A Sea of Sand - Pismo Beach

This is an initial version. It needs pics and a re-write.

It was Friday evening and I stopped at a brew pub my friend had told me about I usually write stories about diving in the Pacific Sea because it offers such beauty and adventure, but near there is another sea that also offered great wonder and adventure. ... Some stories just need to be told. This has wanted its chance before. Now it seems to have demanded it. ... It was Friday evening and I had stopped at the LadyFace brew pub my friend had told me of. Those were some good beers and they made my mind drift to another sea. Really, LadyFace Mountain is a great hike... Oh yah, the Sea of Sand... So long ago, but still near, because it is the kind of story that makes lore. A story rarely chronicled, but not a story easily forgotten.
The seas of water are my place. The land is my brother's place. He had often spent time at the Sea of Sand, the great sand dunes of Pismo Beach. It's a beautiful shore, but the diving is poor... even for me. My brother Dan often went there though for the ... well, let me tell you. It's a bit hard to believe, but that is why it is special enough to write. Wow. ...
He had gone there many times with friends. This time I came along. I drove my Dodge Maxivan. Lots of room in that. It was a couple hours up the coast. A very familiar trip for me, but I rarely go past the pier. This time I went off the end of the road to where you can drive onto the beach. Only the dummies get stuck there. It is one of the few beaches you can drive on at all.

Leaving the familiar beach it is hard to believe how vast the potential for adventure lies beyond. You drive down the beach. No big deal. It's just a car path on the sand. Yah, there are a lot of off-road vehicles, but it's mostly regular street sedans. Well here anyway. Then you cross a small stream. I heard the stories of the jeeps and RVs that had vanished in it after getting stuck and the tide coming in. That's it though. Past that and you are in the dunes. It's pretty reasonable up front. The beach goes on probably 10 or so miles... to the Devil's Slide. Away from the shore for perhaps a quarter mile, the sand slopes up gently. You drive down the beach and turn in where you plan to camp. It's a good idea to make sure you are well above the expected tide. We were probably 3 miles along when we turned in a couple hundred yards to meet the others that often "camped" here together. My brother parked near some vehicles and I pulled in next to another long blue van, but it was a Ford. We unloaded wood, the motorcycle and ATCs from my brother's trailer... and more wood and maybe some more wood... Oh yah, that was from Dennis' pickup truck. That was all he brought. Then we started unloading the beer. The Frumps were set up nearby and a number of other people I more or less knew. They were a very nice croud that all came here together regularly. There were a number of various sized encampments nearby with cars, jeeps, RV's, motorcycles, ATC's, buggies and other vehicles as well as dogs. It sort of went on forever. Above us, the dunes started. There was absolutely no discernable order. I don't think that was the nature of the people here.

OK, let me make one thing clear. This was in a younger day of mine. Sure, my memory might be fogged a bit by time, but there were other factors then which I'll mention most lightly, but you can fill it in with your imagination... and you'll likely come up short. The evening was mild. It was a good weekend with little fog and little wind. You usually get one or the other. I relaxed near a fire and settled in my van for the night. ...How deceptively mild it all was...
The next morning, my brother said to go to Anon's RV. They always served breakfast to everyone the first morning. Cool. Eggs, flapjacks, bacon and sausage. The best way to start a camp morning. After that Kevin and I got an early morning buz on and headed up the dunes on ATCs. Now understand that all dunes are created by the wind blowing from the sea and so have a very mild upside slope from the shore and then a very steep dropoff on the back where the sand falls down. ... So, going up, the steep backsides cannot be seen, no matter how big they were. I was behind Kevin. We went perhaps 100 yards before he went off a 6 foot drop off. I braked and slid down with no harm, but he was hurt. We went back and I was then going to go with his brother Craig. So we caught a buz for him and went blasting up away from the shore again. Again, he went off another 6 foot drop off and I sort of recovered. I looked back and he looked fine, but it was just that he was still dazed. He still has the scar under his chin where it hit the handlebars. So we went back again and I got buzed a bit more. I was pretty buzed by now and I headed into the dunes... cautiously. I don't think I had ever ridden a 3 wheeled ATC before. ... They are illegal to sell now... cuz they are so notoriously dangerous. Who'd a guessed? The wind was blowing some sand, but wasn't a big problem. Still, after a few starts I ended up with goggles and a bandana over my face below that. It was comfortable and a common fashion.

I went on up away from the shore alone further than before and suddenly found myself over a 40 foot drop off. OH SH...OOT! Thump, bump, whoa! I was at the bottom, with no harm done except for my composure, but then this was not a steep dropoff. Many people had been down it before and broken it down. In front of me was a well worn gully in the sand like a river bed with 25 foot high sides. This was my first sight of The Great Sand Hiway. See, though there was the natural hiway running along above the beach, the dunes went very far inland. About a mile above the beach was a "hiway" through and into the dunes. It started from the beach perhaps a quarter mile before our camp and turned sort of parellel to the shore... into the dunes. This gully I had found was the first ... challenge... hazard of the hiway. A sedan with a very good driver could get past this, but mostly this was for offroad. Most any offroad vehicle could travel here, but there were more challenges beyond.

