HomeMarch to the SeaThe March AlbumTen Dollar StoriesBig Sur (Longer)Big Sur (Shorter)Big Sur AlbumShamu ExperienceCatalina IslandA Borrego CenturySierra AlbumBayanhungryContact
Big Sur (Longer)


Big Sur Trek (Longer Version)

Classic Pano.jpg



Monterey Bay

to Morro Bay

130 Miles on Foot

along California’s Big Sur Coast


            It was a harebrained idea whose time had finally come.  In high school I'd read Peter Jenkins’ "A Walk across America" and dreamt of an adventure like his for myself.  Now, with the time off from work and the support of my wife Carol, I had the journey of my life before me.  My goal:  To trek 130 miles from Monterey Bay to Morro Bay along Central California's Highway 1 and the spectacular Big Sur coast.  I wanted to give my pressurized mind a much needed rest, in search of fresh perspective and restored vigor.  I would be totally unwired—no email, no Internet, no cell phone.

            On July 1, I departed Oceanside by train for the ten-hour ride from San Diego north to Salinas.  Part of the ride, along the scenic Santa Barbara coast, was a taste of things to come with the coast casting off rocky crags into the sea and the sea tossing back crashing waves shooting high into the air.

            Passing through Steinbeck's valley and arriving in Salinas, I took the Amtrak shuttle the short ride to Monterey and the coast.  On that brief ride, I had my first of several contacts with a traditional Mennonite couple from Pennsylvania who had been married just the month before.  Curvin and Linda were wide-eyed kids experiencing a conventional honeymoon along the rail lines of America. They were fellow travelers escaping the pressures of a technology-entangled world, though even my digital watch was something Curvin wouldn't wear, in keeping with the Mennonite value of avoiding modern technology.  Curvin did all the talking as Linda sat quietly listening.  He shared about their recent wedding, railway adventure across the country, and plans to go on to Glacier National Park after the Big Sur.

            I said goodbye to my new-found friends as the shuttle dropped me near the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Passing by the Bay, the world-famous Presidio Defense Language Institute, and Old Town Monterey on foot, I spent my first night in Veteran's Park, a secluded campground along Highway 68.  I grabbed an 11:00 p.m. shower, caught a good night's sleep, and headed south early the next morning.  Within a couple miles I ran into the legendary Highway 1.  It soon narrowed to one lane each direction and often lacked a shoulder wide enough to walk on.

            About five miles into the day I passed by the turnoff to Pebble Beach and stopped at Carmel's Safeway, the last brand name store I'd see for the rest of my trek.  I loaded up on groceries and continued my hike with over 60 pounds of food, water, and supplies in my new Jansport backpack.

            Immediately south of Carmel, I entered directly into the splendor of Big Sur, perhaps America's most beautiful stretch of coastline.  With its sweeping views of the Pacific on the right, the mountains rising from the sea on my left, and the raptor-filled blue skies above my head, the Big Sur certainly seemed to be living up to its reputation.

            By the end of my first day I found out that 60 pounds was definitely too many—particularly when I hadn't even trained for such a rigorous workout.  The weight of my pack and resulting pain was distracting me from the beauty of my surroundings.  Blisters had set in, first on the inside of my left heel, then my right, then my toes.  But even more painful was the crushing weight on the bones of my feet, step after pounding step.  The question I'd asked before I left was now squarely before me with cold reality:  Will I even succeed at what I set out to do?  My confidence was wavering as I was completely dependent on my injured feet to get the job done.

            Each time I'd set down my pack and rest, it would only create the painful assignment of once again standing up and mounting the load above my aching and wobbly legs.  My excited imaginations of the adventure for the months leading to it had somehow omitted the highly significant element of pain from the picture.

            That first day on the Big Sur I was also surprised by another deviation from my imaginations of the road.  There were many curves and up and down inclines on the road.  I hoped that the highway would soon straighten and level out like beachside roads typically do in Southern California.  Then I ran into a sign, "Hills and Curves Next 63 miles."  I guess beauty has its price.

