Monday, January 21, 2013

Fish and Games (Rated "R" for bad language and deplorable attitude)

Clearly he was pissed.  His khaki shirt was untucked and the wool slacks, standard government issue, were slathered in mud.  I had worn those same slacks during my brief stint as a National Parks ranger.  Spring, summer or fall--that's what you wore, no matter how ridiculous you looked or how bad the heat rash.  Only Tony, the groundsman who mowed the grass and maintained bathrooms near Ash Mountain could get away with wearing shorts.  He was a Nam vet, probably special forces, and nobody fucked with him.

And I knew why my oncoming visitor's slacks were muddy.  The only access to this remote stretch of coast (somewhere between San Simeon, California and Ragged Point) was to climb down a rope.  Well, actually it was a woven canvas strap meant for towing cars.  Pounding an old tent stake with a sledge hammer an hour ago, I had attached this strap to the top of a cliff and used this half-assed rappelling gear to lower my ponderous butt the final twelve slimy feet to the rocky cove below.

I was looking for rocks, specifically the kind locals mistakenly call "moonstones" though anybody capable of pulling his 
geologically impaired ass from his ass might know they're just agates, freakin' beach agates. Not so clear pieces of silicon dioxide, oftentimes banded with impurities like quartz or flint. Those who hale from the Oregon or Washington coast know there are websites run by dweebs who actually get up early to look for this stuff.  Sad-assed losers, you betcha.

Anyway I was of a mind that day to make a buck or two selling this stuff to local merchants.  Raw (my term for just off the beach) a piece of "moonstone" fingernail width will go for six dollars, polished and shaped twice that.  But I wasn't eager to bust my balls finding this crap.  The trick is to find a fresh water source.  Shit rolls downhill (as anyone who's ever cashed a government paycheck will tell you), and agates flow downstream (from deposits in the hills and mountains).  Your best time to find them is late afternoon when the rocks are between you and the sun.  Then these translucent babies light up like 40 watt bulbs.  Even so, work your butt off along the beaches of San Simeon and Cambria, and you might count yourself lucky finding one or two pebbles a week.  

But on that day I had already collected so much moonstone booty that I worried about ripping the seams of my National Parks daypack.  And this was my second time down to this little armpit of a cove after stumbling upon it while looking for something else.  My original purpose for coming here was to find a section of coast not denuded of all fish by sea-going mammals.  To name these culprits specifically: sea lions, elephant seals and the most bad-assed fish marauders of all, those damned little otters!  Once upon a time, you see, humans like me gained enjoyment (and meat) from the now extinct art of surf fishing.

Rather than ranting further on this not so green subject, let me tell you about the excitement I felt when I first shimmied down a rope to what I expected was just a another backwater cove. I'll admit there was a last minute slip before falling onto a patch of sand with a hellacious thump.  Grace under pressure?  With me, it's more like clumsiness under all circumstances.  Fortunately, I held little hope for this scouting trip and hadn't bothered to bring my rod--so the impact damages were light, restricted to the area of my coccyx.  And if you think the "C" word in that last phrase was offensive, consult your Grey's Anatomy for Dumb-Asses.  Otherwise, read on, there's still a chance I'll offend the hell out of you.

Anyway on my first time down, I looked around and discovered I had practically landed on several rare items, a sea lion skull perched on a bolder and two fully intact abalone shells, one the common red and the other a rarer black which actually contained a small but intact piece of meat.  This made me nervous.  I had descended into an area termed "marine sanctuary" where just breathing is probably illegal
.  So I pulled the meat off the shell and flung it into the surf.  I put both shells into my backpack (like certain rocks, they polish up nicely) and left the sea lion skull right where it was.  There's something like a five thousand dollar citation awaiting any bozo caught with a mammalian artifact, not a fine I was eager to pay.

The area felt strange and virgin.  A piece of coast pristine and free of human detritus, perhaps resembling beaches found by early explorers (macho guys with hard-ons for gold, not likely to waste time on some prissy-assed agates).  And isolated, a narrow enclosed reef that would keelhaul modern power boats and stymy all picnic-goers who neglected to bring repelling gear.

