It’s late in the afternoon on August 4th, and Fort Ord resident James Carney is climbing to the top of the 160-foot high sand dune by the Sand City exit off Highway 1. Carney’s got one driving purpose: to win back the woman he loves. While passing motorists cheer him on with honks of approval, Carney collects torn clumps of ice plant to add the finishing touches to his message: “I Love MLO.”
“Is it visible enough?” he asks me. “I think I did a good job, don’t you?”
As I agree that it is both beautiful and legible, Carney starts to explain why he has chosen to proclaim his love on this high-profile sand dune that faces motorists heading south on Highway 1 like a huge, natural billboard. The distance runner at the Team USA Monterey Bay Training Center in Fort Ord admits that he concealed his emotions when he was going out with Dana Cuomo, whose nickname is MLO. Now, Carney wants to prove that he is unafraid to show his true feelings towards his former girlfriend.
“I guess it’s like pretty high visibility,” he says as he watches scores of cars pass by on nearby Highway 1.
There is one slight problem with Carney’s plan: Cuomo lives in State College, Pennsylvania. Luckily for Carney, this reporter walked in on his production and is able to snap photographs of the message and the message maker on Carney’s digital camera. While slogging up the steep dune to pose by his words of love, Carney admits that the dune has beaten him up today.
Carney is not the only individual who has been beaten up by the dune to spread a message to the masses. A member of the Sand City Planning Department Staff—who politely declines to give his name due to a policy that makes anyone in the office with their name in the paper buy pizzas for their co-workers—says that he has seen a constantly changing parade of messages on the dune since 1992.
David Pendergrass, the mayor of Sand City, agrees that there have been messages written on the dune since the ‘90s. (Looks like he owes his officemates some pizza.) Pendergrass says the City of Sand City has no problem with people writing messages on the dune as long as there’s nothing vulgar. If something offensive is left on the dune, the city’s Public Works Department deconstructs the offending word. Pendergrass admits that this seldom happens.
“Whoever writes up there is pretty civil over all,” he says.
Though the dune is arguably one of the biggest landmarks in the small community, Pendergrass says the city has not named the mound.
“It has no particular name,” he says. “It’s not a mountain, you know. You name mountains but not hills.”
According to Pendergrass, the property is not owned by the city. Ed Ghandour, who was seeking to turn the huge pit behind the dune into a resort, owns the dune and the surrounding land. Though the city greenlighted the project, it is currently being held up
When asked to recall a specific message written on the dune, Pendergrass recalls the short, patriotic messages written after 9/11. He also recalls that an American flag was stuck in the hill during that time.
In addition to the post 9/11 messages on the dune, Pendergrass enjoys seeing all the different voices expressing different thoughts on the mound. “It’s just interesting to see the variety of what people say,” he says.
Over the past month, there have been all sorts of messages. On July 21st and August 2nd, the messages are illegible scrawl that look like they could have been written by a drunken toddler.
On other days, there are crystal-clear declarations of awesomeness like July 28th’s “Jen & Matt Rule” and simple, readable quotations including August 8th’s “Be Happy,” which prompts a young lady to stop and take a picture of the inspiring message.
But not all the messages are light. On August 8th, there’s a tribute to a local teenager who passed away in an auto accident on Carmel Valley Road. In the middle of the dune, someone has written the message “R.I.P. Arieh” with ice plant, while a few feet to the right, someone has secured a sheet to the mountain of sand with another message: “We love you and miss you Arieh! R.I.P.”
But pronouncements of love are by far the most popular messages on the dune. Ice plant arranged to say “I love you,” “Nick loves Melissa,” “I love you Joe” and “I love Jen,” probably cause some motorists to rush home to make dinner reservations or write love poems.
The dune is always changing. On the morning of July 29th, the dune sports an anarchy sign, but later that afternoon, the symbol is replaced by a tiny heart drawn with ice plant. This is one dune with a lot to say.