From the age of 8 until I was 14, I spent most of my free weekend and summer days down on the Carmel River. For those of you who’ve never been there the Carmel River is a river during the winter months through about June, and then it dries out leaving a few shallow pools along the sides of the river bed. I lived about a mile from the mouth of the Carmel River where it empties into the Pacific Ocean. The river’s mouth is marked by a lagoon and marsh that are not very big. My area of adventure stretched a mile in either direction from the Highway 1 Bridge, which was one of the entrances to this other world.
I need to point out that I had been going down to the river since I was four years old, but that was always with my mother. When I was eight I was allowed to go down there by myself, something that I doubt the young kids who live in Mission Fields get to do in today’s world ruled by irrational fears. There were just as many dangerous people back then as there are today lurking near that bridge; fading drugged-out hippies were common in the hidden camp-sites that dotted the berry-bushes under the trees that lined each side of the river’s banks. I never had a problem with them, but I remember one guy who scared me pretty good. I had come down the riverbank under the bridge and had begun walking up the dry riverbed when I saw a pair of blackened feet. My eyes followed the legs up from those feet until they met the eyes of your standard burn-out hippie. He had the full Taliban beard, and was pretty sunburned. The thing that struck me was that his eyes were black, and as he stared back at me it was like looking into an empty hole in space. Today I know that his eyes were dilated from a psychedelic drug, but that day he just looked frightening. He didn’t move and he said nothing, he just looked at me. I turned and walked up the river until I knew I was out of sight, and then I ran like hell back home.
That was one of the few frightening moments I had. The river was a happy place for me. The main attraction for me was the reptiles that could be found there. The county had built up segments of the river bank with concrete brickabrack to reinforce it against flooding. They had also piled two mountains of sand in an area behind the Safeway. One pile was over thirty feet tall. I guess that the county would come along and load some of that sand onto dump trucks for use somewhere else. In the mean time between those sand piles and the concrete slabs I had plenty of hunting grounds for the Blue-Bellied Fence Lizards. I got pretty good at catching them with my bare hands, and often came home with two or three to keep in a terrarium for a while before turning them loose on our woodpile on the back yard. They kept the spider population in check.
Snakes were around too, but they were often too fast for me. Every once in a while I would get my hands on a Garter Snake, which I would soon regret because those things release a foul stink. I don’t know why they aren’t called Skunk Snakes instead. The grand prize was the Gopher Snake. Gopher Snakes look like Rattle Snakes because of their color and their size (Gopher Snakes can grow to almost four feet long). I learned early on that if you wanted to catch a Gopher Snake you had to accept that you were going to get bit. It made no difference where you grabbed them they’d whip around and take a chunk out of you. The trick was never to hold it too close to your face. I think that in my snake-catching career I caught four Gopher Snakes. I only brought one home because my grandmother had a fit when I did.
That area behind the Crossroads Center that stretched all the way to Rancho Canada had once been some kind of access road. There were three rusting hulks of 1950s Chevys hidden in the berry bushes that I and my friends would discover in our explorations. This road is still back there today but it is over grown. Back then it served as a dirt-bike track and motocross bike track. We’d ride our bikes up and down that road, and we’d build jumps so we could be Evil Knievel. The McCurdy brothers and Arlen Moore would take their dirt bikes down there too and race around. We would have to clear out when they came or they’d beat us up. Sometimes we’d hide out in the bushes and watch them ride.
The county suffered a four year long drought that ended in 1977. At one point the county dredged a mile-long section of the river bed to expose the water that ran about six feet below the sand’s surface. It was deep enough to swim in and we bought some inflatable mattresses at longs to float around on. This sudden water supply had a side effect that was awesome for a ten year old boy. Snakes converged on the water holes in the hundreds, and when you walked along the side of the pool it looked like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in the snake-filled Well of Souls. With each step dozens of Garter Snakes would slither out of the way. I remember reaching down to grab one snake only to pull up three of them. The other thing that the water brought was thousands of baby toads. About three weeks after the dredging I had come down to the river and as soon as I reached the water there was a mass rush of tiny toads. It looked like D-Day. So I returned with a coffee can and filled it with more toads than I knew what to do with, and I took them home.