Needless to say, I saw greenbacks in my future.  Glowing orbs of beach agate (a.k.a. moonstones) were everywhere.  Now the true "moonstone" gem refers to a something obscure and usually found in obscure places places like Madagascar and Myanmar (Sri Lanka).  What I was looking at here, however, was a crazy abundance of beach agates, the type that make Cambria tourists go gaga.  Anyone visiting the motel infested byway known as Moonstone Drive wants a piece of this namesake rock for a souvenir, and they proceed to scour a stretch of adjacent sand that is the least likely place to find one.  Walk along that curvy little road any morning and you will see scads of codgers sifting sand and kelp just to find one sliver of this over-rated stone--and remember this kind of mindless activity has been going on for at least 20 or 30 years.  So how likely is it that you're going to find this weak excuse for a gemstone except in minute or mistaken quantities?  Well, whatever entertains the tourists... 

"This is a butt-ugly stretch of beach but it truly rocks," I thought and heard something strange, the sound of my own giggle.  Hemmingway once wrote about the drunkenness that sets in "when one finds game in sudden and idiotic abundance."  I took a piss and saw my water had illuminated stones that were much larger than the small pebbles touristas occasionally found to the south.  Then, in earnest (joke), I began to collect these huge wanna-be gems, piss and all, finding many more as I fanned out to the left and right of this tiny beach.  

Getting out my camera so I could mark the location for future reference, I climbed to the northern point of the cove.  I looked south through the camera viewfinder, surprised to see that this cove wasn't locked-in.  The tide was still low enough for me to scramble over a ledge, and very importantly, stay dry while I visited the next amphitheater indentation of coast.

So I did.  And right away there was a deep cave, and I staggered over loose rocks twenty feet into its dank and smelly interior.  No diamonds, no treasure and, damn it, nothing more in the way of moonstones.  The tides being favorable, I decided to continue south--still no moonstones. After another point, another amphitheater, more nothing.  I began to worry about overstaying the tide.  It would be a chilly, undertow sucking swim back to my rope if I farted around there much longer.
Then a broad beach, sand and rocks, high inaccessible cliffs, and suddenly there were moonstones everywhere.  Let me qualify that statement--not just moonstones but moon-BOULDERS.  I was in absolute despair.  How could I possibly bring all these incredible rocks back?   My backpack was already biting into my shoulders with all the pretty agates collected way back at my point of descent, and how was I going to carry these extra ten and twenty pound rocks?   I did my damndest, nevertheless, and returned quickly over  rough terrain leading to the area of my rope descent.  

But then I discovered could no longer climb the cliff wall, not even after taking off my backpack.  Probably this was due to the additional pounds of rocks stored in the many pockets of my cargo pants.  Fortunately, I found a way to throw the heavy pack up one or two feet at a time onto the next ledge.  Then I would pull my body up (after extending my arm and implanting a rock hammer into the cliff for traction).   I must have remembered this technique by watching people climb Everest on Netflix videos.

And like an out of control crack Ho, I went back for more rocks within a week but this time with a friend.  I told honestly told him that he was only along as a mule, useful only to carry more of this stuff up.  I also warned him, well, threatened actually while I sharpened the edge of my machete that should he reveal the location of my place, he might end up as bits of shark bait.  But for some reason he wanted to come anyway, having probably assumed I was making another of my weird jokes.  I wasn't.  
This second trip, however, was jinxed by unexpectedly high tides from an off-shore storm.  Yeah, we gathered a shit-load of "treasure" but my backpack was overburdened, flirting with a hernia to the tune of 50 or 60 pounds any reasonable limit.  Then with brilliant stupidity, I decided to jumped off a four foot ledge and leap over an incoming swell.  I hate getting my feet wet; slap me, punch me, tear off both my arms and stuff them down my throat--just don't leave me wet feet. 

