In the 70s, there was a Pepsi commercial touting the “Pepsi Generation.” The premise was that Pepsi was hipper, more with-it than their rival, Coke. One of the series of commercials was a shot of healthy and wholesome young adults riding horses along the California ocean, wild, free, pristine sands and galloping steeds, manes and tails flowing as the waves broke around their hooves.
My cousins lived in Baywood/Los Osos right down the beach from Morro Rock. The area is spectacular—sand dunes rising up from the sandy beaches, mountains rising beyond the dunes, Seven Sister peaks lined up from Morro bay to San Luis Obispo. The valley leading to Los Osos is home to lush fields of garbanzo beans. My Aunt Hano followed her post WWII husband to the area. Her sister, Ruth, followed with her husband, Jim, whom she had married in Okinawa. Jim drove down Los Osos Road and saw the valley open up to the sand dunes and said this was a place he could put down roots. And he did.
Jim and Ruth never had kids, but Hano had three boys: Eugene, Richard and Harry. Hano was a role model to me—she had gone to university in Japan until interrupted by war; She was a single mom, worked at a bank, married an accomplished artist, was widowed, became a real estate agent, bought land before land on the coast of California was “a thing.” She was a shrewd business woman, tough yet soft with her boys.
Jim and Ruth ran a gas station on Los Osos Road. It was back in the day when the attendant filled your tank for you, checked the oil and washed the windshield. Ruthie was under five feet tall but she was a dynamo at the station. She would run out before the cars came to a halt and begin filling tanks, washing windows, pulling dipsticks and wiping the oil off with the rag she stuck in her back pocket. She was never more than a size 1, and the gas station uniform of gabardine slacks with pleated fronts and the leather belt cinched at her waist made her the perfect attendant.
If you continue down Los Osos Road, it will take you to Montana d’Oro. I always thought it was fortuitous that we were from Montana, and their state park was Montana d’Oro. Hano’s home was a couple streets off the main road near the bend of Los Osos Road, as it turns towards Montana d’Oro. The horses were boarded at her home and we would ride from the house to the beach following trails in the sand dunes.
When I was at Stanford I spent several holidays with Hano and Ruth. One Thanksgiving we finished with the turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, beans. After dinner the boys and I decided we’d take a ride down to the beach. We saddled up the horses—Eugene, Richard, Harry, a friend of Eugene’s and me. Their horses were cow ponies, fit from being ridden on a regular basis—to me they were pleasure horses, not working horses for the most part, but the boys used them for work whenever they could.
Since I was the oldest of the group and the visitor, they gave me the pick of the pack, a lean sorrel with white stockings and a forehead blaze. We took off midafternoon, the warmth of November on the north end of Southern California blanketing us as we chatted and rode together to the dunes.
The horses had taken this route a hundred times, and plodded along heads lowered, following each other in the narrow spots as we started up the last dune before the beach. We reached the crest of the dune, the five of us side by side looking down at the waves crashing below us. Someone cried, “Race to the beach!” and we all kicked our rides and began galloping down the dune towards the water.
Richard and I were neck and neck urging our horses as fast as they would take us. We had done this before, too. We weren’t talking but focused on the goal ahead of us. The horses were laboring in the deep sand, their front legs digging deep, understanding that this was a race, and they, too, wanted to win.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Richard go down—his horse emitted a short scream—and I pulled up my horse and turned back.
A couple guys had made it to the hard sand not knowing anything had happened. Someone had been behind us and saw it all. When I got back to Richard, both he and the horse were up and standing. Richard was wide eyed and breathing hard. He was ok. The horse was up, but his front leg was hanging by skin. The bones were broken clean off. His eyes were wild, he’d try to step but there was no leg to bear weight. He finally settled into a pathetic three-legged pose, broken front leg raised, head lowered, breathing labored.
One of the other guys rode home to tell Hano. I stayed with Richard. We unsaddled his horse. The late afternoon sky began to glow. The waves and wind continued to surround us in rhythmic white noise and soothing breezes.
Time passed, and the rider came over the dune. Behind him came a vet, and my Aunt Hano. They couldn’t get their truck over the dune. The vet came with a case that looked like a large fishing tackle box. He dug around and pulled out a syringe. Hano and I stood to one side, Richard watched and held the horse’s head against his chest, his hand stroking his horse’s nose.
The sun began setting to the west, the big puffy cumulus clouds glowing pinks and red before the sun. The water reflected the golden glitter as the sun touched the horizon. Rays shot up like a prayer. Hano turned to me and said, “It’s like God knows what we have to do.”
The vet jabbed his needle into the horse’s neck, and in an instant the horse shuddered, fell to his knees, then in a final heave rolled to his side. It was over in seconds, and the final benediction was the sun slipping below the horizon, waves crashing, the edges of the clouds crisp and glowing over the ocean.
As the skies darkened, we still had to get the horse off the beach. They hooked him with cables and a tow truck pulled him over the dune. The tension on the cable was scary—I understood where the term “deadweight” came from. The cable stretched under the strain, but held firm, and the horse began to move over the sand, first inching towards the truck, then moving faster as inertia was overcome.
The boys and I rode home in the dark. The mood somber, no excited chatter or bragging like there had been on our way to the beach.
That day we didn’t have a Pepsi Generation moment. There was no free-spirited galloping along the beach, no racing in the waves. That day, we all grew up a little more, we stood as a life drained away, consecrated by the most spectacular sunset I can ever remember.