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Spring/Summer 2006, Volume 22.3



Ana Maria SpagnaPhoto of Ana Maria Spagna.

What's Heaven Without a Gate?

Ana Maria Spagna (MA, Northern Arizona University) is a freelance writer and day laborer in Stehekin, Washington. Her first book,
Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw (Oregon State University Press), was named one of the Best Books of 2004 by The Seattle Times. Read more about the book at: Other work by Ana Maria Spagna  published in Weber Studies can be seen at: Vol. 21.1.


You are playing hide n' seek. You've played here before, time and time again, and most of the hiding places are just ho-hum. You hide and wait for the moment when the distant counting stops and the footsteps approach. You wallow in the brief exhilaration, the impending doom. Boo! You are caught. Laughter and a chase toward home. Then, this: in a stroke of extraordinary luck, you find a new hiding place, wholly unconsidered, hard to get into or previously inaccessible or simply ignored. You crouch as the seeker passes, and passes again. You know it's time to give yourself up. Past time, probably. You ask yourself, over and over, "What should I do?"


Crystal Cove was an anomaly, an undeveloped swath of land wedged between the cliché California beaches: wall-to-wall beach blankets, roller skaters on the promenade, radios blaring, video arcades and ice cream shops, high dollar rentals. Here, unexpectedly, right on Highway 1 was a sweep of open hillside, yellow grass waving in the wind. My dad took a hard left on an unmarked road, steep and twisty, tightly-lined with eucalyptus trees, and in a matter of seconds, we were there: a place entirely apart. The perfect hiding spot.

A handful of small cabins lined the bluff and huddled close on the beach—right on the sand!—with makeshift sea walls for when, during the highest tides, breakers crashed at the doorstep. They were shanties of sorts, unfinished and artsy, flat-roofed and cedar-sided and painted bright seaside blues and whites and greens, adorned with various beachy treasures: nets and buoys, shells and glass, driftwood and palm fronds. The cabins, built in the 1930s, were authentic representations of "vernacular beach architecture" or so historians decided when, in the late 1970s, locals lobbied to have them listed on the National Historic Registry in an ingenious but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save themselves from eviction. The cabins had no fences, and if the neighbors were not always friendly—we were not locals after all, but renters—they were watchful. It was the kind of place, my mom marvels still, where if my brother and sister and I left our beach buckets below the high tide line, someone would surely return them to the cabin before they washed away.

Crystal Cove had been part of the Irvine Ranch, one of the largest privately-owned tracts of land in California. J. I. Irvine, who had inherited the land from his father, a gold rusher, had tolerated squatters at the Cove since the 1920s. (Why not? Who was it hurting?) He stipulated only that, upon his death, the land should go to the state for preservation. That the situation was legally tenuous explained why the cabins remained unimproved through the post-war boom and beyond. That the gig would be up (Allyallyumcomfree!) I'd known since I was a small child. In my mind it loomed with the same certainty as high school and marriage and USC in the Rose Bowl and, eventually, nuclear annihilation. Crystal Cove would go to the state. Then what would happen, we didn't know. We didn't care. While we were there, it was the good life.

The good life, I say with no hint of irony, despite the fact that except for a week each year for which my parents scrimped mightily, we didn't live there. We lived sixty long miles away under the veil of smog—the dirty undertow, the unacknowledged reality—that drifted inland from the ocean. The Crystal Cove locals, they lived the good life. We watched them curiously, surreptitiously, and with abject jealousy. They were richer than us, with their Mercedes convertibles, and tanner than us, more fit. They launched catamarans at sunset, clean beautiful people laughing and drinking. Crystal Cove Yacht Club read a hand-painted tongue-in-cheek sign in front of a small outbuilding that served as a garage when we were very young, then later became an art studio. On the wall of the outbuilding was the most famous landmark on the beach, an old clock, hands permanently rusted in place, below which a small sign read: Crystal Cove Standard Time—Set your clocks back to 1930. We, just kids then, didn't know what that could possibly mean.

We spent hours in the ocean, our skin wrinkling, pickling, burning, always burning, leaping over the crashing waves, diving under them, trying to body surf or, later, boogie board. The surf was very gentle, usually, but we were very small children. Waves pummeled us not infrequently and pounded us into the sand. Mucousy salt water ran down the back of my throat after washing up my nose. But I did not retreat. I rinsed myself in the deeper, cleaner churn, yanked my bikini bottoms back up the slender shaft where hips would someday be, then marched back out into the surf, triumphant, to stand alone, late into the afternoon, staring straight into the sun at the boats on the horizon and the kelp swaying on the swells. I talked aloud to the waves even after I was far too old for such a thing. I dared them to come closer. I named them for their size: Grandfathers, Daddies, Mommies, Babies. I was scared of the big ones, but I taunted them anyway, standing on my tiptoes where waves crested, turning occasionally to float down the backside as the swell rolled onward, curling over, then breaking, charging for the land. Inevitable.

