Once Upon a Utopia

     A graveyard groundskeeper placed a map on an empty patch of grass, then counted squares on the unfolded paper.
     “Four graves from Tubbs,” he said, his eyes darting from the map to the ground beneath him. “So right where I’m kneeling would be Allman.”
     I was doing a story on pauper burials, and Arthur Allman, who lay in an unmarked grave at the Arroyo Grande District Cemetery, provided a fitting example. But I had another reason to seek Allman’s final resting place: The Irish sculptor had been a Dunite.
     Today the Oceano dunes make news when someone gets killed racing an ATV over a sandy ledge and every time another lawsuit is filed over vehicle access to the beach. In the 1930s, Gavin Arthur, grandson of former President Chester Arthur, saw it as an ideal location for a utopian community: an artists’ retreat from the Great Depression, on an 18-mile stretch of sandy hills buffered against the Pacific.
     Arthur arrived at the dunes in 1924 after a trip to Ireland, during which he aided the Irish Republican Army in its battle for independence. He called his land at the dunes Moy Mell – Gaelic for Pastures of Honey – and invited an editorial staff to help him launch a literary magazine, “The Dune Forum.”
     As many as 35 people lived in the dunes at one time, many using a massive load of lumber from a shipwrecked Norwegian freighter to shore up their ramshackle cabins.
     Living on a diet of Pismo clam chowder and crops stolen from nearby farms, the Dunites were writers, artists, astrologers, Lemurians, mystics, hobos and other eccentrics, living on windswept sand dunes. Emily Wingate was a former Vogue model. Pat O’Hara had been a reporter for the LA Daily News. George Blais was an avid nudist who believed in the power of the sun.
     Ansel Adams took his famous dune photos here. John Steinbeck read parts of “Tortilla Flat” before it was published to Dunites surrounding a firepit at Arthur’s cabin. Upton Sinclair frequented Moy Mell before his run for governor.
     Perhaps the most ballyhooed visit came from Meher Baba, an Indian holy man known for his 44-year vow of silence (and later for inspiring Bobby McFerrin’s hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”). Accompanied by an 18-person entourage, admiring press and an alphabet board, Baba gave the Dunites a discourse about lust, anger and greed. One of his entourage’s cars got stuck in the sand, giving Baba more time to explore the beach.
     War interrupted Allman’s utopian dream. After a Japanese sub torpedoed a tanker in nearby Cayucos, Arthur offered his land to the Coast Guard and joined the Army. By the 1950s, every other Dunite – except one – had abandoned the Pastures of Honey.
     Allman, who claimed to have lost three fortunes in his life, including one establishing Moy Mell, eventually connected with the Beat generation, befriending Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He became a grandfather figure to hippies during the Summer of Love. During his varied career, he taught prisoners at San Quentin State Prison, tried to make a living as a gold prospector and helped Alfred Kinsey on his sex research.
     He also gained fame as an astrologer, his 1962 book “The Circle of Sex” analyzing human sexuality through astrology.
     He died in San Francisco in 1972. Soon afterward, firefighter Norm Hammond visited the dunes and stumbled upon Bouke “Bert” Schievink, the last Dunite, who died in 1974, 34 years after arriving from the Netherlands.
     Today, portions of the dunes are overrun by ATVs, most of them driven by visitors escaping the heat of the Central Valley who park their RVs on the beach. Despite Hammond’s book “The Dunites,” the best chronicle of Dunite life, most locals haven’t heard of Moy Mell.
     Arthur Allman’s unmarked grave is symbolic of that. While nearby tombstones honor Civil War hero Otis Smith and William Ryan, who “Sailed Around the Horn in 1849,” Allman, a onetime gunner for the Ecuadorean Navy, has rested unnoticed since six fellow Dunites bid him farewell at the Potter’s Field section of the cemetery in 1937.
     One significant remnant of Dunite life remains: Behind the historic Oceano Train Depot, Arthur’s 12-by-30-foot cabin – where Meher Baba slept in 1934 – is being restored by the Oceano Depot Association.
     As engines rumble by on the beach, Arthur’s cabin sits silently, a memorial to a group of oddballs who checked out of the mainstream in search of a higher consciousness, and discovered that Utopia, like life, is fleeting.

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