            I also ran into more "No trespassing" and "Keep Out" and "Private Property" signs than I'd ever seen in my whole life.  This became a problem as night fell.  There wasn't a campground for another fifteen miles and I wasn't going to get that far on this day.  It was a ritual that was to be repeated many times in the next twelve days:  Identifying a safe place to bed down for the night where I wouldn't get in trouble from a landowner or get run over by a car.  (The encouraging park ranger at Veteran’s Park hadn’t told me about the barriers to finding a place to sleep on the Big Sur.)  I did the only thing I could think of and started ringing the intercom buzzers along the long driveways leading to the scattered multimillion dollar homes lining the coast.  On my third attempt, there was no response on the intercom but the large automatic gate rolled open.  As I walked toward the house I was met by a man in his seventies walking down the stairs of the stylish, well-kept home.  "Uh, I've walked here today from Monterey Bay headed to Big Sur and I can't find a place to sleep,” I said. “Would it be possible to put my tent down on your property far from your house?  I'll be gone first thing in the morning."

            The man—also named Ron—generously pointed me up a steep dirt road behind his house leading to a grassy clearing about the size of a volleyball court.  The refuge was outfitted with its own bench overlooking the Pacific.  I was reminded of Psalm 23, "He makes me lie down in green pastures."  It was an idyllic refuge after a pain-filled day.  It wouldn't be the last time I'd experience a glimpse of Providence on this journey.  I settled in and ate a cold dinner of dried fruit and homemade beef jerky (I didn't plan to cook on the trip to save the weight of carrying a stove and fuel).  Then I limped down to the water spigot that Ron told me I could use.  There he and his wife Yolanda greeted me.  They were dedicated Christians and had been meeting with a priest when I arrived.  Also, Yolanda was the prettiest woman in her sixties I could recall meeting.  I think it was her countenance which seemed so full of God.  I still smile recollecting her warm, smiling face.

            The next morning I was up by seven and, after treating my blisters with moleskin and athletic tape, managed to get my wobbly body vertical and my pack mounted up.  In an attempt to reduce weight, I asked Yolanda to mail a book and few other items back to my wife.  She was so kind to run it to the post office for me, but not before she kindly gave me another contemplative book to replace it...

            July 3 was my most painful day, a 15-mile trek into the "town" of Big Sur with a fully-loaded pack.  The sights, with a mist rising off the sea and big waves crashing against the rocks below, were stunning.  But my trip was now threatened by further damage to my feet.  Throughout the day, I keenly felt every step I took.  Upon arriving at my campground, I decided that if I was going to make it, something had to change.  I declared a war on the weight I was carrying.  On my first scheduled rest day, July 4, I sifted through every single item, eagerly looking for anything that could be eliminated.  I screened out my larger pocket knife, plenty of food, six pounds of spare water and a few other items.  I selected a few things like Yolanda's book, for shipment home and gave the rest to one of the workers in the campground whose wife had been so kind to me at the camp store.  In all, I eliminated nearly 15 pounds.

            The next morning I headed out of Big Sur with a new spring in my step.  As I hiked up an incline onto a crag jutting into the ocean, a young couple on bikes called out to me.  It was Linda and Curvin.  This time it was Linda who led the way in the conversation.  They shared about their touring the Big Sur on bicycle.  Curvin still had on his straw hat with its stylish brim.  Linda had on a black bonnet.  The two were a beautiful couple building a memory that would help solidify their bond for a lifetime.  Later I would see their bikes locked to a tree by a trail that lead far below to the water.  I left a note with my address and a small bag of candy in Linda's bonnet, now tied to her handle bars.  I later received a friendly postcard sent by them from Glacier National Park.

            I walked eight and a half miles by noon that day and by supper had cleared 20.  All was well except that I was low on water as night fell—and the next day I faced an 18-mile hike to the town of Lucia.  I decided it was time to take out the cloth "Accepting Water" sign I had made and clip it to my backpack, propped up on the side of the road.  Within 20 minutes three cars had stopped and donated nearly a gallon of water—plenty to see me into Lucia.  I have fond memories of that night as I camped out on a cliff, protected by a short stone wall next to Big Creek Bridge, one of Big Sur's many amazing overpasses along "The 1."  I didn't even bother to put up my tent, instead using it as a bivvy sack and enjoying the night sky as I went to sleep.

