A Wall in a Winter Storm


Even though I was camped deep down in the Morales River valley, the leading edge of a fierce Northern California winter storm delivered violent, bucking and tugging winds, stress testing my usually sturdy tent.

I'm a gifted sleeper, and slept through most of this, but at 4:50am I thought I dreamed that a big wind gust had ripped something loose on the hillside above me and dropped it down on my tent because my head was pinned to the tent floor. Except it wasn't a dream. I was awake, it was dark, and my head was pinned to the tent floor. I didn't notice any pain, but I did wonder what was on top of me. It was too light for a tree branch and I was camped purposefully away from trees anyway, so maybe it was a large tumbleweed weaponized by the wind.

When I pushed up with my right arm, the tent poles sprung back into position bent but not bad. A powerful wind gust had aligned at just the right angle to jerk the upwind tent stake out of the mud, collapsing the tent to onto me like a clam.

Stasis restored, at dawn I packed up my wet, muddy mess and moved on. This was my welcome to California's "The Wall" in a Winter Storm.

I wasn't expecting these challenges and I was tired. My research for this section hike of the California coastline focused on the risks inherent in the Lost Coast area – which I’d just finished the day before. Based on my research of maps and local information, I thought I had a lovely stroll through rolling pastures ahead. My goal was Ferndale, a Victorian style village a few miles inland, then onward to Eureka for a few bus trips back to my new home in Poulsbo Washington. What a break this would be from the strenuous and sometimes treacherous eighty miles I had just hiked from Ft Bragg, or so I thought. But my intel was wrong and with the weather changing into a full-bore winter storm, my fortunes were changing for the worse.

After the fact I would learn that I now faced twenty or so miles of what the locals call "The Wall". This is a ridiculously steep up and down rural road, with 20% grades (meaning you're up on your toes) climbing 1,500 ft, (equal to a 130-story building), which is only the start of the "Wild-Cat Road" suffer-fest up of 3,500 ft elevation gain over the twenty miles to Ferndale. It’s a route so punishing local cyclists avoid it. But of course, I learned that too late. 

At dawn I started the day climbing out of the valley, hiking through saddles and back down to the next river valley, and again, and again. Fortunately, there was very little car traffic to deal with because as the wind gusted, I was just like the meteorologist newbies they send out into the hurricane to demonstrate the power of the wind.

On the ridges it violently blasted the hillside, tossing me around at will. I staggered like a drunk sailor on a wind tossed sea. It ripped the rain cover off my backpack, and the wind was either in my face causing me to lean in at an angle, or, broadsiding me from the right. It was raining so hard it stung my cheeks through the side panel of my raincoat hood.

The good news was I was staying warm while climbing the hills and fighting the wind. The bad news was the sweat I generated inside my raingear made going downhill chilly, then cold. Hypothermia was a very real threat under these conditions.

I hadn't budgeted for hotel room stays during this trip, but it was crytstal clear I needed one very soon. Thankfully I had a Christmas gift card from my amazing in laws in my wallet. So my backup plan was to keep moving and stay warm until reaching that very warm and dry motel room in Ferndale. I didn't have a reservation at the lovely little motel I had in mind, but it was off season and I figured I had an excellent chance there was a vacancy. 

My backup backup was to flag down a car that would be passing by on the way to Ferndale and take pity on a near hypothermic hiker. So far no one driving by had shown interest, but I wasn't above standing in the middle of the road.

Happily, my ego was kept intact. I made it to Ferndale and the Francis Creek Inn. It took a full 20 hours at a thermostat of 88 degrees + electric space heater + the timed heater in the bathroom + unlimited free coffee to get me and my gear warm + dry enough to set out again the next day.

A Trail Miracle and Dilemma

The teenagers we had just met on the trail were coming up from the beach and were louder and faster than us, so we yielded and bid them ado. Ten minutes later we could still hear them chattering when we came around a bend and saw a small blue plastic prescription bottle lying on the left side of the trail ahead. How incongruous I thought, a clean medicine bottle in the trail dirt surrounded by the natural beauty of the litter-free Marin Headlands. 