I thought this was all cool. I continued on exploring this place I had never seen the likes of. The dune dropoffs I had seen near the shore ... that wiped out my friends ... were about 6 feet high. I saw some here that were more than 60 feet high and almost vertical. The idea was easy to figure out. Either try to go straight up them or go straight down them carefully without turning. Anything else and you were likely to roll. I found people trying to dig out a 2 wheel drive pickup stuck in deep sand. I saw bushes tenaciously growing on dunes and pieces of dead wood like skeletons sitting on the blown slopes. There was a GTO... or that is a GTO body on some humongous 4 wheel drive chassis. He moved sedately with little hurry or worry about getting stuck. A regular I dare say. There were custom vehicles of every kind. The mechanic stuff seemed sort of a guy thing, but the driving was pretty equel opportunity, with a fair percentage of crazy ladies of all ages to complement all the nutso motorhead guys.

I found huge dunes too high for any but the most intrepid or the most experienced to challenge. Really, just go over the top, go straight down without risking turning or slowing, hit your brakes a bit just before the bottom to drag down sand so that hitting the bottom of the dropoff had some curve. Laugh all the way down. It looked very scary. I had never seen anything like this before. I was careful not to end up on some of those.

It was like diving in that I had no idea where I was, but I sure was having fun finding it. You would occasionally see the charred remains of campfires. Some seemed oddly big... I also found an area where there was heavy plant growth in the dunes with banked trails winding through it just wide enough for ATCs and 4 wheeled Odyssey carts. It looked neat. There was even a circle cut at 45 degrees into the dune by wheels. It was probably only 30 feet wide and if you wanted to you could have just gassed an ATC and gone round and round like in a ball. Even with the obvious traffic, this was still a wild place.

I headed back to the ocean. Going that way it was easy to avoid the dropoffs as you could see them before you went over. I headed up the beach, part of a flow of traffic like an 8 lane freeway made of every kind of vehicle... and not in any particular lanes of flow... in both directions. A lot of these drivers didn't have licences or apparently much fear either. A 6 year old could drive a jeep here and some of them did. It was one thing to have motorcycles and ATC's zipping around, but there were also the kids on the tiny mini-motorcycles. Most vehicles did have flags flying on whips to offer some visibility though. When a large wave came, the lanes near the water would shift towards the middle. Luckily most people were good drivers.

I got back to camp. Kevin and Craig were alright as I recall. I don't remember, but I bet we got more buzed.

I do remember, sort of, I wanted to try an Odyssey, the new 4 wheeled Honda carts with front suspension. Well, a guy nearby had one. I thought he was part of our group so I asked if I could try it. He said OK. I took off and immediatly went off a 40 foot drop off. I hit the white knuckled wht steering wheel and hit the brakes. It was OK. 4 wheels help. I went on and saw another Odyssey doing laps in about a 100 yard long oval. At the end of each long side of the oval was a jump he would fly up at top speed. Round and round he went.

I drove on sedately for a while seeing mostly various 4 wheelers and buggys. There were a lot of V Dub sand buggies. Rear engines gave them traction and their front trailing link suspension was great for offroad. They were also cheap and easy to work on. I saw a small school bus in the dunes, apparently with a brave, skilled driver. Figure if you got stuck there were plenty of people that would consider it a fun challenge to get you out and had the tools to do it. I headed back pretty soon actually and asked if they minded if I went a bit longer. They said fine. I found the guy in the oval again still doing jump after jump, but this time I saw the sign on the roll bar that identified it as a rental. Go figure. I found the trails through the plants again. They were amazing trails so I went for a ride. After a bit though I stopped. I knew my style wasn't working. I was being cautious. Most turns were blind. It was a dangerous place, but it was obviously a place for going for it. Caution was not going to work. Sometimes you've got to take your life in your hands and rely on dumb luck to survive. What a blast! That was some of the most fun I ahve ever had. I flew around corners and wailed down the narrow trails. Fun like that ain't safe. I guess I had some sense left though. I came to where that small circle track was cut. There was a dang full sized buggy VW Beetle in it going round and round it full blast. Holy Mackeral! I left.

I went on for a while and figured I had better return the cart. I guess I had been gone a while as I got a bit of a dirty look when I came back. I did thank him. It turns out he wasn't part of our group and I have no idea who he was.

Back at camp the beers were cold and there was lots of food. I think the tequila was flowing some by then. Little kids on mini dirt bikes buzzed around in the camps. Motorcycles, ATC's and buggys left on expeditions alone and in groups. Ambulances would travel done the beach occasionally and sometimes get stuck in the dunes when trying to aid someone. They would get helped out pretty quick. The Sheriffs tasked with keeping the place sort of safe and sane had pads of paper printed with the directions to the various local hospitals.

