That Golden Shore

What happened to the California Dream? Was it consumed by fire? Swept away in a mudslide? Or was it just lost in soul-crushing traffic?

That Golden Shore is a bittersweet love letter to the Golden State in slow-motion apocalypse, a tragi-comic caravan of aging rock stars and yoga gurus, surf punks and besieged immigrants, washouts from Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the professional surf tour. It charts the odd collisions of history, culture, and spirituality that have seduced people to California for centuries: its lore and landscapes; its fragile, vanishing, impossible beauty; the mad frustrations of trying to live in a place collapsing under the weight of its own mythology.

What happened to the California Dream? Was it consumed by fire? Swept away in a mudslide? Or was it just lost in soul-crushing traffic?

That Golden Shore is a bittersweet love letter to the Golden State in slow-motion apocalypse, a tragi-comic caravan of aging rock stars and yoga gurus, surf punks and besieged immigrants, washouts from Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the professional surf tour. It charts the odd collisions of history, culture, and spirituality that have seduced people to California for centuries: its lore and landscapes; its fragile, vanishing, impossible beauty; the mad frustrations of trying to live in a place collapsing under the weight of its own mythology.

In That Golden Shore, a working musician takes us on a road trip up and down his beloved, beleaguered coast, giving us a stage-eye view of the tribal power of music, the healing power of surfing, and life in an off-the-grid beach town crumbling into the ocean.

But That Golden Shore is also a story of renewal, about one uniquely American seeker’s mid-life accounting of unspeakable losses on his journey west, the redemptive power of love, and the enduring call of landscape to soul.

Coming soon!

Jonah Das is the editor of Illahee Rising, a geographic information non-profit that identifies lost and neglected Native American historic and cultural sites for inclusion on our maps and in the historic record. He wrote That Golden Shore while living, surfing, teaching yoga, and playing music in Half Moon Bay and Encinitas, California. He is also the author of Dudeville, a coming-of-middle-age adventure story about a corporate dropout turned backcountry snowboarder and mountaineer. He currently lives and works on a native tree and plant farm on the land of the S’Klallam and Chemakum on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state.

It gives me no satisfaction – two years after starting That Golden Shore while living in the surfing and yoga mecca of Encinitas, California – that its first plot twist would be so painfully prescient.

The book starts out with an anguished love letter of sorts to Big Sur, one of the world’s most spectacular coastal landscapes. Two years earlier, a huge swath of this reclusive jewel of the California Coast had been consumed by wildfire, and the rains that followed swept the top of a mountain and a whole stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway down to the ocean below.

Stuck “back East” for the first 30 years of my life, Big Sur was the site of my first adventure west of the Mississippi. It was the first place in the American West that ever mattered to me, and had become a frequent refuge since moving to California. Friends who homesteaded up one of its rugged, redwood-filled canyons had lost everything in that fire. And all of it was suddenly cut off, from the north and the south. So when I sat down to write That Golden Shore, I wanted to memorialize Big Sur’s transcendent beauty and anachronistic cultural history, to mark the size and scope of those natural disasters on a human scale. I wanted to describe how the place truly felt, taking the reader out for an idyllic sunset surf in one of its isolated breaks – on an oddly hot evening.

Two years later, as I prepare That Golden Shore for publication, I’m writing from another surf mecca far to the north. We have been evacuated to a hotel on the Oregon coast, under a blood-red, mid-afternoon sunset sky, after smoke from down in California – along with our own fires – has forced ten percent of the Oregon population to flee our homes.

To our south, wildfires have consumed four million acres of the Golden State this year, so far – double its next worst year – an area the size of entire states “back East.” What has turned the midday sunset sky out over the Pacific such a menacing color isn’t just the particulate ash of ten million trees: it’s what has become of five thousand homes, schools, barns, and businesses. It’s the California dream, gone literally up in smoke.

We moved up to Oregon a year ago, our own version of the California Dream finally succumbing not just to the fires, landslides, droughts, and maniacal traffic, but to the soul-crushing extremes of wealth and poverty. The shantytowns lining the crumbling freeways. The great voids where communities ought to be. A populace of 40 million people consumed by long commutes and financial stress or striving, and lost to self-absorption, youth-worship, and the latest shiny spiritual object.

