Through Any Given Door

3.35 Riverside Campground, Big Sur

January 1964 • Bug Sur ~ Written by brother’s wife, Marian Clemens … So the adventure began. The property was a campground and cabin business in Big Sur. Dressed in jeans and warm jackets, we met the realtor that Saturday in December 1963, and he showed us some old cabins in a forest of redwoods, laurels, oak and alders, green meadows and pathways, hills and valleys, and the sparkling Big Sur River rippling through. A long suspension foot bridge went from one side of the river across to the hill and cabins on the other side of the river valley, so that during winter rains when the road bridge was out, there was access to the cabins. We noticed the earthy smell of the soil and redwood duff still damp from a recent rain and the fresh scent of redwood trees that reached to the sky. We loved it.

That night when we went to bed, we sat leaning against our pillows, excited, talking about the possibility of a new adventure.
I asked, “Do we know how to run a campground?”
Gordon (aka Larry) answered, “No, but we could learn.”
I asked, “Do you think we can remodel a bunch of 50 year old cabins?”

Mom, Pam, Janet, Marian 1964

Did we have summers off and the time to do this? Yes, Gordon was a school counselor and wanted something interesting to do in the summer months. I was taking a break from teaching, with a three-year-old and a one-year-old at home.

Both of us had grown up loving the out-of-doors. Family vacations for me were in a campground and Gordon grew up in Sonora in the foothills and with Boy Scout adventures. The summer after our first year of marriage, we borrowed Mom and Dad’s little umbrella tent with its pole in the middle and visited favorite Sierra Mountain camps. It made perfect sense that we would own a camp; we loved being outdoors and this seemed the opportunity to guarantee we would be.

Reworking our finances in our minds, we thought about what kind of down payment we could come up with. They were asking $73,000 for this 33 acres of land that included 45 campsites and 4 cabins. They would carry the loan. We were only thirty and had been married for seven years. It seemed like a lot of debt and a big responsibility, but exciting. We slumped into a short sleep after we decided that we should try to buy it and run it for a year. Then we could decide whether to keep it or sell it. We didn’t sleep much that night.

Gordon 1964

The next morning we were up early, Gordon sitting tall at the breakfast table, his wavy hair brushed, looking assured and ready for the day. He often did things spontaneously. I remember the unexpected walk at the beach after going to a party in Santa Cruz when we were students in San Jose, and his quick stop at the side of the road to buy red roses when he was seeing me off at the airport. Not to say that he didn’t plan carefully while he put himself through college, working three part-time jobs. On the other hand, I am the planner with the long thought-out lists, always with one project on it completed so that it begins with something checked off.

We were ready to make a low offer, appropriate for us. We decided we could offer $67,000 with a $6,000 down payment. Gordon earned $8,000 a year as a school counselor, which seemed like a lot of progress since we had each started teaching for $4,000 only a few years before. We knew our home would be easy to rent for the summer and that would take care of house payments. Before the day was over our offer was accepted. One month later on a crisp winter day in January, after signing escrow papers, we drove home in disbelief that we were now the owners of a campground.

Cathy and Gordon, Big Sur, Sep 1964

That was the beginning of a dozen-year adventure. Every year at the end of the season, around Labor Day, Gordon and I asked each other if we had finished and were ready to sell. It took twelve years before we agreed that all of our projects were done, and so were we.

In the winter of 1966, there was a huge flood. It rained without stopping for many days and the Big Sur river valley flooded. Gordon lashed our 35 foot office trailer to trees with cables. We watched the news and worried about what was happening. When it was safe to be on the road, we drove down to see if our campground was still there. The brown river was swift and dangerous, huge logs bobbing like corks, the force of the river unstoppable as it surged through the whole width of our campground. Some of the fireplaces washed away along with tons of soil, some trees, and three whole campsites at the end of the campground. The river rose ten feet, as high as to the base of the cabin steps. It was frightening. We didn’t know how it would turn out. The power of water was awesome.

When spring arrived, we went to work moving dirt and debris, reshaping the land with a bulldozer, until eventually riverbed and rock, soil and deposits from the flood were pushed into shape and the campground was usable. We even reclaimed the three campsites at the end of the campground. We also replaced our 8 x 35 foot trailer with a 10 x 50 foot mobile home. That was something to celebrate.

Gordon decided that our little wooden bridge that went in and out each year needed replacing. It was not adequate for heavy vehicles and trailers, and pick-up campers were becoming more popular every year. There were still many tents, but camping was changing. Even the propane gas truck that serviced us had to come through neighboring property, as it was too heavy to be safe on our bridge. This is when Gordon drove up to Tracy to the train yard and purchased two railroad flat cars with wheels removed with strong steel frames and wood top beds. They were delivered to the campground and maneuvered into place. After scooping up dirt embankments on each side of the river for the first car, the second car was put in place to make the roadway join the campground road. We knew we were doing unusual things. I’ve never known anyone else who bought a flatbed train car.

Gordon’s four sisters came often; Carleen, Liz (Betty), Claudia, and Cathy brought their kids and joined us along with his Dad and step-mother, Carl and Marie. For Carl’s 70th birthday (1975), step-sisters Janet and Irene also brought their families. (Note: there were 35 of us who’d descended upon them, and that was just the Clemens side of the family; some of Marian’s were there too.) Sometimes many of the campsites and cabins were full of relatives. When I walked by the playground and every child called out, “Hi, Aunt Marian,” I knew business was bad, but my heart felt good.

When the family first arrived they ate normally, but after hiking and swimming and being in the out-of-doors for a day or two, they ate as if food had just been invented.

Family in Big Sur, July 1967

Family in Big Sur, July 1967

Sherry, campground kid, Laura, McLellan cousin, Randy, Doug, Julie, in Big Sur, July 1967

to be continued…

Marian, Big Sur 1964

© 2018. Marian Clemens.
excerpts from “By the River,” written for her family in 2013
All rights reserved.

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  1. Marian Clemens says

    It’s fun to see this story in print. Thanks. It all was a huge adventure, certainly hard work, and an experience of a lifetime. Some of the most fun times were the weeks when family arrived and we were able to share that beautiful place with them.

  2. Juliette andrews says

    Nice to hear from you Dean. Best wishes. J

  3. What fun! I’ll bet that campground is worth millions by now!

  4. Dean Crumley says

    The bridge that leads to the house that I designed and built in 1970 in Glen Ellen is also constructed of two railroad flatcars end to end. You can see it at 3400 Warm Springs Rd. across from the old Zane property. The property now belongs to James McNair and his wife .