Permission to Enter, by Jedidiah Jenkins
Big Sur will always be remote. The cliffs are too steep, the mountains clustered enough to make travel permanently inconvenient. One day, when we all have personal hover-drones to take us wherever we want to go, perhaps then Big Sur will change. Until that happens, its difficulty is its charm. The southern slopes bake in the sun and stay mostly grass. The northern slopes, relieved of the sun’s heat, hold the fog longer and give redwood trees, oak trees, blackberries, poison oak, and every other plant a chance to grow thick and gnarled. And in the meeting of every mountain is a stream, or sometimes a decently big creek, that scrubs the boulders bald and gurgles and pools into crystal-clear oases. Red salamanders stand out in the gray-and-green world of the creeks. The steepness of the ravines makes these microclimate forests dark. Redwood bark and evergreen richness and sharp oak leaves. These dark places feel like a secret. And they keep secrets.
For centuries, there have been rumors of “dark watchers” in these forests. On the ridges of the mountains. In the distance. I’ve read that the Spanish explorers saw them, calling them los vigilantes oscuros. Robinson Jeffers acknowledged them in poetry: ”forms that look human to human eyes, but certainly are not human. They come from behind ridges and watch.” Even John Steinbeck mentioned them, in a short story called “Flight” published in ı939. “Pepé looked suspiciously back every minute or so,” the story goes, “and his eyes sought the tops of the ridges ahead. Once, on a white barren spur, he saw a black figure for a moment, but he looked quickly away, for it was one of the dark watchers. No one knew who the watchers were, nor where they lived, but it was better to ignore them and never to show interest in them. They did not bother one who stayed on the trail and minded his own business.”
I love a local legend, bespoke to the environment and energy of a place. The dark watchers of Big Sur feel true. They feel appropriate to the shadows cast by the steepness, by how vertical the distances are, how you can stand on a ridge and gaze out, the miles playing tricks on the eyes. You feel as if you could fly.
I have been camping many times in Big Sur, and I have been in those shadowy places, and once, I made contact. Or something like that. It went like this:
A group of my friends from Los Angeles and San Diego picked a weekend in October to drive up and camp in some of the national forest just up the mountain from PCH. Up a dirt road where the camping is free and primitive. We found a dense forest with a big opening perfect for our trucks and jeeps to circle up, set up chairs, get some burgers grilling and beers flowing. We’ve come to that site for years because it is almost always open, gorgeous, and a short hike goes down to a flowing creek cradled in boulders. There were six of us, mostly married men excited for a boys’ trip and no crying babies. I was the lone gay, single man, and these straight boys seemed to love it. We sat in our circle, getting properly drunk and talking, all in the purity of isolation from our phones. Our little fire lit our faces but left the forest and the world beyond us to darkness.
At an advanced hour–maybe midnight, I’m not sure–we heard a voice at the edge of the woods.
“Permission to enter your camp?” the voice said.
A man. A voice that wasn’t one of us.
He had a heavy smoker’s raspiness, with a concerning tone. You can tell so much about a person from tone. He had a performative sincerity mixed with Adderall alertness. A neighborliness and charm that sounded like lying. We looked at each other quickly with excited glances, and we said, ”Yes.” He emerged from the dark. He had crispy blonde hair coming out from a beanie. His face was very tan and his smile lines were deep enough to fit a nickel. He wore an oversized hoodie, jeans and Vans. I couldn’t tell his age. A very rough 35 or a damn good 65. His accent was almost comically Southern Californian. He had several rocks in his hands.
“I’ve never seen you guys before. First time to Big Sur?” he said.
“I’ve been here a bunch, been to this spot a couple times. I usually stay up at Kirk Creek,” I said.
“Kirk Creek is beautiful. Well, welcome to the forest,” he said, opening his arms in a gesture of bestowing. “I’m a jade collector. A jade expert. I’ve spent the last eight years collecting jade in these creeks and shaping them and selling them.” He handed us each a piece of jade, cut into the shape of a fat arrowhead. I worried he was about to try and sell them to us.
“Hold it up to the light, it’ll glow green,” he said. “I want you to have these. As a welcome gift to the woods.”
“Wow, thank you!” my friend said.
“Yeah, man, jade saved my life,” said the man. “I was in the Gulf War, and I came back screaming at the sky every night, yelling at the big man. I woke up with Jack Daniels and mushrooms. I wasn’t killing myself quick enough. I looked down one night on the ground and saw a stone and picked it up and realized that there was still beauty in the world, and I started that day looking for it. It saved me from my mind. One guy once said to me, ‘I will beat the shit out of you,’ and I said, ‘You won’t do half as good of a job as I have done to myself.’ ”
“Do you want a beer? Whiskey?” I asked him.
“Oh man, I gave that up. But I’d take a cigarette if you’ve got one.’
I fished in my backpack for some and handed him a few. He was very happy.
This man from the woods felt weirdly fitting for a Big Sur experience. The place fosters mystery. Every time I’ve come here, I feel a pull to the strange and mystical. The way people talk about Sedona and Santa Fe as being vortexes–I don’t know if I believe in all that, but I must say I do feel something in Big Sur. I don’t really think rose quartz and jade have “power.” But for some reason, certain places on this planet attract people. Not people looking to get rich or raise a family, but people looking to commune with energies otherworldly.
