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Shacked Up

A beach bum's manifesto

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There's a sturdy and well-appointed beach shack along the California coast. The precise details of its location, should they be publicized, would likely mean the end of the shack at the hands of the Man, so let's just say that it is somewhere between Santa Cruz and Jenner—or, even better, somewhere between San Diego and the Oregon border. It's out there—way the freak out there. Don't try to find it, and if you do . . . shhh. It's our little secret.

It takes a bit of work to get to this small, driftwood shack, built above the high-tide line and nestled in a wee cove. Since its construction commenced last January, it has survived the El Niño and king tides, crashing driftwood jumbles, high winds, tumbling boulders, scouring sun and the erosion, always the erosion. You've heard of a blowdown stack—this is a blowdown shack, a well-built domicile for a human in search of a place to blow off steam or crash for the night, a special place. But I can't stress this enough: shhh, don't tell the Coastal Commission about it—the builder didn't have the proper permits!

The shack's contents speak to a simple life lived on the square. There are Dick Francis and Carl Hiaasen novels on a shelf, dog-eared and a little sodden. There are a couple of first-aid kits, fully tricked out with ointments and cold packs for any low-level cut or scrape or twisted ankle that might befall a visitor. A journal, soaked from the rain, is stashed in a cooler and filled with wonder and gratitude and loopy penmanship. It tells of people who came a long distance and enjoyed the place, and left something behind or did something to improve the lot of humankind. One characteristic entry reads: All good manfolk and womanfolk are welcome here to share the bounty of the sea with the various native seabirds, pelicans, osprey, terns and seagulls fishing from these waters. Watch for seals also fishing in the kelp beds, and faraway sailboats going where the winds take them . . .

The shack's builder also constructed a perch on the roof that provides a million-dollar view of the ocean. But let's not put a dollar sign on everything.

I've come to this shack several times to chill out and stare at the Pacific Ocean awhile. Others come for overnight good times on the driftwood bunk. I love me a good beach shack, and have built a few in my time. Visitors to the shack occupy a key place in the freedom-trail culture of the nook, experts in sussing and creating these hidden slipstreams of refuge for wild-living fun-seekers, outlaw hikers and marginal artist-campers on the scruff wind, trying to stay on the coast at all costs—with an emphasis on the cost. I am a proud, unreconstructed beach bum, and these are my people.

The shack is a cultural signifier and a furtive line in the sand that denotes, however anonymously, the raging "class" issue of beach access in California, now under fire as the powerful state Coastal Commission moved to axe its popular executive director, Charles Lester, last week. That move has raised, as they say, serious questions about the future of the 1972 Coastal Act that set a course for free public access to the California coastline (and which created the commission to ensure that access).

Lester supporters, who came out in droves to support him last week, saw the ouster as part of a concerted effort to denude the Coastal Act of its radical push for free access to all of California's beaches, despite one's income, race or smelly feet. They viewed it as a putsch engineered by Gov. Jerry Brown, in the service of developers itching to take advantage of the state's suddenly robust economy, or at least that's what the luxe-humping California bureau of the New York Times suggested. It was a coup!

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