Can you see them?

Thomas Steinbeck, Ben Brode tell about the little people of Big Sur



November 28, 2014 11:35 AM

Ben Brode was hiking on a breezy day at Big Sur, a quiet, forested fantasy land on the Central California coast.

Suddenly, he heard voices.

"It sounded like two women having a conversation. I looked all over the place, but there was no one there," the 77-year-old artist told the News-Press in his Santa Barbara home studio full of his Big Sur oil paintings. "I decided it may have been the wind, tree trunks rubbing together. But I swore there were human voices."

They might have been the mysterious little people who, according to an ancient legend, live only at Big Sur: the Dark Watchers. They're California's counterpart to Leprechauns.

The legend inspired Mr. Brode, who heard about the Dark Watchers from his friend, Montecito author Thomas Steinbeck. The two — the soft-spoken Mr. Brode and the enthusiastic Mr. Steinbeck — went on to collaborate on "In Search of The Dark Watchers: Landscapes and Lore of Big Sur" (Steinbeck Press, $40), which was released in September. Mr. Steinbeck wrote the book. Mr. Brode illustrated it with his paintings, as well as color sketches that he did while hiking in the area.

Mr. Steinbeck, the 70-year-old eldest son of Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck ("The Grapes of Wrath," "Of Mice and Men"), spent much of his youth in Big Sur, where his father had previously worked as a ranch hand. It's near John Steinbeck's birthplace of Salinas.

Thomas Steinbeck, a New York City native, grew up in nearby Pacific Grove and Sag Harbor, N.Y.

Mr. Steinbeck went on to serve in the Army in the Vietnam War, then covered it as a foreign correspondent and photographer before returning to the U.S. for a career as a screenplay writer. Mr. Steinbeck wrote short stories about Big Sur in his first book, "Down to a Soundless Sea" (2002).

Mr. Steinbeck recalled his father's advice about writing: "Never try to write at the paper, at the computer, at the typewriter. First of all, daydream your story, again and again, night after night, until you know it well."

Then, Mr. Steinbeck related, only the good stuff will remain.

Mr. Steinbeck said he's asked frequently about what it was like to have grown up in his father's shadow. He's saving the answer for a memoir he's writing about their relationship. "$37.95. Buy one!"

Mr. Brode, a Fallbrook, Calif., native who played with imaginary little people as a child, is a longtime painter who's mainly self-taught. The 1955 graduate of Escondido Union High School in the San Diego area served as a machinist's mate on U.S. Navy destroyers, then studied ceramics at Sacramento State College (now CSU Sacramento) before a 1965 visit to Santa Barbara convinced him to drop out of college and live here.

He worked at a print shop before a two-year sailing trip in 1971 to the South Pacific, which included stops in Tahiti, Panama and New Zealand. He then returned to Santa Barbara and worked as a cabinet maker until 2000. Except for a short period in the 1980s when he and his wife, Ann, lived in Santa Fe, N.M., they've been Santa Barbara residents.

Mr. Steinbeck, who has hung a half-dozen of Mr. Brode's landscapes in his home, considers him the premier painter of Big Sur.

Little people don't seem to be in Mr. Brode's paintings in the book, but Mr. Steinbeck said the artist told him, "They're all over the place! I couldn't get rid of them! They're in the paintings. Can't you see them?"

Mr. Brode told the News-Press, "I know they're there. It's up to the viewer to look at the paintings and see if they can find them."

Mr. Steinbeck said he has heard stories about the Dark Watchers throughout his life. "Almost every culture has little people. The Dark Watchers were first named by the Spanish, who came there and swore they were there."

Long before the Europeans arrived, American Indians believed there were mysterious little people in the woods, Mr. Brode said.

In the book, Mr. Steinbeck tells how his grandmother, schoolteacher Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, believed she had contact with the Dark Watchers, who stand about 3 feet or so and stay hidden in the forest.

Mrs. Steinbeck, the grandmother who died before the author was born, told her family about leaving fruits and nuts in a basket in a shaded alcove east of a trail. "When she came back a couple weeks later, there were decorated (sea) shells and feathers — little presents," Mr. Steinbeck told the News-Press. The food had disappeared.

His grandmother thought the little people were trading with her.

The author was last in Big Sur a couple years ago when he and his wife, Gail, went there with their friends, Mr. Brode and wife Ann, whom they met in 2010. The couples stayed at the Post Ranch Inn, where Mr. Steinbeck talked to Mr. Brode about the Dark Watchers. The artist had read about them in a story in Mr. Steinbeck's "Down to a Soundless Sea."

"I wondered if they would actually appear if I were to go up there," said Mr. Brode, who later returned to Big Sur and hiked alone there. He looked for the Dark Watchers' habitat.

"You get off the main road, and there's nobody around," Mr. Brode said. "Sometimes you'll see a silhouette that looks like a human being. You turn your head and it's gone."

Mr. Steinbeck said people in Big Sur feel like they're being watched, especially when the area gets quiet or the fog rolls in.

Like the author's grandmother, Mr. Brode left food for the Dark Watchers on a Big Sur trail.

"I left a little basket one day with nuts and a piece of an orange in a little hidden place. It (the food) was gone the next morning."