“Paranoia strikes deep,” the Buffalo Springfield song from the ’60s warns, and into my life it did creep, on a picture-perfect Cambria afternoon.
On a classically lovely spring day, between the north and south Leffingwell parking lots, the reporter passed through a private portal — a tangled thicket of pine, cypress and sage — which, when pushed aside reveals a sheltered spot on a precipice with a million-dollar view.
This is the clandestine space the reporter occupies to disentangle himself from deadline pressure after a long day of research and writing. From his secluded spot 90 feet above the frothy surf, he can see the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse to the north and far to the south, on a clear day, he can even see Mexico, or is it Argentina?
There are whales’ spouts and pods of churning dolphins. Sea otters on their backs slide seamlessly up and over the swells.
This pilgrimage from old Air Force housing to Leffingwell has been made for eight years. It is rare for others to venture through that thicket.
But there has always been a lingering if vague paranoia that one day another person or critter might pass through the portal into this magical place and not have peaceful intentions vis-à-vis the kicked-back reporter sipping a cold beer with camera with zoom lens at the ready.
That fear exists because if he were threatened from behind in any way there would be nowhere to go but over the dangerous cliff, to a near-certain demise. The greenery he passed through would not be an escape option because the intruder would likely block that exit.
On this day, fleeting yet fearful thoughts turned real. Moments after he had seen a whale’s spout offshore, he sensed something on the grass close behind him.
Seated on the ground near the sheer drop, facing the ocean, the low throaty growl of a dog behind him made him shiver with dread. He turned his head slowly eastward to witness, not 10 feet away, a tall, strapping state park police officer with an enormous black police dog on a black harness at his side. The canine’s coat was so black it would make coal translucent in contrast.
The big dog’s ears were in that stiff, ready to show aggression position. It was restless, tugging on its leash, attempting to move closer to me.
“Beautiful dog you have there,” I said, feeling like Ichabod Crane probably felt after realizing he was being pursued by a headless horseman. As the story goes, Ichabod whistled to keep up his flagging courage, so the reporter gathered his wits by speaking.
“How old is that dog?” I queried. The officer glared but didn’t answer the question.
“Is that the only beer you’ve had?” he asked.
“Yes sir, I come here in the afternoon after work, to relax with a beer and enjoy this amazing scene.”
“You don’t have a 12-pack in the bushes?”
“No sir. This is it.”
The officer jerked hard on the harness’s leash several times and issued commands to the dog to stay tight to the officer’s left. “He’s in training,” the officer explained — which somehow didn’t engender a secure feeling.
He launched questions to determine if I was inebriated or if I planned to dispatch myself over the side in some dramatic suicidal plunge.
It turned out the officer was searching for a suspect and I loosely fit the description. The apprehension created by the dog’s guttural growl was thick enough to have been cut with a knife (fortunately, I didn’t have one, or that would have complicated the drama).
After 10 minutes, the officer started to leave, then turned abruptly back, his dog needing sharp tugs on the leash to keep him from bounding toward me.
He made small talk about crime and criminals and then he slipped through the portal and out of sight.
Not that it would have reduced the tension, but I forgot to tell the officer about the amazing sunsets I have viewed from this setting.
If I ever run into him again, I’ll remember to share the sunset information. And, if, between now and then, that powerful police dog sinks his razor-sharp teeth into a suspect, I hope the attack is precipitated by a serious crime, and not because some pilgrim was simply sipping a light beer on a high cliff overlooking the thundering Pacific Ocean on a cloudless idyllic day.