A Problematic Entry

I really don’t quite trust what I am about to do here, but I’m going to do it. A few of you — a very few — know Road Angels, my 2002 book about travels down the West Coast. In it I tried something very different from my other books, both in tone and in content. I wanted to take a look at the American dream at the turn of the century; to paint a series of pictures of people and places from the Canadian to the Mexican border that, when added up, formed a snapshot of our national psyche as revealed by the coast that I call “the end of hope and the beginning of dream.”

The book received some strong critical praise, then disappeared like a stone in the ocean. But such is a writer’s life, and one moves on.

The reason I am going on this long prologue is because I am going to post here an unpublished section that was meeant for that book. It never got included because the length of the book necessitated cutting off the coastal journey at Big Sur. This has to do with La Conchita, California, which is just south of Santa Barbara. It is where the devastating mudslides are taking place.

The reason I say that I don’t quite trust this posting is because the tone seems insensitive in light of what those people are suffering. But it also seems tremendously relevant in a dark sort of way.

Know this as you begin: this piece was actually written in 1996. La Conchita had experienced devastating mudslides the year before, though without the loss of life.

What follows is the unpublished essay, “God’s Bowling Ball — La Conchita, 1996.” You are the only folks ever to have read it.

God’s Bowling Ball – La Conchita, 1996

The air is fragrant with flowers and heady with birdsong. Horses graze contentedly among the manzanitas, and golden light filters down into the canyons filling the day with warmth. I am on a winding country road that snakes its way back into the coastal hills right at the line between Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. This is my last dawdling side trip before dropping into the freeway din that will move me from Santa Barbara down to L.A.

Like so many roads in the California coastal hills, this one is little more than a level spot carved out of an otherwise almost vertical hillside. Above me the chaparral-covered bank rises at an angle too severe for a person to climb easily; below, the hillside drops like a cliff into a tangle of semi-arid vegetation. But the curves are gentle; I wind my way along this road with vigilance, but not with fear.

Here and there a pile of earth has dislodged itself and slid onto the road, causing one lane to be closed. Blinking sawhorse markers have been placed in the roadway one or two turns before the actual slide to alert drivers to the upcoming problem. No one thinks anything of them; they are common occurrences in any winter on any coastal hillside road. Sometime in the course of the day a county front end loader will come and scoop up the slag, and within minutes the road will be open again. It is no more out of the ordinary than the clearing of snow in more northerly regions.

But there is here a sense of earth movement that is slightly more intimidating than normal for California hills. In some places you come across a diagonal patch of fresh asphalt that runs the width of the roadway. There is a difference of about a foot between each side of the patch, and you must slow your vehicle to a crawl to navigate the drop or rise.

Across the canyon, I notice a huge vertical fissure running down the side of the hill where the earth seemed to pull apart during the heavy rains. The crack looks like normal erosion, but is as wide as street and several stories deep. It could easily swallow a house if one were in its path.

Still, it does not seem apocalyptic. This is big land, and such movements seem as natural as an animal shifting and stretching in the morning sun.

I am looking for more. I am looking for drama, for significant geological event. I want to see something disruptive, disjunctive, equal in scale to the landscape itself; something that dwarfs the human.

“You want to go to La Conchita,” a woman riding a horse along the road tells me. “There was really nothing out of the ordinary here.” She smiles a warm, country smile and turns her horse up a long, winding driveway that disappears among the fruit and nut trees. The fissure rising up the hillside above her means nothing to her. It is well within the course and scale of accepted natural occurrences.

I turn around and follow the curving roadway back toward the coast. It emerges abruptly at the coastal highway, a multi-laned ribbon of freeway that flies along the flats between the water’s edge and the monumental camelback hills of the coastal range.

This is not a good place to have built a high speed roadway. You can sense that it falls into the category of a “feat of engineering.” The land is too low, the water too close, the earth itself too clearly a reclaimed seaside marshland. But the road is there, and it is a primary flyway for vehicles moving from Santa Barbara down toward Malibu and the western reaches of L.A.

I drive along looking up at the hills to my left. This is still the residue of the geology of Big Sur; the hills rise hundreds of feet from the level of the beach.

