89: Nick & the Blowhole: A Magical Moment

Reminiscence no. 89: Nick & the Blowhole: A Magical Moment

This is a story of something that really happened, although looked back on now, it seems too fantastic to be true. My son Nicholas was with me all the time for the experience I’m about to relate, and can confirm the truth of my account.

One of our favorite places in Marin County, along with the better-known beaches, Point Reyes Station, and Inverness, was the Bear Valley State Park. It’s still there--I visited the headquarters again with Sarah and her family last year, although I wasn’t able to join them in a long walk--I stayed in the big building that offers exhibits of birds and other wildlife, reading materials, etc. And I told this story to the woman at the registration desk when she wasn’t busy.

This headquarters is easy to reach by car from Point Reyes Station: take the turnoff that goes across the marshy lower end of Tomales Bay, turn left when it ends instead of right (which would take you to Inverness); a few miles, and there it is. From there a hikers’ trail--also open to bicyclists--takes you through the forests and over the low hills to the seashore, where you see old trees hung with long yellow-white moss, and can climb around Arch Rock, which juts into the sea, and down to a small beach. But better to keep walking, or bicycling, along the Coast Trail that follows the seashore northward for several miles, to arrive at Coast Camp, located in a kind of meadow stretching back from the cliff. From there, a walkway to the beach takes you down to the shore--a point also reachable, if one wanted to make a long beach hike, by walking southward from Limantour Beach, below the south end of Drake’s Bay. All these are great beachwalks, But, back to the Coast Camp at Bear Valley.

It offered rows of small campsites where one could pitch a tent; each had a fireplace with a grill, under which one could light a cluster of charcoal briquets. Overnights were possible, if you registered in advance with the Bear Valley people. We had been there often, walking or by bicycle. On this occasion I decided to do an overnight there with Nicholas, who must have been about ten or a little older, and who was already a great outdoors person. We chose an off-season time; in fact, we had the campsite all to ourselves. We brought charcoal and things to cook, and sleeping bags with mats to put them on, to keep out the cold of the ground.

On the evening we arrived, after choosing our campsite and depositing our backpacks there, we set off for a walk southward along the cliffs, from which we could gaze out over the sea. It was dusk, and we had the entire seashore to ourselves. Suddenly Nick, who always ran ahead of me, shouted back: he had found something. When I joined him, I saw that we were peering down into what seemed to be a huge hole, set back a ways from the cliff, not just an inlet. I held Nick’s belt and leaned back as he looked over; it was too dark for him to see much of anything, but we seemed to hear soft sounds coming up from the pit. We went back to the Coast Camp and decided, because there was nobody else there, we would do the forbidden and go down to sleep on the beach. So down we went, with our sleeping bags, and found a place sheltered from the wind by logs where we spread out our beds and went to sleep, with the sound of the waves closeby in our ears. It was magical. I don’t remember what we talked about--on another overnight outing I remember bringing a book of Shakespeare and reading to him, with a flashlight, from Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In the morning we climbed up to the Coast Camp and fixed our simple breakfast--I think it was then that we heard and saw a large cat, the kind of cougar that lived around there, bounding through the bushes not far off. Then we walked down to the beach again and turned southward to explore the beach, the tidal pools, the rocky cliffs--which, because they are of soft rock or conglomerate and are continuously subject to storms and high waves, are constantly changing their forms, being eroded. Sometimes whole sections of cliff fall away to make a new inlet, or are shaped into caves and overhangs--a stretch of coast north of this is in fact called, if I remember right, Sculpture Beach because of this. We had explored this many times, walking southward from Limantour Beach--once, I remember, with the Kohara children during their year in Berkeley, an exerience they never forgot. (They excitedly called the caves obake yashiki, ghost houses.+

After we walked a ways, Nick spied what looked like a cave at the base of the cliff, ran to it, and (never heedful of parents’ cautions) bent over and disappeared inside. I could do nothing but join him, and found myself crawling on hands and knees through what was in fact a tunnel. By myself, I would have stayed outside, but with my son ahead of me, I had no choice as a father but to follow. The tunnel went on for some way, then we could see light at the end of it, and at last we emerged--Nick first, of course--into--

This is the hard-to-believe part of the story, and I must invoke Nick’s confirmation of my memory-and it’s a vivid memory, of- a moment I will never forget. We found ourselves standing at the bottom of a huge round pit, a blowhole formed by the water rushing through the rocky tunnel and eating away the earth beyond until it collapsed and formed this round,  straight-sided opening, at the top of which we could see a circle of blue sky. It was, of course, the hole we had discovered while walking along the cliffs above the previous evening. And now we could see and hear the source of the mysterious sounds we had heard: swallows had built their nests partway up the sheer earthy walls of the pit, and were flying around above us. catching insects, making their distinctive soft whirring (or warbling?) sounds and agitating the air.

How long we stayed there I can’t remember; perhaps Nick can fill in this account, besides corraborating it. I was happy to get through the tunnel and out onto the beach again, because I realized how unstable it was, how it might collapse and trap us there. And in fact we could never find it again, although we looked on later outings to this place. The woman at the registration desk at the ranger station said she had never heard of anyone else finding such a strange geological formation along that beach It was a one-time discovery, a vivid and unforgettable happening that strains the credulity of hearers. And it was a great experience to have shared with one’s son.

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