Like many people, I've always felt the stretch of California's central coast known as Big Sur—where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise from the Pacific Ocean and the ancient redwoods stand so tall in the fog—to be a magical place. For centuries, indigenous people in the region, settlers, and even today's old timers have spoken or written about the feeling of being "seen" by shadowy figures in the mountains and among the trees. Those who have spotted the source of the weird vibes describe them as 10-foot-tall ghostly characters, occasionally wearing hats or capes. Spanish colonists who arrived in the 1700s named the apparitions vigilantes oscuros ("dark watchers"). Skeptics discount the Dark Watchers as pareidolia or an example of a "Brocken spectre" (photo above)—a human shadow that appears massive when cast through the mountain mist— but we know the truth. In fact, maybe the Dark Watchers are getting tired of tourists. Katie Dowd writes in SFGate:
In 1937, Robinson Jeffers, poet of life along the Central Coast, drew inspiration from the watchers for his collection "Such Counsels You Gave To Me and Other Poems."
"He thought it might be one of the watchers, who are often seen in this length of coast-range, forms that look human to human eyes, but certainly are not human. They come from behind ridges to watch," Jeffers wrote. "… He was not surprised when the figure turning toward him in the quiet twilight showed his own face. Then it melted and merged into the shadows beyond it."
The next year, John Steinbeck, who grew up in Salinas, spoke of them in his short story "Flight." In the tale, a teenage Mexican American boy kills a man and is forced to flee into the Santa Lucias. As his mother bids him farewell, she urges him to say his prayers, take care of his horse and "when thou comest to the high mountains, if thou seest any of the dark watching men, go not near to them nor try to speak to them."
As much time as I've spent in Big Sur though, I've never been fortunate enough to see the Dark Watchers myself. I'll have to go back. Soon.
More: In Search of the Dark Watchers by Benjamin Brode and Thomas Steinbeck