemble living from a car? What if you pass out drunk in some bushes? By the most basic standard, if you enjoy this sleeping arrangement and wake with a song in your heart, the condition may be camping, but if not, it's vagrancy. The sole parameter the idea of camping seems to accept is a general inclination toward moving onward at a future point. Even then, camping is a hard concept to peel away from that of life.

Surfers may exhibit a rare exception to this quandary, as they have a reason to sleep in the dirt. Surfers want to be close to waves, and there aren't always inhabitable structures close to the waves they want to surf. Over the years, the pastimes of surfing and camping have merged in the imagination. Think of the 1974 Craig Peterson cover of SURFER Magazine entitled "Discovery on the way home from Central America." Imagine the undeveloped bush of Jeffreys Bay just lousy with surf hippies. Remember the hepatitis-stricken shantytown of tent-living gringos at Punta Pequena. Surfing and camping are skills that have evolved together, waste enormous amounts of time, and produce nothing. Done well, they leave no trace.

One should, however, be prepared to lose everything tangible on the trail. There is a reason the entire thrust of recent human history has moved toward significant habitations, single and multi-units, cement slabs, bunkers, McMansions, and general suburbia. It's because people don't like to lose their shit. Whereas, nature likes to wreck it. Native Americans were probably the best campers the world has ever known. The Kumeyaay, for example, inhabited Northern Baja and Southern California in great numbers. They built their dwellings out of local trees and brush, camped out for hundreds of years. Today, there is hardly a trace of their sites.

I've camped on the lawn of a historic mansion in Southwestern France, as well as on the deck of a leaky Indonesian ship. But I began my adult camping career in a drainage pipe south of T-Street in San Clemente, California. I was 14 years old, and my brother Ian was 16. We didn't pack so much as blankets for the trip and wrapped ourselves in the beach towels we'd been dragging about and wiping our asses with for days. A warm 12-pack of Budweiser cans topped with a sweatshirt is as good a pillow as any. I can't remember what sort of lie we told our parents about where we were going, or what we'd had planned. I would like to think that the essence of this lie was cause for the negligent packing, but I doubt it. Observant beachgoers might have assumed that we were runaways, but we weren't. We were just ill-prepared and illegal campers. It was the evening dew that forced our move into the concrete drainage pipe. And this was fortuitous, because we discovered that lifeguard trucks patrolled in the night like prison-yard watchmen. Train tracks roared to life overhead. The foghorn bleated. Seals barked. The bushes were full of hobos and surfer shit. The tide crept up the sand berm incrementally closer.

One day, while looking for a sympathetic adult to buy us beer at the local 7-Eleven, we met a guy we'll call Bill. In my youth, I thought Bill was a bum, but I now realize he was just an old surfer (you can forgive the confusion). Bill was an amiable guy though and agreed to buy the beer--adding that, if we bought him a 12-pack as well, he would give us this beat-up single-fin he was about to toss in the bin. That seemed like a deal to us. And we rode the shit out of it. Turns out that the gold-colored, down-rail, baby blue pin-lined, swallowtail had been shaped by Rusty Preisendorfer during his auspicious years at Canyon Surf Shop in Ocean Beach, San Diego. This would have been just a few years before he met Mark Occhilupo, and forged the partnership that made the Rusty name. Decades later, I had the opportunity to describe the board to Rusty himself. The shaper's voice levitated with recognition and nostalgia at my description. "And I bought it from a bum named Bill for a 12-pack," I added in error.

"Oh," said Rusty (at the time, other classics of this ilk fetched large sums on the auction block). "I don't understand." In the wake of Rusty's deflated response, I failed to add that I'd been 14 years old, living from a drainage pipe, and that the board was a cherished memento of the best campout of my life.

The author, 'camping.' A pastime that differs from homelessness only in the fact that it has an endpoint. Photo: Ellis

Serge Dedina, Ph.D., of Imperial Beach bought a potato sack of live lobsters from a pair of fishermen for 20 pesos. At dinnertime he was wearing his Moroccan djellaba, a long robe of many colors he liked to wear on a campout. He sat at a bench busily splitting the skulls of the writhing lobsters with a Rambo knife before tossing them onto the fire. This was a problem for his fellow traveler, Saul, a vegetarian and lobster sympathizer. Saul shrank away to his tent to avoid the kill. The rest of us stood around and watched, unsure of what this meant for our collective karma. Before we ate, a fisherman appeared from an abandoned-looking trailer, a structure that looked like it had been swooped up by a hurricane in Cabo San Lucas and dropped on top of a witch in the desert. None of us suspected it to be occupied. But the fisherman walked across the desert expanse, and without language, presented a large sack of fresh clams. The sack must have taken an entire workday to collect. "Give me a six-pack and four cigarettes for this bag of clams," the man said.

The beer drinkers shrank away like Saul the vegetarian. Our trip had just started. There wasn't a beer store within a six-hour radius. Depleting the stocks at this early stage would have altered the ice-to-beverage ratio in the coolers, causing a one-degree centigrade rise in temperature, which would tip the balance and instigate a catastrophic warming trend from which we might never have recovered. Thinking quickly on his feet, my friend offered, "How about we give you 50 pesos for the clams?"

The wizened man looked about the broad valley of volcanic hillocks, mesas, alluvial fans, dried chaparral, a road that is sometimes there, and sometimes not, and then his gaze settled on the ocean. He raised his hands. "What the chingada am I going to do with 50 pesos out here?"

