A California journal, Part II: Pismo Beach

The vandalized James Dean monument at Cholame with the missing “95” in the middle.

August 17, Wednesday:  Pismo Beach.  Reached our motel here high above the beach shortly before 5.  Although it is only 27 miles from our previous stop at Morro Bay, we had taken a meandering trip of 114 miles to get to Pismo via Cholame, an isolated dot on Highway 46 east of Paso Robles.  It was at a highway juncture a mile east of Cholame (pronounced Sha-LAMB) that the actor James Dean died in a car accident on September 30, 1955.  And it is at Cholame where a memorial to Dean was erected.  Back in smalltown Kansas, I had been a teenage fan of Dean’s, particularly after seeing his most notable film, “Rebel Without A Cause.”   My first and last visit to the site took place about 30 years ago.  I wanted to see it again, and to allow Nebra her first view.  She had grown up in Nebraska a decade or so after Dean’s death and knew little of the actor’s life and legend.  I told her how he had died, driving his new Porsche Spyder at excessive speeds, flying out of Bakersfield on those golden hills to the west, headed with his mechanic for a road race in Salinas, approaching the junction only to see too late a car pulling out in front of him from Highway 41.  And then for Dean it was the crash, and the end.  We eased past the juncture, stopped and took photos and then wheeled on west to Cholame.  This is desolate country, big treeless hills and little else, on the edge of the vast Hearst

Juncture of Highways 46 and 41 (on the right), the site of the tragic James Dean car crash in 1955.

Ranch.  There is only a small eatery, the Jack Ranch Cafe, and the shiny Dean memorial in the shade of a tree.  We ordered sandwiches at the cafe and looked around at the few Dean exhibits.  Photos on a wall, a cartoon drawing, some cheap books.  Not much.  The waitress, a middle-aged woman who reminded me of the actress Susan Sarandon, said contrary to my assumption that the Dean visitors had thinned out over the years, “No, we still have about 50 a day.”  It was 99 degrees and the sun was hot and we wanted to get on the road to Pismo.   But first, Nebra took a photo of me leaning on the Dean monument that in raised letters said “James Dean,” and listed the dates of his birth and death.  It’s hard to believe he would be 80 years old now.  As Nebra readied the camera, I noticed that someone had pried off two numerals, a 9 and a 5, from the death date, 1 95 5.   A selfish act.  Everyone it seems wants to own a physical piece of the man, even if it takes the joy away from others.   We left Cholame about 3:30 and headed through vineyard country to Paso Robles.   Dean was taken to the hospital here and pronounced dead.   Paso Robles was the dateline used by most of the newspapers above the death stories.  It is 65 miles from Cholame to Pismo Beach, and a drop of about 30 degrees in temperature.  In the evening we drove into San Luis Obispo, only 15 miles away, for a workout at the Y, and supper at the Firestone Grill, a sports bar whose patrons I assumed were mostly college students starting a new semester.   The city is known as SLO in the region.  Not by the individual letters but pronounced as a word, “Slow.”  At the Firestone I ordered the heralded Tri-Tip Steak Sandwich with pinto beans.  Heralded in the sense that the Tri-Tips was ecommended by the young attendant at the Y.  It was tasty but too much to finish.  Glad to get back to Pismo and the king bed.

Pismo Beach north of the pier. Our motel stands on a cliff in the distance.

August 18, Thursday:   Pismo Beach.  What a disgusting name, Pismo, for such a beautiful stretch of beach.  From the cliff-top of our motel you can see it arcing south, first past the pier in town, then for miles beyond.  Pismo, pronounced PIZ-mo, is a Chumash Indian name for blobs of tar, according to californiabeaches.com.  About 2 o’clock we strolled down the beach 3/4 of a mile to the bustling little town, also Pismo Beach, and the pier.  The temp was in the 60s, and a cool, west breeze blew in.  The dry sand was hot and we escaped to the wet part and felt the cold surf swish over bare feet.   Most of the beach-goers clustered around the pier.  At a bench, we met a stout woman, in her 50s, a local.  She’d moved here 18 years agi from Sacramento.  “It’s a great place to live,” she said of Pismo.   At Splash’s, we stood in a line for 20 minutes waiting to lap up some of the eatery’s acclaimed clam chowder.  “The best chowder this side of Maine,” a man told me.  “It’s made with real cream and butter.”   The chowder was as good as advertised.   Splash’s is a modest place, long and narrow, two dining areas separated by the kitchen and a hallway.  Some

Looking east from the pier toward the town of Pismo Beach.

