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One of hundreds of backroads in San Luis Obispoe County

One of hundreds of backroads in San Luis Obispoe County

San Luis Obispo, my home town
By Daryl L. Hunter

Diana Ragsdale and her horse Gypsy, my brother Kenny on the left and me on back of the horse.

All walks start with a first step, my walk began in an ugly place, not literally but figuratively, Born to the parents of alcoholics my earliest memories were or dysfunction and poverty.  One day my mom had had enough,things were looking up.  It was 1959 and the bus departed the ugly desert town of Las Vegas destined for San Luis Obispo, a wonderful little town on the central coast of California.  We had a great neighborhood full of mischievous kids; we had fun.  We had farm ponds near by with sunfish in them we fished for. My first friend Diana Ragsdale had a horse named Gypsy; we were too little to lift the saddles so we learned to ride bareback. Diana later got a second horse named Satan, by this time we were big enough to saddle the horses, we didn’t need to though, as we could stick to a horses bare back like a Lakota Sioux in hot pursuit of a buffalo on the prairie.  We were all over the hills surrounding the town.

Old windmill atop Perfumo Canyon Road sitll suriving wind, ran and target practice. this is west of Sanluis Obispo but lookging toward and over Morro Bay

Few places in California boast a landscape as enchanting as San Luis Obispo County where I grew up; however, it was lost upon me then. The 100-mile-long coastline offers a lot of great hiking across wide sandy beaches, dramatic dunes, around protected bays, and over rugged headlands.

The region enjoys an enviable Mediterranean climate with 315 days of sunshine a year making it a paradise for the outdoor enthusiast who chooses to neglect skiing and the beauty of winter.  A vibrant college town, San Luis Obispo boasts one of the highest rates of college-educated residents in the state. Often referred to as SLO Town or, more simply, SLO.

The golden rolling hills of SLO are heavily studded with oak trees and are interspersed with extensive grasslands that give way to stunning canyons and tens of thousands of acres of vineyards. Picturesque barns are as ubiquitous as the oaks on the hills. My grandmother loved painting them.  The hills turn as green as Ireland during hay fever season which lasts for a couple of months each spring. When it starts looking like Ireland I always know it was time to reach for the Claritin.

Daryl and Kenny Hunter, Craig Way, circa 1960

My brother Kenny and I were like best friends, as we were only fifteen months apart.  Poison oak was a part of our lives, as we couldn’t stay off Bishops Peak, the mountain above our home. Once we were very lucky to return.  At the bottom of a cliff, one day I looked up and the cliff appeared climbable to my eleven-year old judgment.   I headed up with Kenny right behind. About twenty feet up I stopped to reconsider as I had acquired a better view of our slippery situation.    We were free climbing and although I now wanted to return the way I had come. The cliff was too steep for me to see where to put me feet for a return.  Kenny was all for the return plan because as I climbed, I was knocking down lose rocks upon his head, luckily nothing big. Since I couldn’t eyeball a path down we had no choice but to continue the 200-foot climb.  We lived; I had very little inclination to ever climb again after that.

Pirates Cove once famous for the sea caves; however the naked beach has stolen the fame
Pirates Cove once famous for the sea caves; however the naked beach has stolen the fame. As a young hippy I hung out there until I realized most of us look better with a little cloths on 

A dozen miles from downtown SLO are miles of uncrowded beaches, pristine coastline, ragged sea cliffs, caves, and some of the best ocean vistas anywhere. Avila Beach was my favorite for hanging out in the sun.  Some of my earliest memories where hanging out here, my mom would set us up on the beach then go to Barbara’s by the Sea, a bar there and drink all day. I guess this was normal then. Pismo Beach to the south has the finest and most extensive coastal sand dunes in California providing an impressive playground for dune-buggy enthusiasts as well as surfers, surf anglers, and campers. It is also home to the nearly extinct Pismo Clam.  My Grandfather a few times per year would wake us all up a 4AM to go clamming when we had very low tides, even as a little kid, I knew we would also have a huge minus tide in the afternoon and it would make better sense to clam then.  Oh well, my voice didn’t carry much weight at 8 years old.

Beach cruisers take a moment to enjoy the sunet at the foot of Morro Rick in Morro Bay

North of SLO at Morro Bay is Morro Rock known as the"Gibraltar of the Pacific,” this 576-foot-high rock monolith which was first sighted by Capt. Juan Cabrillo in 1542 dominates the surrounding beach and harbor.  Often there is a cool marine layer of fog that keeps the beach from becoming too crowded.  One day my grandfather took us to the beach there, then went out on the rock to fish.  I went up to watch him cast out and real in at a steady rate as if he were on a mission.  I pointed out upon noticing his bait was gone, he replied:  “I know, if I caught any fish, then I’d have to clean the sons a bitches. My grandfather was a character.

South of Morro Bay you can find Montana de Oro State Park. The park includes two kinds of coastline. The southern part of the park has some short rocky cliffs studded with small sandy coves, while the northern part is dominated by wind-swept sand dunes, miles of beach and several surf breaks, all with great views of Morro Rock to the north. Soon after the state acquired it, it seemed to be the private little heaven for my adolescent friends and me.  For a few years we had the unknown beaches to ourselves and at night the empty park for teenage parties, I can almost smell the Boons Farm Apple Wine now. Sadly it was latter discovered as the gem that it is. Discovery is the kiss of death for a wonderful place.

Surfing huge waves at Montana de Oro on Caliifornia's Central Coast
Every now and then Montana de Oro can pass for Hawii and there are some local surfers that can handle the challenge.