            On Day 5 out of Monterey, I'd accumulated 71 miles as I pushed past Lucia toward Gorda.  Along the way I scanned the sea in search of wildlife.  I could hear the friendly bark of seals and spotted a bunch of them sunbathing on a rock in the sea far below.  Further in the distance I twice spotted the tail of a large whale slapping against the surface of the water.

            At dusk I walked up the long winding road to Treebones Resort a mile short of Gorda, only to find what I expected all along on a Big Sur weekend night:  "No Room at the Inn."  Marty, one of the workers, kindly allowed me to take a hot shower which was so welcome after hiking nearly 40 miles over the two preceding days.  I then walked the last mile into Gorda, a roadside hamlet with a population of 22.  I arrived at 9 o'clock in the dark of night.  I again put down in a carefully selected roadside nook where I could sleep safely.  I was a day ahead of schedule and elected to rest my feet and recuperate for a day.  Next morning the well-landscaped, tastefully decorated Whale Watcher's Cafe provided me with a warm breakfast of hot eggs, bacon, and hash browns.  I was served by the pleasantly confident Amanda, an attractive gal in her early 20s with her mom's name (Valerie) tattooed on her right wrist.  Above me hung the 15-foot jawbone of a very large whale.

            The most intriguing of all people I met in the Big Sur was a chap named Terry, the 50-year old barista for the coffee stand behind Gorda's gas station.  As he served the customer ahead of me, I heard him singing along with a rendition of the Apostle's Creed, playing on his dusty CD player.  Terry was at the same time aloof and engaging, kind and brusque.  With dirty fingers similar to a mechanic, he served up sandwiches and hot milk steamers at prices a quarter of what I would have anticipated for the expensive Big Sur region.  When I asked him if he was the owner of the stand he quickly replied with an emphatic, "No. God is."  As I sat at the table next to the stand drinking my Amaretto steamer, Terry revved up a bicycle with a flimsy motor attached and rode off.  He left the inventory of chips, candy bars, and coffee unguarded, along with the unsecured cash in his drawer.  He clearly wasn't worried about it, leaving God to look after the stand.  He came back with the supply of hot dogs he'd fetched.  In my memory I dubbed Terry "The Prophet of Gorda"—a delightful man who preached about the end of the world and lives a life with conviction and an independent perspective.  I'd like to write his biography someday.

            In Gorda, I also enjoyed the company of Brian and John, two of the attendants in Gorda's General Store who seemed to be biding their time in this roadside outpost.  They kindly allowed me to use the employee’s washer and dryer to clean my laundry.

            On the afternoon of my rest day, Jim and Toby, a couple of tourists, noticed me looking in the distance in search of whales.  They started asking me a string of questions. Was I alone?  Where did I sleep?  What did I eat?  How could I make it on such a narrow, winding road?  How did I get the time to do this wild adventure?  Like me, Jim was 44 and Toby shared that she, too, was in her forties.   As peers slogging it out in the business world, we had a real connect.  For them I was in the midst of an enviable trek, a sort of constructive midlife crisis.  I was amazed at their long attention span and listening ability.  It was the most interaction I'd have with anyone along the way and was a welcome reprieve from the isolation I had also been enjoying along the way.  They cheered me on my way, strengthening my confidence that I would succeed in reaching my goal.

            By Gorda I had crossed the half-way mark. With a new-found confidence that I was on my way to completing my walk, I was ready to press on toward San Simeon.  I put in a modest 15 miles, crossing the Monterey County line into San Luis Obispo County.  As I glanced back toward Monterey I noticed a sign that said, "No roadside camping next 72 miles."  I hadn't seen such a prohibition the other direction for the same stretch of road and was glad I wasn't hiking from south to north.

