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How the Oceano Dunes Became a Refuge for Artists and Writers in the 1920s

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A small white-grey bird walks alongside a beachfront with seagulls flying in the background and green hills and housing beyond across the water.
A Western snowy plover plays in the waves at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreational Area. The California Coastal Commission voted to phase out off-roading on the beach by 2024, citing environmental concerns, including destruction of the Western snowy plover’s habitat. (Benjamin Purper/KCBX)

Just south of Pismo Beach, along California’s Central Coast, the Oceano Dunes are a popular recreation spot for locals and tourists alike. It’s the only beach in California that allows visitors to drive all-terrain vehicles and pickup trucks on the sand. But all that vrooming around makes it hard to experience the other thing that makes this spot special — eccentric local history hidden under the dunes.

For about two decades starting in the 1920s, the dunes were home to a colony of artists, writers and intellectuals called “Dunites.” It was a place where they could live freely and make art without much money.

“The weather’s good, and the climate — everything is perfect,” said local historian and Dunite expert Norm Hammond. “There’s fish in the ocean, clams on the beach and plenty of things to survive on out there.”

Hammond said people started living this way on the Oceano Dunes as early as 1895, but that the Dunites’ colony began in earnest in the 1920s when an astrologer named Gavin Arthur arrived. He organized the bohemians already living there to build cabins in the sand and called the settlement Moy Mell — “pastures of honey” in Gaelic.

An image from the Dune Forum magazine.
‘The Dune Forum’ was a magazine featuring art, literature and politics that was published in the early 1930s in the artists colony of Moy Mell, on the central California Coast. (Courtesy South County Historical Society)

Moy Mell quickly became a hub for creatives and freethinkers, whether it was the resident Dunites or famous visitors like John Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair. But it wasn’t just a place to philosophize and create art — Arthur saw it as a utopian commune.

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“The motto for Moy Mell was ‘individuality within community.’ We all live together, we’re all different, but we have a common goal to build a better world,” Hammond said.

Arthur and his fellow Dunites started a literary magazine called the Dune Forum at Moy Mell in the 1930s. Its six editions featured essays, poems and other works by Dunite authors.

A red painted cabin with white trim around the windows and a sign in from with text.
Historian Norm Hammond helped save Gavin Arthur’s original Moy Mell cabin and bring it to the Oceano Depot. (Benjamin Purper/KCBX)

One of the common themes of the Dunites’ art was that there was something deeply spiritual about the dunes. Gavin Arthur said so himself in a 1966 interview with researcher James Cain.

“Underneath the dunes there is a great spiritual force which I would never not acknowledge,” Arthur said.

A black-and-white photo of two one-story buildings, with dark paint and white trim, amid lush coastal scrubland, with clouds obscuring some of the low hills in the background.
An archival photo of Gavin Arthur’s cabin at Moy Mell. (Oceano Depot Association, Courtesy of Norm Hammond)

Norm Hammond feels it, too. “When you look at the people who lived there, you can see embodied in those works the essence of the dunes themselves. And there’s a spirit there, and they talk about it — the spirit of the dunes,” he said.

World War II spelled the end for Moy Mell. Gavin Arthur turned the cabins over to the Coast Guard, while soldiers in training stayed on the dunes and patrolled for spies.

Most of the Dunites left during the war and didn’t return when it ended.

“The whole ambience of the dunes changed,” Hammond said. “The Depression was over and [there were] jobs everywhere, and people kind of didn’t go back to that lifestyle. So that really was the death knell for the whole phenomenon.”

A black and white vintage image of a hut made of reed materials.
A unique reed hut made in the dunes, occupant and year unknown. (Virgil Hodges/Bennett-Loomis Archives, Courtesy of Norm Hammond)

Gavin Arthur went back to San Francisco to participate in the early hippie movement, even helping organize the Summer of Love in 1967. As for the Moy Mell cabins, the dunes slowly reclaimed them.

“There’s nothing out there now — nothing,” Hammond said. “The sand dunes are in constant motion. They got covered up or and sometimes people just knocked them down for bonfires.”

Two people wearing helmets and jackets ride red ATVs up a beach beside a third ATV.
Visitors love to drive all-terrain vehicles on the miles of open beach at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, but many have no idea that hidden under the sand are the remnants of a bohemian past. (Benjamin Purper/KCBX)

The former site of Moy Mell is now part of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, one of the few places in California where visitors can drive on the beach. But that may soon change, as the state is phasing out off-highway vehicles over environmental concerns.

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