The charming artist community of Cambria feels like, well an artist town replete with cool galleries, funky stores, and tasty restaurants. Cambria's biggest draw, however, is Moonstone Beach on the opposite side of the Pacific Coast Highway from downtown. While strolling the mostly flat 1.25-mile trail, watch seals bask on rocky outcroppings, seagulls drift overhead. While sleeping in the hotels, don’t even think about the fact; this is where Arachnophobia was filmed.

Ten miles north of Cambria, near the tiny town of San Simeon, is Hearst Castle looms large on the highest hill to the east above the frequently fog-choked coastline. The estate built by late newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst the ranch extends along 18-miles of waterfront and covers some 128-square miles. The property has been impeccably preserved as a museum since the 1950s by California's State Park System.  The castle is likely the area’s biggest tourist attraction. It is a striking contrast to casual Cambria and the laid-back cowboy culture of Paso Robles to the east.  When telling people where I’m from, most don’t know of San Luis Obispo, nearly everyone knows of Hearst Castle.

Seals at sunse on a San Simeon beach at sunset
Seals on a San Simeon beach at sunset

Back in the 60’s a house at the beach cost about the same as a house in San Luis Obispo, twelve miles away from the beaches.  I asked my grandfather one day why he didn’t buy a house at the beach; his job was in Morro Bay.  He replied; “It’s to damn foggy at the beach!”  Well I guess that is practical if not a good real estate investment.

Paso Robles and Atascadero are the main towns on the east side of the Coast Range, a hotter and drier climate, and a climate for grapes. Traditionally, cattle and grain country, it has emerged as premier wine country as well rivaling Napa, Bordeaux and Tuscany. There have never been any significant local manufacturing industries, so there has never been a strong job market. The region's wine appellation, now the largest and fastest growing in California, comprises some 200 wineries and 32,000 acres of vineyards. The names of obscure hillsides and creeks that a decade ago would have been known only to backcountry locals are showing up on the labels of $30 bottles of wine. Yet with all the gold medals and high style, the Central Coast retains its small-town friendliness. Back when I was a teen there though, there were only a couple of wineries, and we could get a gallon of local wine for $1.23.  I couldn’t afford to be a teenager there today.

Green rolling hills of Paso Robles
Green rolling hills of Paso Robles

The slaughter of oaks by area vineyards is upsetting to many who have been here for generations. The irrigation pipes are put in and the posts and the wires to grow the grapes on, then sadly the oaks come down because the vineyards need sun instead of shade, and you have what has derogatorily known as grape-ification."  I miss the trees, but This faux Tuscany does have a fine look to it with it’s retro European looking wine cellers and lines of vines stretching to the horizon. I would though look better with more oaks.

A plague to San Luis Country is it consistently is designated to a plethora best-of lists and most recently named one of the most romantic cities in America, along with best main street, best place to visit, best college town, friendliest and healthiest to name just a few, San Luis Obispo continues to garner attention for what locals are already well aware of. This exposure has made it popular with tens of thousands that used to live elsewhere sending property prices beyond what the born and bred can afford.

Port San Luis at sunrise, I always visit here to gaze out an remember those of the ashes I have spread here.
Port San Luis at sunrise, I always visit here to gaze out an remember those of the ashes I have spread here.

Since I was a young vagabond, I have always marveled how San Luis Obispo unconsciously made me gravitate to towns that always made these “best of” places.  

When I was about fourteen I found out people came here as tourists. Tourists! How could that be? I was amazed and confused.  Why would anyone drive to somewhere so ordinary? After roaming the west for few decades and traveling the world, I have come to understand its appeal. The coastal part of the county never gets above 85 degrees and rarely gets below 60 degrees; the other half of the county is full of wine.  A climatic and gastronomical nirvana for many, if you like that sort of thing.

Upon the death of my Grandmother, I found out when I told my mom I wanted to scatter her aches in Big Sur where she painted so many beautiful pictures, my mom, 40-years sober by now, said it was to late, her aches were already on their way to Santa Barbara’s Neptune Society.  My mom assured me she would be dumped at sea when the Neptune Society had enough people to scatter.

Commemorative  plaque for my Grandparents Leo and Nora Saunders at  Laguna Lake Park

A huge argument soon commenced, my mom was one of those when you’re dead you’re dead people and didn’t believe in making a ceremony out of ash scattering. She had arranged similar arrangements for herself and her husband.  Well I would have none of the crap; our Grandmother was a revered family member. My mom acquiesced, and we got her brought back to San Luis Obispo so I could scatter her ashes.

As it turned out California won’t let you go scatter aches wherever you like, it has to be from a boat into the ocean. Well I couldn’t afford much of a boat so I hired a six passenger skiff so only six family members could go.

On my way to Port San Luis where the skiff was I saw a bagpipe band practicing in a parking lot in Avila Beach.  I thought, wow, I wonder if I can get them to play Amazing Grace at the end of the Avila Beach Pier.

Moored sailboat at sunrise at Port San Luis.
The serenity of sunrise at Avila Beach

I stopped and waited for about 5 minutes, and they wouldn’t stop marching.  A tourist couple was also watching them, so I asked them to ask them when they stopped if they could go to the end of Avila Beach Pier and play Amazing Grace when the saw a small boat of sad people pull up and cut the engine.   I left not knowing whether the band got the message or not.

I met my family at the port and didn’t say a word; my mom droned on about how needlessly stupid this was and how she just couldn’t see the point.  We loaded into the boat and the skipper asked where we wanted to go; I directed to the end of the Avila Beach pier.

Upon arrival at the pier the skipper cut the engine then we started to hear Amazing Grace as we scattered the ashes of Nora Saunders into the ocean.

Seconds later there was a boat of sobbing people, but it wasn’t all sobs of sadness.

On the way back my mom said;  “Now I get it”

I do enjoy my visits home.

San Luis Obispo County

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