Stehekin, the remote mountain community where I live now is, like Crystal Cove, an anomaly. You can hear the exclamation points when the story is told. You can't get here from there! There are no roads in or out! You can take the boat or you can take a plane, or in the summer, you can hike. But you can't drive! (Could there be a better place to hide?) The lake is narrow and cliff-crowded, the water a deep rich green. The first word that comes to mind is clean. How clean it must be. And how deep. How unfathomably deep. You leave the dry suede hills of the B Western at the south end of the lake and move by measures into an entirely different place, like descending into the Grand Canyon, only in reverse, from desert to mountain. Pines appear, then firs, then eventually the twilight blue mountains, the permanent snowfields. (Which ones are glaciers? And how do you tell the difference?) The boat pilot narrates the tour with superlatives and trivia—the third deepest lake in America (You knew it! Only behind Tahoe and Crater!), the second cleanest (Crater again, drat!), the superhero settlers who mined and trapped, rowed and skied, fought and clawed to make this remote paradise home. And now you are among them. Who should have such luck?

Tourists arrive daily. They marvel at the beauty of the valley, the conifer smells, the calendar views, the plain one-road simplicity. You don't have to lock your doors, do you? It is common enough in tourist towns for locals to begrudge the visitors, even as they eke out a living from them, but this is not West Yellowstone, not Maui, not yet. Locals allow the visitors space to fish and swim and camp and wobble on rented bicycles in front of our pickups. It's what the place demands of us. Just like the Crystal Cove clock. If I leave a dish at a potluck, like my childhood buckets on the beach, it will show up at the post office for me to retrieve the next day. Tourists see this. They gawk through tour bus windows with abject jealousy of those of us lucky enough to have stumbled into a seemingly unsullied place.

Seemingly. For decades Stehekin has been, like Crystal Cove, mired in controversy. The controversy was, I suppose, inevitable. Such a pretty place, such a national treasure, should be preserved for future generations. So, thirty years ago the National Park Service took over jurisdiction of the area. To hear it told by some locals, Big Park came in like Big Brother and had themselves a land grab, swiping private property out from under unsuspecting owners. The specifics are, of course, debatable. Willing sellers? Threats of imminent domain? It's the stuff of long-held grudges, lawsuits aplenty, and fierce loyalties; and taking a side is not my point at all, especially since I am a fence-straddler myself, a landowner and a Park Service employee both, ever in danger of committing hypocrisy or betrayal. I only mean to say that since there used to be many more acres of private land than there are now, the fact that my neighbors remain utterly distrustful of the government, ever-mindful of the possibility of eviction, makes perfectly good sense. Two million acres of federally-designated wilderness surround us now. The conservationists effectively won.

Of course, it's a darned good thing they did. I've seen how private land goes to hell in a handbasket. Who hasn't? In California, as most places, laissez faire reads strip mall. Nearly every inch. What is there to see here? Stores. What is there to do here? Shop. The government might squander money, and make misguided decisions, but it doesn't put in the Gap and Old Navy and Trader Joes. That, in part, is what happened to Crystal Cove after J. I. Irvine's death. The beach itself went to the state, even while the cabin-owners fought tooth-and-nail with their own cadre of lawyers and lawsuits, but the outlying areas—those undeveloped hillsides, the last stronghold for indigenous species—went, against the wishes of Irvine himself, to the highest bidder. Strip malls, condos, golf courses, it's all there. The stuff of a bad TV melodrama. So predictably grotesque.

And it could have been worse. A few years back, Republican Governor Pete Wilson proposed a high-end development right on the beach, whereby concessionaires could charge upwards of $300 per night for upscale tourists to stay in the renovated cabins. Wilson's excuse was the prohibitive cost of restoration. Granted, the Crystal Cove shanties, now protected by federal legislation, pose a problem that way. None of them, I think, has any insulation. I doubt many have heat. Mold and rot welcome here! More worrisome, perhaps, are the outmoded or nonexistent septic systems. Vernacular does, apparently, come with complications. The upside of Wilson's outrageous proposal was to galvanize his opponents, so that now there is talk of non-profit tide pool interpretive programs, an artist-in-residency-program, a dolphin research outpost. All high-minded and, I think, exemplary ideas. In the meantime, I hear, the cottages serve as housing for state park rangers. I've been housed that way myself, in mountain cabins acquired by the National Park Service for the "greater good," so I know the bitter truth: if the government promises to tear them down, or to restore them, or whatever, don't hold your breath.

