Charles Gandy

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?"

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.

Back to the Beach

Monterey Peninsula

Monterey Peninsula

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.

From Carmel to Santa Cruz

From Carmel to Santa Cruz

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

Carmel Beach

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.