In June 2010, Gary and Gloria decided to take a vacation and ’do’ the Californian coast. They were an unlikely couple for Gloria was a vegetarian and ardent naturalist, and Gary was a personal trainer at a local gym. He loved any sports involving speed and, for a good meal, could think of nothing better than a thick steak with all the trimmings.
They flew to Los Angeles and, after a couple of days in that city, took their rented RV north along the coast on highway 101. They traveled leisurely, frequently stopping to enjoy the local attractions. After Santa Barbara and a visit to the Los Padres National Forest they came to Pismo Beach. They were both happy to detour down the 5 ½ mile drivable beach in search for the perfect camping spot. Their different tastes mirrored the dilemma of Oceano Dunes State Park, which has an ongoing disagreement between preservationists and recreationalists.
Gloria had her agenda mapped out in her aspiration to see some of the endangered species making the dunes their habitat – the endangered snowy plover and east tern in addition to eighteen or so named species. Gary, on the other hand, looked forward to renting a dune buggy and riding the dunes in the exhilarating thrill of jumping over their tops and spinning in the sand.
They both knew that the dunes are a favorite site for Hollywood and that when an audience sees clips of people crossing a desert, the scene was probably filmed at Pismo. When they saw the vast stretches of sandy undulations, they gave each other a quick high five in recognition of its size and beauty. An onshore breeze blew that evening. They both noticed that the beach smelled, not of seaweed or salt water, but of cinnamon.
At sunset, they stood together with the Pacific Ocean, and sinking sun behind them. They held hands enjoying each other’s presence while they admired the rolling sands. Each remembered a movie scene in which a group of people walked along the ridge of a dune just like those before them. Now that the drone of the beach buggy motors was over for the day, Gloria was sure that she heard the trilling high-pitched ‘purrt’ followed by ‘tur-weet’ of the snowy plover.
“Do you hear it’” she asked.
“Hear what, the ocean?”
“No, that – yes, there it is again…that high pitch bird call. I believe that it is a snowy plover.”
Gary drew Gloria into his arms, “That’s what I love about you, you see and hear things that others miss.” He drew her even closer and lifted her off the ground to twirl around like a doll.
She laughed as she spun and shouted, “And that’s why I love you Gary, your pure joy in living!”
When he released her, they took up their pose to continue to stare out over the sands. She was searching for evidence of a concealed bird’s nest and he for dune buggy tracks. That was when he saw the sands moving. It was a curious undulation of the ground, a sequence of shifting grains in a moving line across the dunes. He paused before he pointed and spoke,
“Hey, Gloria, did you see that – the sands are moving, and it doesn’t appear to be the wind. It’s like a rolling wave.”
“Where, show me where? It’s not an earthquake is it?”
“No I don’t think so, it is almost as though some living thing is moving just below the surface.”
Gloria looked where Gary pointed and saw the end of the movement as it slipped between two dunes and was gone. They turned away from the sands and faced each other. Perhaps it was the impact of the cinnamon spicy smell, or the fact that they were two people in love, whatever the reason they dismissed the rolling sands. Gary put his hand on Gloria’s neck to fondle her as they returned to their RV.
The next morning Gary drank his coffee quickly as he made plans to rent a dune buggy. Gloria said that she wished to skip the buggies and stay close to the RV. She told Gary that she wished to spend her morning walking the beach, bird-watching, sunbathing, and reading her book. Gary knew that she would enjoy her activities as much as he intended to enjoy his and set off to walk to the dune buggy stand. Soon he came up to them lined up in neat rows with their rear-mounted pennant flags flapping in the breeze and their large wheels facing inland. The wind now blew offshore and carried a much stronger smell of cinnamon. A man with a nametag marked “Joe” approached Gary,
“Want to rent one?” he asked. Gary evaluated the man and looked into his astonishingly blue eyes. He was tanned with skin, which looked like old leather and yet his stride was youthful and his voice strong.
Joe looked toward the hut behind the row of buggies and called, “Hey Jess, our first customer, could you bring a helmet and bottle of water?”
Jess emerged a few seconds later carrying a helmet and water. The two men watched Jess as she approached; she wore shorts and a scanty top. Her hair shone in the sun, her skin was tanned and healthy, and her walk had a sexy swing.
“That’s my girl,” said Joe, “it’s her birthday today, seventy-five, and not a day younger!”
“Did I hear right?” Gary asked, “surely you didn’t say seventy-five? She doesn’t look a day over forty-five!”
“Yep, ‘is indeed, after all I’m almost eighty,” said Joe.
“No way,” Gary exclaimed, “I mean you both look so young, healthy. What‘s your secret?”
Joe looked around and said, “Neat isn’t it? We don’t know how it is either, but we have our suspicions. It’s this beach; it’s that spice that smells like cinnamon. It turns out that it’s like a drug – a good one. We gather it when it blooms on the surface of the sands. We even carry a little with us when we go elsewhere for we are hooked!”
“Why doesn’t anyone know about this?’ asked Gary ‘A spice which slows aging, surely there’s money in this.”
Joe’s blue eyes sparkled, “Maybe, but the wife and I are happy, and we don’t want to see this place destroyed by the EPA and FDA and all those other acronym people. We are convinced that if they heard about it; they take over and destroy everything with their investigations. Why, they’d probably end up declaring the whole dunes an environmental protection zone, and the spice an illegal drug like marijuana. Then where would we be? Probably we’d be heading for the morgue.”