You've probably caught on by now. I'm mourning for Crystal Cove. I can't help it. Even if the very best options come to pass—the environment and the artists and the dolphins all saved by the place—I still think something will have been lost.

When we were kids, a tall sinewy unsmiling man rode a one-speed bike along the potholed pavement to the beach every morning, a poodle between the handlebars. He walked with the poodle for some distance in the fog until, eventually, he stopped to toss bread crumbs into a cloud of feverish gulls. He was silent and menacing, and scared us kids not a little. We never spoke to him, but we expected him like we expected the spouting dolphins passing beyond the waves, the nasturtiums lining the ramshackle wooden boardwalk, the catamarans at sunset. And we thought of him as our own. Whether he thought of us as his own, I can't say. But we liked to think he did.

At the base of the hill, as you approached Crystal Cove, was a large pipe-welded gate, and over the years, there were various plans for getting around it: hidden keys and forgotten codes. (A gate? A gate! You are appalled, I know, but then paradise is always defined by exclusivity, isn't it? What's heaven without a gate?) Just beyond the gate were a long row of dilapidated garages, in which lived the poodle man, the unofficial St. Peter for the Cove. He did not have a cabin, no garden. He had only this self-appointed job (Why not? Who was it hurting?) and for that he was tolerated, even embraced. As a kid, I liked to believe that if the key or code didn't work, the poodle man would let us in. He wouldn't smile, of course, but he would swing the gate wide to let our station wagon through. He was part of the fold, see? And we were too. Live and let live. With a generous unspoken helping of kindness. That was the real code at Crystal Cove.

The cold hard truth: things fall apart. Can't step in the river twice. Nostalgia is fervent and revisionist, naïve and not particularly healthy. Longing for Crystal Cove before the state took over, or for Stehekin before Big Park, is like longing for Cuba before Castro: a mythic place that no longer exists. Whether the result of grievous wrongdoing or the everyday rotations of earth around sun, things change. I try to tell myself that's my problem, that what I want for Crystal Cove is Cuba before Castro. And maybe it's true. Maybe it is nostalgia, pure and simple, an affliction that I am only now the age to suffer. I tell myself: get over it. The gig is up. Allyallyumcumfree. Your turn to count.

Part of my problem—so obvious it's hardly worth mentioning—is that I see Crystal Cove as a harbinger of sorts, an omen. Crystal Cove is precisely what I don't want for Stehekin: eviction notices forcibly served. My hiding place here is idyllic—it's the good life, I say, without a trace of irony—and tenuous. But it is equally true that Stehekin is precisely what I don't want for Crystal Cove, the touristification of everything. What Stehekin loses, by very small measures still—it's only been 30 years—in the protective hands of government is its own unique character. Park service employees in matching uniforms crowd the boat landing: homogenous, familiar, unwittingly Disney-like. The concessionaire—protected by the government from competition but still operating on a profit motive—provides lousy food. Just like Yellowstone. Just like Independence Hall. What's there to see here? A visitor center. What's there to do here? Tours. Talks. Turkey on rye.

Here's what I'm thinking: let private ownership run amok and—duh!—a place gets ruined. But, I venture out on a limb here, let public ownership run amok, and a place gets ruined. (Sure, you think so, people will say. You don't want to share. It used to be your beach, now it is everyone's. Selfish, you've been, and undemocratic. You are hiding, and you have stayed too long. And who is ruining the game? You are.) Land preserved can become like a memorial or a mausoleum, a place to be solemnly observed and respected. Hands off! It's stuffy and static and completely unrealistic because we are changing the land even while we stand aside and watch, hands scrubbed raw. Witness the familiar examples: fire suppression invites new super-catastrophic fires; noxious weed proliferation endangers native plants; wildlife populations, with predators eliminated, are spiraling out of control. And here's the clincher: not only are we changing the land, but the land is changing us. Most of us belong to certain little places, not the other way around, and to loose our hold, to give in to bigness of any political persuasion is to feel untethered, adrift. Found, and mostly, lost.

There were tide pools at Crystal Cove, several sets of them—the first rocks, we called them, and the second rocks, and the third, and so on. There, in the years before his early untimely death, my dad could cast his line into the surf, and my mom could collect seashells to save in peanut butter jars back home in the garage, shelves and shelves of them, and we kids could brush our tiny hesitant fingers across the suction-cup tentacles of anemones and watch them curl up, or look for starfish and abalone on the undersides of the rocks. We had to wear shoes on the rocks because they were covered in mussels, their sharp shells pointed upward and painful. Often we forgot and tried to walk barefoot anyhow.

