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Mysteries of Big Sur

Many legends and mysteries are associated with this dramatic, isolated stretch of coastline.

From fairies to fog spirits, people have been reporting unusual experiences as long as there have been people in Big Sur.

In the time of the missions, Native Americans would go out on foggy evenings to "cheer up" their friends, the sad and lonely fog spirits. The mission fathers strictly forbade any such pagan activity and one night followed them out into the fog and performed an exorcism. The fog spirits, offended, departed howling, causing sadness among the Indians. Poetic justice prevailed, however, when the priest who performed the exorcism went mad, jumped off a cliff into the sea at Point Lobos, and was drowned. Or so the story goes.

Visitors in the 1900's often told of seeing "little dark people". John Steinbeck's mother, among many others, saw these mysterious creatures. Also benevolent were the fairies spotted playing in the mist of a waterfall by a party of hikers in 1939.
Not many traditional ghost stories haunt the South Coast, perhaps because it was the practice of settlers on leaving their homes to tear down the structures. Ghosts, after all, need someplace to haunt, and most of the old barns, farmhouses and outbuildings have succumbed to time.

But the artist Elwood Graham tells of trying to paint the old Arborlado Cooper house in the Little Sur, and having something or someone interfere. Every time he set up his easel, a wind would suddenly spring up on the otherwise calm day and blow it over. He finally gave up, but the photograph taken by his companion that day shows strange ghostly shapes behind the broken windows...

Point Lobos seems to be the focus for many strange tales. Huge winged angels, or devas, have been seen hovering there, and choirs of heavenly voices heard singing in many languages. A dark winged beast, allegedly one of the "sea spirits" that dwell at Lobos, also has been seen by many, hovering near the cliffs. "Beware of the sea spirits at Lobos," said a noted spiritualist. "They do not mean to harm anyone. They are like lion cubs. It is dangerous to play with lion cubs."

The cypress trees at Lobos hold another mystery. In 1915 a Tibetan lama in San Francisco for the Exposition insisted on visiting Point Lobos. He told reporters that there were accounts at Lhasa of three Buddhist missionaries who sailed from China across the Pacific 1,000 years previous, planting seeds from the sacred trees that grew only at the monastery at Lhasa. They stopped at Point Lobos, in the area of Seventeen Mile Drive, down the coast at Cambria, and further south in Mexico. An improbable tale, and yet how else explain the presence of the rare trees?

Some visitors have told of being overcome by a nameless terror while hiking in the Point Lobos area. A sudden, overwhelming sensation of impending danger--since dubbed "The Terror"--came to a hiking party that included marine biologist
Ed Ricketts, the real-life Doc of Steinbeck's novels. All members of the party simultaneously were overcome by dread and ran back down the trail to the highway where their vehicle waited.

Could "The Terror" be caused by the earth's energy built up in the many faults that bisect the land, or could it be, as spiritual scholar Ella Young put it, that "Point Lobos is not ready to make friends with society yet... But when the force of Lobos is released, when America taps this magic that the Indians had, then we will have great poetry, great music, great singing."

The final mystery is more down-to-earth, but no less profound, and that is the mystery of the missing sea otters.

Declared extinct in 1841, these defenseless marine mammals were hunted for their dense fur, the densest of any animal, with over one million hairs per square inch. The Spaniards bought the pelts from local Indians and the Russians and Chinese hunted them from boats offshore. The animals were such easy prey and the pelts were so prized that the entire population, from Fort Ross in the north to Morro Bay in the south, was completely eliminated by hunting.

For 97 years no southern sea otters were seen off the coast, even though the area was well-traveled and inhabited by settlers.

One day in 1938, however, the lonely kelp beds were suddenly lonely no more...
Howard G. Sharpe, owner of the Rainbow Inn in Bixby Creek Canyon, spotted some three hundred of the furry little fellows riding the ocean swells 120 yards from the mouth of Bixby Creek.

Several phone calls to the scientific authorities were met with frank skepticism, but finally the experts trooped in and concluded that yes, there was a healthy population of the southern sea otter off the Sur coast again.

But where had they spent the intervening 97 years? Patient study quickly failed and led to wild conjecture--hibernating? Hidden in sea caverns? No one knows... but today the visitor to this coastline has the rare delight of watching the engaging creatures roll, romp and play in the sea, now protected from poachers and hunters by strictly enforced laws.
Nature is vast, cosmic in dimension--how could we claim to know her every wile the way we know, say, the internal combustion engine?

Any place where she remains largely untramelled is bound to be a place of fertile mysteries for the human imagination to wander in.



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