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  • Writer's pictureCraig Messenger

Pescadores del Sur

Daniel Duane wrote two very charming books in the 1990s about surfing twenty foot waves and climbing El Capitan, but his greatest achievement is this quote:

“While one might, I suppose, wish for a bloom to stay in blossom, for a ripening grape to hang always on the vine, [for] the understandably hopeless hope that we might freeze our world’s better moments – the wave’s plentitude is rather in the peeling of the petal, the very motion of the falling fruit.” {back down}

Photos by Berto

Big Sur is dying. It has been for a while.

I’ve been there ten or twenty times. I’ve seen dozens of dump trucks rushing to the scene of infections. I’ve had to take the single lane army road in twice. I’ve flown high above the 101, directly east of Pfieffer, when the fires were so flamboyant and apocalyptic-y that I couldn’t even see the ocean. And a quick audit of the time between disasters in that region yields a dour prognosis. So when I’m able to secure really any campsite there – which is difficult these days – I go.

4:45am, Monday

Typically when I try to lock our front door without the aid of the porch light, the pin tumbler is cruelly and unusually punished. That wasn’t the case this morning, as the ocean’s stripe held up a lunar spotlight in full bloom. I secured our quarters almost eloquently.

There are only a couple of reasons to leave a front door at such an hour: traveling, or being way too committed to a really awful job. It’s too early for a walk of shame. Too late for most felonies. Nevertheless, while we were driving towards the freeway we did pass an older man in some sporty leg sleeves and a Ninja Turtles bandana, running with nearly perfect form.

We – Berto and I – were headed north, and a little west, to Big Sur. I usually stop by once or twice a year, but I hadn’t been in a while. Fires and bridge collapses and viral loads kept getting in the way.

With the two of us, packing and departure was aggressively efficient. If our LinkedIn profiles were at all updated or accurate, they would display high endorsements in Traveling and Readiness from several industry leaders. Nearing 8am, Berto was head-nodding between bouts of chemistry class snoozes when we pulled up to a grocery store in San Luis Obispo. We collected campfire necessities and then ran around for 10 minutes searching for cream cheese, which has apparently become precious. I then faced the always daunting decision of which cashier to place our faith in. I chose woefully.

“Danny, don’t bother searching it up, it’s 4709,” declared a grisled, old woman through a chainsaw face shield. Her name tag displayed the venerable title of General Manager underneath MARJORIE.

“Oh, ok,” obliged DANNY, maybe 19 years old, with freshly frosted tips and only three hours of training behind the register.

But then the customer broke in, she being 45ish and suitably built to be the centerfold of a Hocus Pocus movie poster:

“Well, but this is actually the Organic Romain, Marjorie. It’s four heads of the Organic,” shattering the well accepted notion that everything supernatural stems from GMOs.

Danny then punched in the organic 4719 that Marjorie again recalled from memory, and The Witch stared back at us with a vile, fulfilled smile.

This game recurred several times, Danny not knowing how to ring up basically anything, Marjorie taking too much satisfaction in patronizing him, and The Witch thoroughly enjoying being in the spotlight for the first time since volunteering as the only female coach in her son’s AYSO league.

When the pain looked to be nearly over, Marjorie strained her well-protected eyes to peer at the register screen and alert her apparent friend to the final price. Meanwhile an old man commiserating with us in line shared his most sacred life principle:

“You know,” he spoke in a gruff tone from beneath an embellished Navy cap, “I have a One Day rule.”

In the other direction, The Witch interrupted with a devilish laugh and then responded to Marjorie with her only limit when it comes to both the cash register and the bathroom scale.

“As long as it’s under 500, we’re good!”

Our old man friend, now even more annoyed and second guessing whether this country was worth serving, finished dryly:

“I have to leave the grocery store on the same day that I come in.”

Eventually, we made it out of that store, leaving San Luis Obispo with a more thorough understanding of the city’s 3 letter abbreviation.


We had absolutely zero plans this entire trip and therefore absolute freedom to do as little as we pleased, so our first real stop was at a random lookout point just before one of the landslide sections. From the highway we had peripheral-ed what appeared to be huge rolling waves, and the ensuing bridge over a gulley gave us full view of their spectacle. I slowed down, covered the tires in soil that the landslide spared, and turned around. The highway here is like 100 feet above the shore, but there was an accommodating paved ramp down to a picnic spot where several popup campers and pickup trucks further supported our appraisal of the waves’ quality.

