Feature: Key to the coast

A beach bum’s manifesto on access to California’s shores

By Tom Gogola

There’s a sturdy and well-appointed beach shack along the California coast. The precise details of its location, should they be publicized, would likely mean the end of the shack at the hands of The Man, so let’s just say that it is somewhere between Santa Cruz and Jenner—or, even better, somewhere between San Diego and the Oregon border. It’s out there—way the freak out there. Don’t try to find it, and if you do … shhhh. It’s our little secret.  

It takes a bit of work to get to this small, driftwood shack, built above the high-tide line and nestled in a wee cove. Since its construction commenced last January, it has survived the El Niño and king tides, crashing driftwood jumbles, high winds, tumbling boulders, scouring sun and the erosion, always the erosion. You’ve heard of a blowdown stack—this is a blowdown shack, a well-built domicile for a human in search of a place to blow off steam or crash for the night; a special place. But I can’t stress this enough: Shhh, don’t tell the Coastal Commission about it … the builder didn’t have the proper permits!  

The shack’s contents speak to a simple life lived on the square. There are Dick Francis and Carl Hiaasen novels on a shelf, dog-eared and a little sodden. There are a couple of first-aid kits, fully tricked out with ointments and cold packs for any low-level cut or scrape or twisted ankle that might befall a visitor. A journal, soaked from the rain, is stashed in a cooler and filled with wonder and gratitude and loopy penmanship. It tells of people who came a long distance and enjoyed the place, and left something behind or did something to improve the lot of mankind. One characteristic entry reads, All good manfolk and womanfolk are welcome here to share the bounty of the sea with the various native seabirds, pelicans, osprey, terns and seagulls fishing from these waters. Watch for seals also fishing in the kelp beds, and faraway sailboats going where the winds take them …

The shack’s builder also constructed a perch on the roof that provides a million-dollar view of the ocean. But let’s not put a dollar sign on everything.

I’ve come to this shack several times to chill out and stare at the Pacific Ocean awhile. Others come for outlaw overnight good times on the driftwood bunk. I love me a good beach shack and have built a few in my time. Visitors to the shack occupy a key place in the freedom-trail culture of the nook, experts in sussing and creating these hidden slipstreams of refuge for wild-living fun-seekers, outlaw hikers and marginal artist-campers on the scruff wind, trying to stay on the coast at all costs—with an emphasis on the cost. I am a proud, unreconstructed beach bum, and these are my people.

The shack is a cultural signifier and a furtive line in the sand that denotes, however anonymously, the raging “class” issue of beach access in California, now under fire as the powerful state Coastal Commission moved to axe its popular executive director, Dr. Charles Lester, last week. That move has raised, as they say, serious questions about the future of the 1972 California Coastal Act that set a course for free public access to the California coastline (and which created the commission to ensure that access).

Lester supporters, who came out in droves to support him last week, saw the ouster as part of a concerted effort to denude the California Coastal Act of its radical push for free access to all of California’s beaches, despite one’s income, race or smelly feet. They viewed it as a putsch engineered by Gov. Jerry Brown, in the service of developers itching to take advantage of the state’s suddenly robust economy, or at least that’s what the luxe-humping California bureau of the New York Times suggested. It was a coup!

As the Coastal Commission worried over the Lester firing and insisted that, no, this was a personnel issue centered on Lester’s management style, his organizational shortfalls, that sort of thing, not a “coup”—I bounced out to the shack on a breezy, clear day. The tide was on the ebb—you can’t get here on the flood without risking peril—and I spent a while reading through the journal from the cooler that also contained a couple of cans of tuna fish, a lantern, instructions on how to catch a crab and a few other useful odds and edible ends.  

A prior visitor had arranged rain-beating tarps inside the shack and on the roof, which now bulged with gathered water in a couple of places. I emptied the tarps and sloshed water all over myself doing so—classic. Ate an orange, took a bracing 30-second plunge in the surf, and after a while, I sealed the journal in a plastic bag and sat and watched and listened. The only sound that you could hear was the crashing ocean, which is the only sound that I wanted to hear.

And so as humanity teeters on the presumptive edge of a self-made oblivion, the poignancy of the must-have coastal life is, more and more, experienced in the sharp relief of Mother Nature taking her vengeance, even if she’s just doing her thang. We are all eroding together—all of us, rich and poor—and so who will have the front-row end-times seat atop a bluff or along the shore when the Big Erosion really sets in? Well, rich people, that’s who. And so I declare: Beach bum Bolsheviks of the world, unite!

I made my way back home from the shack and later that night, I wondered if anyone had written about it before. I had heard that there had been an encampment of several such shacks near this spot in the good ol’ days, but that once word got out, The Man came and tore them down.