            After a brief stop at Ragged Point where I again found no room at the inn, I pressed on a few more miles and ran into nothing but more "No Trespassing" and "No Camping" signs.  In spite of the warnings, with no other options I chose to bed down behind a protected spot behind a steel road barrier.  I had already learned that after nightfall very few vehicles pass along Highway 1.  Yet I still had to be judicious about my spot as a car pulling off the road could easily run over a trekker nestled in his sleeping bag.  I fell fast asleep under the stars and rested well until, at 6:30 a.m., I was awakened by a very loud scream.  "Hey!!!" a rancher yelled at the top of his lungs, with a hint of fear masked by anger, "Get out!!!"  He was standing up on the bottom rail of his split-rail fence. He was yelling at me.  With adrenaline now flowing, I lifted my head and called out, "I'll be right there."  I was going to have a reasonable talk with him and explain what a decent guy I was.  (On many occasions I noticed fear in the people I encountered.  Never mind that I was a clean-shaven, successful marketing executive with a great wife and two sharp kids at home.  A lone backpacker carries a suspicious aura that disturbs people.  Now I better understand how a homeless person develops low self-esteem in a cold, unwelcoming world.)  By the time I got to my feet, the rancher was back up his long driveway and yelling at his wife and dog to get in the truck.  As I packed up, he drove right by me. We waved at each other in a strangely cordial way.  I glanced toward his house and found the man's horse staring at me with a sympathetic expression, then saunter in my direction.  I told the mare how much I appreciated her support and kindness, which had neutralized the harsh words of the rancher.

            With that early start, I made my way toward San Simeon.  On my right I stumbled upon a truly amazing sight:  A community of more than 1,000 elephant seal bulls.  Some were sunbathing on the beach, lying in rows like huge sardines.  Others were croaking and aggressively butting chests in a ritual that would eventually yield the leader of the clan.  I had arrived during “sparring season”. I read that these huge beasts can weigh as much as 8,000 pounds and dive to depths greater than 5,000 feet.  It was an unexpected treat to break up the day's long walk.

            I soon passed by the amazing Hearst Castle on the hilltop to my left. Thirty-two years in the making, it was a sight to be seen (which my wife and I would tour together a few days later).  William Randolph Hearst was clearly the builder he was reputed to be.  With the help of the renowned architect Julia Morgan, he'd created an edifice that would have made the nobles of Europe envious, not to mention the museum curators and zookeepers of the world.  In the 1940s, the castle grounds sported the world's largest private zoo, housing giraffes, zebras, lions, and even polar bears.  The castle itself was larger than the White House, encompassing 70,000 square feet on three floors, in addition to its three massive guesthouses, private airport, and its own beach down at the foot of the mountain.  Hearst used the castle to entertain the likes of Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Marion Davies as he built his media empire.  After William Randolph's death in 1951, the Hearst Family donated the castle to California and it was now a State Monument open for public viewing.

            After eight days on the road, I arrived at the Courtesy Inn two-and-a-half miles south of San Simeon.  My fantasy would finally be realized:  Sinking my weary bones into a steaming hot tub—which I happily did that evening..

            On Day 9 I covered the short distance to San Simeon State Park and camped again, this time in the company of a few neighbors.  I'd grown to enjoy my lone times but did extrovert enough to enjoy the small Filipino kids across the road.  Levi (7), Malia (5), and Noelani (3) were captivated by the guy with the huge backpack.  So were their parents, Ferdinand and Julia.  When I explained I had walked from Monterey Bay, I often found that suspicion and fear gave way to curiosity and respect.  The information brought with it an instant sort of "street cred" which overcame any disdain that a typical vagabond might face.

