Dispatches From the Road: Oceano, California

A man kneels in contemplation before a magnificent sunset on the beach in Oceano, California. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

The man in an overstuffed winter jacket and other ill-fitting, dirty clothes shuffled off the sidewalk into the street. With thick fog billowing in from the ocean at the end of the block, I feared oncoming cars wouldn’t see him, until I realized we were the only two people out walking in the little downtown strip of Oceano, California, that evening. Not a single car had passed in the last couple minutes, and he was staggering across a well-lit section.

Considered by some national headquarters for all-terrain vehicle recreation, nobody rode on the expansive dune system that day, and we can’t blame it on the fog.

Like so many things in 2020, Covid is the culprit.

Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area shuttered in the spring along with other California state parks. An inland campground reopened in late September, but the beach remains closed to vehicles and camping.

This bummer for riders has been a boon for other beachgoers, and an endangered shorebird.

ATVs ride the beach in Oceano, California. (Photo courtesy California State Parks)

Past the shuttered ATV rental agencies, hamburger stands and taffy shops, Klaus the dog and I made our way to the beach. People huddled around fires built in the sand. Otherwise there wasn’t much to see, not even the ocean until I was a few feet from the lapping waves.

Satisfied we’d seen all we could I turned around. A man in a stained white tank top, board shorts and a scruffy beard stared into the fog from the patio of a second-floor condominium unit where the sun was setting, not that he could see it.

Part of the largest dune system south of San Francisco, Oceano Dunes spans more than five miles and is the lone beach in California that allows off-road vehicles.

Once home to the Northern Chumash tribe, the first European explorers traveled through in the 18th century, followed in the 1930s and 40s by the Dunites — mystics, nudists, artists and free-thinkers of all stripes who believed the dunes to be a creative energy center.

In the 1980s, ATV enthusiasts secured a permit to ride the beach. According to supporters, the area was bought from a state land trust to be set aside for such recreation, and therefore the state can’t change the rules.

In this otherwise sleepy town, off-road vehicles are big business. But the future — both short and long-term — is uncertain.

An airplane flies over the beach in Oceano, California. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

At a recent meeting of the California Coastal Commission, several members voiced their support for phasing out off-road vehicle use and reducing car camping to a one-mile stretch. One cited a recent executive order from California Governor Gavin Newsom pledging to set aside 30% of the state’s land and coastal water for conservation by 2030. Created by voter referendum in 1972, the commission governs coastal land-use decisions. 

Off-road vehicle rider Randy Burleson voiced his displeasure with the agency.

“I think the Coastal Commission is exclusionary. They believe their use is the best use and they want to disregard all other uses,” Burleson told a Courthouse News reporter.

The hearing adjourned without a final vote.

On Tuesday, the state parks department announced a phased reopening that will allow street-legal vehicles such as jeeps and trucks to drive on the beach starting Oct. 30, but other vehicles and campers will have to wait until an undetermined date.  

Covid-19 remain the key concern, but a little bird is getting in the way too.

A snowy plover chick. (Photo courtesy California State Parks)

A mere five to seven inches in length and weighing in at a couple ounces, the snowy plover nests on sandy coasts and brackish inland lakes in the southern and western United States, parts of the Caribbean and South America. The wee shorebird chases down flies, worms and crustaceans for sustenance.

They are cute, and in trouble. First listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993, habitat in California, Oregon and Washington state was deemed critical in 2012.

During the pandemic, without noisy and destructive all-terrain vehicles riding through their habitat, the snowy plovers expanded their nesting area beyond a fenced-in protection zone. State park employees kicked up nesting scrapes left by male birds to attract mates, resulting in a rare cease-and-desist order from the commission.

Snowy plovers hunted for food along the water’s edge alongside seagulls as the sun set the following day, under a sky so blue it seemed impossible this was the same beach I’d visited 24 hours earlier.

Bonfires dotted the sand. Kids and dogs alike frolicked in the water. One man drove a small remote-controlled four-wheeler on the beach, pausing to play with Klaus. To the north a hilled peninsula jutted into the ocean. Undulating dunes stretched for miles to the south.

I mentioned how peaceful the scene was to friends the next day.

“Yeah, but off-roading is awesome,” one replied.

A jogger scatters birds on the beach in Oceano, California. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

His comment brought me back to my childhood in Maine. Most of my friends owned snowmobiles for winter and dirt bikes or four-wheelers for the unfrozen months, but not us. My father preferred cross-country skiing and — when that wasn’t torture enough — snowshoeing. Other times of the year we hiked.

I respect people who can exercise outside in brutal winter weather even if it’s not for me, and I enjoy a brisk walk in nature. I agree nothing shatters the serenity of a bucolic scene like the roar of a snowmobile or ATV.

Loud, dangerous and destructive, yes, but thanks to my friends I learned snowmobiling and off-road riding sure are fun.

Checking in at the one campground in town with spots available that weekend, I told the clerk I’d enjoyed visiting the beach the night before. Fearing I might anger a local, I added I imagined a lot of people were upset the beach was closed to vehicles and that dune-riders were important to the local economy.

She looked up, leaned forward and almost whispered through her mask, “I’m just happy to enjoy the beach with my family without having to worry about being taken out by an ATV.”

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