During the Great Depression, a group of hermits called “Dunites” created a squatter community of artists, mystics and poets among Oceano Dunes. The dunes are now known and used as a large sanded playground where enthusiasts from all over the country visit for exhilarating off-roading. With dunes as high as 300 feet stretching for around 18 miles, it’s easy to forget you aren’t wandering in a desert somewhere in Egypt. The Oceano sand dune area is recognized by scientists, conservationists, government agencies, and the public as the finest, most extensive coastal dunes remaining in California. It’s no wonder Dunites were drawn there for what they believed was a vortex of cosmic energy.
“There is just a force there that draws people in,” said the Oceano Depot Association president. “There’s some kind of magic. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just there.”
The only surviving structure from the Dunite community is the cabin of Gavin Arthur, grandson of U.S. President Chester Alan Arthur. Gavin was on a literary quest when he heard hermits were living on the dunes. Once he had visited in the 1920s, Gavin Arthur decided to establish a utopia on these shifting sands. He found an empty cove on the dunes, built several cottages and moved in an editorial staff that published a literary magazine called “The Dune Forum”. The utopia of around 35 people was intended to be an artists’ retreat from The Great Depression. The community was something of interest to author John Steinbeck, who read parts of “Tortilla Flat” before it was published to Dunites surrounding a fire pit at Arthur’s cabin.
The Dunites often traded clams and artwork for alcohol and gathered materials from old structures to build. The Lost Pavilion was built in the area but was buried by sand eight years later. Some Dunites believed that off the coast lived an ancient civilization, the Lemurians, who would rise from the sea and give peace.
“There is just a force there that draws people in. There’s some kind of magic. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just there.”
As quickly as the wind carried the sand, the Utopian dream came to an end during WWII. After a Japanese sub torpedoed a tanker in nearby Cayucos, Arthur offered his land to the Coast Guard and joined the Army. By the 1950s almost all the Dunites had drifted away from their once beloved utopian community. Fenced off from the vehicles, the Dunites’ archaeological remains still sit side by side with those of the native Chumash who lived here for thousands of years before them.
We invite you to attend a state park docent-led Adventures with Nature hike Nov. 30 at 9 a.m. entitled “Oceano Dunes History Featuring the Dunites.” The hike will include a discussion of dune formation and the various settlers who have inhabited the dunes over the centuries. More than 150 Adventures with Nature docent-led nature walks and talks take place every year in our local state parks. Most are free of charge. You can find a listing of these events on our website, centralcoastparks.org/awn.
Photo Courtesy of Brendan Carretero