I went to California at the age of twenty-one. I was a little late to begin my self-discovery journey, but picked a wonderful place for expeditious lessons, deep in the mountains off Highway One. I lived in Big Sur for eighteen months, six of which were spent in Willow Creek Canyon as caretaker on a four-acre homestead.
I had two dogs, seven cats, and a .22 pistol to keep me company. The dogs and the pistol were for protection, the cats were for the mice. However, those dumb cats would never kill the mice. I had to kill them and feed them to the cats.
Each day I would fire a round of shots into a round of wood, to warn any possible intruders that someone was on the property; and they could be killed. One of the dogs, the Doberman, was loyal and sweet to me, but not the smartest animal. He thought target practice was a game and would run in the direction of the bullet. The German Shepherd was much smarter. He stayed at my side when we were out.
Interestingly, they had different ideas about running away. When we went for walks, we sometimes would hear the wild boar that lived in the canyon. I never worried about the dogs mixing it up with coyotes, because my dogs were mountain tough. But when Dobie the Doberman heard the boar, he would run into the woods to try to catch it. I always worried that he would be killed, but I guess the boar wanted nothing to do with him, because he always came back up to the trail.
Jerry the German Shepherd stuck with me when we were doing things, but on our ‘down time’, he would run far away, down the mountain pass and through the brush to the back of the school, about three miles away. All the children in our area attended Pacific Valley Regional Elementary School, in a one room but partitioned building.
Occasionally, a car would drive up the pass, the driver would open the front gate, and then carefully coast down our long and rocky driveway. It was usually the teacher who sometimes lived on the property when her boyfriend, the owner of the land, was back from his business trips. She would get out, open the door to her backseat, and let Jerry out. Then she would come tell me how much fun he had playing with the kids on the playground that afternoon. He loved the kids, and he loved the teacher, so I never wondered why he ran down there.
In rare instances, the visitor was someone the dogs didn’t know, and I hoped they would not get out of the car and try to be nice to the dogs. “Stay in your car!”, I would yell, and motion for them to stay put. Then I would walk out to their car with the dogs and introduce them. Dobie and Jerry were trained to be guard dogs, so I didn’t worry that much about my security. I had the dogs, and the gun, but relied much more on the dogs than my skill with a pistol.
Everything on the homestead was divided up by structures. There was a kitchen building, an outhouse, and outdoor shower, two cabins where the owners lived when they were there, and a trailer where I stayed. I cooked all day on a lovely old stove that ran on either propane or wood. I preferred wood. There was no one there to eat the homemade fritters and other yummy desserts that I concocted, and they would pile up. But cooking kept me from going stir crazy, while making me feel connected to the pioneers who had been on this land before me, so I kept at it.
Sometimes, Debbie the Bandit would drive her dirt bike down the mountain to see me. She lived about two miles up the winding road. I always knew she was coming because I could hear her popping off her .22 on the ride down, sort of aiming at, but mostly trying to scare the Blue Jays. As Deb got closer, I could hear her yelling, “Fucking Blue Jays!” She really hated those birds.
She was an eighteen year-old who lived with her thirty-three year-old boyfriend. He was gorgeous and kind, and I had a little crush on him, but I would never admit it to her, him, or anyone. Deb had grown up in Big Sur, and her parents still lived and partied there. Deb was a mountain girl, tougher than any coyote or even boar, but she was also hilarious and great company for a gal who was on her own most days. Plus, she would eat some of the fritters and tell me they were good. Since that was my life’s work at the time, the input was really appreciated.
We would smoke jays on the side of the cliff when she came down and get so high that I swear somedays I thought I could and should just walk right out onto the fog bed. Then we would climb up on the far side of the property and nude sunbathe in the warm grass on a hill. Hang gliders would illegally soar over our land and stare at us, and Deb would threaten them with her gun. It was scary but exhilarating. I always loved when she’d visit.
When I left Big Sur, I moved to Cambria, CA, where I was a cook, a cocktail waitress, a bartender, and a “bagger” at the local grocery store…these positions all ran into one another, working out my schedules between bosses who all knew each other. But in a town of 3,000, that wasn’t much of a surprise.
Sometimes my friends from Big Sur would come to town, and they were thought of by the townspeople as roughnecks. I thought of them as friends. Sag was a guy I knew from Gorda, where I lived the rest of my Big Sur days after the caretaking stint. He would come down to Cambria to party at the bar every few months. Once while I was working he was there and got completely hammered, and started some trouble, so he was asked to leave.
On his way out, he stopped and whispered in my ear to let his friend know that he would be outside, but the owner of the bar, who was always drunk and high (it was the ‘80s; I make no excuses) thought that he was hitting on me, and he and his friends ushered Sag out and started beating him up. I was screaming, “He didn’t do anything! He’s a friend of mine!” When the owner’s bloodthirst abated, they stopped throwing punches. Sag got up and walked around the corner. He was a mountain goat who took a beating as well as he gave one. It was a typical Saturday night.
I loved my time in Big Sur and learned so many lessons from her. But Cambria was like coming home, and it was there that I began to learn about responsibility, community, and growing up. Everyone grows at their own pace, and some faster than others. I was a slow learner. There were many more lessons to come. There still are.
The tub stands on the hill,
Just outside the kitchen building.
There is a hose attached to the faucet,
Which runs up the long metal tube,
And ends at the showerhead at the top.
It is a quiet, rainy day.
The well water and the rain fall on me simultaneously
From the shower, and from the sky.
Both come down softly, warming my skin and my mind
As I revel in this paradise of mine
That most will never know;
That most would never guess
Would be such a spiritual and thrilling experience.
Just taking my shower in the tub on the hill in the rain.