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"Pepé looked suspiciously back every minute or so, and his eyes sought the tops of the ridges ahead. Once, on a white barren spur, he saw a black figure for a moment; but he looked quickly away, for it was one of the dark watchers. No one knew who the watchers were, nor where they lived, but it was better to ignore them and never to show interest in them. They did not bother one who stayed on the trail and minded his own business."

- The Long Valley, “Flight” - John Steinbeck

For centuries, Big Sur residents have seen 'Dark Watchers' in the mountains

Katie Dowd, SFGATE

March 10, 2021

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

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


For centuries, tales of the Dark Watchers have swirled in the misty Santa Lucia Mountains. Most stories begin with the local native tribes, which allegedly spoke of the shadowy figures in their oral traditions. When the Spanish arrived in the 1700s, they began calling the apparitions los Vigilantes Oscuros (literally “the dark watchers”). And as Anglo American settlers began staking claims in the region, they too felt the sensation of being watched from the hills.


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

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.”


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

Steinbeck’s mother Olive Hamilton brought fruit or sometimes flowers. Steinbeck’s son Thomas said his grandmother, a school teacher, was no fabulist, but she believed firmly in the Dark Watchers. She told her children and grandchildren she left fruit or nuts in Mule Deer Canyon on her way to school in Big Sur. On the way back, there would be flowers in their place.


The stories stuck with Steinbeck, clearly, and were echoed by Big Sur personalities like Doc Ricketts and Billy Post.

"The old timers of Big Sur swear by it," painter Benjamin Brode, who co-authored a book on the watchers with Thomas Steinbeck, told the Monterey County Weekly in 2017. If you are a believer, the centuries of sightings are probably enough for you. But if you are skeptic, you no doubt need to know what is actually causing these visual anomalies.

There are a few theories. One is that ordinary shadows, cast by swaying trees and obscured by fog or mist, are being twisted into humanoid shapes by our brains. This phenomenon is known as pareidolia; it’s how our pattern-seeking brains make sense of the world. Rorschach tests are reflections of pareidolia in action. So are images where people see “faces” in lunar landscapes.

The other likely candidate is something called the Brocken spectre.


Like in Big Sur, German locals near the Harz Mountains have, for centuries, reported seeing shadowy figures on Brocken peak. It, too, became a muse for writers like Lewis Carroll and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with Brocken becoming a byword for high strangeness.

In reality, the Brocken spectre is the result of a funny quirk of science. It happens when shadows — like those of a hiker — are cast on particularly misty mountain peaks. If the sun is behind the observer, the mist plays with the shadow, making it look huge and menacing. The shadow can even dart away as the mist suddenly shifts or breaks apart in the breeze.

Of course, Steinbeck’s mother would remind you that mist shadows can’t bring you a flower. But for that, you’ll have to seek your own answers in the sunset-dappled mountains.

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