Carmel Valley Gothic: The Spirits of El Peñon
As photographed by Jeff Norman, February 15,1970
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Ha, this looks like these were taken from the look-out tower at the top of Garland – Syd Ormsby(?) Was this an art project or something? – 1970?
What was Jeffs connection, if any? I think I remember seeing some sculptures up there, but never knew the story.Haven’t been there a while–still there? Boz
Yes. This is the summit of Pinyon Peak (a corruption of Peñon – meaning rock outcrop – see Donald Clark’s Monterey County Place Names), the location of the Sid Ormsbee Lookout (named in honor of Sid Ormsbee a Santa Cruz native who died fighting on Sicily in WWII and has a road named after him in the Santa Cruz Mountains as well) – very perceptive of you, Gus. One of the men who staffed the lookout back in the day sculpted the native rocks of El Peñon into these fantastic forms. The sculptures remained there for many years (we first stumbled upon them in the ’70s), but, according to Jeff, were eventually removed by the property owner (Rancho San Carlos). In any event, they’ve been missing for many years now. Jeff had no connection other than thinking they were an intriguing part of Carmel Valley history and taking the pictures.
It is a total delight to find this website, and to Jeff, who took these photos, and the Webmaster, who put them up here, thank you very, very much. I did a search for “rock sculpture at Sid Ormsby Lookout,” not expecting a hit. This is wonderful. I took some photos of it, long ago, but no longer have the Temple side. It’s a marvelous work. Fire lookouts have a tendency towards artistic brilliance; they seek the solitude in which to create. I’ve always assumed the Rock was a spontaneous inspiration, on a native rock. I visited the top of Garland Park recently, on a trip to Monterey, but didn’t climb the last hill to the tower. I’m glad I didn’t, if the Rock is not there anymore. It would have been lonely enough, without Ruth Albee in the tower.
I discovered the Sid Ormsby fire lookout in the early 1970s’. I began running up to the firetower at least once a week, often twice, and it turned into a twelve-year passion. That run, the Grinder, as we called it, is one of the things I miss the most about Carmel Valley. The view is incredible. That area has a magic to it that cannot be explained. There is a huge grinding stone in Garland Park, with many holes. It must have been used by a contented tribe of Costanoans for perhaps thousands of years, until the Fathers came, and set them laboring on the meaningless and ubiquitous Spanish Land Grant Walls, which ran all through Cachaugua, where I lived. Now, in Lake Tahoe, I know of a very similar boulder, with dozens of metate holes, which sits in a valley of Pinyon Pines, in the middle of Heavenly Valley.
I was saddened by the news that the sculpture has been moved. No doubt, the owner of the Rancho San Carlos had good intentions, perhaps to protect it from vandalism, but it was a part of the magic. It was carved by a bored and lonely lookout in the 1960s’. It was already weathered and developing a patina when I first saw it in the early ’70s’.
A larger part of the magic was Ruth Albee, who was the Fire Lookout when I was visiting the Tower. She was in her late 70s’ when I knew her. The first time I met her, she had me sign the guest book, but I became such a regular visitor that signing it became moot. She told me she had relatively few visitors, as it is a hard trip up the mountain, but I hear the walk up the access road is easier. It would be meaningless to me, without the hard work to get there. I left a Mack truck axle in the bushes at the bottom of Garland Park, which I carried to the top when I ran it. It is still there. I got a lot of strange looks!
Some of my memories may be a little off, as it’s been a long time since I last saw her, but here’s what I remember. Ruth Albee was the daughter of an early Big Sur Coast settler. Her grandfather bought a huge parcel of land at the end of Palo Colorado Road. The Boy Scout camp there was donated by him to the Boy Scouts. It was a cattle ranch, and she had an idyllic childhood. She was a very interesting and individualistic person, proud of the fact that she had been a card-carrying Socialist in the ’30’s, when it was dangerous. It automatically made her a Feminist too, also scandalous in those days.