Then I remembered the teenagers ahead and imagined what might be in that bottle. The thought came to me that another of my currently criminal fantasies may be coming true. 

I have been finding useful things along the beaches and bluff trails since starting out on a series of section hikes last year hiking the whole California coast, from Tijuana, Mexico to Oregon. So far I've walked from the southern border to Bodega Bay, just north of San Francisco. Along the way I found a ten dollar bill on the beach in Orange County, a great knife that must have slid off a bumper and onto the shoulder I was walking on west of Santa Barbara. An very welcomed unopened, one-liter bottle of blue Gatorade appeared just south of Lompoc.  In that same day I found a clean apple with the store label still on it, probably having fallen off a car because it was at the end of a ranch driveway. And about four miles after that I found a fresh, almost full, box of Preminum Saltines that had recently, probably the night before, fallen offsomeone's car when they pulled out of a small paved parking space. After careful inspection, um, um, salty good.

I have found drinkable water in already opened plastic bottles in ditches at critical times. But trail sanitation is a different story and would distract from this trail miracle story.

We picked up the blue prescription bottle from the trail and noticed the familiar black and white label glued around its midsection. I squeezed the bottle, popped the top and peered inside. Our findings might be describe as one gram or so of a mid-grade sativa, Not ditchweed, but not the best Californians grow, or so I'm told.

I'm not good with dilemmas. Hate them. And I had one facing me here right in front of my daughter. Do I (WE) keep the pot or give it back to the likely owners ahead of us on the trail?
Chandler seemed ambivalent. She was leaving it me to decide the right thing to do. And I thought 23 year-olds knew everything. I certainly did!

My solution was to do what I learned from Gerry Spence, the famously successful buck-skinned trial lawyer from Wyoming. I thought about it for a moment, then I followed my heart and adopted a set of facts to support my decision. They would never miss this tiny amount, I would have to make some effort to return it to them, and they probably wouldn't care anyway. 

So with all the integrity I could muster, I whispered as loud as I could towards the teenagers, "Hey, I have something that may be yours."

They didn't respond. 

Let's just say that in our tent that night I shared with Channy some of my favorite stories related the the subject of: Partying with Willie Nelson at his Pedernales country club, recording studio in the hill country outside Austin.

And when I was finished bragging about smoking pot and rebelling with Willie, my snarky daughter insulted me with, "Hell dad, who hasn't?"

California's Ever Changing Edge

Charlie Gandy is section hiking the 1,200-mile California Coastline from Mexico to Oregon. Along the way he is sampling and telling stories about beaches and bluffs, food, culture, weather, personalities and poison oak.

Something's not right. Our Amtrak Locomotive Engineer, the guy driving our train, has a ponytail. And he is wearing a Hawaiian Shirt.  

My credentials to pass judgment on this condition include: Grandfather Gandy worked the rails in the 1930’s doing local runs of cotton and produce from deep East Texas to Dallas. Gandy Dancers laid ties and track across America’s open frontier in the 1870's. They chanted folksongs as they worked establishing a rhythm that leveraged their heavy lifting. The Gandy Tool Company of Chicago, Illinois, made the hand tools they danced with. I’ve ridden trains around the world. Trains are in my blood.

But a pony-tailed, Hawaiian shirted, Amtrak engineer? We must be in California. Where else could this phenomenon occur?

I got to meet this “Alternative” engineer before we left Los Angeles’ Union Station early one spring morning to continue my sectional hike up the coast to Oregon. He told me his job is to pilot this Amtrak Surfliner about two hundred miles northwest through one of the most amazing stretches of California coastline to the destination once proclaimed the “happiest town in America”, San Luis Obispo, locally known as SLO.

What a great gig this hippie has, I thought. So I asked him what it was like. Alt-Amtrak Engineer couldn’t be more easygoing, laid back and interesting. Oh did I mention he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt?