La Conchita turns out to be so small it is not even on my map. It is a tiny retirement community made up of a hundred or so houses and a few trailers tucked in between the freeway and the hillside. Apparently it was at one time nothing more than a mobile home park, and was closer to the ocean, but when the current highway was built the trailers were moved back to the landward side of the freeway and the current town was platted.

The setting is barren and windswept. La Conchita sits alone on a stretch of coastal bracken, unconnected to any coastal urban sprawl. It has a gas station and little else. In layout it is nothing more than a small grid pattern of short streets, none more than a few blocks long, that begin at the highway and end at the base of the hill.

I look up at the hills that back the community. A great scallop of land is gone, leaving a large hollow of brown earth about a mile across. It looks as if someone had scooped out a chunk with a giant shovel.

As I get to the end of one of the streets, I see where that hillside has gone. A huge wall of earth has slid down upon the houses and twisted them like toys. Walls are gone. Couches sit precariously balanced on second floor landings. Some houses are half buried, others are nothing more than collapsed roofs protruding from the great finger of slag. One home that is cordoned off with yellow warning ribbons looks perfectly fine. I later learn that the entire back side was pushed away, and the whole interior is filled with earth.

It induces an eerie sensation. I have seen the aftermath of other disasters before — tornadoes, floods, massive fires. In all of them there was a sense of finality, a totality of destruction. Here the act of destruction seems to have been suspended in mid-course. Some of the buildings are half destroyed. They have been pushed skyward as if by a tidal wave. Stud walls have snapped and split open; windows are half twisted from their jambs. The earth holds it all in a state of suspended movement, like a stop action photograph.

A sense of flight and abandonment hangs over all the homes. Through their shattered walls one can see coffee makers, suitcases, dressers with underwear hanging out — all the ordinary objects of daily life sitting in full view amid the wreckage.

A security guard comes trotting over from his old car. He is in his twenties, and more earnest than bright. He tries to be official, but he is too open faced, too friendly, to exude any sense of authority. I am someone new, a tourist who has straggled in long after the hoards of gawkers have gone. I offer the possibility of a moment’s diversion from the tedium of his job. He is wild to talk.

“Amazing,” I say, gesturing to the hillside. But he does not want to talk about the hill or the slide. It is the people and the houses that are his metier. He has made himself the chronicler and tour guide. He begins giving me a gossipy recounting of every person in every house — who they were, where they’ve gone, what they’re doing.

“Bill there, he’s devastated. Just devastated. He’s a nice old man. His whole life was built here. Now he’s living out of a shelter in Carpinteria. Goes from having the nicest home in La Conchita to living in a shelter in a year’s time. Some of it’s covered by insurance, but the county and FEMA are dragging their feet, so these people can’t get their lives straight until the county gets off their ass and helps them.”

He points to a garage that sits undamaged under a house that had collapsed like a house of cards. His voice gets high-pitched. “There’s a 1969 Woody in there! Mint condition! The guy invested close to 15, 20 thousand dollars in it! The county won’t let him get it out!”

“Geez,” I say. “I didn’t know they made Woodies in 1969.” The comment is innocent, but it takes him aback. He retreats to more certain knowledge. “Well, I might be wrong on the year, but there’s an older model Woody in there in mint condition, and he’s invested a lot of money in it, and the county won’t let him get it out!”

“It would be easy as anything!” He has thought this out; maybe even sneaked a peak. “All they got to do is open that garage. It would open really easy. That wall right there, it’s basically sound. All you’d have to do is put air in the tires. You know, the tires are flat. But that’s easy. You could get that car out. You could get it out of there, but the county won’t let him do it!”

He is almost salivating. He spends his days staring at this pile of riches until it has become a legendary lost city in his mind. A modern day Coronado, sworn to guard the seven cities of gold for the county. It is eating him alive.

“Then there’s the Mercedes,” he says breathlessly. “See that garage there? There’s a Mercedes in there. The guy had just gone to the bank to withdraw money for his daughter’s college education when the slide started. They came and made him leave. There’s thirty thousand in cash just sitting on that front seat!”

“Boy, it must be tough,” I say. It does not seem worthwhile to point out the obvious.