So we settled, and the man walked off to his trailer with one beer and two cigarettes. That night, an unforeseen windstorm whipped through the valley with tremendous force. It rocked the vehicles. Sand blew through the tent fabric. Loose surfboards were lifted up over a rocky promontory and flung into the ocean. Then our tent poles began to snap under the force of the wind. My tent completely folded. It was too dark to pack up and leave; it was too windy to sleep. So I lay there in my flapping tent taco wondering if it was the lobster kill or the imbalanced business dealings with our fisherman friend that had caused this calamity.

Mexicans tap the underside of a bent elbow to signal a cheapskate. Driving out of camp under unyielding winds the following morning, I'm sure I saw a bent elbow behind the dusty trailer window.

Rules are a hard part of camping to accept. In general, most outdoor-types camp to avoid rules. But layers of restrictions and ethics exist to define camping as a thing. This is the reason park ranger uniforms have traditionally mimicked military uniforms. When Yellowstone National Park was established by Congress in 1872, the idea of protected lands was an odd one. So, locals continued to poach animals and occupy the land any way they saw fit. Befuddled, the government sent military troops to enforce the rules. The military role was transferred to the newly created National Park Service in 1917, and park rangers have dressed like 19th-century officers ever since.

Still, this wilderness history doesn't jive with the freeway-adjacent, convenience-store-orientated, parking-lot camping of many California State Parks. My friend Brian Taylor and I chose a Central Coast park for its access to a number of breaks. A significant swell was building, and campsites were filling up like stadium seats. Elderly volunteers wheeled about in golf carts, checking receipts and enforcing noise limits. The obvious surf breaks were packed to the gills.

With no real knowledge, or even a clue, Brian suspected that another pointbreak lay hidden up the coast. This intuition put us on the back roads of some of the most beautiful California I'd ever seen. We came upon decrepit barns, green pastures, scattered wildflowers. Coastal mountains rose in the east. We crossed ranches and came upon workers who lived in mission-style bungalows and commuted by horse. Finally, we just parked, and started hoofing it down the train tracks. We jumped an auspicious-looking gate and crossed a field. We came to a cliff edge, and there down below was a spooling little pointbreak. We spotted just two guys out.

Getting down was not obvious, but after negotiating a slope and another gate, we came around a bend to the beach. A man and a woman in their 30s sat on log. They wore backpacks and looked wet. As we approached, their eyes darted looks of disbelief in our direction. The man turned out to sea. The woman leveled an angry stare. The beach path provided no choice but to step around their position. As we passed, Brian offered a warm greeting.

We set our gear down, and the woman blurted, "How did you get here?"

Brian shrugged. "We walked."

"How do you even know about this place?"

"We didn't. Just got lucky."

"Where are you from? Town?"

"No. San Diego."

"Oh, don't even go telling your San Diego buddies about this."

"Well," interjected the man for the first time. "You've already broken two rules."

"What's that?" we asked.

"First, you came together. You're only allowed to arrive alone. Second, you're about to paddle out. You have to wait 15 minutes and then paddle out one at a time. After a half-hour, you have to come in and wait 15 minutes again."

I put my suit on, as to be prepared at the 15-minute mark and beat Brian into the lineup. When I hit the water, the man and woman turned to leave, the lady shooting us one last stink-face. The two guys in the lineup turned out to be a middle-aged woman and her 17-year-old son. We obeyed the rules regardless, and an orderly rotation ensued. The peeling break whipped along a cobblestone headland, below a chalky-tan cliff topped in green. The ocean and sky rolled and sighed in hues of blue.

After our session, we took in some dynamite rays on the beach. In the afternoon, three toughs with matching Al Merricks appeared. They gave us looks and paddled out. One of them immediately punched the 17-year-old in the face. The kid and the mother exited the water. "That Fabian is a real gem," said mother, as if she'd watched the neighbor boy grow up. "What an asshole."

A year after I'd spotted the coyote on the hill, I found myself back at the same campsite, having erected my tent on the same patch of clay. My friend Shawn Bathe and I surfed through the mid-morning, and were sitting and staring at nothing in particular when a single-prop Cessna flew out of the south only 30 feet above a headland and dipped down to buzz the beach. It came on us so fast we didn't have a chance to move from our chairs. We looked up at its belly just two dozen feet above us, before the plane rose in time to just barely make the next headland. I deeply suspected it to have been loaded down with illegal substances. When a dark four-by-four rendezvous truck came barreling across the ridgeline, just minutes on the tail of the Cessna, I knew it was.

That night while preparing dinner, Shawn and I talked our way around the sighting and its implications. Was this a dangerous place to be? Would the truck return? Just then, Shawn pointed to the southeast. "What is that?" he asked.

A white beacon lit the entire sky beyond the low easterly mountains. It stretched across a broad swath of the horizon. The size of it left me dumbstruck. I forgot anything I'd been thinking about narco-traffickers.

"Is there a city over there?" Shawn asked.

"There isn't a city for 200 miles," I said. My mind was drawn back to Scotty, and his alien lights. They danced, he said, right? They zigged and zagged. This one was bigger. A dry terror rose up my spine. My hand dropped the spatula. One synapse fired upon another, and I said, "Oh, shit, that's the moon."

On cue, a mothership of a moon climbed into the night, as full and as alien as could be.