Journeys: The Ben Lomond Dump Diver

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NPR is telling me that the Coho salmon may go extinct. They are waiting, stranded in the ocean, unable to jump the many sand banks that block their way up the rivers and streams of Northern California where they spawn. The water levels are simply too low. Thousands of creatures with both a place and a purpose rendered immobile.

I’m on my way back to Oakland from Santa Cruz. The day is warm and muggy, which would be normal if it weren’t February. The clouds expand milky and thin across the horizon in a menacing sort of way: California is in a drought, the likes of which have not been seen in over 500 years — with no water restrictions put into play, just a polite request from the governor to reduce water use by twenty percent.

I have decided to take Highway 9, rather than the treacherous Highway 17, so that I can stop in my favorite mountain spot seven miles outside of Santa Cruz proper. Felton, a town of just over 4,000 people, has a lot to offer: the cheapest gas for miles, Pyrex-rich thrift stores, Larry’s Famous Chai and Henry Cowell State Park — home to an impressive grove of old-growth coastal redwoods.

I stop outside Henry Cowell and hike in, curious if the drought is affecting the old growth grove in ways like the Coho salmon has been choked off. Have the needles turned brown? Have the birds fled the trees altogether?

While studying at  UC Santa Cruz, I cycled up the train tracks from Santa Cruz weekly, jumping off at the sound of oncoming train whistles, and watching, precariously balanced between train and cliff, until it was safe to climb back up onto the tracks. I’d sit in the old grove for a while, eat a sandwich and then stop for chai.

Today in the grove, I cannot identify anything out of the ordinary. The trees are still magnificent and moss covered; the ground is still slick and damp with pine needles. The state’s dryness has not reached this inner sanctum, yet. It is comforting, but also eerie.

As I trudge down the tree-lined path something catches my eye. I’ve noticed it before, but never had the time or inclination to investigate. Sitting squarely on top of a small wooden bungalow across the street from Henry Cowell is a large cartoonish sign reading, “Bigfoot Discovery Museum.”

One of the most striking things about the towns populating Highway 9 is their strange diversity. These mountain towns are populated largely by hippies and libertarians. It seems illogical, but it actually makes perfect sense. Both groups desire the same characteristics out of a place: open land and distance from modernity. Thus on the windy stretch of road between the mountain towns of Felton and Ben Lomond you pass an organic market, a Quaker center and a gun shop.

As I cross the threshold into the Big Foot Museum, I’m not entirely sure which of the two archetypal mountain characters I will encounter. It could be either.

I open the door to a dusty room, lined with glass cases. They house plaster castings of footprints (marked at $15.00 each) alongside a Harry and the Hendersons poster, various maps and a plastic ape mask. A woman in Tevas with a long walking stick is speaking emphatically with the two leather-clad men behind the counter.

“We saw him there,” she explains excitedly. “He was on two legs. Couldn’t have been a bear. Couldn’t believe it.” She drops her walking stick and then picks it back up. The two men nod their beards in unison. The elder of the two takes a brightly colored red pin from a box and sticks it into the map mounted on the wall.

“Come take a look,” he calls out to me. “The bigger pins are reported sightings; the smaller pins are confirmed sightings.” Not sure what the distinction is between these two categories, I move closer.

“It looks like there are two concentrations of appearances,” I say, tracing the path with my finger.

“That’d be the Olive Springs Howler and the Ben Lomand Dump Diver.”

“Oh,” I respond, at a loss. Flakes of dandruff fall on his t-shirt around his beard.

“I can’t believe this,” the woman with the walking stick announces, excitedly. “I can’t believe I saw him.”

I wonder how she knows that particular Big Foot is male, but decide not to ask.

“Why is he called the Dump Diver?” I ask instead.

“He used to go foraging in the Ben Lomand dump…before they gated the place up.” The older man behind the counter is clearly the expert here.

“Oh,” I pause. “Are there other names for Big Foot besides Sasquatch?”

“The Indians around these parts called him Tah ah kle’ah,” he replies.

I can tell he has a lot more to say. When he speaks about Tah ah kle’ah his eye twinkles. But, the low ceilings and extreme dustiness of the museum are suddenly making me claustrophobic. There is a sign over the door asking for a two dollar donation, but I only have one or a twenty. I reach into my bag and smooth the dollar out on the counter.

“They seem to stick pretty close to the San Lorenzo River,” I observe.

The bearded men nod in unison once more.

“Well, have a great day,” I say heading for the door and wondering if Tah ah kle’ah just eats trash or if he also munches on Coho.

“You, too,” I hear them say from inside. “Come again.”

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