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.
About 5 miles out of Santa Barbara my Amtrak Surfliner train came to the type of abnormal, abrupt stop that raised the obvious question, “What happened?” I had moved downstairs preparing to get off the train to connect with an Amtrak bus going to Salinas. From there the plan was to connect with a local bus to Monterey, then another to Carmel, and pick up where I had ended the last section of my Mexico to Oregon hike up the California coast about a month ago. That plan just changed.
Apparently suicide by train is not that uncommon. Ten minutes after we stopped the lead Amtrak conductor announced that there had been an incident and we would be delayed one or two hours but not to worry, those with connecting buses were fine, the buses would wait for us. We were to remain on the train of course, and wait.
Two hours into our wait the conductors were passing out free snacks and drinks to all on board and in private conversations let us know that this type of incident was familiar and almost routine for them. They call the local police. The police respond along with an ambulance and they quietly and efficiently document the incident and carry away the corpse. Since these events are on railroad tracks and not easily accessible for local TV reporters, rarely is the public given much notice, which is fine with Amtrak.
Amtrak has a crew that shows up to clean up the train, so that when we got to the Santa Barbara station five hours later there was no indication of an incident involving the train.
Fortunately the nature of travel by train and bus around California is rarely punctuated like this. Having sold my Jeep two years ago and becoming a Carnomore, I am experimenting with a car-lite lifestyle, and doing this entire journey without the use of cars. And with the exception of the event described above, all my train trips and bus rides have been on time, cheap compared to driving, convenient and generally very pleasant. Daily routine traffic jams creating delays in every major California city makes driving much less desirable.
So the connecting bus to Salinas didn’t wait and I got to spend a handful of hours wandering around downtown Santa Barbara waiting for the next bus that would be an overnight ride to Salinas, arriving at 3am. Fortunately I can sleep on a bus passably well, it’s the 3am part that is hard. The first connecting bus to Monterey left Salinas at 5am, so I enjoyed a chilly, early morning walk around downtown Salinas window shopping and learning about John Steinbeck’s hometown.
One more 17 mile bus ride to Monterey and a mile and half walk to leave my backpack at the hostel for the day, then walking back to downtown and catching a bus to Carmel, is how I started this 3-day section of hiking from Carmel to Santa Cruz.
Carmel beach is one of those perfectly good California beaches surrounded by multi-million dollar mansions, trees and excellent public bathrooms. It was the first beach I walked on since the beaches of San Simeon about 80 miles south of here. Between here and there are mountains that drop straight down into the ocean and the only land-based route is the Pacific Coast Highway. Big Sur is the biggest village along this section and was a welcome sight after walking up the narrow shoulder of PCH dodging cars for most of my last hiking section from Moro Bay to Carmel.
On Carmel Beach I expected to witness rich people frolicking in casual attire. I was surprised however, to meet two young revelers dressed as if they had just been sipping gin fizzes at a Gatsby’s garden party. They gamely posed for a photo while explaining that they were from Indiana out here visiting family friends and dressed up to fiend off the cold of this morning’s overcast and windy conditions. They were surprised to find Carmel’s beach to be so rudely chilled and disappointed that they had left their Lands End attire at home. They were consoled by my designation of them as the best dressed couple I had met after some 600 miles of California beach walking.
It doesn’t take long to walk that beach and find the trail between the mansions and golf courses. The Coastal Trail is well marked through this area and moves inland away from the coast into a nice woodland trail that traverses the Monterey Peninsula. It is shocking that this much undeveloped land still exists in such a beautiful and economically pressured place. Apparently much of this land is the Del Monte Forest, part of which is being developed and part preserved in its close-to-natural condition.
Following the trail through the forest was easy, but when it took me back into the land of mansions and golf courses the route got vague and I freestyled. After my encounters with poison oak in the last section around Big Sur I was very cautious. So as the trail narrowed in some parts I chose the adjacent street to avoid it. In fact, as I got close to the western edge of the peninsula and was walking the road a maintenance man was poisoning the overgrown poison oak on the trail, a nice validation of my paranoia.
