A memory of a favorite place, used for awhile by a friend as a meditation…
Montana de Oro
Montana de Oro is Spanish for “Mountain of Gold.” I don’t know if there was ever any gold in the Los Padres hills of which it is a part, but I do know that it’s a place of great value.
In the spring, which starts in February, the land is liberally spotted with California golden poppies. Nicely contrasting blue and white arroyo lupines turn whole hillsides pearly blue, and their palmate leaves hold raindrops for hours. Several species of hummingbirds live here, and the secretive hermit thrush, whose unearthly song echoes out of ravines like panpipes played in a tunnel.
These things I note in passing as I walk the trail to the shore, a line of coves below shallow cliffs. The drop is only ten to thirty feet, not as dramatic as the hundred foot cliffs of the famous and incomparable Big Sur some seventy miles north. Not as dramatic, but more accessible. I find a trail down a cleft to a narrow, crescent-shaped beach. To one side is a curve of red-earth bank, pocked with the nests of red-footed gulls; the other boundary is the Pacific Ocean. I stand awhile and watch the waves come crashing in, bursting over rocks with fountains of seawater, curling and breaking into a rush of foam that chases my toes, then drains backward in a roll of pebbles and shells until it bounces into the next oncoming wave.
A large mass of oddly scored rock draws my attention. Here is a world of tidepools full of feathery sea anemones, which close up around the stick I poke at them (I’m afraid to use my finger). Hermit crabs in recycled shells scuttle from seaweed ambushes to wage great battles. There are starfish and blue mussels and sea urchins. I could spend a lot of time exploring this little ecosystem, but I want to collect abalone shells. There are many broken pieces, still coral red on the outside and shimmering with opalescent color on the inside. I tuck a few into my pockets. I find two whole shells, tiny ones perhaps an inch in diameter. These were baby abalones, probably eaten by sea otters—it’s illegal for human fishermen to take such small ones.
I am disappointed to see that I have come to the end of the beach, where a wall of rock extends into the churning ocean. But here is a hole, and I step through onto another crescent of beach. This one is bit narrower and has rougher gravel underfoot. I walk along, finding bits of shell, until I meet another wall of rock. Again there is a hole!
I step through, not onto another beach but into a cave. A wave rushes in, and suddenly I am in green darkness. I feel a moment’s panic, but the wave only wets my feet and recedes. As it goes out, the water level drops, and sunlight pours in again above the water. I find a seat in the back of the cave to watch this interesting alternation. Eventually I notice movement in the water outside; sea otters are frisking about and diving for clams. I can’t see them clearly from here, but I can catch the motions of their famous tool use: one floats on its back with a rock on its chest, banging a clam open against the rock (why can’t they use screwdrivers? Then I could find more whole shells.) They seem to enjoy the water as much as human children do.
Montana de Oro is not well-known, which means it’s not crowded. There is no entrance fee. If you are ever in the San Luis Obispo area, be sure to look for it.