A small, hard-to-get-to beach shack on the California coast provides a 'million-dollar view of the ocean.' Staff photo.
A small, hard-to-get-to beach shack on the California coast provides a ‘million-dollar view of the ocean.’ Staff photo.

At this shack, people are packing it in, and they are packing it out. It truly is a communal space, a temporary autonomous zone for drifters and wayfarers, and it’s doing zero harm to the environment. Why does The Man care so much about what marginal, peaceful people are doing with their time?

Because it’s an outlaw beachside hotel and everyone else pays their share to enjoy the California coast? Not according to the Coastal Act’s mandate. Is it a Bernie Sanders free-stuff shack for lazy commies as we stand at the cusp of a national Dr. Zhivago moment? Seize the property and redistribute to the beach proletariat! Perhaps. But for now, it takes work and a high tolerance for a life lived rugged to find, and fully appreciate, this shack. It is a populist pop-up redoubt, a Trump Tower for the rest of us. Leave us alone.

The shack speaks to exactly what went down in this recent Coastal Commission set-to about the coast: Who owns the view, and who governs access to a sacred solitude that often arrives as entitlement on the wings of dollars?

I wanted to know if anyone had written about the shack, so I typed a few words into the Google machine and was directed to a “pirate shack” on a vacation home-sharing platform. Wow, I thought—somebody is renting this place out?!

Of course not. The Google offering was a quiet, remote, top-of-the-bluff shack down some goat trail in Magical Marin, and it was listed for—wait for it—$285 a night. And there are those who would pay that fee, claim the world-class view for themselves and resent the hell out of anybody who tries to abscond with it without paying their “fair” share for that selfsame view.

Too bad for those terrorists of the view; we have our shack. It will never make the pages of Architectural Digest. It’s rough-hewn and extremely beachy. It is, by definition, ramshackle.

We’re all out here on the edge, but just because your name is The Edge—well, that doesn’t give you special privileges. Or maybe it does. Last year the Coastal Commission gave a very high-profile green light to the U2 guitarist who, after a 10-year battle with his adopted California and its beach bureaucrats, got approval for a five-building manse-spread on what had been a pristine Malibu bluff. In the course of fighting for the building permits, The Edge donated $1 million to a local conservancy in exchange for them not weighing in on his proposal—which is to say that he paid them hush money—but shhh, don’t tell anyone, The Edge is a good liberal. He don’t mean no harm.

Meanwhile, our humble little shack stands proud, in the name of a different kind of love: The love for unfettered and free access to the beach without payoffs and ultra-luxe vulgarities. The Coastal Commission would likely plotz at the idea of a free hang-space for free-minded souls to hang their freak flag, smoke some mother nature and get naked in the sand. But this is exactly the constituency that drove the emergence of the Coastal Act in the first place, and the beach bum constituency ought to be front and center in any discussion about the future of access to California’s beaches.  

Here’s a little perspective on the vast California coastline. I’ve done a lot of outlaw hiking and camping over the years, most of it on the East Coast. To that end, I used to spend a lot of time traipsing around the variously accessible beaches of Long Island.

One time about 20 years ago, I hiked the entire South Shore of the island, mostly along the barrier beaches that would later get pummeled during Hurricane Sandy. One thing I learned is that when you carry a fishing pole, you’re not camping (illegal) you’re fishing (legal), and that’s cool. Most nights along that hike I found a spot in the dunes that was removed from the prying headlights of roving beach buggies occupied by The Man. They do not take kindly to bums on the beaches of Long Island.

One night it was around twilight and I was in the deep, deep Hamptons, which, for our purposes, can be considered the Malibu of the Long Island coastline. Very rich, very exclusive and very, very entitled. I was a little concerned at the lack of available furtive campsites, as the houses along this stretch are right up on the beach.

The general rule of beach access here and in New York is that even if a beach is indeed “private,” all are “public” below the high-tide mark. But you can’t realistically sleep in the frothing surf-line.

And even if you could, you’d first have to get on the beach, and the high-toned Hitlers of the Hamptons figured out long ago that the best way to deal with the private-not-private beach issue is by putting severe restrictions on who can park where, and when. You can’t, not there, never. Otherwise, enjoy the beach.

It’s a different story in California, where cars are allowed to park along Highway 1, and whose drivers can then find their way to the nearest accessible beach, provided some entitled terrorist of the view hasn’t put up an illegal “No Trespassing” sign.

Yes, I’ve got a real problem with people who believe that when they buy that beachside house, they also buy the view that comes along with it. To that end, last year the state took some measures in defense of the Coastal Act’s mandate and gave its OK to the Coastal Commission to start throwing fines at people who illegally block access to public beaches with sneaky signage and the like.

Anyway, it was twilight deep in the super-luxe Hamptons and I couldn’t find a place on the beach to camp out, so I trudged a little further to a point where the houses thinned out and there was a lot of what looked like open space in the dunes.

