Today, Oceano is widely known for the ATVs humming across the beach. But less than 100 years ago, the dunes were home to something else entirely: a group of hermits, artists, intellectuals and mystics who made the miles of shifting sand their sanctuary.
They were known as the Dunites.
They came to the area for many reasons — some wanted to live far from the growing bustle of the nation’s cities, while others were forced into the lifestyle by the Great Depression and a lack of options. They lived in driftwood shacks nestled among the dunes, preaching a Utopian lifestyle and surviving on the Pismo clams that then pockmarked the beaches.
Though the last of the Dunites who lived on the dunes died in the 1970s, some of Oceano’s residents still emulate the group’s ideals, even as the South County town continues to grow and change.
Chief among those is activist and poet Karl Kempton.
“Most of the people who live here still try to uphold that Dunite lifestyle,” he said, as he showed off a framed black-and-white photo his daughter had taken of one of the last living Dunites, Elwood Decker, while she was still in high school. “It’s just the vibration.”
Kempton, a tall man with a quiet voice, was drafted into the Army in 1965 and sent to Stuttgart, Germany, where a late-night stumble into a cabaret known as Club Voltaire — one of the hangouts for supporters of the “Dada” artistic movement — inspired a love of poetry and art that lives with him today.
In the mid-1970s, after living in the Bay Area for a year and a half, Kempton followed his first wife to southern San Luis Obispo County — and he has never left.
“Once I moved here, I never went back to living in a big city,” he said. “I never wanted to.”
Throughout his time in Oceano, Kempton has seen an increase in development in the small coastal town — something that saddens him, even as he has grown resigned to it. One of his biggest achievements while in the area was advocating to stop the use of toxic pesticides and fumigants at a strawberry field near his house. The field is now farmed with nontoxic chemicals, and Kempton is known as its godfather.
“It’s quiet,” he said as he looked over the greenery with pride, as peacock calls echoed throughout the canyon. “Spiritually it just feeds me, the land.”
Kempton draws inspiration from his surroundings for his artwork — visual poetry pieces that feature a melding of photography, text and often mathematical equations in the place of traditional poetry. Kempton also spends his time working on self-published books about his artistic inspirations and stays active in local land-use politics to protect the dunes and Chumash Indian heritage sites.
And it’s his passion for the area that spurs on all of his different activities.
“It’s a paradise as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
• Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange
• Lucia Mar Unified School District
• Local farms