The first time I drove from Long Beach to San Luis Obispo I was in my late twenties. A college boyfriend had graduated and decamped to Cal Poly for a masters degree, and despite it being the time before smartphones and Skype shrank emotional if not physical miles, we embarked on the folly of a long-distance relationship.
The Central Coast had that precious thing an L.A. girl suffering from concrete jungle fatigue might crave: cities writ small and nature writ large. San Luis Obispo boasted a quaint little downtown surrounded by even more quaint old Victorians. In Pismo Beach the ocean lapped at the same long stretches of sand that had encouraged leisurely afternoons tanning to Vanity Fair and Brothers Karamazov down south, but along other stretches of coastline it lunged against crags and clefts with a violence that demanded collars upturned against the spray and careful attention to where one placed one’s feet.
Driving down Highway 227 past foil glinting among grapevines and steer grazing across low hills of rolling grass, the acrid-sweet aroma of eucalyptus filling the cab of my pickup, I fell twice over in love. Could I live without the dozens of (admittedly beloved) restaurants and cultural venues that I had to fight through traffic to reach in exchange for rocky slopes of the Nine Sisters slumbering among the towns and ranchland and the dusty scent of live oak and sycamore? The answer from that first moment was an unqualified yes. And though the boyfriend didn’t long survive my headlong dive into the SLO life, my enchantment with the region has endured for decades now.
Of all the affable towns in the county, the kind where to my astonishment the propane employee chatted for half an hour after hooking up service instead of rushing off to his next appointment, Los Osos was my favorite. Tucked between two state parks it could have developed an inferiority complex, but instead it embraced its low-key vibe, winning affection with a plainer sister’s understated charm. Yes, Montaña de Oro boasted the stunning oceanside bluff, a cool, shady trail through riparian habitat, and Valencia Peak where you could lie on your back and watch offshore clouds grow from translucent wisps to mighty cumulus as they passed overhead. Sure Morro Bay had its iconic Rock, one of those nine ancient volcanoes from the Miocene Epoch that dotted the county landscape, rising like a stony Venus from the sea with otters gamboling around her, as well as the estuary whose serpentine waterways welcomed canoers and kayakers amidst a host of egrets and herons and grebes.
Los Osos had the Elfin Forest: ninety acres of terrible soil, near constant winds, and salt spray creating a punishing atmosphere for the local flora. But much like Los Osos itself, which defied conventional suburbia with an absence of more than a handful of streetlights and of any sidewalks at all, the plants that did put down roots in those ninety acres found their own ways to thrive. Four hundred year old oaks dealt with the inhospitable winds by shrinking down to as little as four feet high, and the sodium-resilient, nutrient-hording chaparral grew tough but lush around their roots.
And the views, when you emerged on the tiny forest’s western border, were unbeatable: the estuary, the rock and the sandspit, the ocean beyond. So a dedicated coterie of locals spearheaded the land’s acquisition, oversaw the construction of a boardwalk and appropriately sited benches and maintain the property to this day.
Many Elfin Forest locals are hard to spot. The dense shrubbery offers innumerable cubbyholes to shy wildlife and they take full advantage of it, quail and squirrels and foxes darting across the boardwalk almost too fast for a camera to catch. The jays and the hummingbirds and the pale fluttering butterflies go about their business more boldly, while the vultures and gulls soar lazily above it all.
Others are very much visible. The human wardens of the forest – at least the ones I’ve encountered on my walks – tend toward the elderly, the proprietary, and the opinionated. Most recently, trying to shoot a stalk of bright red flowers against a backdrop of oak moss, I remarked casually to my husband, “I think that’s Indian paintbrush?”
Suddenly a voice behind me said, “We can’t call it that anymore.” A petite, weathered woman with close-cropped white hair laughed bitterly. “Not politically correct.” She glared as if daring me to disagree, snorted, and disappeared around a bend in the boardwalk. Curious, I googled the plant when I got home, and if there is some angry dispute over cultural misappropriation of the word “Indian” with regard to a small, ubiquitous wildflower, the Internet seems to remain blissfully unaware of it.
Equally vehement was the elderly man walking his dog who paused to excoriate local undesirables. We nodded bemusedly as he announced that the residents’ cleanup efforts would go more smoothly if someone would roust “the trolls” swilling beer under the nearby bridge because they were too lazy to find real jobs. I turned my lens on a hummingbird while his long-suffering Airedale mix curled up at his feet, doubtless waiting for an end to a rant she had heard innumerable times before.
It’s hard to judge them too harshly, I suppose, guarding their rough little patch of land against interlopers who strew water bottles and energy bar wrappers along the boardwalk or illuminate their romances with forbidden campfires started near stands of volatile mesquite. As an outsider, even a respectful one, I’m not really privy to what they endure in their struggles to keep the preserve – well, preserved, so that everyone may continue to enjoy its diminutive delights.