The Dune Riders

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A Toyota truck and a Ford SUV entered the state park at Grover Beach just south of Pismo where their drivers paid the day fee. They drove to within a few hundred yards of the crashing surf and the lead driver pulled to a stop. The second followed suit.

“Time to deflate the tires,” Rory said as he came around the side of the Tacoma and bent down to begin the process. The driver of the Explorer and his passenger got out and both began to perform the same maneuver. They punched the tires down from 35 p.s.i. to around ten according to Rory’s recommendation. At 20-years-old Rory was the youngest member of the expedition; he was also the most experienced. He had been coming to the dunes since he was six and had a photo from that age showing him toodling along the flat glistening beach into a receding wave astride a motorized three wheeler which was no longer legally allowed anywhere in the state they were so dangerous to operate.

A constant flow of recreational vehicles passed them by as the tires pancaked. Barry and Tom knocked the air down in all four of the Explorer’s tires, sat back and surveyed their work. They had effectively made the vehicle non-road worthy. Now it was adapted to coastline driving.

“If we had a Hummer we could change the tire pressure, up or down, without getting out of the cab,” Barry said and motioned toward a black H 2 that at the moment straddled a fresh water stream which meandered into the Pacific. The driver had mired all four wheels of the oversized machine in the banks on either side of the stream and was exerting every ounce of temporarily stranded energy to escape the trap he had made for himself. Barry did not add that the “air suspension package” as it is known is an additional $1,175 added on to the vehicle’s base price of $49,000. The H 2 they watched may or may not be equipped with the device.

It only took a moment for the Hummer to rock itself free and lurch forward up onto the other side of the stream. It sped away into the distance seeking more and equally difficult driving conditions among the actual dunes.

Tom got back in the passenger side as Barry conferred with the driver in Rory’s vehicle. When he returned, Barry jumped in the Explorer’s cab and gunned the engine before letting out a long, “Yiiiiippppeeee,” as he joined the pursuit of fun surrounding him.

The California coastline is more than eleven hundred miles long which amazes drivers from other parts of the country who are surprised to learn they can travel for an entire day from sunup to sunup and not cross another state line. However, the only place on that coastline where it is legal to drive a vehicle along the shore and on coastal sand dunes is two point five miles of beach located at Oceano in San Luis Obispo County, which sits within a state park that covers all told about 90,000 acres.

Another fact: California is the only state that demands drivers use chains in snowfall conditions, say, for example, in the Northern High Sierra Mountains where Donner Pass is probably the most infamous place those chains are sometimes required.

Other states do not have tire chain laws, they patiently explain, because their drivers know how to handle icy roads. They know that if you go into a slide on black ice in Illinois, you regain traction by turning the vehicle’s steering wheel in the direction of the slide, no brakes and no accelerating. This is not only counter intuitive, it sounds just plain wrong and California drivers don’t get it, at least as far as the CHP is concerned.

The same holds true when you lose traction on a sand dune. Sliding down a sand dune is very much like sliding around on an icy road. Turn the wheel toward the slide and don’t hit the brakes or accelerate. Trouble is, few California drivers know this or are practiced in the art. They are, after all, required to use chains. Maybe they should be required to use them on sand dunes as well.

The two vehicles joined a flowing line of traffic moving steadily south toward the dune riding area which was inland and further down the stretch of beach. They did not reach excessive speeds, actually never hit twenty as they approached the shore and paralleled the crashing surf for another thousand yards.

Along the way they passed encampments of weekend visitors who came stocked with food and drink, who built corrals to pen in their many motor vehicles, not just the ones they drove from home and lived in, but mechanized devices for each and every member of the family: sometimes two machines for mom, two for dad and two for each of four kids who had a penchant for motorcycles with high pitched two-stroke engines, tiny high-riding fenders, knobby tires and thin frames. A pack of these small rice burners paralleled the traffic flow and buzzed along the shore, while individual riders occasionally fell in behind the Tacoma and in front of the Explorer.

Tom was in awe. “Lookit that little prick,” he pointed at a quad which flitted straight down from his left on a perpendicular to the two car caravan. Its rider was little more than a helmeted baby. The child drove between them not ten feet from their front tires and directly into the surf. “What’re we in, a redneck wonderland? That’s just crazy. I mean, that’s nothing more than a child fer crissakes.”

In fact, there was a multitude of children riding motorized devices. Barry, who had little use for anyone under the legal drinking age, said, “Makes you realize they’re not only expendable, they’re fungible.”

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