Before the first headlight appears on Coast Highway, hundreds of beach fires already slap at the sky, mimicking the colors of the sunset. The sun worshipers are going off duty, and a second, less easily pigeonholed shift of beach enthusiasts has arrived.
Anthropologists have reasoned that the campfire was the precursor of television. It was the mesmerizing light source people watched at night.
The campfire was also the focal point for a variety of tribal rituals, and some observers might argue that along Southern California's beaches, it still is.
Throughout the summer they burn, from San Diego to Santa Barbara, but the 4 1/2-mile stretch of sand comprising the developed sections of Bolsa Chica and Huntington state beaches is probably the campfire capital of California. About 650 concrete fire rings lie scattered 10 yards apart, two and three deep at Huntington, and Bolsa Chica boasts another 550 or so. In contrast, there are only 50 campfire rings along the 31 miles of Los Angeles County beaches, according to a spokesman at the Department of Beaches and Harbors.
"If you get here at six o'clock on a Saturday night, you probably won't find a single (empty) fire pit," said lifeguard Randy Trefry, night supervisor for the two state parks. What you will find, Trefry said, is a condensed cross-section of Southern California; as many as 30,000 people, who will have strikingly different--sometimes dangerous--reactions to the strange influence of the surf, stars, flames and other intoxicants. (Alcohol is legal on most parts of Huntington and Bolsa Chica, unlike most Southern California beaches.) At one fire on a recent evening, with no audible accompaniment, young women in gray sweat shirts danced barefoot around the raised fire ring, their long shadows sashaying across the sand. At another, Christian groups linked arms and swayed to hymns.
In one circle, a swarm of teen-agers shrieked and chugged beers. Tilting back their heads, they would poke a hole in the bottom of the cans, letting the suds explode into their mouths. Nearby, a well-dressed couple sipped wine from goblets and hugged. That fires do, indeed, fan the flames of passion was evidenced by the abundance of bodies curled up in blankets and sleeping bags, oblivious to passers-by or blowing sand.
"We come here every week, from the first Friday after the Fourth of July till the end of summer" said Alice Canales, as 20 or so members of La Puerta Abierta Assembly of God Church in East Los Angeles sat in the glow of a fire at Huntington State Beach.
"Everyone's so busy during the week. This gives us a chance to get to know each other better," Canales said.
"We talk about old times, new times . . ., " said a woman reclining on a bright poncho.
"Memories," said another voice. "Reminiscing."
"This is just a nice chance for us to relax and talk," said Canales.
"And to pig out," added the woman on the poncho. The group's string of red, white and blue flags snapped beside her in the sea breeze.
What's on the menu?
"Burritos with chorizo, steaks, hot dogs, pan dulce ," Frank Canales said.
"And diet sodas!" someone else shouted.
Frank Canales laughed, and tossed an old cabinet door into the fire.
While most people remained huddled around a single fire, others were more sociable, roving the beach in search of a compatible party.
Randy Hallock is a self-described strolling minstrel, hopping from one beach party to another.
Hallock, who doesn't reveal his age ("In rock 'n' roll, you have to be young.") lives in Pomona, but sleeps in his van several nights a week during the summer, to be nearer the campfire scene.
Passing as close to the flickering perimeters of the campfires as decorum allowed, Hallock waited for someone to spot his weathered guitar and invite him in for a song or two. He asks nothing in return, but doesn't refuse if someone makes an offer.
"I've got some cheese and hot dogs in here now," he said, pointing to a bag at his side which contained donated food. If someone really liked his tunes, he'd offer them cassettes illustrated with his magic marker drawings of red and yellow flames and hand-labeled: "Randy--Recorded Live at the Huntington Beach Fire Pits."
Standing in the darkness amid several circles of light, Hallock raised his guitar and ran a pick over the strings. "This song is a brief history of what I'm about," he offered.
My stage is under the stars, with the moon and Mars,
When the sun goes down I'm on . . .
With the ocean at my back, I yackety-yack,
around concrete pits of fire . . . .
Between verses, he blew a rousing interlude on a kazoo attached to a wire frame around his neck, then continued:
I play my music outside, where the distance is wide ,
Like a gangster on the run .
I have to dodge and hide
like Bonnie and Clyde
But it's all part of the fun.