That Golden Shore is the measure of my disappointment, a bittersweet love letter for a place that has been breaking my heart since I first pitched a tent in Big Sur 30 years ago. It is a work of nostalgia for everything California used to be, or at least pretended to be, an examination of all the false promises it ever made and the countless other hearts it has been breaking not just for the past few decades, but for centuries.

I wanted to capture the collision of history, culture, and spirituality that have seduced people to California for centuries, and to memorialize its fragile, vanishing, impossible beauty.

Because like its namesake, Calafia – the mythic warrior goddess in a popular 16th-century European romance who ruled the vast, wild, golden “island” north of Spanish-held Mexico – California seduces with her raw, physical beauty. The back roads through the Sierra Nevada, the fog rolling in through a redwood grove up north, the transcendent power of standing on an empty beach and watching the sun set, there are countless landscapes in California that look and feel like heaven on earth. In That Golden Shore, I wanted to capture the emotional power of all that, of a place so beautiful and ephemeral, it is almost painful to behold.

I have been fortunate to spend much of my life running around the most spectacular landscapes in America – Alaska and Hawai’i, the Rockies and Desert Southwest, the Pacific Northwest – and I can say without hesitation that there is no greater compression of raw physical beauty in America than what you will find in California. Half a day’s drive takes you from Yosemite Valley to Napa, from Pismo Beach to Joshua Tree, from the Marin Headlands to Mendocino. These are not only the most beautiful places in the country; they rival the most beautiful places on earth.

But those half-day drives will also make you insane: the mind-numbing traffic jams in the middle of nowhere; the grinding poverty and garbage lining the roadways; the stench, depletion, and mono-cultural desolation of the Central Valley; the hair-trigger road rage of every hothead late for work in his jacked up truck or day-glo muscle car.

California wasn’t like that 30 years ago. Yes, there were slums in L.A., San Francisco, and Oakland. There were miles of migrant camps lining the agricultural valleys, and the Central Valley was well on its way to a desiccated oblivion under a relentless sun.

But there was still room: rolling farmland up north, actual orange groves down in Orange County, empty country roads laced through the foothills of the Sierra. You could still view the mountain from Mountain View, before Silicon Valley filled it with traffic and smog and so many people that wage workers, teachers, and nurses had to commute from two hours away, before Stanford grad students and entry-level computer programmers were forced to live in their cars for miles along El Camino Real.

In 30 years, San Francisco went from storied hippie and gay bohemia, to dotcom start-up boomtown, to tech giant monolith – from a town of funky, edgy neighborhoods, to a fortress of extreme wealth girded against Lord of the Flies streets drowning in human waste, used needles, lost souls.

Was all this just an historic inevitability? Is this what happens when a place so naturally seductive seduces so many for so long?

Because it really did start out as “that golden shore.” No place in America, or the world, hosted the raw diversity and abundance of so many natural resources, in such a nurturing climate, as California before European contact.

In my research for the last third of That Golden Shore, when the story ventures into what remains of California’s “Indian Country,” I ran across this heart-breaking passage about the Ohlones, the original inhabitants of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Living in a land of great plenty, the Ohlones – unlike those who lived in a more hostile environment – did not feel that life was a dog-eat-dog affair, or that each day was a grim test of survival. Not at all. There is no record of starvation anywhere in central California. Even the myths of this area have no reference to starvation. All around the Ohlones were virtually inexhaustible resources; and for century after century people went about their daily life secure in the knowledge that they lived in a generous land, a land that would always support them. — The Ohlone Way, Malcolm Margolin, p 40.

That was the real California Dream: a place where, for those restless kids back east, facing another dreary winter, they could go and “be safe and warm, on a winter’s day,” as The Mamas and the Papas sang back in 1965.

It was one more siren song heard down through the generations and around the world about California – “where the water tastes like wine” – going all the way back to the gold rush. Come to California, the land of the “big rock candy mountain,” with its “pastures of plenty.” Your own place with orange trees making fruit year-round, your face on the silver screen, an aerospace job and big new house in a brand-new town going up in the desert, your face on TV, Haight-Ashbury, Silicon Valley.

None of it was impossible because California was, as people around the world knew, endless summer. It was the place where time stood still, where you would never have to grow old. It was a blank canvas for re-inventing yourself, the chance to write and play your own script, a place to pretend at agelessness, start a religion, re-imagine the entire cosmos. No place in the world has made bolder promises of personal liberation and transformation, unleashed such creativity, or inspired so many freaks and fools.

