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.