T.H. Watkins’ book On the Shore of the Sundown Sea, published by the Sierra Club, tells of the T.H.’s experience camping with his big family at Salt Creek, exploring the southern Orange County coastline during the post WWII years to the passage of Proposition 20 in 1972.
I was introduced to T.H. Watkins’ book by reading writing excerpts in Orange County. A Literary Field Guide. This compendium of poems and samples, published by Heyday Books, was compiled by Lisa Alvarez and Andrew Tonkovich and a complete review is available at The Daily Pilot.
Writings are organized by Orange County regions: Anaheim, Irvine, Santa Ana and Orange, Santa Ana Mountains and Canyons, and the Flatlands, and the Coast and Beach Towns. T.H. Watkins’ prologue is one of about twenty chapters and verse in Orange County each describing sandy beaches, surfing, and driving the Coast Highway.
In a 1939 eight-passenger Buick, named the Yacht, the Watkins family loaded up “six kids, two parents, one dog, camping gear, clothing, and a three-week supply of food and drove the seventy miles between the little town of Colton and the coast.” The drive on the two-lane highway was a southern California “not yet coalesced like some particularly virulent biological culture, and its air was not fouled by what Wallace Stegner called the “taint of technology”. The family passed through orange groves, dairy pastures, vineyards, and alfalfa fields. “Two miles dead west of the village of San Juan Capistrano, we would come to the Coast Highway and a decision: should we drive five miles to the south for San Clemente State Park, simply cross the highway for Doheny Beach State Park, or turn north for Salt Creek Beach? The last lacked amenities, but the campsites were on the beach, and anyone could choose their camp spot as there were no assigned sites.
From these camp trips a connection to California’s coast drew T.H. to every cove and stretch of the coast road. He supported Proposition 20 and considered its commission, the create of the Coastal Commission, to be a “profound shift … from mindless worship of the growth ethic” to an ecological movement. In T.H’s time he saw planners and developers “had put wealthy tacky-tacky on the bluffs of Salt Creek Beach, and laid a parking lot for boats in the cove below Dana Point, and the citizens of Big Sur forced Caltrans “from jamming a multilane freeway through the ancient mountains that meet the sea.” He mentions San Mateo county coast residents fight against Caltrans and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “decided that the area could support a population in excess of one hundred thousand people” … and laid plans to build a dam on Pescadero Creek with an expanded highway system to accommodate “these nonexistent thousands of people.”
On the Shore of the Sundown Sea ends with T.H. musing about freedom and illusion. “Landwreckers” have been held back, but for how long is the question?
Earl Thollander, the artist who provided us the Back Roads books, drew the pictures for On the Shore of the Sundown Sea.
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