Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sands of Time: The Dunites of the Guadalupe Dunes

The solitude of the Dunes

It requires a stunning degree of short-sightedness to build anything on shifting sands. But that is exactly what was attempted on the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes which spans both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo county lines, at the turn of the last century. The area was to be ‘the future Atlantic City of the Pacific’ with a boardwalk, a hotel and a pavilion, and venture capitalists were enthralled with the possibility of resort style living on the sand dunes facing the Pacific Ocean. But the wind blown sand wouldn’t stay put and it inevitably won. By 1917, the few foolishly grandiose and now abandoned buildings that had telegraphed a possible new existence had became used lumber which ended up being scavenged by the dune-dwellers, an eclectic group of nomads and misfits who built their own new lives in the dunes.

George Blais (L) at the Dunes
The dunes had long been the home of a drifting population of vagrants and eccentrics, but it was in the 1920s that the people who became known as The Dunites claimed the transitory area for their own; a rag tag collection of everyone who felt disenfranchised with the world. Edward St Claire a Spanish-American war veteran turned poet was one of the first to claim residence. Then came George Blais, a reformed alcoholic turned evangelist and a naturist, who dressed to go into town in a loincloth and bandana, but otherwise lived naked in the dunes, surviving off fruits and nuts. One of the most illustrious and flamboyant Dunites was astrologer, writer and socialite Gavin Arthur, grandson of United States President Chester A. Arthur and who ‘had it all’ by the standards of the day, but opted out of society. Probably the most well-known resident of the make shift dune neighborhood was the artist Elwood Decker.

The Dunites even published their own magazine which was distributed nationally called the “Dune Forum,” with contributions by photographers such as Ansel Adams. The magazine was heavy on intellectual style and expensive for the time at 35 cents. The publication ran for five issues before it too succumbed to forces greater than itself. Eventually the Dunites left their Bohemian ways, as life in the dunes simply could not be controlled and to this day, the sands shift where they will. Today a visit to the dunes is still something of an ethereal experience; it’s still relatively isolated, but the stark beauty is worth the drive. But pack a sweater, the winds can be fierce. The official visitors center is located in the town of Guadalupe and provides maps, historical information as well as schedules of ranger led hikes and photography.
The fierce winds at the Dunes create windswept trees like this

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