Sometimes, even an overnight getaway can feel like a real vacation. My sister and I decided that we needed a day away - a day at the beach. We wanted to walk on the sand, breathe the salty air at the edge of the shore, and have time to talk and rest and laugh. We knew the the perfect place, a place we've visited hundreds of times since we were kids - Pismo Beach.
Pismo Beach is located in San Luis Obispo County, about 90 miles north of Santa Barbara.
For 9,000 years, the Chumash called this area home. They had small villages up and down the 20 miles of beach that comprise modern day Pismo Beach. The Chumash used the word, pizmu, to describe the natural asphaltum that seeped from beneath the sand and sea. The Chumash crafted plank boats called tomol, and lined them with the substance to make them waterproof and seaworthy.
In 1846, Jose Ortega received 8,800 acres of the land in this area in a Mexican Land Grant, and named it Rancho El Pismo. In 1848, John Price purchased a portion of the land for his ranch. In the 1880s, he subdivided the land and changed the name, recording it as Town of El Pizmo. Soon, the Southern Pacific railroad arrived and began bringing tourists who instantly loved the natural beauty and some of the widest, cleanest beaches in California.
In a 1908 issue of Out West magazine, El Pizmo Beach was advertised as having, "Grandeur of Scene, Perfect Climate, and Congenial Surroundings". A traveler could stay in a hotel, or in the very popular "Tent City", which was described as "commodious and comfortably arranged, perfect for a more carefree life".
The beaches boasted an avenue of hard-packed sand at the edge of the shore that was conducive to riding for miles on horseback, in carriages, and later, in cars.
Another favored pastime has always been "clamming". According to the All-Western Foods Cook Book, authored by Sunset (Lane Publications), the average Pismo clam weighed 1.5 pounds when the cookbook was printed in 1947. (I've included the Sunset recipe for Pacific Coast Clam Chowder at the end of this post.) It was, arguably, the largest clam in California (up to 7" if left undisturbed). And although plentiful and easily found in the early days, the Pismo clam is a bit more rare now.
To harvest these elusive and tasty beauties, clam diggers walk at the edge of the shore, and plunge a modified pitchfork into the sand to locate the bivalves and dig them out of the sand. Clamming forks are equipped with a measuring tool on the handle to ensure clams taken are of legal size. Pismo Beach restaurants vie for the perfect recipe that will win them the title of "Best Clam Chowder" each year.
Pismo has always drawn crowds of admirers who flee the heat of the Central Valley during the peak of summer. When cities like Fresno, Bakersfield, Tulare and Stockton reach months of triple-digit days and hot, hot nights, summer at the Pismo seashore has always been blissfully cool.
A cottony gray fog pads the shore through June and July, keeping temperatures in the 60s and 70s.
And when much of California turns cool in the autumn, Pismo Beach is warm, dry, and crystal clear. Most of the tourists have gone. The town belongs again to the locals. And although it looks much different than in earlier days, it is still small and lovely, an old-fashioned beach town.
Surf and skate shops line the sidewalks. Tendrils of fragrance waft from the downtown restaurants and mix with the salt air. Large hotels hug the cliffs, and little old wooden motels sit at the water's edge.
The pier entices you to walk on the wooden path out over the sea, on boards that gently creak and rock with the roll of the waves.
It's an extraordinary place to just sit and watch the world go by.
From the pier you can look down to the sand and watch surfers head out toward the waves, or come back at the end of the day. You can look back at the town and the gentle hills that rise behind it. You can gaze for miles up and down the coast in either direction.
My sister and I got our wish - we walked and walked, we laughed, we had fish and chips at Brad's Restaurant - we slept with the sound of waves breaking at the bottom of the cliffs. It was wonderful.
Whether you travel to Pismo Beach to surf, camp, explore the sand dunes, or enjoy the frutta di mare plucked from the cold Pacific waters, in a very short time you, too, will understand why, for many decades, travelers have come to linger at the edge of the shore in Pismo Beach.
Pacific Coast Clam Chowder
1/2 cup diced bacon, uncooked 1/2 cup cream-style corn
1 small onion, minced 1 cup minced clams, with liquor
1 cup boiling water (fresh or canned)
2 cups diced potatoes Salt, black pepper, celery salt - to taste
2 - 3 cups of milk
Fry the bacon in a kettle; when browned add onion and fry until transparent. Add water and potatoes, cover, and cook until potatoes are tender. Add milk and corn, and clams. (If fresh clams are used, heat them to boiling in their own liquor before adding to milk.) Season well, heat thoroughly, and serve. Makes about 1 1/2 - 2 quarts rich chowder, serving 4 -6 generously.