I didn’t bring a board. It was probably too big for me anyway. The waves were 5 foot and seemed kind of gentle and rolling, but the rocks popping up intermittently were grounds for a healthy dose of apprehension. We were content to just watch the gladiators paddle around. A guy on a tiny little potato chip was absolutely shredding. On one ride he must have covered 75 yards with 4 or 5 turns. A girl on a lovely mint chip board caught a right and gracefully shimmied up a couple of steps, and then a few more, until she was nearly on the nose.

Waveriders of this class – comfortably past the threshold of the intermediate – illustrate the potential of surfboards exponentially better than their only slightly less able peers (I’d probably qualify 2 or 3 levels of magnitude below that). A beginner surfer catches a wave and harnesses its energy rather anticlimactically from the third person perspective. On the board it seems supersonic, but in actuality we move slowly and in uninspiring paths and don’t appreciably separate ourselves from even a rogue bodysurfer in terms of performance or experience. But the more talented surfers, the initiated, must know a feeling we proletariat can only imagine, a feeling that only a well utilized board can bestow.

We continued northward. I think my favorite spot on the whole coast is Partington Cove. It’s not labeled with any signage besides a green gate on the west side of PCH with a suspicious amount of vehicles parked around it at all times – a congregation which we added to. A five minute descent and a hop over a foot bridge landed us at a tunnel carved through the mountainside. It’s a very quaint tunnel. And it provides entrance to the Cove portion of Partingon, a football field sized reprieve in the coastline abutted on all three sides by the towering mountain that we just tunneled through. The water here is some color that doesn’t yet have a name, a shade between blue and green and silver that can’t be described. I always imagine this inlet with a huge whale inside it, stopping by on major holidays, and perhaps even some lesser celebrated ones, to entertain. Based on the extensive marine biological research that I’ve performed, I know that whales are naturally inclined performers, thespians of the sea. It’s just a much more square deal all around if we bring the grandstands to them rather than the converse. I joke with Berto that I see an orca in here now, and our communicative rapport is far too developed for him to even consider believing me.

We next stopped at Nepenthe, looking to waste some time before we could check in to our campground. It’s a restaurant clinging to the side of a cliff with an eclectic store stationed beneath it. We walked around the store for a few minutes, rang the gongs they had hanging from the balcony before taking a creaky staircase to the top level. Two girls were stationed side by side at the front desk of the restaurant, hostessing professionally.

“Wow that’s a cool shirt!” complimented one of them, apparently towards me. I was wearing a red Led Zeppelin shirt with a large Union Jack emblazoned on it. Berto was wearing Crocs.

The east girl had like a nose bridge piercing, which I was subconsciously trying to understand the logistics of, while the west girl had paler skin with less punctures and perpetually blushing cheeks. When I turned and actually looked at them, the quip was already over, so I had to split the difference and stare between them when I responded so as to not offend.

“You know last time I wore this shirt,” I began, cooly confident yet fully aware of what was at stake, “a lady came up to me and asked me if I was British.”

As I paused, the women stared at me, taut with suspense, transfixed by a man of such mystery.

“But I told the lady (adding a playful chuckle for a more engaging listener experience) ‘Oh no actually, it’s a band.’”

Another pause to set up the punchline.

“But then the lady continued, mind fully blown, ‘Oh wow! You’re in a British band?!’”

And the polite giggles of a duo who have heard all of the Santa Lucia’s best jokes congratulated me on a job well done.

A third, well tattooed girl then walked by our revelry, pushing a cart full of plates, and exclaimed “WHOA! Hahahahah I love the crocs!” to the ground, and then kept on pushing and chuckling. She might have even let out a rogue snort.

We continued to the bar, the restaurant had a bar, and we secured two beers, drinking them overlooking an edge of the planet that appeared particularly computer generated.

View from Nepenthe


We set out on a mission to find a 375ml of Maker’s Mark. Berto had visions of seeing a bottle at one of the few places we had stopped at, so we retraced our steps. A Nepenthe reunion turned up fruitless, with no whiskey to speak of and our compass rose companions off duty, so we set our sights further south.

A few minutes later I spotted a small, single engine plane high over the ocean and questioned the operator’s judgement. I haven’t yet found any cushy place to land on the pretty side of these mountains. We stopped near McWay Falls for the requisite photoshoots. Around here there are many lonely rocks stranded just off shore, painted white by birds over time, but in my kinetic driving blur they sort of seem like whales, the rocks do, and again – it would be just like those playful, dramatic whales to dress up as rocks and throw transiting cars for a loop. So I end up staring at outcast rocks off shore quite a lot, and here, somewhere now south of McWay, one of the rocks was moving. Like definitely moving. Out there in the ocean.

