Secrets of the Shifting Sands

Soft, smooth, and curvaceous, the allure of the dunes drew us inexplicably to their undulating and flowing landscape. Maybe we are attracted to how the wind-blown shapes drift around, like the fluid and transitory nature of our new lifestyle.

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Here, along the central California coast lies the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Complex, one of the largest intact coastal dune ecosystems on Earth. For an introduction, we traveled to the small agricultural town of Guadalupe to visit the Dune Center, a natural history museum focused on the dune ecosystem and its history.

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At the museum, we were introduced to the Dunites, a group of bohemian colonists that lived in the dunes. Led by Chester Alan Arthur III, grandson of the 21st President of the United States, the Dunites survived on Pismo clams, lived rent-free in driftwood shacks, and sat around half-naked writing poetry. In 1974, the last of the Dunites was hit by a train, and all traces of their existence have since been covered by the blowing sands.

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The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille

Also buried in the dunes is the Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille, the last remaining film set from the early Hollywood movie era. In 1923, DeMille built the largest set in movie history in the dunes for his epic silent film “The Ten Commandments”. After three weeks of filming, DeMille dismantled the backdrop and secretly buried it in the sand. Sixty years later, a group of film buffs, inspired by a cryptic clue in DeMille’s autobiography, located the hidden film set and over 1 million pounds of massive Egyptian statuary.

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Archaeologists working the former film set

In hopes of finding a souvenir 5-ton sphinx to take home, we drove out to the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve. To the relief of our home owner’s association, all we could find in the tall dunes was a tangle of jumbled cables, rotted timbers, and broken blocks of sculptured rubble.

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At the beachside parking lot at the Dunes Preserve, fishermen caught sun perch in the massive surf, and we caught our first view of Mussel Rock Dune, the largest active sand dune on the west coast. From the car, we hiked across a vast rippled and hummocky landscape to attempt our ascent of the great dune.

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With one step back for every two steps forward, we sluggishly traipsed up the dune’s gradual windward side, and eventually reached its smooth-edged summit. From the top of the dune, the entire Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Complex unrolled below us. Beyond the dunes, white frothy waves lathered the 18-mile arc of the gilded shoreline. With binoculars, we spotted the spout of a grey whale, before it surfaced against a profoundly blue backdrop.

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Following the angle of repose, we slid down sheer slip-faces and swiftly descended the dune. Back at the car, as we poured the sand from our shoes, we considered how the sands have covered the last traces of the Dunites and the Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille, burying them both in the dusty memory of history. Like these dunes of sand, we hope to drift around and transform in perspective, as the winds of time blow us into our new way of life.

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Lizzie ready for her next adventure

8 thoughts on “Secrets of the Shifting Sands

    • Hi Brian, Sorry for the delay in my reply. I must have overlooked your nice comment. Our month on the central California coast was our favorite stop, and the dunes were a real “high” light. Perhaps you can find a black-and-white still shot from a DeMille movie for one of your hilarious parodies.

      Liked by 1 person

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