customers stood after placing orders, waiting on one of the cheap plastic tables to open up.  Afterward, we walked along the wood-plank pier to the end.  A dozen anglers, men and women, had lines in the water, and lazy birds, mostly brown pelicans and western gulls, waited for morsels of fish that might be thrown their way.  In the evening, we traveled into downtown SLO for the weekly market on Higuera Street and battled the big crowd.    This street market was larger than the one we visited a few months ago in Palm Springs and had much more fruits and vegetables.  An orchestra was playing.  The air was brisk and clouds were sailing in, which might explain the market winding down an hour early, at 8 o’clock.  SLO is one of those rare American cities anymore with a vibrant downtown.   The two-story Barnes & Noble stays open until 11, and I bought sunglasses at Sports Authority after 8.   You won’t find this in downtown Phoenix, much less a book store or a sporting goods store.   We suppered at the California Pizza Kitchen inside a pleasant courtyard in the heart of town.  This is a college place.   Cal Poly begins its fall semester soon,

A brave juvenile brown pelican on the pier. The adult has more white on its head.

and a junior college has already started up.  Students are everywhere.  Dozens of bicycles stand moored outside the busy Apple Store.  It’s heartening to hear the noise and feel the energy in a downtown after dark.   Then it was back to quiet Pismo with only the sounds of traffic on the 101 entering our motel room.  This is the end of Day 5.  Time as usual moves swiftly.

August 19, Friday:  Pismo Beach.  Day 6.  Cool, cloudy until about noon.  We did a quick tour of the Pismo and the other cities that are all jammed together as one:  Grover City, Oceano, upscale Arroyo Grande and Halycon on the south of Pismo and Shell Beach on the north.   Had a sumptuous lunch at Margie’s Diner at the west end of SLO.   Huge servings, too much for one normal human being to eat in one sitting.  We thought we’d lost the car keys there but after a few panicky moments found them in a nook of Nebra’s purse.  Drove on into downtown SLO for a short visit to the old Spanish mission, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.  Entrance to the modest museum is “free” (suggested donation is $3) and not worth it, unless you’re Catholic with a bent for history or interested in a few artifacts of the Chumash Indians.   We were quickly ushered out at the 5 o’clock closing.  It was hard to think spiritually with a loud rock band’s music shaking the building from a courtyard below along San Luis Obispo Creek.   Nearby, on Higuera Stree,  we took in the most disgusting “art work” known to man.  Bubblegum Alley, they call it.  Two walls along the dark, narrow lane are plastered with chewed gum arranged in names and odd designs.  No telling what horrible disease awaits a finger’s touch.  No “artists” did we see today but there were a half-dozen bemused visitors.  Down the street we stopped in at Kruezberg, a junky, pseudo-hippie joint that styles itself as “book bar and coffee lounge.”  It was busy and most of the seating filled up with a college-age crowd.   The unique menu is printed on a huge board at one side of the big downstairs room offered sandwiches, meals, desserts, beer and wine.  Each food item was given a famous author’s name.  Homer, Goethe, Sylvia Plath, Leo Tolstoy, even Tim Robbins.  I ordered a cup of espresso and sat down at a rickety table

Chewed gum as art form: Bubblegum Alley in downtown SLO.

to watch a bright-eyed young man write poetry in a tablet with two children crawling over him.  Maybe he was the “poet” who named some of the city streets, like Morro, Chorro and Toro.  We left for a workout at the Y a few miles away.  It was 6:10 p.m. and low-lying clouds swept in.  The temp was 64.

August 20, Saturday:   Pismo Beach.  I have yet to meet up with the famous Pismo clam.  It’s hard to do sitting in an Adirondack chair 40 feet above the beach and sunning as I regrettably did this afternoon at our motel.  Even on my well-tanned skin, the sun was unmerciful.  Our friend Lloyd back in Surprise, Arizona, wrote, “There used to be good clam-digging at Pismo Beach.”  I read that in 1949, an estimated 5,000 diggers per day harvested over 2 million clams at Pismo Beach in 2 1/2 months.  But those free and easy times are gone.  Now, you need a fishing license, and you can take only 10 legal-size Pismos a day, reburying anything under 4 1/2 inches in the wet ocean sand.  For me, maybe another time.   I call Nebra a thoroughbred.  She does not know how to relax.  Always on the go.  This morning she dashed off to see more of the nearby city of Arroyo Grande, and later spurred me to go with her to take in Avila Beach, the “quiet” beach town several miles to the north.  This was the town that Unocal reluctantly spent $70 million to clean up after years of oil seepage had ruined the beach and town.  Much of the place was razed and rebuilt into a bright, splashy tourist mecca whose architecture might be described as frou-frou.  And quiet it wasn’t.  It was a zoo.  Hardly a place to park and the streets were filled with googly-eyed visitors.  A rock band blared away on Front Street, and a marriage was taking place on the bustling beach.    The groom was decked out in traditional coat and tie, the bride wore a beautiful white gown — and all in the wedding party were barefooted.  Unocal’s money, to my mind, was wasted.  Couldn’t get out of there fast enough.  On the way we passed a locked gate that led to the controversial Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.  They say it’s earthquake-proof though resting near two major faults, the San Andreas and Hosgri.  Quiet and sanity returned in SLO where we had a nice supper at Thai Classic downtown.    I carped a bit at the cool breeze but straightened up when reminded of the heat and dust storms back in Phoenix.