“Yeah,” he answers, interpreting my response to fit his thoughts. “It’s just me, that guard over there, and three or four deputies that come around. We’ve got to protect against the looters. There’s valuable stuff in there, everywhere. Everywhere!”

“Tough job,” I say sympathetically, and prepare to leave.

He gets a worried look on his face. “Say, could I ask you for a quarter? I really need a cup of coffee. Haven’t got my check yet.” His manner is sheepish, like a dog that expects to be beaten.

I dig in my pocket and fish out a handful of change. He takes it eagerly. “Thanks,” he says, and starts into an explanation.

I cut him off. “Hey. It’s a small price to pay for all your information. They should hire you to be a tour guide.”

He grins in appreciation. “I guess I know a lot about this place. We’ve had people from Portugal, the Philippines, France. I feel kind of like I’m an ambassador.” He checks the change in his hand and shouts over to the other guard. “I’m going to go get some coffee.”

The other guard nods and leans disinterestedly against his car, which is parked at another intersection about a half a block away.

I walk over to him. Now that the ambassador is gone I hope to learn a little more about the slide itself. But the other guard is no soft touch. He has has been watching me and his colleague from afar. He is much less forthcoming. I tell him I am a passing traveler interested in looking at the slides.

“Could be,” he says. “We get all kinds of looky-looks. I don’t see no business card. I don’t know if you’re from the county or what. We’re just here to keep you out of trouble.”

He is hardbitten, with a leathery face and gunfighter eyes.

“I’m not looking for trouble,” I say. “Just traveling down the coast. This place fascinates me.” He looks at my tee shirt and jeans, then at the out-of-state plates. I can sense he is softening a bit.

“Fascinated a lot of people,” he answers.

“Well, it’s pretty amazing.” Then, taking the leap, I ask. “What was it like?”

He considers the question. He is willing to take a chance.

“They said it sounded loud, like an earthquake, then it was just quiet. Then they looked up and it was coming down at them like a tidal wave of mud. The whole side of that hill. A tidal wave of mud. That’s what they said. Dead silent, coming at them. Scared the shit out of them.

“There were really two slides. The first one went half way. The second washed the first right down — trees and everything.”

He points to the top of the ridge, above the slide. “They’re blaming that guy’s ranch. The county is saying, ‘You can’t blame him. You built here.’ That’s what’s going on right now. A big old legal battle. Lawyers are out here crawling all over all the time.

“Christ, they’re slimy. Trying to ask me questions and shit. I’m going, ‘Why are you asking me?’ I don’t tell them anything. Lawyers are like assholes. Everyone’s got one. And all you got to do is say the wrong thing, and I’ll be in court. No way. Like when I see them coming, with their whole staff and shit, I get out of here. Go get a soda or something. I don’t even stay around.

“All the deputies are going one way, I’m going the other. Nobody wants to talk to them.

“Or the county. They’re just as bad. All they do is ask you ridiculous questions, like ‘Who’s going to take care of that chimney?’”

He points to a stone chimney that sits at a cant on one of the shattered houses. “I say, ‘Why are you asking me? You’re the county. I’m a fucking security guard.’”

A mangy cat runs by and disappears into one of the cordoned off houses.

“You know, one day, my partner and I, we were talking to the county people, and that cat comes by. They said, ‘Who’s going to take care of that cat?’ We just looked at each other. I mean, that came out of the blue. We just laughed. They got mad at us. We just laughed.”

“Well, what do you think really caused this?” I ask.

His eyes narrow to slits. “You want my opinion? Really?” He looks around, as if he is about to reveal a secret. “The hundred year rain last year. That, and the irrigation. Years ago this was all cattle country. There was no irrigation. Up on top there, it’s a big plateau. A flat plateau. Big farms owned by big corporations. Then they planted an orchard. Avocados and lemons. It takes five gallons of water per tree per day. You figure out how much water that is, how many trees? That land just got saturated. That hillside is 600 feet tall. They dug down and found water at a hundred and eighty feet. You tell me where that water’s coming from.”

“Doesn’t sound like an aquifer,” I offer.

“Damn right it’s not an aquifer. That’s why these lawyers are crawling all over. The people down here claim it was the irrigation on top of the heavy rains.

“The last time there were any major slides was in 1924. Actually this land wasn’t here before 1904. Before that this was marsh right up to the ocean.