It looked promising, and it was. I found the perfect outlaw place to camp, hidden from view: In a sandy dip in the dunes, out of eyeshot. Not safe enough to pitch the tent, but by now I was used to roughing it under the stars.  

Yeah, well. I woke up on a sultry late-August morning to a Golden Labrador bounding and barking around the outlaw campsite. I popped up out of the sleeping bag and looked around and saw a Latino man pushing a lawn mower nearby. He looked at me, startled, and then quickly looked the other way.

I then realized that I was camped out in a sand-trap on a golf course at the Maidstone Club, whose oceanfront golf course, like Pebble Beach in Malibu, is one of the most exclusive in the world.

They’ll shoot me if they find me here, is what I thought. I scooped my gear into the pack and headed for the beach and kept on with the journey after some cowboy coffee and oranges on a rock jetty. That night I reached Montauk, known affectionately-ironically by its locals as The End.  

My adopted hometown of Bolinas has an interesting corollary in Montauk. Both towns are surrounded by public land, and the development has been limited to a kind of core central area. But the story of Montauk, and who trespassed there and drove out the town’s historic middle-class citizenry, is really a cautionary tale as the California economy lusts after a bluff-side luxe housing construction boom.   

I lived in Montauk off and on for a bunch of years, fishing and living the good life, and I was out there one early spring and trying to, you know, scrape out a month or two of odd jobs before the fishing season commenced.

I had rented an off-season oceanfront hotel room that was pretty cheap, but the cash was running out fast and my deckhand job wouldn’t kick in for a month or so, so one day I decided to head out to a remote former fish camp for an adventure. I packed a simple kit: A gallon of water, some herb, a bag of peanuts. I had this vague notion of camping out between the boulders or up in the woods, which out there are called Hither Hills. It’s all very California-like, but of the less rugged and more low-slung variety: The bluffs are less tall, the water is warmer.  

I spent the day building a shack out of washed-up lobster traps pushed ashore in the winter, and filled it in with other beach-a-brac; bits of fiberglass bulkhead, driftwood, whatever was available. I called the shack the Harry Crews shack because I had a copy of the novelist’s Feast of Snakes in my backpack.

After awhile the sun went down and I realized that this shack was not going to keep me warm. Fires are a big no-no out here, but the hell with that. I burned lots and lots of dry wood, trying to stay warm through the night, woke up and headed right back to the hotel.

It had to be at least a year later and I was working on a head boat for the summer and back in my usual summer rental. A friend came to visit and I said, “Hey, let’s go see what’s happening with the Harry Crews shack.”

We got there and it was lost to the tides and storms, but the book I had left—I found a weathered section of it back in the dune grass. It was the only reminder that a shack had been there. And up the bluff behind where the shack had been, the concrete foundation of a long-ago abandoned fisherman’s shack hung off the edge.

Old fisherman shacks, that’s my kind of living. Montauk and Bolinas are both fishing-and-surfing wilderness towns—but one very big difference is that in Montauk, nearly every available inch of developable land now has a house on it. Montauk used to be the kind of place where even the developed areas had all sorts of natural inter-zones; you could hike through the woods from the beach to the bar, until the woods were bulldozed by developers to make way for the Hamptons money.

In Bolinas there’s a road called Ocean Parkway that has slipped into the ocean in various sections due to the erosion, so the road is chopped like a Don’t Tread On Me snake as it wends around the Big Mesa.

There’s a house that I found to be fascinating, alluring, and if I had any money in the bank, I would have bought it. And yes, it’s an old fisherman’s shack at the end of a section of the Ocean Parkway that is slipping back into the Pacific, but before I could save my pennies (about 10 million of them), the house was sold to some young bearded sort of fellow.

I have to account for my raging class resentment here, but the person who bought the house almost immediately cleared out all of the underbrush, stuck a trampoline on the property and, right at the corner of it that was falling into the ocean, built a little viewing-hangout platform with a canvas roof.

Pretty cool, except that the new owner also hung a couple “Private Property: No Trespassing” signs along the fence and on the viewing platform. From my perspective, that’s a hate crime. The signs were torn down and thrown over the cliff. I recounted the story to one of the High Holy Hippies of Bolinas, who made a sign for

In Bolinas, these kinds of signs have popped up. Staff photo.
In Bolinas, these kinds of signs have popped up. Staff photo.

me that read, “No No Trespassing Signs (Goes Without Saying),” and which the Coastal Commission should enshrine as its new motto.

Bolinas being a small town with a super-militant attitude about obnoxious signage, the owner has stopped replacing or repairing those “No Trespassing” signs—and I’ve yet to see a person ascend that platform. Except me. That’s a killer view, dude!

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