The enormity of our journey carried us on. The only other place we had left to try was Ragged Point, the very southern tip of Big Sur, where they have a gas station with a cafe and a mini mart. Driving past Limekiln, our campground for tonight, we now saw a large military jet committing the same aeronautical sins as its Cessna brethren, albeit with a few more engines. Everybody wants a peek.

Half an hour later, Ragged Point left us disappointed as they had no liquor, so we deduced that Berto’s Maker’s Mark mirage must have occurred at SLO – a desolate land which we swore never to return to. We pivoted north, back to Limekiln, sober.

Tonight’s campground’s main attraction is being directly under a bridge holding up the Pacific Coast Highway, and when night falls the soothing lullabies of Goodyears passing overhead and waves crashing nearby sum to a powerful anesthetic. But I was most excited by the prospects of Limekiln’s shower. I remember it as a scalding, waterfall dream that I was eager to get all sudsy in, again.

We dropped down another convenient Caltrans ramp to get to the check in lane and noticed a 15 foot tall Gorilla face carved into the side of the mountain. A bird buzzed us overhead, went for a low bridge pass, and then off the continent. We parked and headed for the beach, literature in hand.

The sand is very thick here, I guess occupying a youthful position on the boulder-to-dust continuum. It’s almost black, especially when lit between the falling afternoon sun and its rising nautical refraction. Picnic tables are strewn about, and a clear stream through the sand delivers the region’s fresh water to its final destination, completing the water cycle. There’s a wheeled, scootery looking thing a few feet left of our towels and mean looking waves in front of them. The same aerobatic bird from a few minutes ago swirls off shore.

Shortly after we set up HQ here, two old guys stumbled past us and took refuge on the wetter portions of the sand ahead of us. One was bald and orange shirted, the other shirtless and fit but with the most pronounced outie belly button I’ve ever seen.

A few pages into my Jane Austen, I look up and again consider the lonesome lives these marooned rocks must live...when I see the whale again.

“Do you see that rock moving?”

“Out there by those other rocks?”

“Yeah, it’s past those and it’s the one that’s moving. Left to right, I think?”

“I think I see it.”


“Is that the whale from earlier?”

“At Partington Cove? No I was messing with-”

“Yeah no shit. No, I mean the one from when we were driving.”

We continued observing, and the whale disguised as a rock appeared to be using a paddle, and if it was attempting to give any sort of spout it really wasn’t doing a great job of it, so we reasoned that this was actually a dude disguised as a whale disguised as a rock, kayaking solo out in the most dangerous place I could imagine. The kayaker turned east and slowly started growing bigger as it soon became apparent that he was coming into port. I wouldn’t have wanted any part of these waves, maybe three foot but violent and shorebeaky – but I guess a somewhat sandy beach was his best way out of that infinite, heartless sea.

A few minutes passed and the kayaker was now a few strokes away from the squall line of those breakers, the point of no return, when the bald man ran to the water, began shouting, and repurposed his orange shirt as a lasso above his head – apparently signalling to the kayaker, letting him know that the big land mass he sees in front of him is indeed the California he has been looking for.

We start to wonder whether Baldy knows the kayaker or rather is just taking it upon himself to help this stray seaman who clearly can’t be very self reliant. Outie lounged on the sand, not yet partaking in the festivities.

The kayaker waited for a lull and timed the surf well, abandoning ship and trading paddles for steps just before he hit sand. Baldy met him here and yelled, rejoicing in the kayaker’s salvation which he had no small part in. At this time Outie tottered down to the water and helped the duo waddle the ship up to drier locales. In the background, a hungry bird dive bombed for dinner.

The kayaker started stripping off gear by the duo’s chairs, while Baldy walked uncomfortably close to our reading nook and retrieved the wheeled, scootery thing. He had the stout gut and hairless shins of middle age.

“Well this is kayaking weather if I’ve ever seen it!” He unfortunately proposed in our direction.

I wish I had had the strength to reply dryly with “I’ve never seen it,” but instead I remained politely silent and Berto obliged the intruding man with a “Yeah.” It was admittedly quite a clear day with a few well designed clouds placed here and there for texture. Truman Show-y. Another cooperative bird again splashed into the water now, making a noise loud enough that we could all break our required eye contact and search for it, revoking Baldy’s invitation for conversation. The man rejoined the other two and they debriefed gaily as old friends do.