In 20 ı3, I was cycling from Oregon to Chile. Near the beginning of my trip, I passed through Big Sur. It was then I really felt the layered realities of the place. I was run off the road by RVs from Ohio and thick clots of tourists at every vista and bridge. But the Henry Miller Library, Deetjen’s, the forests and creeks we camped by–all told a different story, the story of a town where real people live. But people deeply informed by place. This isn’t a man-made world, where the affairs of culture and society are on the tongue. It is a place where Big Sur is always being discussed. A rockslide. A fire. A destroyed road.
The tourist comes through and gobbles up a view. The local lives in constant conversation with land and place and change and the way things were.
“This world is crazy, man. I moved here eight years ago to run from the cops. I got a jaywalking ticket, and I was like, Screw that. So I moved up to the woods.
“My dad was Mr. Universe, a real famous body builder; he won the title at ı8, and again at 72. I grew up at Little Dume, in Malibu. I traveled, I made big money, but I blew it all. I was on acid for a year and a half. I think the Universe–God–took my money from me. I always wanted to do right by God, but I gave him 99 percent and kept ı percent for me. I thought it was a secret. I lived for God, but then finally I realized I was really living for the ı percent that was mine. I told God and He laughed at me and said, ’You think I didn’t know!’ Ha!”
“Hey, you haven’t even told us your name,” I said, hoping that basic social convention might override his waterfall of words.
“I’m sorry. I’m Viking. Been called Viking for many years.”
“Viking? Is that your real name?” I asked.
“No. But no one calls me my real name. It’s Richard. I changed my name because the government wants me for the jaywalking ticket. So I usually don’t tell anyone my real name. Not sure why I just told you guys, but screw it. I’m happy you’re here.”
I thought to myself: They must want him for more than jaywalking.
My friend Jason chimed in. “Do you find us city kids coming into your woods annoying?”
“No. I don’t own this. No man owns anything. It’s just borrowed. This nature is too beautiful for just me or these old timers. And nobody owns anything. It’s just as much yours as it is mine. And I’ve had it for so many years, I consider myself blessed. I’ve spent so much time in these woods. Too much. I went a year and a half without seeing one person, man. Not one. I started talking to the animals. When I would walk through the woods, at first the birds would call to each other to warn about the dangerous animal coming their way. But now, the birds don’t warn. They know me. But I was talking to the birds and the trees, and the problem is when the trees start talking back. Loneliness is the worst cancer.”
Certain things he would say landed like heavy wisdom. I thought about how lonely he was, and how he knew it. How playful his language was, even funny, and how so much of who I am is formed by how I fit in with friends and family and strangers and community, and what would happen to me if I didn’t have that.
“You know, when I got here, I thought there was nobody in these woods. But I just didn’t see them. And they hid from me. Like the warning birds. There’s a lot of us living in these creeks. People everywhere. If you see trees, there’s people in there, and they know you’re here. But we’re good people. And the jade is always so good to me. You know a guy in China just bought a jade stone for a billion dollars.”
“A billion dollars?” my friend Brady exclaimed.
I knew that couldn’t be true. It would have been front page news if a stone sold for a billion dollars. But I was liking this guy, and I have never been one to correct strangers or new friends.
His words kept flowing. “I see you guys have smart phones. You know the government is watching you, right? All the time. They can listen in on your phone whenever they want. But I don’t give a shit. My computer, I don’t care. I won’t even walk in front of my computer unless I’m butt naked with peanut butter and jelly on my chest. Watch me, I say. I’ll give you a show.”
Three hours passed. Viking had gone through all our cigarettes and wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down. He was talking about the history of the PCH and waving his hands, dramatically uplit but the fire, when I caught the eyes of a few of the other guys. Ding. The internal timer hit its limit.
I interrupted: “Okay, Viking. We’re gonna head to the redwood circle and listen to a podcast. We’ve been planning on it. Thanks so much for visiting. I feel like we’ve seen a side of Big Sur from a local we would never have known. You’re amazing.” I hoped complimenting him would make the severing easier. He was snapped back into seeing us and knowing where he was.
“Oh yes, of course, thanks so much for the cigarettes and the time, men. I’m glad to have you in these woods.” He stood up, and we hugged. “The jade is yours. It will guide you,” he said with a bow, and he stepped backward and bowed again into the black wall of the dark. He was out of sight. He was gone.
We’ve gone back to that spot many times, but Viking has never returned to us. As much as we like being together and left alone, there is a strange sense of loss with that: a feeling that we aren’t worthy of a watcher anymore. Like we’re getting older and closing ourselves off from mystery and weirdness.
I look at the narrow ravines between mountains differently after Viking. Thinking of the dark watchers. Folklore often springs from exaggerated truth. The forest is not empty. The redwoods are huddled up, whispering old things. And the shadows are watching. No place is really empty. There is no blank canvas waiting to be conquered by tourists or settlers. Every place is swarming with birds and life and, yes, people. Viking had it right. He asked permission. And with a little investment, soon the birds stop chirping a warning and receive you.