Anything but quiet along Front Street in Avila Beach.

August 21, Sunday:  Pismo Beach.  More like mundane than Sunday.  Move to a new motel, wash clothes and a gym workout at the Y in SLO.   Hardly the way to spend the most beautiful day of the trip.  Sunny, almost warm.  But there we were tooling into SLO from Pismo, chatting about, of all things, whatever happened to collective nouns.  And passing the local Rabobank and thinking it was an invitation to criminals.  Weird stuff like that.   Our minds had settled down some by the time we had lunch of fish salads at the busy Big Sky Cafe.  We found a large, clean laundromat on California Street, near the Cal Poly campus, called the Launderosa.  Think Ponderosa, the old TV series, I guess.  A chunky young woman, addled perhaps, kept asking me if I wanted help,  puzzled as I spent about 30 minutes restringing the cord that had come loose from my workout pants during the spin cycle.   More excitement came later after we checked in to the motel, this one with an ocean view, high on the same cliff as the other.   About 200 yards out at sea, I viewed through binoculars a large dark blob with thousands of small birds swirling over it, some even splashing into the water.  In the sky above this blob hovered dozens and dozens of brown pelicans.    When there was a break in the small bird action, the pelicans dove into the water as they always do, head first.  A small crowd from the motel gathered at a railing near the cliff to watch.  One Californian surmised the birds were feeding on a large school of sardines.  Otherwise it was an empty sea.  No ships on the horizon, no boats anywhere.  We had a late supper of Mexican food up the coast a mile or so, at Zorro’s Cafe and Cantina, in Shell Beach.  Average fare but plentiful with good salsa.   If you don’t eat along this coast by 9 p.m., your restaurant choices become very limited.  My mind is turning slowly, yes, as usual, but now toward the camping trip to Santa Cruz Island on Wednesday.

August 22, Monday:  Pismo Beach.  Cool west wind blew in all day.  We walked into town, three-quarters of a mile, for lunch at Chele’s Food & Spirits.  It’s across Pomeroy from Splash, where we’d stood in line a few days ago for great clam chowder.  Sat by a sunny window to thaw out.   Some places surprise you just looking at them.  I wasn’t  expecting much but the All-America was one of the best burgers I’ve had in a long time.   The waitress, a 50ish brunette, said she moved to Pismo here eight years ago from Oregon.  She camped out for a year and a half before she got a job.  Now she owns a house.  “This is paradise,” she said.   We walked back to the motel on the cliff along the shore where the wind blew harder and left us shivering.   Someone had built an impressive complex of small sand castles, doomed by high tide.  In the evening, we drove 45 miles north to Cambria for what we thought would be great meal at one of the region’s best and most expensive restaurants, Linn’s.  Everything went well for a while.  My mahi mahi with rice and baby carrots was very good, as was Nebra’s sirloin, a baseball-c.  ut they called it.  But then they didn’t have the wine I wanted, a merlot from the Hearst Ranch, Casa Robles, and suddenly we were all alone up on the second floor, nearby tables piled high with dirty dishes, no one busing tables.  Worse, our waitress had left us marooned.  The stairs below were blocked off with chairs.  Our waitress finally appeared and apologized.  “I forgot all about you,” she said.   We tipped her a small amount.  At least she was honest.  On the way on lonely Highway 1, we put on a tape, “The Best of Van Morrison,”  letting it play all the way back to Pismo.  The music had lifted away the busted evening at Linn’s.  “What supper?” I said to Nebra.  Tomorrow we go south to Ventura where we’ll catch a boat out to Santa Cruz Island at noon on Wednesday.


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