What I'm Learning as I Walk the 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.

I have found a place where the earth's energy is uniquely focused so that it radiates hope and inspires invention. Its magnetism is sheathed in beauty. Not just physical beauty but also in its spiritual rhythms synced with many beating hearts, including mine. This ribbon of energy is exceptionally pure except when it's not, which is rare. And this place is usually easily accessible except when by natural design it is not, which is also rare.

This place is an edge: the outside limit to an area. Two profound forces come in contact at this edge, fluid and solid, water and rock. Rock appears to be winning a test of strength between these two forces at the edge. But in the long term water with energy behind it breaks down the rock.

That edge is where California’s coastline meets the Pacific Ocean. That 1,200-mile ribbon of energy from Mexico to Oregon has attracted me into a relationship. As an act of seduction it teased me at first with its natural beauty. Graciously contoured beaches with warm powdered sand lured me in for dates, but it was the defiant earth-toned bluffs adorned with fluorescent floras that caught my eye and caused my heart to skip. These beautiful bluffs framed the edge of the vast blue Pacific Ocean that was busy sending waves of rhythmic messages onto the edge of the vast North American continent.

I am seduced by the allure of astonishing natural beauty combined with the profound natural forces found along California’s edge and have found a way to binge on it. So I’m walking the edge, California’s coastline beaches, bluffs, trails, rails and roads from the Mexican border to Oregon. I’ve completed the first half, Tijuana to Santa Cruz, in day trips and 3-6 day sections from my home in Long Beach as a carnomore, using trains and buses – no cars- to access each leg of my journey.

Now having walked this edge from Mexico to Santa Cruz, which is a little beyond half way to Oregon, this is what I have learned so far.

This Edge is Where the Action is.

Most people go where they are invited and accommodated. Explorers decide where they are going, develop a plan and risk the consequences. Unlike the Pacific Crest Trail or its East Coast cousin the Appalachian Trail, most of the California Coastline is not a designated trail or route. It is a concept sometimes described as a braided trail made of beaches, bluff trails, rail lines and roads.

So instead of hundreds or thousands of thru hikers annually hiking the PCT or ATC, records* indicate that in modern times less than one hundred people have hiked the complete California coastline. So it attracts me as an explorer and adventurer. The unknowns along this edge are exciting and the risks are generally calculable.  This edge is where the action is.

This isn’t my first journey into unknown places. In 1976, having just graduated from North Mesquite High School in Mesquite, Texas, I packed a backpack, stuff my pockets with 18 standby airline tickets, traveler’s checks, visas, passport and an eurail pass and spent some time traveling beyond America. I explored Europe then kept going thru Egypt, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and back home. Solo traveling around the world taught me about facing fears, the strength of self-reliance and the power of interdependence. Being independent yet willing to ask for help was the sweet spot for this young traveler.

Two years later, as a college student and airline employee’s dependent son traveling standby and therefore enjoying astonishing cheap flights but sometimes getting bumped inconveniently, I traveled to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union on a university sponsored study tour. Then I rode my bicycle solo across Europe from Denmark to Switzerland. Rain, headwinds and wet blue jeans made this a character building exercise.

These journeys formed a foundation for future adventures and risk-taking. Nothing seriously bad happen, if you overlook that temporary detention for a small crime committed on the Soviet-Romanian border. My personal confidence was probably stronger than most people’s at that age. I had gone exploring beyond the edges of my experience a found a big, welcoming world of variety, beauty, and mild risk-taking.

US-Mexico Border at Tijuana

US-Mexico Border at Tijuana

“Didn’t you hear me, I said move away from the fence!” The US Border Guard’s SUV aggressively careened down the bluff straight at me as I was taking pictures and celebrating the start of my coastal journey from Mexico to Oregon. As he skidded to a halt the officer shared his apparent frustration over his loud-speaker.  Apparently I had gotten too close to the fence separating the US from Tijuana. And while I was not very close to the fence, it was low tide and I had walked at the water line toward the fence, which made the sign placed above high tide alerting me to another invisible line I must have crossed impotent. And with the wind blowing hard off the ocean on an overcast wintery day, from the officer’s parking space way up on the bluff his also impotent loud-speaker didn’t have any impact on my desire to hike as much of the California coastline as I could. And after waving at and acknowledging him, then turning around and moving north toward Oregon, the crisis was averted. I wonder if there will be as much drama at the Oregon border?