“There was no road here. The land just filled itself in from real heavy rains and slides. Then there was the slide in ‘24. At that time there was a road here, but it was just a wooden plank deal which kind of segregated it from the ocean. You know, when there was wet ground, years and years ago, they would sort of put a bridge across, and it would be on wood planks. Well, that first slide went all the way to the ocean. The second filled in more.

“Before they built the highway there was a mobile home park over there where the highway is. They decided they could move those mobile homes over here and they drew up a land deal and set this up as lots for mobiles — trailers, at that time — in the sixties when they set up the big highway.

“I guess they put in pavement and the county took it over. They didn’t expect anything like slides. After these smaller lots were all sold or taken over, then they put this street in and sold these lots. They didn’t dig back into the hills at all. It was just about the landfall.”

I am fascinated. This man has studied the situation. “You’re a real historian,” I tell him.

He responds with a laconic nod. “Gives me something to do.” Then he continues.

“As I understand it, the people were allowed to build here at their own risk. They were told it was a potential slide area. I don’t think it helped them that they were on that leach field system where all the waste water went into the soil.

“Now the county is saying it’s their fault for building here, they’re saying it’s the county’s fault for letting them build here and the landowners’ fault for turning that hill into slop with their irrigation.”

“Well, what do you think is going to happen?” I ask.

He snorts a short, disgusted sound. “The county will drag its feet. FEMA won’t do shit. The insurance companies will try to screw everybody. The lawyers will all get rich.”

He spits once upon the ground in punctuation.

“And you know what? It’s not over yet.”

He points up at the hills looming behind the houses. “Look up at that hill. See that rift? I heard its still moving toward the sea. Already moved thirty more inches.”

I look up at the hill to the right of the area that has already slid. The hill is still covered with vegetation, but about half way down — maybe 300 feet — there is a long brown horizontal line where the hill has separated and appears ready to calve off like a chunk of glacier.

“Now, look at the slide area,” he instructs. “See that boulder?”

I do not.

“It’s hard to see,” he says. “It’s the same color as the dirt.” I squint again. Far up into the great mile-wide hollow there is a rock maybe two stories tall. It is embedded in the dirt and mud, but three quarters of it is exposed. It looks like a pebble from this distance, but I can see that it is gigantic.

He leans back against the car and makes an-off handed gesture. “That wasn’t here before the last rain. It’s right at the point of a ridge. Could go either way. If it comes down this side it could smash these houses and go right on down onto the freeway.”

“God’s bowling ball,” I offer.

“Damn straight.”

“You going to tell somebody?”

He snorts again. “Who? The county? They’ll tell me to move it. The lawyers? They’ll sue me for seeing it.

“See, they’re all looking for someone to blame. They all fucked up — the people who built here, the county who let them build here, the corporations irrigating the fuck out of that land up there to grow some lemons. People’s lives are blasted to shit and everybody’s pointing fingers at somebody else.”

“Sounds kind of like the story of California,” I say. “Building under slides, building on earthquakes, turning deserts into cities. Sometimes it comes back at you.”

He shrugs. “Yeah, but what you gonna do? Tell people they can’t move here?”

I shrug in sympathetic response. We have reached an impasse. There is nothing left to reveal, nothing left to solve. Down the street we can see the other security guard trotting up with his styrofoam cup of coffee. He can see us talking; he’s afraid he’s missed something.

I decide to move on. The sun is getting high and I don’t want to get involved with the first guard again. I thank the gunslinger guard for his time. He shrugs again, like it was nothing. His partner is coming up fast, chattering about something. I turn down the road toward the highway and the glistening sea. All is beautiful, warm, and serene.

Behind me I can hear them talking, the new 49er dreaming of gold and finding a cup of coffee, and the cynical Jeremiah, who sees the coming destruction of the temple but keeps his mouth shut.

On the way down the road I see several ‘for sale’ signs on trailers and houses. At first I am astonished, but then it seems only fitting. There are still fortunes to be made and dreams to be dreamed, even if a boulder as big as a house is poised to roll over you or the side of mountain is ready to slide down upon you. As long as you never look behind you, the vistas are limitless and the shadows of the past never need to cloud your dreams.

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