My dad usually fished from the first rocks. We would join him, and he would bait our hooks with mussels, the orange meaty innards, and we would dangle the hook in a smallish pool, almost perfectly circular, into which the surf swirled with some degree of force depending on the tide. At high tide it ripped into our pool and sprayed over our heads. At very low tide, it trickled in to barely wet the sand. Most of the time, it was somewhere in-between: knee or waist-high on me, the oldest. I don't recall if I ever caught a fish there, or even how often my dad got lucky, but I do remember that we once found an octopus that seemed sickly, on the verge of death, and my dad told us not to touch it; he held us back, and we watched our octopus make the slow barmy lap and retreat.

More than two decades have past. The rocks are still there. Ditto the anemones and the dolphins. This is not, for once, an elegy for nature lost. The marine life at Crystal Cove, save the abalone, has proved stubborn and remarkably resilient. In this story, a twist on the defining story of our time, nature is still there, but the magic, at least as we knew it, is gone. We always knew it would be.

Nature lovers, the kind that tip the balance in my circle of acquaintances, like to espouse the Native American ideal that no land should be owned. "Let nature run the show," they say. Meanwhile, developers with fewer scruples make cell phone real estate transactions on the chair lifts, collect their profits and pour the pavement. "Let the free market run the show," they say. There ought to be a better way, I think, a chance for a handful of people to hole up in a tiny undeveloped cranny and make it their own. It's too much to ask anymore, I know. Way too much. We've outgrown the game. We've played too many times. There are too few hiding places left.

Ah, but there are some. There still are too-dry deserts and too-wet beaches and too-brushy hollows where if there's a will there's a way, where people can hide and not be found, build without a permit, live on the fringe. (Why not? Who is it hurting?) Not ditching all the rules or making up their own rules, but resurrecting the old standbys. If a bucket is left on the beach, return it. Duh! Can there be a philosophy of balance? Are we capable of it? Collectively, apparently, no. Individually, emphatically, yes. People do it everyday. If they're ruining the game for everyone else—let the other kids have a turn!—so be it. Stay, I tell them. As long as you possibly can. Just stay put.

But fair warning—and this, the coda, is key—fair warning to them and to so many of us in the West still pretending to hide, crouching beyond the reach of society while anchored firmly to it: when you are found, and you will be, come forward gracefully. We are not little children any longer. No point in pouting. No point in trying to hide again by moving on, running farther, trying to keep one foot ahead of the sprawl, the snow birds, the Texans, the Californians. Name your spoiler. Whoever you think It is. You are It now. And the first place you will check is where you hid. Face it: a place apart it is no longer. It never really was.

After my dad died, the family did not go to Crystal Cove for a handful of years, a blip in time for my younger brother and sister, but a meaningful stretch for me—the difference between sweet innocence and scowling adolescence. By the time we returned, I noted the noise of the highway, an omnipresent roar, and the polluted water running down the canyon from the storm drains on the highway and into the ocean. The place felt suddenly false to me, tucked as it was into the seething maw of Californian humanity. False it was. It was not separate from the world, of course, but held afloat on a web of entanglements that spanned from the gold rush to the governor's mansion.

The half-moon cove that had stretched forever when I was a kid, the third rocks such a distance, turned out to be no longer than a couple of miles, a frustratingly short distance for an aspiring cross-country runner. On my sixteenth birthday, I ran in the morning, early, passing the poodle man and no one else, on the hard sand below the high-tide mark. Then back in front of the cabin I peeled off my shoes and socks and waded into the surf to swim. From out past the waves, I could look back at the spattering of shacks melding together on the shore like the blue orb of earth from space: so small, insignificant really, part of the larger solar system, and the galaxy, and the universe. There's some comfort, I suppose, in knowing that we're just a tiny part of something bigger. At least it is fashionable, in a bumper sticker way, to believe that there is. But there is sadness, too, though we rarely let our adult selves feel it, in knowing that there is always another wave coming, a bigger wave that will surely overtake us, and the only thing to do is to hold our ground, bracing ourselves in the churn, watching the horizon, waiting.

By the time I turned sixteen, I knew the rules of the game. I wallowed in the fleeting visceral pleasure: warm sweat meets cold surf. I stayed in the water as long as I possibly could, until I heard my mother calling me from the porch; then I caught a ride from the crest of a wave right onto the sand, and I ran to pack my bags and drive away, newly licensed, past the gate, and back into the wide world, racing for home.


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