Ruth was a consultant to the Smithsonian Institute, as an expert on Native American basketweaving. The firetower was cluttered with incredibly beautiful baskets of all shapes, colors, patterns and sizes. She learned the patterns and styles of many different tribes. She had baskets that held water without dripping, and demonstrated it for me. She was a very charismatic and delightful woman, and I developed a crush on her. I saw the beauty of her youth shining through her years. We became friends, and I was sad in the years when the tower didn’t open it’s shutters. I went up anyway, but missed her terribly. I wish I had gone to see her at her house in Palo Colorado Canyon. Just as I regretted not speaking to Edward Abbey, in Moab, Utah, in 1978, when I was stuck there for a month with a blown Volkwagen bus motor. I made friends with a man who had a junkyard, Tom Arnold, aka Tom-Tom, an ex-Navy pilot, who was a close friend of Abbey’s. Two years ago, in Moab, I looked for Tom-Tom’s junkyard, and the quonset hut with the old swamp cooler in which the bus was repaired, but it was gone. Moab is not the sleepy little town it was then, but it is still wonderful. Tom spoke to Abbey on the phone nightly, as he was handling real estate deals for Abbey, who was stationed in Tucson. I told him I was a big fan, since finding Abbey’s Road and Desert Solitaire in the ammo- can library on a river trip in the Grand Canyon. Tom-Tom offered me the phone one night, to let me say hello to Ed, and like an idiot, I waived away the opportunity. I later gave Ed’s address to a friend- Box 59, Oracle, Arizona- and she wrote him, and got a wonderful letter in reply. I didn’t do that either. And then, on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, I read the news. Ed Abbey died young.
I told Ruth about Ed, and I’m pretty sure I took her a copy of Abbey’s Road, my favorite book of his, containing The Sorrows of Travel, my favorite essay- and she laughed at his reporting the same “smoke”, day after day, the Black Mesa coal-burning plant, in his tenure at a North Rim Fire Lookout from which he could see it’s plume, one of the worst in the country, which cast a pall over the Grand Canyon. I just looked it up, and it is apparently gone, replaced by natural gas in 2005. Abbey would approve.
The view from the Sid Ormsbee Fire Lookout is fantastic, you can see all the way from the south Coast of Big Sur, to Palo Alto, and from the Gabilans, near Hollister, to the Pacific Ocean. It’s a place you don’t want to leave. I know I will go there again someday, to visit my memories of Ruth. I will be sad to see the empty spot where the Rock once stood.
The rock wasn’t actually carved by a bored and lonely fire lookout.. For many years my godparents, Beth and Dana
Reddish, were the lookouts at Sid Ormsbee Lookout.
Every year they spent the fire season at the lookout, and the rest of the year they lived in Pacific Grove, where they had a very small house. Beth Stenger Reddish was my mother’s best friend from the time they met as children in Pasadena in the late 1920s until my mother’s death in 1983. Beth married Dana Reddish in the very late thirties, and Dana was always a man who marched to a drummer most people didn’t (or couldn’t) hear, and Beth was always willing to march with him. He spent years carving the rock, and the main face is a portrait of Beth. I never saw the rock myself, but my parents saw it many times, from the very beginning until the time of its completion.
After my father died, I found three pictures of the rock, which appear to have been taken by a professional photographer, although they might well have been taken by Dana himself. As to the disappearance of the rock, I was told a few years ago that it was still near the lookout on the grounds of what is now called The Preserve, an enclave of very wealthy people. If it is truly gone, it’s very sad, as the rock was the single thing Dana was most proud of; he truly put his soul into its carving.
The “rock” was removed because of vandalism!!
Thank you, John, for the clarification!! It’s wonderful to hear the truth of the origin of the work, and the wonderful story of your godparents. What a great life they had up there, on one of the most beautiful peaks in that range.
hello. The Fire lookout is now inaccesible because Santa Lucia Ranch has converted this to private property. Is there access nevertheless? We really want to photograph this amazing place.
The “Beth” face sculpture got a quick look during an episode of ‘Then Came Bronson’ called ‘The Forest Primeval’ (season 1, episode 23), as did the lookout tower. Show was filmed circa 1970. Thanks for this website. I always wondered what the heck that face was about.
I left this message last year.. it is off limits. There really ought to be access to what was once publically accessible.
I wrote last year. There ought to be public access to a site that was once open to the public. This was an important and notable fie lookout same as chews ridge.
Went up yesterday and had no problems. Trail is a bit sketchy what with the dirt being loose and slippery but otherwise a fantastic hike.
Great. Did you climb from the Garland trail – Snively Ridge side? Not from Santa Lucia Preserve road.
I started in usua;l normal parking lot. Maple Canyon -> Sage -> Sky – Snively’s Ridge -> Firetower.
No issues with ticks, but that might change as the season gets later.
I tried leaving a comment here a little while ago but it didn’t post I guess. I’m a current employee here at The Preserve and I can confirm at least one of the carvings is still here, though it’s been moved to the Hacienda. It’s the one with the woman draped over the bull. I have a photo to prove it if anyone’s interested.