I didn't even try out my brother's interpretation of an Odyssey. He ahd built it from scratch. Instead of a 250cc one cylinder engine with one speed that Honda made, his had a 450cc Honda two cylinder with those torsion bar valve springs that let it wind to over 8,000 rpm, feeding through a 4 speed transmission. Testing it on the street I had seen him accelerate so fast behind people that seeing him in their mirror they would panic trying to figure out how to get their cars out of the way of that thing doing fishtails screaming up behind them. He said that once he had mounted a lounge chair on a piece of plywood and dragged it down the beach behind the cart at 30 miles an hour. Dusty sat in the lounge chair reading a book, but the plywood couldn't be seen. Performance art was popular there.

On the other hand, I did decide to go out for a leisurly ride on his 500cc, 2 stroke, single cylinder Yahama motorcycle. It's not a leisure bike though. I had tried killing myself on that beast up in the Sierras on a previous trip. Better on the beach. What could I hit? Ohhhh boy! Well, you see, the problem is that you are going along the shore... way too fast. If a wave breaks off shore a quarter mile up the beach in front of you, when you get there in 15 seconds it will be six inches deep instead of the damp, but clear sand you planned on. At 60 miles an hour, that's a problem. A big problem. I quickly learned. Simply, I was going way to fast and there were occasional people, vehicles and even dead seal lions to avoid. There were various other random hazards to dodge as well.

I went down the beach, I dunno, maybe 5 miles, maybe 10 miles. There was sand. There were people. There were vehicles. There were birds. There was a beautiful beach. At the end is Devil's Slide. Pismo Beach ends at a tall hill that goes all the way to the shore. There was no going around that without getting into water. This would be towards Santa Maria. The wind blown sand went up the side of the mountain for about 700 feet. People tried everything on every vehicle to get up that sand. Most made it about a quarter or half of the way. A few made it all the way up, but they mostly were equiped with strong machines and paddle wheel tires. The best part was when a rogue wave snuck up and got the spectators looking up the hill. It was a heck of a show. ... Little did I know, it was not the main event.

I went back to camp and though it was evening, things were obviously not winding down as is usual in any camp, quite the contrary, but preparations were not happening either. There was a fire, but it was not the focus. It wasn't just our group either. People were waiting for something to happen and they were excited. Our group had probably 5 various buggys that could hold from 4 to 8 people. (Yah, an 8 person dune buggy for the older folks) It was time. We all headed up the Sand Hiway. OK. This was fun. Driving around the dunes at night was a thrill. ... Maybe even a bit scary at times with experienced drivers. Then, there we were, but it was too disorienting to capture. There were buggys and trucks and motorcycles and ATC's and other things that came from no production line. Powerful lights lit up the landscape and huge bonfires of tree rounds burned 15 feet across. The lights from trucks mostly, focused one place though. This was the back of a 200 foot high sand dune called Competition Hill. It was probably a quarter mile wide. It was loud. It was nuts. 8 trucks would line up and go roaring up the hill together. Then 12 V-Dub buggys would blast on up taking about 4 seconds. Every so often an alcohol Honda buggy would launch itself to the top in 2 seconds. The NITROUS Corvairs could do that too, but the V8's, while definate beasts, were just too heavy to beat the lighter vehicles. Then 10 trucks would churn up side by side again while at the same time on the corner of the hill a dozen ATCs would slolum up with their safety flags whipping around in the lights. ... Then they'd do it together. That was the scary looking ride.

Next to us was a guy sitting on an ATC with a big aluminum ski sticking out under the back. It looked functional. It was a 750cc Kawasaki engine with NITROUS. He would run a couple times a night to show how it was done.

The trucks especially were big, powerful, high tech machines that would muscle their way up the hill. They were expensive and it wasn't unusual for a truck to take hundreds or even thousands of dollars of damage on a run.

Ah yah, I mentioned all the V Dubs. Well they take a lot of V Dub wrenchers to keep them going and they have all these spare magnesium engine blocks around from races past. Every so often they would throw one on a huge raging windblown bonfire. The sky would light up like it was the end of the world. There were skyrockets and fireworks, but you would barely hear them among the engines and the HiLiters were brighter. There were few laws, but those of physics. Hey, everyone was there for a good time and really, it was mostly families.

I don't remember the whole night. It went on for hours and it was all a bit of an overload.

I was buzed yes, but I wasn't as bad as Bill. He drank a bit too much and passed out on the sand which was OK this time of year, but somebody drug a dead sealion up the beach to sleep with him. Whadda wake up!
I dunno all that went on. The next day started with buggys and wheels and fumes. Big and little kids played on every toy imaginable. Yah, it seems to have stayed in my memory and it has wanted out before , but it seems it was time. I did have a final memory of the memorable trip. In the late afternoon it was time to go. Everything was loaded. The beer cans were bagged. Really, most people were already gone and it was quiet. The beach was quiet and the gulls were back in their places on the shore. It was no longer like a freeway with the alternating lanes. I was ready to go. The Ford van next to me slowly drove away over the sand. I put it in gear and sank. Crud. No problem. My brother pulled out his SnatchEm Strap and a little tug popped me right out of the sand and the right half of my van front end 8 inches off the frame. Hmmmm. It drove home. I adjusted the radiator with tie wraps and put in about 50 small machine screws to straighten up the sheet metal. All that was left were some amazing recollections.

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