“Well was that the fuckin’ best fuckin’ time you’ve ever had out there or what, George? I mean fuck! Couldn’t be clearer!” Baldy offered to the kayaker, apparently named George.

“I fuckin’ saw them on my fish finder.” George retorted, still shaded under the brim of his sun hat, with SPF50 stuck all over his beard.

Outie never spoke.

“We saw you from the ridge!”

“Fuckin’, fuck I mean I could see them on the screen.”

“I mean you were way over there by the point when we saw you.”

They usually responded to one another’s comments after two or three unrelated remarks had been made in between. The bulk of their vocabulary was variations of ‘fuck’, used as both noun and adjective, usually in the same sentence. I was just relieved to not hear it pop up as a verb. I’ll censor it from the rest of the story because I’m hoping that my mom will read this one.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever come up empty, ever...and in Big Sur of all places!” promised George – a man who usually gets what he wants.

“Well there’s definitely fish out there, gulls’re feasting!”

“I saw them on my fish finder,” assured George.

“The gulls?”

George proposed that the same full moon which had so generously spared our front door yesterday also permitted an evening buffet for fish in the epipelagic zone, rendering his bait unenticing.

“Oh I saw when you guys were up on the ridge – the orange shirt. All I could think was ‘goddamn that’s a real serious belly button.’ I looked up cause I had been messing with the fish finder. Hey, you think mine’s broken?”

Outie remained silent, not even flinching at the mention of his eponymous feature.

Baldy responded to George’s query incredulously, “Can you believe this weat-” before interrupting himself with “-I’m telling you, we saw you from the ridge, and right then, when we spotted you, I said ‘Boy, I bet he’s caught 10 by now! Jorge must be damn near beatin’ ‘em off his line!' Cause, shit I mean you were out by the reef and the reef means fish. Reef. Fish.”

Birds continued diving into the shallows, sometimes synchronously.

“Gulls sure are eating. Shit. Think I used the wrong bait?”

Baldy began taking some apparatus off of the kayak. Outie walked around aimlessly before obediently joining in on the unloading.

“Just gonna lighten yer load here Georgie.”

“Oh shit yeah I was on the reef. Sure was. I figured I’d get some bites out there, on the reef. But nope, nothing. Course I saw them on my fish finder.”

And the three men started hauling fishing gear to the campsite directly next to ours.

Berto and I gave each other a silent, indescript look that roughly translates to: is this real? We’d kept a wide berth from tackle boxes ever since last year’s 7-man backpacking trip deteriorated into a fishing orgy that we wanted no part of.


We headed back to the car. An Asian couple unloading a Volkswagen was stationed on our other flank, while an 80s Ford pickup with a camper shell was getting situated a few spots over.

I aimed for the shower wondering if I’d ever be clean again.

We had enough quarters for two five minute rinses, so I strolled into the stall and made my deposit. The controls were difficult to figure out. I probably spent three minutes in pure shiver, but I eventually performed enough black magic with the knobs and levers to conjure up some piping hot reminiscence. I left the bar soap on a shelf in the stall for my stablemate.

But Berto had issues with the coin mechanism. He inserted some change but couldn’t get the shower to start, so he walked out of the stall and over to the camp host to get some cold hard answers.

“You get a nice rinse?” Baldy asked. He was everywhere.

“It wouldn’t start.” Berto answered. As he trekked to the other side of the campground, I considered how vulnerable my bar of soap must be in there.

A bridge at dusk

Just a few moments later the Ford camper couple started walking over towards the bathroom with a reusable bag and eager grins that looked dangerously shower-ready. They skirted the shower stall for a trip to the toilets, but I couldn’t help but think that they had designs for that soap bar, that they were on a Nepenthe funded mission to capture my DNA.

My heart rate spiked and I almost thought to intervene when Berto appeared again, fresh government quarters in hand. The soap would be secure. He swiftly closed the stall door and fired up the faucet while the Ford couple were still manning the porcelain. When they came out and saw their plan thwarted, they were pissed.

“Well look at that Suzie...can you believe the timing?” Suzie almost stomped her feet while they hovered outside the shower door, together, lest someone else interlope. Meanwhile George was loading some of his fishing gear into another car parked next to the shower, and Ford guy must have also recognized him as the Rock/Whale/Guy.

“Catch anything?”