It turns out that invisible legal boundaries are a big part of hiking California’s coastline. Private property lines start just above the mean high water mark. And it is usually murky exactly where that line is because it is based on the average high water mark over 18 years and is unmarked.

The general rule is wet sand is public land. Walking on dry sand is fine in about 98% of the California coast but is very contentious in some specific parts, notably Malibu. Misleading signs claiming private beaches, obscure public access points and other private property owner tactics to dissuade public access are deployed. Apparently god is on the side of public access because he seems to be attacking and eroding “their” beaches, causing them to armor their beach fortresses with concrete walls, piles of rocks and artificial dunes.

Wet sand is usually the best place to walk on the beach anyway. It is more compact sand therefore a harder surface and easier to walk on. It is immediately adjacent to the edge of the ocean that fluctuates back and forth with waves offshore. It is where whatever has just washed ashore is discovered. And spiritually, the wet sand is the where the two great forces of rock and water meet and blend. The ocean’s energy dissipates on the wet sand while the sand imperceptibly grinds against itself, making finer and finer grains until small enough to be blown ashore by winds or sucked away by the next storm that unsettles the sea.

Tijuana River

Tijuana River

It is on this wet sand edge where the coastal energy is most intense. As I leaned into the wind that usually comes hard off the ocean, my journey northward began. The beach flattens and spreads out into dunes and wetlands on this southernmost section and quickly the Tijuana River presents the first obstacle.  At low tide this river is probably crossable but on this cold, windy day I didn’t feel much like swimming, so I hiked around, which meant a long detour back around the wetlands.

This impassable obstacle was the first of many and partly defines this type of exploring differently from hiking established trails. Low tides often offer safe and convenient routes across rivers and around rock buttresses. Maps and photos are helpful for identifying them but they don’t account for variations that might provide passage. Walking up, inspecting the conditions, finding a route and making a judgment about the risks involved - is the process. How long and painful the detour around the obstacle, time of day, weather and level of fatigue are also factors in the decision.

Unless I’m tired my default is to stay on the beach and find a way around the obstacle. That means minor risk-taking such as timing the waves and running through narrow openings between a rock wall on my starboard side and the next wave from my port side. The risk is usually just getting wet. The reward is continuing moving forward and a feeling of satisfaction for accurately calculating the risk and moving past the obstacle.

I have miscalculated a couple of times and suffered minor punishment. Just west of Santa Barbara the beach narrowed to a rocky obstacle course with no convenient bail out trail up the bluff. I wasn’t sure what was ahead but I knew it was about a half-mile walk back to the last take-out option. The base of the bluff was worn smooth from the battering it received every 30 seconds or so. I could see rocks that stayed above the high water line as the waves attacked, so the plan was to scamper between waves and hop onto the rocks to stay dry. What could go wrong?

One of the distinctions of this part of the California coastline is that the dominant rock is oil shale and it is slippery. My experience in the first 250 miles of this journey was that sandstone and shale that is not saturated in oil was surprisingly grippy and trustworthy. Today my experience was different.

Sporting a 35-pound backpack on this first of a three-day jaunt from Santa Barbara to Lompoc, I took the risk. The first two climbs to dryness worked out fine. As the waves came in I hopped up at the last moment and balanced as the water engulfed the beach, crashed into the wall and receded. I surveyed the next section and could see several options for refuge. Dropping back to the wet sand and jogging forward, I timed the next wave and targeted my next dry perch.  Timing and balance are a beach ballet. When it works it flows and satisfies the dancer in me. This time it didn’t.

I launched from the sand at the last moment as the wave approached the rock. I stuck the landing. Staying balanced was the problem. Using every leg muscle and with arms flailing about attempting to remain perched for the few seconds necessary to avoid a certain drenching, I slipped and hit the beach just as the wave was breaking on my rock. The water was only about two feet high but the wave splashed up my legs and soaked me up to my waist and the bottom of my backpack.

Now baptized I felt uninhibited. Wading was relaxing now that the stay-dry game was over. The next half-mile was a stroll along the rocky beach wet from the waist down and without worry. I dried out later that day and carried on.

Hiking California’s coast from Mexico to Oregon is a game for me. I have challenged myself to achieve a big, hairy goal. If I achieve this goal I will have collected some amazing experiences and have some bragging rights. If I don’t achieve this goal I will have collected a different set of amazing experiences and some other bragging rights. Either way I win.

*Lots more information can be found at the California Coastal Trail Association, a non-profit organization that hosts local walks and advocates for trail improvements along the entire coast.