            Day 10 would be my last long walk.  I began at 8:00 a.m. with a spring in my step.  To my surprise, I covered 11 miles by noon.  This was not the same guy that had set out 10 days ago.  My blisters were turning to calluses, my calves were hardened with new muscle, and even the backpack straps ceased cutting into my shoulders and waist.  By 3:00 I'd completed 17 miles and arrived at the quaint town of Cayucos, a quiet beach getaway without stoplights, a theater, or major grocery store.  I stayed two nights in the Estero Bay Motel and enjoyed good food, good people, and a nice dip into the cold bay.  I was especially intrigued by the elderly Ali, a spirited Palestinian Jew and his sweet wife Chanah.  Another acquaintance, Arthur, an elderly Mexican from Vista, also kindly reached out to me as I was walked on Cayucos’s pier.

            All I had left was a seven-mile stroll into Morro Bay and my walk would be complete.  Carol drove north from San Diego to celebrate the completion of my trek and to visit San Simeon, Ragged Point, Gorda, and the Big Sur.  We met up at the Traveler's Inn, enjoying our reunion with a stroll around the huge Morro Rock and a scrumptious dinner of fish and chips at Tognazzini's Dockside Restaurant.

            My journey had come to an end.  Twelve days on the road with nine of them walking—some 275,000 steps and 130 miles of coast behind me.  The Big Sur from end to end.  What a sense of satisfaction! I had lost 10 pounds. My mind was refreshed.  And I now owned a lifetime memory.

            Takeaways from my sojourn?  Here are five of them:

·        The mind grows in new directions when relieved of the trappings of modern technology.

·        Everyone we meet is a biography, a treasured story worth pursuing and listening to.

·        Larger goals are achieved through an accumulation of smaller steps in the right direction.

·        Pain, too, has a cleansing effect.  A healthy portion of it now and then is a good thing.  (But when the burden’s of life become too heavy, we need to eliminate some of them.)

·        Beauty is God’s gift for the soul—and the Big Sur is a great place to find lots of it!




After Carol and I toured Hearst Castle and drove together to Gorda to meet Terry and a few friends I had accumulated, we headed south again to San Diego.  Off to the side of the road I noticed a couple with backpacks (much smaller than my camel load!) walking along the road.  My curiosity got the best of me so I pulled off the road about a couple hundred yards past them.  I hopped out of my car and jogged toward them.  As I approached they looked a little fearful with this strange guy running toward them. But they let down their guard when I slowed down and approached with a smile.  "I just have to ask, 'Where are you walking from?'"  "Oregon," they said.  "Where are you headed?"  "San Diego."  Jeremy and April, a brother and sister on summer break, had the hare-brained idea of walking the length of California in two months, covering over 1,000 miles.  (Do I feel my next journey taking shape?!)  They were wearing tennis shoes, had walked over 20 miles that day already, and were exhausted.  As we walked toward our van and continued to talk, I discovered they were short on funds, food, and supplies.  I think the shortness of supplies was a blessing because it was creating a lighter load—and I knew the value of that.  I noticed that April had a hydration bladder like I did but Jeremy was without one.  He didn't have enough funding for everything he would have wanted.  I realized that I had left over food and a hydration system I didn't need as much as he did.  So I started pulling stuff out of my pack and handing it over to this wonderful pair.  There was beef jerky, granola bars, smoked salmon, and a few other things (incuding my hydration bladder) that I had hauled the length of my trek but not used.  Carol gave a April a container of fresh blueberries and I eagerly handed over a collection of useful items to these shy but grateful recipients.  It was my way of vicariously continuing in my adventure through these two who had undertaken an even greater challenge than I had.  Yet, I came to realize that I had succeeded at my goal and there wasn't anything but lack of time that would keep me from walking a thousand miles, too.  Hey, if I had the time, I think I could even give Peter Jenkins a run for his money and walk across America.


Big Sur Photo Album


Ron Forseth is a marketing executive with Outreach, Inc. in Vista, California.  He lives with his wife and two teenage children in North San Diego County.

Map of Route.jpg
Big Sur Trek Route

HomeMarch to the SeaThe March AlbumTen Dollar StoriesBig Sur (Longer)Big Sur (Shorter)Big Sur AlbumShamu ExperienceCatalina IslandA Borrego CenturySierra AlbumBayanhungryContact