The gift shop lady (“My name’s Loretta”) wrote down the directions on the back of a flier she pulled from a drawer.
“There’s no road sign,” she said with a warm California smile that is endemic to people on the West Coast. “It’s easy to miss. But I’ll tell you how to get there.”
I had moseyed into her store looking for nothing in particular, just looking. But Loretta knew there was not a single item in her scented shop that could compete with what Mother Nature was giving away free outdoors.
“Purple Sand Beach is beautiful,” she said. “You have to go there.”
I had been up and down Highway One many times, but had never heard of it. “Is the sand really purple?” I asked.
Loretta said it was and wrote out directions to Pfeiffer Beach: BIG SUR. NARROW ROAD. BAKERY.
“There’s no sign for the beach and the road is hidden, so you have to really look for it,” she said. “If you pass the bakery you’ll know you’ve gone too far. “
I went too far.
About 20 minutes past where I should have turned, I stopped at a gallery built on the side of a mountain. I was, I admit, in a Stephen King state of mind having just finished “Mister Mercedes.” I know now there was nothing nefarious about the slow-speaking, intense man inside. I asked him about Purple Sand Beach. He picked up exactly where Loretta had left off, smiling and insisting I should go. “There’s a sign. It’s yellow. It says ‘Narrow Road.’ ”
I almost drove past it again.
About 100 yards down this narrow road, an old man, dressed like a farmer, beckoned like a traffic cop. And then there was no one, only woods and shadows and two long miles to the beach, “Private Property” and “Keep Out” signs nailed to random trees, a car without wheels, newer cars exiting, pulling over so I could get by, but mine the only one heading toward the beach.
They were ordinary people in those cars, right? People just on an adventure? Never mind that in another King story, “Big Driver,” a writer — oh God, she was a writer — got lost because a seemingly helpful woman had given her directions that put her in the hands of her blood-lusting brother.
In a wooden hut at the end of the road, a gray-haired woman with cuckoo-clock eyes was collecting a parking fee. She couldn’t take a credit card, she told me, smiling. There was no electricity today.
The wind roared as I walked out of the forest and onto a massive, sand-swept beach arched with huge black rocks.
It was beautiful. But not purple.
Children were playing in wading pools. A teenager was flying a kite. People were taking selfies. A gust of wind knocked a skinny boy with a backpack to the ground.
Walking back to my car, I saw, affixed to a tree, a piece of paper protected by Plexiglass. There were dead flowers pressed behind it. “In April, 1997, Mary Pacheco, age 38; her daughter, Ivy; her eight-year-old son Trevor; and Mrs. Pacheco’s mother, Judith Rombold, age 63, residents of Kansas” came to this place, the paper said.
Three of them died here. Ivy was playing in a wading pool when a wave dragged her out to sea. Her mother and grandmother died trying to rescue her. The paper said this beach has “hazardous surf with strong riptides and undercurrent.”
I saw no big signs warning people of this danger. Shouldn’t there be signs? Shouldn’t there be a lifeguard?
I thought about all the Stephen King things that triggered my imagination: helpful people, a hidden road, an old man playing traffic cop, “No Trespassing,” no electricity, and a woman with cuckoo-clock eyes. Strung together, they make a great horror story.
But the real horror isn’t always in the unknown, but in the familiar. A beach that seems like every other beach but isn’t, where people have picnics and pose for pictures, where children right now are playing in wading pools at the water’s edge.
This is why I read Stephen King. To keep the real horrors away.