The Sage-Gatherer

We spent a few hours at Bates Beach last Saturday afternoon. This is the beach to the north of Rincon Point and the site of the old chumash village Shuku, renamed La Rinconada by the Spanish. Sometime early in the fall of 1775, a group of 240 soldiers, priests and settlers led by Juan Batista de Anza stopped for the night at the bluff overlooking the beach.

Last week on the way back from LA I was settling in for the drive from Trancas home when I saw a hitchhiker sitting by the road with a Peruvian chullo style knitted cap, one arm draped over a sizable pack, and the other, from elbow to thumb in fixed position jutting northward. It was an intriguing tableaux (as I flashed by) and a few seconds of thought later I pulled my Audi down to a speed at which it was plausible to do a 'u' turn (a brief glimpse of Broadbeach below) and returned to the light at Trancas Canyon Road where, with a second 'u' turn I was able to pull up just beyond the crouching form. I exited the car and she ( for it was now apparent that it was a women) stood up and shouldered her pack. She wore a hand-knit sweater and a much patched long dark skirt. Her face beneath the knit cap was deeply weather beaten and she grabbed for a stuffed brown paper grocery bag with the boney, sun-damaged hand of a field worker. Together we got the pack into the trunk and then, still clutching the paper bag she settled into the front seat.

Her name was Kim (yes, I was hoping for something less relentlessly suburban - a trail name perhaps) and she was 50 years old and had been on the road for ten years. At forty she was probably attractive, her ten years on the road had cost her her looks but she had, somewhat prematurely, achieved the clear eyed mien of wisdom that is associated with post-menopausal woman of spiritual disposition.

The setting was hardly a lonely moor but past Trancas development does thin out: thus it was that Wordsworth's quizzing of the old leech gatherer (The Leech-Gatherer or, Resolution and Independence, 1800) came to mind and I uttered some contemporary version of,

'How is it that you live, and what is it you do?'

She, it turned out, was a sage-gatherer and had a number of sage smudge sticks in her paper bag left over from a day's selling along the beaches of Point Dume and Zuma. It had been a good day. She told me that she sold them by donation but that people usually gave her between ten and twenty dollars apiece. She gave me an eloquent description of the benefits of sage smoke which more or less agreed with Jan Timbrook's note that "inhaling the smoke and allowing it to waft over the body....promote spiritual balance and harmony". Kim's take was that the smoke impacted a person's aura tuning it for greater harmonic resonance with the universe.

She had recently returned from Las Cruces - a long hard trip that, she said, involved lots of walking and hunger. She knew people there. The round-trip took over two months. She was headed for County Line where she planned to spend the night. At her request I dropped her off just past Neptune's Net right across from the chumash site on the bluff overlooking the surf break. This is a flat perch above the waves where I often stopped, during my surfing days, to check conditions and I imagined Kim settling down for the night on her bed-roll, lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the surf.

From Las Cruces, on the Camino Real from Mexico City to Sante Fe (established in the late sixteenth century), she may have returned to Los Angeles along interstate ten (begun in 1956) to Tucson and then she will have followed, more or less,the Juan Batista de Anza trail which passes by County Line and Rincon on the way to San Francisco. The de Anza expedition represented the first concerted effort by the Spanish to settle Northern California.

Will, our older son is with us for a week or so from New York and so a beach visit seemed in order. I know the local beaches primarily from a surfing perspective and have an affection for Emma Woods partly because of the winter waves, partly because of the approach (a scramble down the hill from the parking spot perched above the break, across the railway lines and then across the sand) partly because it is flat-out the closest beach to Ojai and partly because the waves at the north end feel as though they are almost underneath the 101 overpass. But it has its limitations as a family beach destination so we drove up the 150 took one exit south on the 101 and ended up at Bates Beach. It was a 50 minute drive and this protracted schlepp is one small price that is paid by those of us who live in Upper Ojai. We returned on the 101 south then ducked onto the 33, took Creek Road to Montgomery and then the 150 home. It was no shorter but 101 south has the virtue of being sometimes thrillingly close to the ocean.

Will and I swam and caught a couple of waves. We saw dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) playing and feeding and brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) dropping out of the sky to dive for fish. We took a run along the beach to warm up after our dip. We had done much the same at Will Rogers Beach in Santa Monica Canyon many many times in the 17 years that we lived three blocks from the beach. But this time the Topa Topas awaited our return.

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