This is why my narrator Jack ends up here, fifteen years after he fled back East for Colorado and Dudeville, the first in my planned trilogy that ends with That Golden Shore. (I’ll get to the middle book next, though the seeds of it are planted in the middle of this one.)

Because I’d originally conceived of Jack as Huck Finn let loose in the modern world, where else would America’s original rebel road-tripper end up, after “lighting out for the territories,” but on a beach in California, watching the sun sink into the Pacific?

The California Dream has always been the American Dream, in overdrive, free from the baggage of history, class, or concern for the commons. No place denuded its landscapes faster in the mad quest for money. No place slaughtered its indigenous people with the same speed or viciousness. No place in the world has drawn so many foreign cultures to one place, not to co-habit in adjacent ghettos, but to collide into a socio-economic free-for-all, to mix and mutate into a wholly new culture that would in turn impose it fantasies about itself on the rest of the world.

The California Dream, from the Gold Rush to Hollywood to Silicon Valley, has always been a fairy tale, with a great soundtrack of road trip songs playing on radios around the world for half a century. And for the duration of its slow-motion apocalypse, its self-absorbed masses will keep spinning that fairytale, for themselves and the rest of the world, because they have no choice but to believe that it is only one more freeway exit, or one more pitch meeting, or one more spiritual awakening away.

In That Golden Shore, I wanted to capture the madness of all of that, of the desperate, manic musicality of California in one sprawling story about a place I have come to love, and hate, and love. It’s a literary working-through of an gnawing inner conflict, of what happens when you run around California’s mountains, and surf its waves, and sleep every night next to the amniotic pull of its ocean, with your eyes and your heart wide open.

I wanted to state for the record the mad frustrations of trying to live in a place collapsing under the weight of its own mythology. I wanted to see what it would happen when you punctured that dream, what it would feel like to stand where the road reaches its end, on the cliffs looking out over the Pacific Ocean, and everything around you catches fire.

Jonah Das
Cannon Beach, Oregon, September 2020

Coming soon!

From “Mystery Cove,” surfing in Big Sur

I find a good flat spot in the sand well past the tide line to set up camp for the night, spread out my gear, climb into my wetsuit.

The tide is coming in, pushing each peak higher, illuminated from the inside by the setting sun like moving, flowing, emerald glass.

The two surfers from the Westy are working the north point, so I paddle out toward the other way, as far from them as I can while staying well clear of the maw of rocks closing off the south end of the cove.

I push furiously through the foam, out into rolling green hills of water, duck-diving the first two and popping out the back side. I sit on my board, rising and falling and breathing and beholding — the great folds of dark green mountains thrusting straight up into a perfect blue sky, the lift and push and pull of the ocean, the cleansing salt air — and there it is, everywhere around me, the perfection and the purity of this moment, the palpable presence of this moment, the very Presence itself, and every breath in a gift and every breath out a prayer of thank you thank you thank you.

I could die right now, and not from drowning or a neck fracture or any of the half dozen other ways you can die while surfing, but from my heart swelling with joy and exploding.

But I could also die from drowning or a neck fracture.

So I shake it off, have a good laugh at myself, kick my board around to the left and look over to see what those two are doing.

Looks from here like a skinny dude and a curvy woman, probably in their 20s, both with long hair and short boards. They are struggling a bit, taking turns, cheering each other on.

I watch the ocean swell up behind them, then the same wave rising up behind me, and turn and paddle but it’s too late.

The waves are mush under me, so I drop to my board and paddle a little closer toward them, into the center of the cove, where the waves are setting up, and here comes one.

I paddle, but I’m late.

Then another, bulging and swelling behind me, and here we go.

I paddle and kick like mad, my board lifting beneath me, desperate to run, pushing, prodding, urging, and I pop to my feet.

And time stops, as I unfurl myself and I’m ten feet tall and weightless and moving fast and steady as a freight train straight at the beach and then I’m no feet tall just liquid just water and wind and speed and everything and nothing.

And the wave collapses into foam, and I fall back into the drink, and spit out a mouthful of ocean, and lungfuls of southern California traffic and noise and nonsense …

I paddle back out, beaming like the happiest fool in the world with no one around to see, except of course the Presence, and as I’m spinning back around to catch the next one, there is someone to see, 20 feet away, his big gray head popping out of the water, all whiskers and curiosity, a big seal or small sea lion.