I made another of my fuck-clumbsy landings, this time my boots squashing dozens of innocent sea anemones.  What the hey--just collateral damage, right?  Afterwards I sensed a strange development deep within my knee.  No problem, I said to myself as I followed my friend up the rope and limped back to the car…  I of a slogan I once had seen on a T-shirt: 
      I don't have a drinking problem.
      I drink, I fall down,
      No problem.
And there was no problem, that is, until several weeks later some jerk-wad radiologist told me that I had torn two ligaments, the anterior and interior meniscus, whatever the hell that means. 

So here I was, third trip down being approached by what I suspected was either a highly pissed-off warden, ranger or sheriff.  One hand held a ticket book, the other hovered close to his pistol.  I knew the drill.  Keep your own hands out to the sides where they can be seen.  Don't make any sudden moves.  And most of all, don't reach for anything--like the interior of my daypack which contained several beers that I was now very much in the mood for. 

Well shit happens and I waited, kept my mouth shut, and surrendered the initiative to my guest.  I figured he would feel more comfortable if I let him speak first.  And you always want a man with quick access to a gun to be comfortable.
"How are you doing today, sir?"
"Great," I said and grasping for some levity said, "and you know, I haven't seen a panga boat all afternoon!"  If you're not from this area you might not know that panga boats, 34 feet long and running through deep water up from Mexico, are now the go-to method for smuggling marijuana to the central coast.  Not that we don’t have a butt-load of better shit growing just fifteen miles up the road in the Big Sur area.  But go figure.

"I see you're a rock collector."  No shit Sherlock, I thought, realizing he had probably been watching me through a spotter scope for quite some time.  He might also have looked inside my pack (which I now noticed was fifty yards up the beach and much closer to him).  Game wardens don't need a warrant or probable cause to search your person or property.  I slowly walked toward my pack and saw that it was unzipped, my treasure trove of rocks fully exposed, either because of his intrusion--or my own sloppiness (my wife constantly nags me to pull up my zipper).  Either way, it was time to rule out brilliant deduction on the part of my law-enforcement friend. 

"That's right, just collecting rocks,” I said.  “Is there a problem here?"  I noticed his name plate started with the initials C.J. followed by some surname I still can’t remember.  And I tried to remember as much as I could in case things went south.
"No problem at all.  In fact, I'm a rock collector too," Mr. Ranger/Warden said and the phrase “bull shit” flashed like neon in the recesses of my mind. 
"Did you know that there's a fifty pound limit on rocks per day?"
"Really?  Well hot damn! I thought it was only 45!  Guess I can collect a few more."  I reached down for my pack with one arm, nonchalantly lifting it up and down to demonstrate how incredibly light I hoped it was.
“But ya’ know,” I said trying for the folksy approach, “I injured my knee last time I was down here trying to take out too many stones.  So I really do appreciate the reminder about the limit" (a suck-ass Eddie Haskle imitation nearly triggering my gag reflex).

"Okay, but now maybe you can tell me why you were stashing stuff behind that boulder over there.  Abalone poaching is a serious crime."
I hung my head and affected an "awe shucks" tone, "Well, you've caught me officer.  But if you will walk with me over there, you'll find that it's just a pile of big ol' rocks.  Fact is, I was squirreling them away for my next trip down here.  Hope that's not a crime.  Just stuff too heavy for me to legally carry out. And I sure didn't want to hurt myself again." 

I started to shuffle toward the boulder in question.
"Just a minute. Would you mind putting that rock down?"  During all of our chat, I hadn't noticed that there was a ten pound moonstone under my arm (yeah, they really do get that big down there).  And that’s when I kind of felt sorry for C.J.  Game wardens work alone, they often meet armed individuals, and seldom have backup.  So I laughed my best fake laugh while slowly putting down the offending rock and potential weapon (which was really a pisser because I had just resolved to walk out of there after adding this last big mother to my pile.  There's no need to be greedy after all).

