Near Bruhel Point in northern California, the rocky cliffs look out over the Pacific Ocean in a way that is common to much of the northern coast.
From the top of the bluffs, the view is spectacular; it seems as if you can see everything. But don’t be fooled: It’s a lie.
Everywhere, when you take the time, the hidden secrets of place slowly let themselves be seen, as if they were cats waiting to test you out and see if you are friend or foe.
As the landscape allows you nearer, you find details and surprises.
The narrow sandy beach was perhaps a hundred feet below and we could see no way down but to climb. What we couldn’t tell was that the hillside was so steep and so gravelly, that we began to slip and slide, tossing pebbles every which way. They only prudent way to descend was on our backsides.
The surf crashed around the rocks that stuck out of the sand off shore. The biggest of the rocks was about 40 feet high and had trees growing on its summit. The others were smaller and grew bushes, lichen, mosses and nearer the tide line, barnacles and sea weed.
All around were poppies and a variety of succulent phlox that seemed to carpet all the drier rocks in yellow flowers.
At the tideline the hidden world opens up in a delight of color and textures. The starfish clinging to the tide-wet rocks were maroon and ocher, with a knobbly surface that seemed artificial. They moved slowly over the crust of barnacles enjoying the tidepool version of the businessman’s lunch.
Another pool was full of anemones and purple sea urchins.
Echinoderms live on a different clock from us. They sway and move with the infinite deliberation of a bomb squad.
But for every hidden treasure you find, there is a payment to be made.
We enjoyed our visit there for about an hour and then started worrying about how we were going to climb back up to the car.
We wandered down the beach looking for an easier climb and found what looked like a good way out at the creek mouth. All along the coast, there are headlands that jut out toward the sea and coves cut back into the mainland where streams let out. The hill was less steep there, but there was small shanty built under the trees there and we didn’t know if we would be disturbing anyone.
It was then that we spotted the two large and hungry-looking German shepherd guard dogs legging it to us at an alarming speed. They bore down on us with all the fury of avenging gods, protecting the sacred center of the Earth.
So with teeth flying and paws scratching sand, they ran up to us barking like schizophrenics.
At such times, you don’t know what you will do. I stood in front of my wife to protect her, wondering if a swift kick to the nose would discourage the hounds.
When they reached a point about 10 feet from us, I heard a sound come out of my mouth, with all the authority I could muster:
The two hounds came to a toe-nail scratching halt, looked at me quizzically for a second or two, barked, snarled, whimpered and then sat down and wagged their tails.
We edged ourselves away slowly in the shallow water and along the beach, away from the dogs; they sat for a few seconds and then retreated to the shanty.
Eventually, we found a spot a little less steep than the one we descended and, with hard work and diligence worthy of Horatio Alger, we scratched our way back up to the top. We swigged some water, collected our thoughts and eased the car back onto the road.
About a hundred yards down the highway, we found a set of stairs that descended all the way to the beach. It had been hidden from us by a small headland of rock.
If I were Montaigne, I might find a moral in that.