Night Crawler

Games People Play

It's a little awkward wandering through the broad light of summer in a full-length evening dress and combat boots, carrying a portable minibar and flashlight while attempting to finish your workaday chores. It's more awkward still arriving late at your evening rendezvous at Trad'r Sam's and asking the befuddled barstaff if a group of people in evening attire and headlamps left a map of Land's End with anyone on staff. Thankfully, people in San Francisco take these things in stride. The head bartender, having just begun his shift, blinks at me for a moment then smiles as if maps of Land's End are left behind the bar all the time.

"Sorry," he says with regretful cordiality, "not tonight. I think you'll have to wing it."

Indeed.

Land's End is not a huge expanse of terrain, but it's feral and insidious, covered with trails winding back on themselves or coming to a dead end in cubbyholes of gnarled trees. It's possible to get lost here even in broad daylight, caught in a maze of thicket that is within shouting distance from the local bus line. It's possible, at night, to be seduced by the vaporous light of waves breaking in the darkness, to wander the cliffs looking for the perfect vantage point until, out of wine, you collapse in a heap feeling too cold to move on again. As any child who has grown up in these parts will tell you, all sorts of things are possible at Land's End.


It's an unpredictably mild night, the fog having rolled in early, cupping the day's heat against the cliffs. The full moon, hiding somewhere behind the cloud cover, offers a soft, delicate light that seems to emanate from the ground rather than the sky. Fortified by my peculiar attire and my minibar, I approach one of the less steamy cars arranged along the lip of the parking lot overlooking the ruins of the once-majestic Sutro Baths. I knock on a window tentatively, catching the eye of the person getting head rather than the person giving it.

"Please don't stop on my account," I reassure. "I was just wondering if you happened to notice a large group of people in formal dinner wear wandering through here?"

"Just got here," the eye chuckles. "Haven't really had time to take in the scenery, if you know what I mean." Head remains face-down.

A couple of more attempts prove the turnover in the parking lot is too rapid and too focused to offer any helpful information. Noticing the faint glow of a camping lantern in the ruins below, intrepid photographer Paul Trapani and I weave our way down the cliff, narrowly evading two well-equipped skunks questioning our audacity. From a good distance, we offer friendly, timid salutations to the campers and approach to find a young couple curled up in the ice plant, one of them wearing a promising Santa hat. Yes, they've heard about Mini-Bars Under the Stars, but they haven't noticed any action beyond the obvious. Trapani and I climb over the oddly luminous ruins, up the north side of the cliff, feeling our way over the crumbling staircases. The night is windless, and the ocean is unusually calm, coating the rocks below with ribbons of shimmering foam. It smells good. We decide to move into the trees, more out of delight than the hope of finding our assignment. About a hundred feet in, we hear voices oceanside. I scurry down the embankment into a circle of young thugs chugging booze against the side of a cliff. They frown and straighten their shoulders, then, getting a good look at me, chuckle and shake their heads, offering a warm malt liquor. They haven't seen shit all night. Another 200 feet, and the tree cover has thickened. Trapani, with his cumbersome camera bag over one shoulder, is madly wielding our single flashlight in one hand and a tiny penknife in the other. Neither stands a chance. Better to let our eyes adjust. We're thinking Blair Witch Project when we notice a worm of fluorescent glow-sticks slowly winding its way down the embankment to our right. As pretty as it is from a distance, up close it's just ravers struggling to carry a massive generator down the side of the hill. Another hundred feet, and the path narrows dramatically; the thick, warm smell of animal slaps us in the face. Tendrils of fog wind through the trees ahead, creating a charcoal-hued children's nightmare. Something midsized crashes in the underbrush to our left. There is a faint reddish glow coming from a nearby tree. We pause and wait. It doesn't move. As I examine what I discover to be a lovely little Japanese lantern, two figures in black step out from the trees behind us.

"We're witches," they say.

No problem. Night Crawler and witches go way back. But it's not the witches' lantern, and it's not the ravers' lantern. Despite certain misgivings, we push ahead into still thicker foliage. Soon, we feel very alone. We walk. We listen. We consider turning back. But we find another lantern, this one lying at the mouth of a smaller trail, glowing periwinkle blue. We follow the washed-out trail to the head of a very steep flight of stairs covered by a dark canopy of branches. Lanterns dangle from every post along the stairs, glowing mutely, casting multicolored halos in the warm mist. The tinkling sound of violins and laughter rises through the trees.

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