Gary nodded as though he understood although he didn’t. He wondered what Gloria would say. He signed Joe’s release documents, paid his fee, put on his helmet and mounted his buggy. He straddled it with ease. He felt good about his ride and felt anxious to get started. Joe showed him the controls and gave his final instructions.
“You may go where you wish in the unfenced area, and remember that this sport is dangerous. Recently, we have had more accidents than usual. Keep your helmet on at all times and watch out for other riders – the flags on their high pennants are to alert someone’s presence when they are hidden behind a dune.” Joe hesitated and looked around before he added, “Since it is so early in the morning and there is no dew, you may see a sand-worm. If you do, stay away from it.”
“Is it sand-worms that make the sand roll across the ridges and valleys? My girlfriend and I saw the phenomena yesterday evening and wondered what it was.”
‘Yes, that would be a sand-worm, these days they are getting bigger and more aggressive. Jess and I have discovered that they don’t like water, so, if you fall off, or one threatens you, just squirt a little water in its face, and it will leave you alone.”
Gary was off. Soon he was speeding up the smooth wind ward faces and jumping over the leeward slip surfaces. Each time that he jumped he let forth a cry of joy. This was exhilarating and fun. As the morning wore on other buggies joined him. They filled the air with their drone and masked the smell of cinnamon with their fumes. Gary drove further into the dunes in an attempt to escape them. He was only curtailed by a fence which carried a notice about its presence, and the fact that it cordoned off a section reserved as an endangered species habitat. He dismounted and walked up to the fence which he thought to open, to allow himself into the alluring reaches beyond.
Gary heard a hiss of moving sands before he saw the sand-worm. It surfaced between him and the relative safety of his buggy. It was about twelve feet long and almost three feet in diameter. It opened its mouth and bared a piranha-like set of small sharply pointed teeth. Its body was the color of cinnamon and had segments like those of an earthworm. Gary stood motionless and quickly realized that it couldn’t see him. He deduced that it was waiting for him to make a sound. Ever so stealthily he slid his body around the sand-worm, so that he could reach his water bottle and get back on his vehicle. He pressed the ignition; the engine gave groan and died. The sand-worm approached and snapped at his feet. He squirted water in its mouth. It backed off to burrow into the sand. Again, he attempted to start the motor, without success – it was dead.
Gary sat for some fifteen minutes; he wondered how he was going to get back to the shore. He prayed that another rider would come within shouting distance, but none came. He decided that he would be obliged to trudge through the sands to find help, but as soon as he took a few steps away from the buggy he heard the hiss of the sand-worm moving through the sands. He retreated to the vehicle’s relative safety. The sand-worm now seemed emboldened; it surfaced and circled the buggy ever getting closer. It alternately snapped its lethal-looking teeth at Gary’s feet, and rocked the dune buggy with its powerful body.
Gary became convinced that if he did nothing, the sand-worm would win. He wasn’t sure what that meant, but suspected that it wouldn’t include a pleasant outcome for him. He noticed that the sand-worm moved by rolling its body and saw that, like a snake, its cavernous mouth was an extension of its body. He tore off the dune buggy’s accelerator handle which formed a crude hook-like tool. Then he tucked his water bottle into his waistband. Gary had ridden a few Broncos and even a few bulls in his time and had decided that he would leap onto the sand-worm’s back and grip it with his ‘hook.
Gary knew that he only had one chance and that his leap had to be accurate. He jumped as it passed and landed on its back behind the gaping mouth. He straddled the creature and opened one of its segments to get a secure grip with his hook. A few grains of sand entered between the folds of the segment. The sand-worm writhed and started to move across the sand. Gary was pleased to find that it didn’t roll or attempt to burrow into the ground.
“So far so good,” Gary thought, “now I’ve got to figure out how to make this beast go where I want it to go.”
He experimented and discovered that he could direct the sand-worm’s movement by adjusting the location of his hook. He steered it toward the beach. As he approached the shore, the sand-worm became increasing reluctant to move, or maybe it was getting tired. Gary decided that it was time to dismount. He took his water bottle in his right hand and held it like a gun as he slid off his ride. The sand-worm immediately turned and burrowed into the sand. Gary watched the sandy surface undulations which marked its slow retreat.
When Gary got back to Joe’s stand, he saw that Joe was engaged with customers, so he found Jess and handed her the ignition keys. He hurriedly told her that the buggy had stalled in the far reaches of the dunes. Before she could question him, he turned and walked down the beach back to the RV and Gloria. He found her beside the RV lying on a towel reading; he lay beside her and began to tremble. Haltingly, he told her about his extraordinary experience. He had expected incredulity, but she seemed to register concern but little surprise. She pointed to her book which she had put down on her towel, Dune, by Frank Herbert.
“It is all in there, the rolling sand dunes, the cinnamon-colored spice, called mélange, causing blue eyes and treating geriatric symptoms, and, of course, the sand-worms.” She reached and hugged Gary. “My super-man, I can’t believe you managed to ride one!” She gazed out over the sands and added, “Now we have another endangered species to join the snowy plover.” After another pause, Gary noticed tears in her eyes. She spoke quietly. Her voice pitched almost as high as the snowy plover’s call. It was Gloria’s plea for planet earth. “What shall we do? It’s going to become our mission, we have to make sure that our beautiful planet doesn’t degenerate into a desiccated sandy replica of Herbert’s planet Arrakis.”