“Hey there!”

But he just stares right at me for a moment, not sure if he wants to say Hey there back to me.

Then his face finally says Yeah, whatever, and he plunges forward and steals my wave.

“Be that way then,” I laugh, and set up for the next one.

From “Quarter Moon Rising,” en route to a yoga retreat in Sonoma County

It’s not bad enough that I have to plow through the middle of San Francisco during the middle of the day — through the heart of its twelve hour long rush hour — to get to Amrita’s gig up in Sonoma, but I have to burrow all the way into the Marina to pick up Amy. Or is it Amie, or maybe Aimée? Or is that the same Amy who now calls herself “Ananda?”

Traffic was hell coming up from the coast, and there’s more of the same all the way in, and there’s nowhere to park on her steep little side street of course. And before I can pull up in front and put on my flashers, she is an explosion of blonde hair and mala beads, a saffron hempy thing over a tight muscle shirt that says Spiritual Gangsta, and white yoga pants that look spray-painted on. She rushes down from her townhouse and dumps a bundle of rolled yoga mats on the sidewalk next to the van, which start rolling down the sidewalk in all directions.

I come around to help her load in, and she gives me the classic, crushing TLH — the Too Long Hug — and a “thank you SO SO SO much for coming to get me!” as she runs back into her townhouse.

In two trips, I help her pile in the rest: rolling suitcase, two yoga mats in an orange canvas carry, a harmonium, some weird looking lamp, a big canvas bag covered with elephants and OMs and little mirrors, and a hemp purse exhorting us to “Live Simply, Dance Madly, Love Boldly.”

She climbs up into the passenger seat, looks in the back at the guitar and duffels and camping gear, and says, “Look at you, cowboy.”

“Wagons ho,” I mumble, as we pull away, and I say a little prayer for the traffic through Marin.

I put my music back on, jam band, then switch it bluegrass, just to mess with her. But she doesn’t seem to notice: she’s tousling her hair, checking it in the mirror over the visor, which is messing up my view of the Bay, and the Bridge, and a bunch of sailboats on a bluebird day.

She finally settles into her seat, kicks off her “yoga-toes” flip-flops — “specially designed for toe separation and foot stability,” says the ad in the Journal of Mindfulness — and puts her perfect little feet, with their sparkled purple polish, up on the dashboard. She pulls out an enormous water bottle, encased in fuchsia, die-cut with lotus flowers and suspended in a knitted rainbow sling.

Finally, she turns to me, pushing her sunglasses down on her nose, and gives me a little pout. “Tell me, Jack,” she says. “Who is the mystery man behind my soul-sister’s music?”

And as if on cue, traffic ahead, and a dead stop, and brake lights all the way up the ramp to the bridge.

“I’m serious, Jack. We’ve never really gotten to know each other, all these kirtans and retreats.” She gestures out at the traffic. “And now here we are!”

“Yep. Here we are.”

“So who are you?”

“I’m just a guy who can play the guitar, or the bass, and keep the music going, when all hell’s breaking loose.”

“Oh no,” she says. “I see you! I see you back there carrying it, carrying her. You go there, my friend.”

Actually, I do go there, all the time, but only half of me, the half listening to the music and feeling the room, not the half still playing the music and watching the people. I figured out how to do both back at Shir Hadash and some of those first kirtans, with Judy and Talia. But not on stage, not with Amrita or Johnny. I don’t go there at all. I have too much to keep track of — most critically, where Amrita or Johnny might be going next — so I just play, and watch.

“I mean it must be so amazing,” she goes on, “vibing on all that energy all the time.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool.”

“Cool? It must be amazing! When she goes anahata, and the room is all transformed. My God! So much heart, so much intention. How do you even stay grounded?”

“I just stay focused on the music,” I say.

Which isn’t true at all. The song structures are simple and the music is easy, especially on those long ecstatic jams, as easy as breathing in and out through my guitar, my right hand moving up and down as easy drumming on my knee. And after a year of these gigs, I can tell where we’re headed, faster or slower, by the turn and angle of Amrita’s head, the shifting shape of her outstretched hands, the lift of her brow. So what I focus on, much of the time, is the show: the dancing and singing, and the drama on all the faces of hundreds of women and dozens of men, and not all of them look like you, Amy/Amie, not all of them blond, yoga-lean and gym-cut and sparkly-toed.

