to Morro Bay
130 Miles on Foot
along California's Big Sur Coast
It was a harebrained idea whose time had finally come. 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. I took the Amtrak shuttle the short ride to Monterey and the coast. On that brief ride, I Curvin and Linda, a traditional Mennonite couple from Pennsylvania. They were wide-eyed kids experiencing a conventional honeymoon along the rail lines of America. Curvin did all the talking as Linda sat quietly listening. He shared about their railway adventure across the country and plans to go on to Glacier National Park after the Big Sur.
I said goodbye as the shuttle dropped me near the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I spent my first night in Veteran's Park, a secluded campground along Highway 68. I headed south early the next morning. Within a couple miles I ran into the legendary Highway 1 which soon narrowed to one lane each direction and often lacked a shoulder wide enough to walk on.
My loaded Jansport pack had over 60 pounds of food, water, and supplies. South of Carmel, I entered directly into the splendor of Big Sur, perhaps America's most beautiful stretch of highway with the coast casting off rocky crags into the sea and the sea tossing back crashing waves shooting high into the air. 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 the weight of my pack and resulting pain distracting me from the beauty of my surroundings. Blisters had set in but even more painful was the crushing weight on the bones of my feet, step after pounding step. I asked myself if I would succeed at what I set out to do.
My excited imaginations of the adventure for the months leading to it had somehow omitted the highly significant element of pain from the picture. I soon ran into a sign, "Hills and Curves Next 63 miles."
I also ran into more "No trespassing" and "Keep Out" signs than I'd ever seen in my whole life. This often became a problem as night fell. 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. 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, the large automatic gate rolled open. 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 the help of Providence. After catching a cold dinner of dried fruit and homemade beef jerky I hurried to bed in my small tent and warm sleeping bag.
The next morning I was up by seven and managed to get my wobbly body vertical and my pack mounted up.
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, I had to reduce weight. So, I screened out much food, six pounds of spare water and a few other items. In all, I eliminated nearly 15 pounds.
After resting on July 4, I headed out of Big Sur with a new spring in my step. 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 "Accepting Water" sign I had made. Within 20 minutes three cars had stopped and donated nearly a gallon of water. 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."
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. I 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. At Gorda, I found that there was "No Room at the Inn." 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 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 on my journey 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 a supply of hot dogs to sell. 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.
John, the attendant at Gorda’s General Store 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 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. 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.
By Gorda I had crossed the half-way mark. 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, 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 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. 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. 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.) As I packed up, the rancher 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. I told the mare how much I appreciated her support and kindness.
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. William Randolph Hearst had 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.
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 in the company of a few neighbors. I met Ferdinand and Julia, a striking Filipino couple with four kids. When I explained I had walked from Monterey Bay, I found that suspicion and fear gave way to curiosity and respect, overcoming 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. I'd walked a fast 17 miles by 3:00 and arrived at the quaint town of Cayucos, a quiet beach getaway without stoplights, a theater, or major grocery store. I enjoyed good food, good people, and a nice dip into the cold bay. I enjoyed Ali, a spirited Palestinian Jew and his sweet wife Chanah.
All I had left was a seven-mile stroll into Morro Bay and my journey 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 had a warm embrace and talked at a relaxed pace as we strolled around the huge Morro Rock. We then enjoyed 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