Quick Trip to Cayucos Through the Fire

My friend and colleague Lee Peterson and I had chatted for a few weeks about a trip up along the coast to his place in Cayucos since he had to get some produce from his ranch near Merced to bring down to San Diego.  But with the fires raging in the mountains near Ventura and along the coast we were waiting for what seemed like an opportune and fairly safe time to travel.  Besides although I am supposedly on sabbatical and easy to schedule, it seemed like every time we thought we had an opening I had a meeting of one kind or another I needed to attend or if I was free Lee had something come up he had to attend to.

Early Monday Lee called saying it looked clear, he was free, and could I go.  Well, yes, sort of… We got off to a late start because I had an early Doctor’s  appointment but we still were on the road a little before noon. The first portion up through L.A. was typical wall-to-wall cars but once on 101 north of L.A. we bailed off of the freeway and cut south through Malibu Canyon to the coast.  

Lee is working on a book series about the piers of the California Coast.  This trip was also designed to let him pick up some more photos for the books.  He already had many of them shot but was missing a few here and there plus wanted to add some detail shots. We stopped first at Paradise Cove near Malibu.

This is a private cove which has been through some interesting legal wrangles regarding beach access.  California law says that the beach “…seaward from the ambulatory high tide line was public.  But getting to it was another matter and in this case, the owner charged for parking ($30.00) although if you ate in his café, “The Paradise Cove Café” parking was only $6.00.  So we had lunch there.  We both had the clam chowder which was quite good was almost $20.00 per bowl.   Lee shot the pier and I thought it might be cool to take shots of him taking HIS shots… but then I realized I had brought the big digital cinema camera but  I did not bring a still camera and at this spot there was nothing I wanted to film.  I completely “spaced” the fact that I had my cell phone with me until we were leaving!

 I confess despite having just written a book about the future of photography in which cell phone technology is playing a major role I still do not naturally think of it as a real camera.  This trip would give me a chance to play with it and test the theory for myself.

We finished at the cove and then headed north along the coast.  It wasn’t long before we could see the smoke in the air and start to smell the fire and ash.  By the time we got to Ventura the smoke made it look like a heavy marine layer of fog except it had that ugly brown cast not much different than smog.  We drove north through the incredible fire devastation around Ventura. It truly was astonishing. In a number of places the fire had burned right to the highway then jumped over and burned on down to the ocean.  Rows upon rows of dead trees including many beautiful tall palm trees were burned out stumps   It burned right up to buildings but we did not see any burned homes.

But, it is still burning!  We could easily see numerous fire lines in the hills above the little towns and along the highway.  Major flames shooting up toward the sky were easily visible even in the late afternoon daylight.  The people whose homes are in the path have got to be sweating bullets as the army of fire fighters working in awful conditions has, in places, slowed the fire’s march but has not yet stopped it.

It was nearly sundown when we stopped at Gaviota beach where the smoke in the air created a very surreal pallet. I remembered my cell phone and got a shot of Lee doing HIS shot of the pier. The dense smoke turned the sun a rich vermillion color and made the whole scene somewhat surreal.  Here is a shot of him at that pier.


Lee at Gaviota Beach

Lee Peterson photographing the Gaviotta pier through the smoke filtered sunset.  Shot with my iPhone 6.  Maybe I need to be rethinking my disrespect of cell phone cameras… (c) N. David King

 On Tuesday the sky was clear, the wind was almost at a dead calm and it was beautiful out.  We had breakfast at a wonderful country kitchen in Morro Bay then headed  up north to San Simeon where Lee shot overviews and details of the pier.




Lee doing an overview of the San Simeon pier.  Shot with iPhone 6. (c) N. David King


Here is a cell phone shot of him playing with the shadow patterns from the pilings. The stories of these piers is fascinating, something I never gave much thought to but now will see them in a whole new light.