As I got older, around the age of ten I extended my range a bit to include the area that cut through the golf course. This led me up to Middle School where I discovered that the toads that lived near the lower baseball field were friggin’ huge. They lived in the holes dug by ground squirrels, and would liter near the entrance. To catch them you had to approach the holes from the blind side and then jam your hand down fast. Toads will pee first thing when they are captured, and I quickly learned to hold them away from me until they were done. I think that I personally de-populated a few square miles of toads. There was nothing like catching a big toad too, for me it was like catching a tiger.
When the drought finally ended I was there to watch as the river rose to about three feet below flood stage. There is a picture of me sitting on the river bank with a few other people watching the water flow past the depth marker that was painted on the first support pillar. I remember looking at all of that water rushing past and then trying to picture the empty river bed. Needless to say the following summer the river was all new again as the flow of water had reshaped much of the landscape.
As I got older I spent less time down at the river as my interests changed to other things. When I did go I found myself down in the lagoon area, back in the tidal marshlands behind the Carmel River School and Mission Ranch. There was easy access via a through-way between the school’s fence and the last house on the 16th Avenue. Between 1977 and 1978 I often went into the lagoon dressed in my military cammo pants and jacket. My grandma had bought me a nice set of binoculars, and I used them to indulge in my new passion of bird-watching. The lagoon was (and is) home to over two hundred different bird species, and that grows during the winter and spring migrations. Walking around through the marsh I learned to accept being wet all the time, but hanging out on the reeds was the best way to get up close to the Herons, ducks and other birds that sought privacy there. I learned that the channels were not too deep and could be crossed as long as I didn’t mind getting wet up to my chest. The reeds were also where the babies were hidden, and it was always a special treat to see them paddling along behind their mother.
As I became a full-fledged teenager I stopped going down to the river all together. The last time I ventured down was when I was twenty. I was working at the Crossroads Cinemas then, and I had an hour to kill before my shift started (I think that I was working a split shift). I walked the familiar trail down to the water’s edge. The river was flowing, but it was not too deep. I became nostalgic as the river gurgled its greetings to me like a long lost friend. The wind whispered through the trees making to late evening sun sparkle on the water. I was thinking that there was still magic in the world when I saw movement on the opposite bank. A Bobcat emerged from the brush; the first one that I’d ever seen, and it casually walked along its side of the river. Time seemed to stop as I watched that beautiful cat move along the river, and for a split second I felt like I was going to live forever and all that I had to do was stand in that spot. For that moment everything was perfect, I was part of some ancient dance between man and nature with the river and the wind providing the music. The suddenly the Bobcat caught sight of me and made his exit into the bush again, vanishing like a ghost, and leaving me there alone again on the river’s edge. I looked at my watch and turned around to walk back to the theater.
Today the old Carmel River Bridge is gone, torn away during the great flood of 1996. Parts of it are still lying on the southern bank of the river but they are slowly being buried by sediment and covered by plant life. The brickabrack that I spent hours on catching lizard has been buried completely by the river. Down at the lagoon the old channels that I’d cross in search of birds have all shifted as they’ve been filled in by sediment. All of the people, I grew up with in Mission Fields can no longer afford to live there and have moved off to new homes all over the world. The river is still there. The eastern side is often hidden these days by the trees on each side of the bank. If you are driving over the new bridge you should look west to the ocean if you want to see the river below. The Carmel River was my second home, but I don’t really miss it because it still runs wild in the back of my head. There in my head I stand upon a slab of cement brickabrack that once jutted out like a bowsprit over a small patch of the river. I am still nine years old and I am scanning the northern bank for pirates, Nazis, or the McCurdy brothers. The river was a place where I could find adventure, and if I couldn’t find it, it would find me.