He knew his route was special and he was happy to make it frequently. His big insight was that it's ever changing.  Surfliners depart Los Angeles, a dynamic city continually renewing itself, and climb through low, dry hills burnt every few years by wildfires.  At Oxnard it cruises past vast revolving fields of strawberries, artichokes and other harvests. Further up around Ventura and Santa Barbara the Surfliner runs beside the Pacific Ocean that is so close that powerful waves are biting into unstable gravel bluffs now perilously close to the rail tracks. The route stays on the bluffs and leaves public land traversing the historic Bixby Ranch and Vandenberg Air Force Base, where Space X and others are launching spacecraft. Turning inland at Pismo Beach, the Surfliner comes around a bucolic bend into pastures just outside SLO. In the springtime, before the grass responds to no rain and turns a deep, golden yellow, it is as green as an English countryside. Ever changing landscapes sounds to me like true Alt-Amtrak Engineer nirvana.

Five hours later we arrived in SLO and I walked across downtown to catch a bus to Morro Bay, where my last hiking section ended about a month ago. It’s a Saturday and Morro Bay is hosting a kite show, contest, palooza. Kites of all kinds are hoisted into the substantial 20-knot wind. Bigger kites stay aloft with enough tension on their lines to drag people around staggering like drunken sailors. And the really big kites are anchored with boulder sized weights and large corkscrews twisted into the beach.

After stocking up on Kettle Korn I started walking the wide, flat, smooth beach featuring large rock outcroppings for ten miles northward toward Cayucos. The weather was warm and the wind pounded from offshore. I asked one of the kite surfers if these high winds were good for them. He said yes and, for the good surfers, 30-knots was better.

This is where I started contemplating California’s edge. This place where the liquid meets the solid, water meets rock. Where land ends and the ocean begins. I started to consider and see the importance of this unique geologically and psychologically edge. Either way you go it’s an ending point and a starting point.

Then there’s the edge’s energy. I feel it as I walk up next to the water’s highest reach. Each ocean wave delivers a fresh edge of energy that, as it climbs the beach, releases, relaxes then recedes and disappears. This constantly changing, moving, transforming, destroying and creating, energy-producing edge serves as a near perfect metaphor for California’s state of mind. More on this insight later.

The edge’s rhythm is a perfect metronome for walking. With my mental compass pointed almost due north I can set a sustainable pace and fall into a nice meditative state of mind along this magic line. My mind’s focus drifts from real and immediate topics to long lost memories, contemporary personal dilemmas and current events. At about a three mile per hour walking speed my pattern is to move up and down the beach at the highest wave reach. My game is to stay dry while walking on the edge.

I'm mostly winning my stay dry game. Since starting the game at Tijuana, some 500 miles south of my current position, I've been surprised and outrun by the edge only about a dozen times. Hundreds of other times I've been alerted out of the corner of my left eye to a rapidly approaching wall of two inch water attacking from portside. I've developed a catlike response of immediately jumping and turning starboard and sprinting at a pace that attempts to match the speed of the oncoming threat. Not too fast, waste of energy. Not too slow, failure.

Usually this works out. And when it doesn’t it pulls me back to real and immediate topics. Which is kind of nice in a refreshing, cold water bath kind of way.

By late afternoon my beach walking ends at Cayucos as the trail turns westerly onto the picturesque bluffs of Estero Bay.

Bluff trails are fantastic alternatives to beach walking. They are usually informal dirt passages that are sometimes as wide as cars, sometimes as narrow as my shoulders. They follow the natural contours of the land and intimately trace the meander of California's rough edge. 

And the views! While beach views are, of course, expansive on the oceanside, long vistas from them are often blocked by dunes, bluffs, tall trees or buildings. From up on the bluff hikers are treated to a broad, contextual look at landscapes at large. Rolling green hills as backdrops for oceanside settlements like Cayucos, hidden wetlands, sightings of far away landmarks helping to calculate distances. Even the view off shore is enhanced by the slight altitude difference.

Thinking of rolling green hills inspires me to share some deep wisdom from the theme song from the 1950's television show, Green Acres. Eddie Albert playing the patriarch Oliver Wendell Douglas sings "Land spreadin' out so far and wide, keep Manhattan and give me that countryside!"

Maybe you had to be there. As my virtual hiking buddy, you can thank me later when you can't stop your mind from repeating this little ditty. Over and over. Your welcome.