So he inspected my stash of rocks, clearly disappointed by the absence of contraband (no abalone can be taken in this section of the coast, regardless of the size, unless you are one of those god-damned sea otters—in which case this aforesaid ocean-going rodent can take as many as he wants, anytime, regardless of size.  That's why I was so surprised on my first trip down to find two wholly intact abalone shells.  Usually there are only fragments.  The best you might hope for would be a whole shell with a little crack in the middle.  Otters are crafty tool users who put rocks on their chests, shatter abalones against them, and then feast on these huge (but increasingly rare) mollusks. Sometimes I think the 19th century Russians had the right idea—shoot the little bastards and turn them into warm coats.  Their fur has a marvelously dense follicle count that insulates them from cold water so that they don't have to carry around the heavy fat shielding of sea lions or elephant seals (whose pelts are basically worthless).

And these son of a bitchin' otters have recovered so well from a near extinction that there's little likelihood of finding a once common, now impossible whole abalone shell.   Don't even get me started again on how these voracious, prolific but, unfortunately cute, critters have all but ruined surf-fishing along the central coast.

Let us instead return to our little beachside drama where CJ, having failed in his quest to find an illicit pile of abalone, now seemed frustrated at finding no cause to write me a citation.  A long walk, muddy clothes, all for nothing.
He was quiet while we walked to my day pack, no doubt reaching for some last inspiration.

The metal encased citation book was still in his hand, so big and heavy that he could never just slip it back into his pocket.
"And you know, the way you parked your car up their on the road was kind of dangerous."
This was weak.  We both knew it.
"I'm very sorry about that officer," I assured him, "and I will certainly make every effort to park better in the future."
He looked down for a moment and mumbled, "Well, you have a nice day."
"You, too!"

I smiled idiotically as he turned and started back.  At least a mile to cover over loose, jagged rocks, then a climb, precarious because my stake and the rope attached to it were kind of "iffy".  This would be followed by a 300 yard trek across a tick-infested field. I almost felt bad. Those wool slacks would definitely have to be dry cleaned
.  If he had a wife, there could be grief over that.

Still, I was a little angry.  After all, he had invaded my privacy.  What if he'd caught me in the middle of a nude-beach moment?  That would certainly have made our encounter a little awkward. 
I thought about this for a while.
Then I yelled out, "Wait!" and began to rummage furiously through my pack.  I continued to do so as he walked the full 100 yards over tricky rocks and stood above me. 
Then I grinned affectionately and looked up.
"Where do think I should park next time?  I don't want to do anything wrong."
(Crestfallen would not begin to describe his expression)
"On the other side," he said with a voice devoid of energy, "down where the road is wider, where I parked my own car"  (Not that I could know the location of his car having arrived earlier, I considered, and with his head start how likely would it be that I would arrive in time to see his car was before he drove off?  But I ignored this obvious lapse of logic.  He looked a little out of sorts).
"Thanks, C.J., I'll certainly remember that!'

Then more evil entered my brain.  I was expected at a birthday party in a couple of hours. I could run past CJ (saying in a panicky tone that I had forgotten an immediate social engagement), get to the cliff before him and pull up the rope--it was MY personal property after all.  He would make it out eventually, after scrambling up a slippery slope. But probably not without losing his grip once or twice--and maybe his temper as well.

Despite what many of my friends think, I am not a complete asshole.  And with my injured knee, it would be a  very painful sprint.  Even under the best of conditions, I doubt that I could overtake someone at least 30 years my junior.  So I waited until I was sure he was gone and pulled out several beer bottles, quickly emptying their contents into my stomach.  After several vigorous prolongued burps, I looked carefully around for lingering wardens--or for that matter--hovering drones.  Nope to both.  So I took the empty beer bottles down to some jagged rocks (where nobody in their right mind would ever swim or surf).  I picked up a stone and broke them into tiny little pieces. 

Sure I had raped this small section of coast by removing many of its fine moonstones.  But I had also "farmed" a little sea glass for future generations, including my grandkids who (after a little instruction) could climb down here and also experience the lucrative joy of collecting.

The next time C.J. sees my car on Highway 1, I bet he won't stop to pay me a visit.  And that's too bad.  I kind of liked that young man.