Reaching the coastline and walking north along the peninsula’s beaches and bluff trails was to experience one of the classic California attractions. 17-Mile Drive is widely recognized as one the world’s most scenic drives. Awe inspiring vistas, elephant seals sunning on the beaches, majestic forests framing extraordinary architectural marvels, and world class golf courses. And while almost everybody experiences this place by car, motorcycles are not allowed, walking it offers a much more intimate experience. The Coastal Trail is flat, winding, and bordered with grasses and wildflowers growing up to ragged cliffs that drop down to a rocky shore. To stroll along this magnificent edge is to experience dynamic, worldly beauty.
The trail turns east at the top of the peninsula and enters Pacific Grove. The bluff is fortified along this section from the constant knawing of the ocean’s waves. Walking along this bluff I heard applause, someone clapping. Not only did it seem out of place but the sound was coming from the ocean, not the shore. A woman ahead of me was looking about 30 meters out and pointed to the sea otter that was floating on his back. Apparently he was using a rock to break open shells to get to snacks inside the shell. As he rapidly banged the rock against the shell the “applause” rang out.
I retrieved my backpack from the Monterey Hostel and continued along the coast out of town northward toward Santa Cruz. About three miles out of town I found a nice dune behind the beach to bed down in for the night.
In 2004 Thomas Bane walked the California coastline and wrote a journal about it that has been very helpful for me planning my own adventure. In this beach section north of Monterey he discussed two things that I can validate – soft sand and dead animals.
In my experience you can find soft sand on any California beach and find a route around it. It is rare to find soft sand on the whole beach – from waterline to dunes – that must be traversed. For about twenty miles northward from Monterey every step is moving forward after sinking down a couple of inches then pushing against soft powdery sand. Wet or dry, on the slope or on the flats, this sand simply defies compounding into a semi-solid. As a mountaineer, I imagine a long gradual accent up a relentless slope. Weight forward, stride shortened, my stabbing steps propel me forward on a circuitous path from water’s edge to dunes searching for the hardest sand surface. Looking behind occasionally I can interpret my footsteps as those of a drunk ambling along the shoreline.
I suppose these are character-building moments. Similar soft sand conditions exist in much shorter sections south of Pismo Beach and I remember the relief I felt getting beyond that section. This memory and Bane’s journal provided some confidence that north of Monterey this too would pass.
Bane was right about dead animals also. His theory about ocean currents and the deep ocean canyon teaming with wildlife just off the Monterey coast provides a plausible explanation for bird, fish and seal corpses found littering this beach in various stages of decomposer. While there is no significant consequence for the hiker from all this morbidity, it is an interesting look at this portion of the cycle of life and a lesson about how what is going on under the sea, in this case the geological contours, affect life and death on the adjacent beach.
Day two takes me about 20 miles north of Monterey on my way to Santa Cruz. Imagine my delight then, after slogging along for a couple of hours in sand mush to discover a beacon of civility less than a quarter mile off the beach. At Marina State Beach on Reservation Road sits the perfect anecdote for the weary beach hiker, Denny’s. Decadence offered at this oasis includes air conditioning, unlimited water and coffee, and a cheapskate menu offering Eggs in a Blanket for $6.00. Comforts such as these mitigate some of the misery described above.
About an hour later fortified with a hearty breakfast and ice water filled bottle and camelback, I resumed my trek northward. Early mornings on the beach tend to start out with cool, calm air until about mid-morning when the wind picks up usually from out of the Northwest. Today is no exception, so in addition to trooping through sand mush I have a pretty steady headwind from off shore giving me something to lean into.
By the time I got to Moss Bay I was ready for another break and went inland to find a coffee shop and to go around the marina. Asking a middle-aged Mercedes driver for dining recommendations started a nice conversation about my adventure. He was Irish with a name like Henry McHenry and was at first distant because in this part of the world guys like me with backpacks are usually homeless drifters, the type Henry doesn’t have much time for. But after a quick description of my tour Henry was gregariously offering me a ride up the road to his favorite roadhouse. I declined his offer due to my Carnomore approach to this adventure, which seemed to make Mr. McHenry even more curious. We parted after a while and I never found his recommended coffee shop but I did gain a new fan.