Lee with San Simeon Shadow Patterns

Lee down below the pier looking for shadow patterns and other details shot of the pier. Shot with iPhone 6 (c) N. David King

While we were there I unlimbered the Ursa to play and get some footage of the Hearst Castle from close by the pier.  It was so clear, with no haze (or smoke) that it should prove a rare opportunity to shoot from this angle.   When it was built there was no highway for everything was brought by ship.  Lee took a quick shot of me lining up the shot of the castle.


David and the bear

Here’s David and the Bear…  The Ursa has a 5″ swing-out monitor on the left side which is what I’m looking at to line up the shot.  I’m using a Canon 70-200mm f4 with a 2x teleconverter to really move in on the castle.    Photograph (c) Lee Peterson) 

On Tuesday the wind had died down which helped and it was extremely pleasant out.  We headed back down south to check in on the Elephant seals which would normally, by this time, be filling the beaches.  I thought that should make for some good stock footage.  But the beaches were almost deserted.  There were some confused males wondering where the ladies went but apparently they were having to feed further out to get ready for the long pupping time when they will not eat for a long time and might lose a couple hundred pounds.  

That evening the clear local air but the smoke layer blown out toward the horizon conspired to create an amazing sunset.  We hoped for a “green flash” but instead were rewarded with a very long delay to the sun as it fell through the smoke layer out to sea.


Lees view of sunset for blog

Sunset from Lee’s deck.  The sun s-l-o-w-l-y dropped through the smoke layer on the orizon and again painted the scene in hues out of a Turner watercolor.  (c) N. David King, shot with iPhone 6.


Wednesday morning the winds had returned.  I kept thinking how terrifying that had to be for the residents in the fire’s path.  A day’s short respite and then they were back into the fight of their lives for their homes and property.

I do not know why, since I love the place and Lee’s house is an incredibly wonderful space to relax and “chill,” but from the moment I woke up, something deep inside was screaming at me that it was time to head south.  This would be a perfect place to “hole up” to write, work on a project, or simply to recharge one’s batteries. To me it is a perfect analog to a cabin in the mountains though not as secluded.  I’d love to come up for a few weeks with nothing to do but make images, write, and get my mind and spirit back together.  But something deep inside had rippled and troubled the water of my spirit.

I KNEW it was time to head back. (Yet now, a day later, I still do not know what motivated that feeling.)

The winds, however, had returned with a vengeance, blowing down-slope from the coastal mountains out to the sea. Great plumes of back-spray crowned the breaking waves and painted them with ephemeral rainbows. But that also meant it could be regenerating the vast fires raging from  Ventura north towards… us.  Already smoke haze was eating up the view to the south. Yesterday Morro Rock was so clear it was as if you could reach out and touch it, but now it was indistinguishable and washed with the brownish varnish of smoke even though the fires were an hour away. So instead of going back the way we came through the fire zone, we turned inland and cut across country well north of the burn.

 This is normally a beautiful drive across the coastal range filled with color and even wildlife.  But not this time.  Even as we crossed the Carrizo valley everything was a dead brown. The grass that normally is long and silky was like dried straw. The oaks that ought to be blazing a yellow greeting to what passes for winter here, were also simply a dried-out desaturated brown. Everything was brown. It was not, however, the vibrant and rich earth tones of late fall, but the dead grey-brown of water starved trees, grass, and scrub. If the fires reached this far they would race through here like a Hellish tsunami of flame. Other than an occasional comment about the drab pallet or the increasing smoke filled haze looking south, we passed through the area quickly and quietly.

The remaining trip back was uneventful though there was, as usual, a glut of cars on the L.A. freeways since we were unlucky enough to have hit the early rush hour coming down I-5.  There was no help for it… just sit back, listen to the satellite channel filled with Buffet, Fogelberg, Taylor, even some Cat Stevens.  But it was hard not to think that while we were headed home to safety, a lot of people in the areas we have just been through, had no homes, no safety, and even some still with property unscorched were facing the night not knowing if tomorrow’s dawn would see it still in existence or just a smoking and charred ruin.

It is really hard not to feel awfully blessed and incredibly lucky by comparison. 


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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