If you have never taken four wheelers out on sand dunes, I highly recommend it. I have been mentioning things that have been “top ten events” for me quite a bit. Whitewater rafting, Carlsbad Caverns, and the Blue Ridge Parkway are all examples. Honestly, I don’t even know if there are ten in total, but the phrase still conveys the idea. This was not on my list, but it should have been. Put it on yours.
We started the morning heading to the Santa Monica Pier. We had been advised that this was a cool place to go in Santa Monica, but I think we find the wrong one. We still had a great walk out on the Pier and got our first look at the beautiful, blue Pacific Ocean, a major milestone we gave ourselves little time to enjoy. We all got our feet wet, basking in the glory of having traversed the width of a continent, and jumped back in the car. We had a long drive to Pismo Beach and had to get there before the rental shops closed.
While Sarah drove, Tom and I hit the internet, price shopping. We found a place that offered a buy-one-get-one for four wheeler rentals, and the first, non-free ATV was competitive with a single rental at other places: Angelo’s. We plugged in the address and headed there. We arrived around 4:00 and started filling out paperwork.
“So, if we have an odd number of riders, can we get half price for the third person instead of buy-one, get one?”
No deal. We discussed getting two four wheelers and switching off, when we got a stroke of luck. Three more about-to-be-riders showed up in the twenty minutes it took to read and sign four forms each, and were also inquiring if they could get half off on their third rider. We teamed up and split the cost of the last buy-one, get-one.
Next we were watching a short training video. It was funny because the lady at the front desk was in it, but she was much more cheerful. After a couple of instructions — ride slowly when near people, don’t ride in the water or wet sand, you break it you bought it — we were in a truck on our way to the dunes.
Upon our arrival we got another short course on the operation of the machines. We had emptied out our pockets, bringing only our cameras, and it was a good thing we did. The ride was bumpy and we would have lost anything not strapped to our wrists. We rode up the beach parallel to the ocean to the designated dune area. Along the way we practiced shifting, stopping several times to shift back down to first gear and remind each other of the details of shifting and riding.
Once on the dunes, we still had to get used to a couple things. The dunes were steep enough that several times our little ATV’s (we chose the smallest and cheapest) ran out of power on the way up. On the lower gears the wheels didn’t spin fast enough to keep momentum up. The wheels would just push sand and dig themselves into holes. On the higher gears the torque was to low; even with the acceleration at full the machine just stopped in its tracks. Sarah was having a little more trouble than Tom and I at first, but soon we were all speeding around, going up the steepest, highest dunes our machines could handle and going part way up the others, turning quickly when we lost speed and shooting back down. Several times either Tom or I stopped to snap a few pictures. It was surprisingly easy to lose each other when we were only a few huge dunes apart.
We were all getting pretty good. Sarah was testing the limits of the dunes she could navigate and got stuck. On my way over to help pull her half buried tire out of the sand, I realized my wrist had gotten lighter. The camera strap had broken, and the camera was gone. I finished helping Sarah and explained my predicament to her and Tom. We immediately started looking.
Looking for a shiny metallic object in a sea uniformly-colored sand seems like a no-brainer. It wasn’t. You would never notice how many gum wrappers and cigarette pack foil’s are scattered around until you are looking for a camera. We traced our path as well as we could, but to no avail. This camera had a huge memory card precisely so that I wouldn't have to worry about getting pictures on the computer in a timely fashion, a truth that had totally backfired on me. The last time I had put pictures on my computer was in Texas.
Sarah and I continued to look together and Tom had split off and was looking somewhere else. We weren’t having any luck, or for that matter, fun. I watched a guy in a dirt bike get a good ten feet in the air at the lowest point on his bike, very impressive, but not too enjoyable given the circumstances. It was buried, or I had gotten sidetracked and was looking on the wrong dune.
After a bit longer, I checked my watch. We had about forty-five minutes left on our ATV rentals, and there was no use searching until the last moment; the chances of finding the camera diminished as we searched farther and farther from the point where it was lost. I didn’t even know if we were on a dune that we had been before. Sarah and I discussed looking for five more minutes. And just as we were about to give up, Tom drove up.
“I’ve been looking for you for a half hour. Here’s your camera.”
I smiled and thanked him. Tom relayed the story of a sharp decline on a dune sneaking up on him when he was going top speed: maybe 35 miles per hour. As he went over a crest he realized that there was a sharp drop just coming into view. He hit the brakes but not soon enough; he went over the edge. Not wanting to smash against the machine, he ditched. The four wheeler landed upright but Tom took a tumble alongside, scraping his knee but leaving all his teeth intact.
Sarah and I laughed at Tom’s hilarious misfortune, and we decided to have some fun. We were all practiced enough to not worry about stalling or starting up any dunes that we wouldn’t be able to climb, and the last half hour was a blast. Soon we caught up with the three people who had split the buy-one, get-one deal with us and headed back.
That evening we went to a bar called Cool Hand Luke’s for Margaritas. Tom decided to try some chicken fried steak made in California and we had some ribs. The portions were small and pricey. We didn’t stick around for more drinks. We headed to a bowling alley to get a frame in before they closed. I beat Tom, and we found a motel and got some sleep.