“So amazing,” she says again, tousling her hair looking out at the view, her feet still up on the dashboard.

I don’t know if she’s still talking about the music when Amrita really cranks it up, or the sudden view, the kaleidoscopic unfurling of the whole of the Bay, drenched in sunshine and dotted with boats, and lined with cityscape and bridges, as we slip over the Golden Gate.

From “Western Swing,” on stage at a music festival in Lake Tahoe

I follow Sam out into the blinding lights, and do what I always do: focus on the roadie handing me the cable, and putting the jack into my bass clean, and checking the volume knob on my bass and pedals at my feet. Tuner/feed on, tuner/feed off, tuner/feed on, tuner/feed off, on, off, on. This will be fine.

And then I look up, and there is a sea of smiling faces and nodding heads and swaying bodies, lapping right up to the shore of the stage. Best not to look that way, to focus on the band, and where the hell is Johnny? He was back there with us, and I know he always comes in last. But how long have we been out here?

Then it hits me like an electric surge, the PA comes up, and my tuner/feed is on and my right hand feels the hum of the whole damn universe coming off my bass. I hit the pedal and turn it off, and then another roar from the crowd, the loudest wave yet.

I turn to see Johnny charging out with his guitar slung over his shoulder, right to the front of center stage, pointing straight out into the middle of the crowd with his right hand and index finger, like he sees them and knows them, and they love it.

He whips around to the mike, his shades still on, so we know he’s pissed about something, but they don’t. They also don’t know that the pointed finger doesn’t mean he sees them in any way they would find comforting. They just roar louder still, a wave of sound from front to back, then the echo back to front, like a big wave into a small cove, rocketing around in a circle along the cliffs.

The roadie cables him in and he shouts to the crowd and my foot pushes the pedal to turn my bass back on, and there’s that surge again, the whole of the PA and the stage into my fingers again, even with the strings dampened. It’s as if I were holding a giant I-beam suspended above the whole world, and if I wanted to, and weren’t in military-grade eye-of-the-shitstorm mode right now, I could do something really awful, the thought of which terrifies me and makes me lock down that much harder.

Johnny yells “Hello Sierra Nevada Mountains!” into his mike.

Then another roar from the crowd, while he smiles what I know to be his grim, cynical smile, proof that he knows something they never will. Because he’s right when he says that with the pointed finger: they don’t really care; they just want to sing and dance. Which works for me, because I’m standing up here, my body on full wattage, and I just want to start playing.
And then, finally, with Ralphie’s “one, two, three …” there’s the honeyed guitar chord, and the fiddle fill, and I’m right there on the A.

“When the sun sets,” Johnny sings the first line of the song, and the crowd roars like they always do, so we throw in the extra two beats, “over that old town …”

I feel the deep, booming sustain of every one of my bass notes through the stage floor, and while my timing sounds fine in the feed in my ears, I still have to watch Sam’s head to make sure I’m on it. It’s also good to focus on him, because out of my peripheral vision, the crowd looks like confetti, perpetually falling, or a Jackson Pollock painting in moving animated form, a million flecks of vibrating little colors.

After the second verse, Curtis goes into his fiddle break, weaving long silky lines, like the high school girlfriend in the song singing back to Johnny, “oh yes, I’m still here, come on home …,” and I can finally close my eyes, and just count, and play.

The song is all sunshine and small towns, one of those folk-country-rock crossovers from Johnny’s first album. It’s like a postcard from a cousin who moved out west; and while it’s not much of anything musically, it sounds like a pair of old blue jeans fits, soft, familiar, just so, like everything is going to be alright. Or like how these guys hang together, onstage anyway, the melody and rhythm dancing along, then slowly opening, rising, and soaring to the chorus; the song ambles along the back road of its own story, headlights out across the desert hills, the fiddle and guitar finally meeting up on the distant ridge to watch the sunset.

And for all their fighting and resentments and bitterness at Johnny the rest of the time, how could it not sound this intimate, breezy, and sweet? These guys have been doing this since 1975, when three of the four of them were living out of a van the size of mine, playing up and down the coast, and Johnny was still a teenage runaway with a pawn shop guitar. Four decades later, the song has aged perfectly, all those sunny days and all that sweet young love no longer lost, but soaked in sepia and pinned to the pages of an old photo album brought out for the 5,000 people hanging out on Johnny’s front porch on a Saturday night…