For centuries the people of Big Sur have seen ‘dark watchers’ in the mountains


If you want to see a Dark Watcher, you have to wait until late afternoon.

As the sun begins its descent behind the waves, gaze at the sharp ridges of the Santa Lucia Range, the mountains that rise from the shores of Monterey and along the central California coast. If you are lucky, you might see figures looming against them. Some say observers are 10 feet tall, made taller or wider by hats or capes. They can turn to you. But they always move away quickly and disappear.

For centuries, the stories of the Dark Keepers swirled in the misty mountains of Santa Lucia. Most of the stories begin with the local indigenous tribes, who are said to have spoken of obscure figures in their oral traditions. When the Spaniards arrived in the 1700s, they began to call the apparitions los Vigilantes Oscuros (literally “the black watchers”). And when the Anglo-American settlers began to stake claims in the area, they too felt the sensation of being watched from the hills.

Accounts vary, although everyone agrees that the beings are darker than human and more observant than aggressive. They took their strongest form in the first half of the 20th century, when two legendary writers commemorated them.

In 1937, Robinson Jeffers, poet of life along the central coast, was inspired by observers for his collection “Such Counsels You Gave To Me and Other Poems”.

The fog, haze, and low clouds of the Santa Lucia Range provide an eerie – and perhaps scientifically optimal – environment for tall shadows.

Dan Porges / Getty Images

“He thought this might be one of the observers, who are often seen in this length of the coastal range, forms that look human to humans, but are certainly not human. They come from behind the ridges to watch, ”Jeffers wrote. “… He was not surprised when the figure turning to him in the calm twilight showed his own face.” Then it melted and melted into the shadows beyond.

The following year, John Steinbeck, who grew up in Salinas, wrote about it in his short story “Flight”. In the story, a Mexican American teenager kills a man and is forced to flee to the Santa Lucias. As her mother bids her farewell, she urges her to say her prayers, to take care of her horse and “when you come to the high mountains, if you see one of the dark men watching, don’t come near. not from them and don’t try to talk to them. them.”

If you want to meet a Dark Watcher, you have to bring a gift.

Steinbeck’s mother, Olive Hamilton, brought fruit or sometimes flowers. Steinbeck’s son Thomas said his grandmother, a schoolteacher, was not a fabulist, but a firm believer in the Dark Watchers. She told her children and grandchildren that she left some fruit or nuts in Mule Deer Canyon on the way to school in Big Sur. On the way back, there would be flowers in their place.

The stories clearly stuck with Steinbeck and were picked up by Big Sur figures like Doc Ricketts and Billy Post.

“Big Sur alumni swear by this,” painter Benjamin Brode, who co-wrote a book on Watchers with Thomas Steinbeck, told Monterey County Weekly in 2017.

If you are a believer, centuries of observations will probably be enough for you. But if you are skeptical, you probably need to know what is really causing these visual abnormalities.

Sunset in the Santa Lucia Mountains prime time to see a Dark Watcher.  However, some report seeing the shadows at dawn.

Sunset in the Santa Lucia Mountains prime time to see a Dark Watcher. However, some report seeing the shadows at dawn.

Ted Fletcher / Getty Images / iStockphoto

There are a few theories. One is that ordinary shadows, cast by swaying trees and obscured by fog or haze, are distorted into humanoid shapes by our brains. This phenomenon is known as pareidolia; this is how our brain in search of patterns gives meaning to the world. Rorschach’s tests are reflections of pareidolia in action. The same goes for images where people see “faces” in lunar landscapes.

The other likely candidate is what’s called the Brocken Specter.

As in Big Sur, German residents near the Harz Mountains have, for centuries, reported seeing dark figures on Brocken Peak. He also became a muse for writers like Lewis Carroll and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with Brocken becoming synonymous with great strangeness.

In reality, Brocken’s specter is the result of a funny oddity in science. This happens when shadows – like those of a hiker – are cast on particularly hazy mountain peaks. If the sun is behind the viewer, the mist plays with the shadow, making it appear enormous and menacing. The shadow may even recede as the mist moves or suddenly breaks in the breeze.

Of course, Steinbeck’s mother would remind you that misty shadows cannot bring you a flower. But for that you will have to seek your own answers in the mountains dotted with the setting sun.


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