“Nah but I had-”

Ford guy broke in.

“-You had them on your fish finder? I figured. The junk they’re selling these days. I saw you quite a ways north.”

“Yeah I launch at Limekiln just ‘cause it’s the easiest but I go all over.”

“Water was mean today. We were at Sand Dollar and they had swell to the horizon but no one could make it out. Maybe one or two guys made it out all day. Beautiful though.”

Baldy then noticed that a conversation was materializing without him in it and he quickly intervened.

“Yeah, days like this you’re just duck diving over and over again. [He mimes what appears to be a duck dive action] And then you get cold.” Around this time I deduced that Baldy is almost assuredly one of the people who does the loud finger-tongue whistle thing amongst rounds of applause.

“Yeah I used to surf Will Creek and Sand Dollar back in the day, but not anymore.”

“You ever surf Molera?”

“Oh, Molera too. Everywhere. But not anymore.”

“Man you probably did that on single fins back in the day. That was our time!”

And Ford Guy didn’t directly respond to this, instead tried to fashion some way to get George, his original correspondent, back into the conversation. He turned towards the kayaker and commented.

“Well fish or no fish, you couldn’t have asked for better weather today.”

Baldy understood the conversation coup that was being engineered and would not yield. Behind the scene, the couple working out of the Volkswagen was on attempt #2 of setting up their tent.

“That’s exactly what I told Georgie, soon as he came in, I said ‘tell you what, this is kayaking weather if I’ve ever seen it, Jorge.’ Course it’s gonna rain tonight.”

Baldy now offered Ford Guy an evaluation of each campsite’s rain-readiness. In conjunction with his narration he pointed at each respective site with his middle finger, like some people do when they are holding a piece of fruit and need to quickly offer direction. I’ll remind you that this is a small campground, and the shower hub where this conversation is taking place is like 12 feet from each campsite (to Baldy this intimacy is probably Limekiln’s main attraction.)

“You guys over there in the camper shell, you’ll be right and dry, just make sure you bring your stuff in tonight. Us, we’ll get our gear covered. Jorge over here is gonna sleep in his truck. I think these guys [Berto + me] can fit all their stuff in that van.

“Now I’m less sure ‘bout those orientals over there (again, over there is literally two strides away). They don’t seem like they’ve got too great a grasp of what’s goin’ on.”

Ford Guy stood there soundless in disbelief. Jorge fiddled with fishing rods in his truck. Baldy apparently understood the tension, remaining silent for a few heavenly moments. At this time the Asian Volkswagen gentleman retreated to the inside of his newly erected abode, but his partner stood up tall and battered Baldy with a scathing glare. All was still.

“I got the shower to work.” Berto, unaware of this gathering near his ablution, deescalated the situation as he stepped outside.

“Nice and hot?” implored Baldy.


“Well was it still hot when you got out, is what we want to know!” Ford guy asked with a small chuckle.

“Oh yeah it was.”

Baldy snuck in one last comment before we went our separate ways.

“Goddamn son, you could be a belly button model.”

We locked the soap bar up in a plastic bin.

Baldy parked his truck in a sort of dramatic way to create a barrier between our two campsites since “everyone could use a little bit of privacy.” He then reminded us one more time about the inbound precipitation. We had quesadillas by the fire and exhausted ourselves of the 20 Questions game before retiring to some tossy-turny sleep. We left Limekiln at sunup – ground dry and sky clear – resuming our quest for Maker’s Mark.


Just as the great waves of Duane’s opening quote differ from petals by providing us utility only during their purgatory between stable states, so do those towering precipices of the ephemeral where we lay our feeble roads. The cliffs of Big Sur are breathtaking because they fall, because they collect fauna and flora and all horizontality in their violent collapses to sea. Because anything that we humans, purveyors of the flat and level, might erect in the arena of the vertical should only be expected to die the unremarkable death of the unfit.

We gravitate towards these places and experiences – National Parks, kayaking, surfing – and assess their appeal with rosy platitudes, but I think a more accurate explanation of our fascination is a sort of defiance against mother nature, a childish desire to see and do things that our limbed, terrestrial bodies were supposed to be forbidden from. Maybe each landslide and fire and cataclysm at Big Sur is actually a compelling endorsement, a challenge to tent-sleepers that their usual campground is novice fluff compared to the Central California park that is moulting its access roads by the season. Maybe, when George thinks it over, the real thrill lay not in nibbles on the line, but rather in paddling out to sea at all.

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