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.

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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.

Why I'm Walking California's Coast

Pick some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.
— Henry David Thoreau
 California's stunning Central Coast.

California's stunning Central Coast.

Making the decision to walk the California coastline from Mexico to Oregon without using cars along the 1,200 mile route was easy.  Doing it is hard. I’m about a third of the way to completion of this big, hairy goal and am ready to answer the obvious question, “Why?”

Guys like me get dared into doing things that we sometimes regret. Jumping off scary cliffs, running for office, talking to pretty women – dares either kill us or make us stronger.

What is most interesting to me is that the dares that matter most and those we action most often are the ones we generate within. We dare ourselves much more than others dare us. Why? Stimulation and recognition. We want to be excited so we push ourselves out of comfort zones, or ruts to find it. And most of us like someone listening or an audience. Young men in the south are best at expressing this sentiment when they direct us to, “Hey, hold my beer an’ watch this!”

 Cayucos bluffs

Cayucos bluffs

So the first reason I'm taking about two months to finish hiking California’s beaches, bluffs and roads from Mexico to Oregon is to respond to my own dare. What makes you think you’re up for this adventure? Do you have the courage to step into the unknown with all the risks involved? Are your explorer skills up to the challenge of hiking 1,200 miles through one of the most dynamic places on earth? What makes you think a 57 year old can average hiking 20 mile days with a backpack and no car-support? How are you going to turn this experience into something useful for others? What if you fail? Who cares?

Great questions self! I’ll get back to you with answers soon. Meanwhile what are the other reasons for a car-free, carefree, California coastline exploration?

The second reason I'm hiking the California’s coastline car-less is because it is exploration, the route is rough, the hike is hard, and the experience is beautiful.

Living in Long Beach for the last seven years, my coast hike is inspired by experiential learning along the California coastline and educated myself on the history of the California Coastal Trail or CCT. This place where the Pacific Ocean’s edge blends with California’s 1,200 mile coastal zone produces California’s dynamic pulse. You can feel it strolling any beach where seawater ebbs and flows. Waves of enormous energy crash and recede, crash and recede, generating the rhythm of California. In this ribbon of energy rests the California Coastal Trail, an unfinished walking and biking route that promises to showcase the true natural beauty of this state.

 Pt. Dume, Malibu

Pt. Dume, Malibu

Surprisingly the CCT is not like any of the celebrity long distance trails such as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. The AT and PCT are well marked, mapped, and trodden. The CCT is a “braided route” which means it’s a combination of road shoulders, bluff trails, beach paths and raw rocky or sandy beaches. Path selection is determined by many factors including tide levels, difficulty of terrain, land ownership, and personal skills/conditioning.

Since the CCT is long and vaguely routed, it is rarely hiked as a thru hike, all the way from Mexico to Oregon or the reverse. From limited research I estimate that fewer than 100 people have thru hiked the CCT. Coastwalk is a non-profit organization in San Sebastopol focused on improving the entire route and it hosts several multi day outings using sections of the CCT.

 Palos Verdes

Palos Verdes

So that’s where the beauty part comes in. Hiking northward at about a 3 mile per hour pace I am immersed in one of the most dynamic places on earth. Natural beaches, bluffs, wetlands and dunes are off my starboard shoulder. On portside waves are washing up, crashing up, splashing up, then receding and revealing pools of sea life, as fish and seals swim just offshore and whales are spouting plums beyond them. Each day the early morning sun stretches shadows across fresh, cool, wet sand and at lower tides offers a strolling surface rivaling European promenades.

 Capitola

Capitola

At about midday I stroll into the next beach town. Another significant difference between the CCT and traditional trails is where the CCT becomes urban and social, the traditional trails tend to go around and avoid people. Also walking into a town or city by beach or bluff trail means missing lots of what makes a place ugly (sprawl, highways, billboards) and is usually a flattering experience for the place. So I experience beauty along the CCT by hiking a few morning miles along a beach at low tide, then arrive hungry into the heart of a beach town, and finally set down to a large plate of something local and delicious to eat. All is good.

I got started on this journey when I took Henry David Thoreau’s suggestion, “Pick some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.”

 Monterey Peninsula

Monterey Peninsula

I fell in love with California decades ago, long before I moved here seven years ago. Having traveled around the world as a student and tourist and then to all fifty states during my time as a political organizer for bicycling and walking, I’ve experienced some inspirational places. California has all of it, at least what I deem all. In fact, California has more that its share of natural beauty. Reverence comes in the form of dramatic mountain ranges guarding postcard perfect valleys, bucolic plains and rolling hills punctuate and frame California’s quaint beach villages and sophisticated cities. What an invitation to inspiration.

See, I didn’t expect to live this long.  At about eleven years old I had rheumatic fever which theoretically caused my heart to weaken. I really didn’t expect to live beyond about thirty years old. An upside to this death sentence is that it created a sense of urgency for me to get things done. And not wait around for permission or approval from others. As I have come to know, thinking that I would die at thirty helped me focus on and be very conscious of the time left. It has helped me to author a life.

So when that birthday came in 1988 I put my bike on an airplane and flew from Austin, Texas to San Francisco, got on Amtrak and went overnight north to Klamath Falls, Oregon, then rode that bike down the coastline back to San Francisco. It was an act of defiance about a supposed weakened heart and an attempt to learn what I would do for the rest of my life. As I rode through the redwoods south of Crescent City I remember consciously opening up to new ideas, new possibilities, new meaningful commitments. I also remember being overwhelmed with the majesty of the massive redwood groves and the moment to moment considerations of bicycling along a road shared with cars whose drivers are equally overwhelmed and distracted.

 McWay Falls, south of Big Sur

McWay Falls, south of Big Sur

So while I didn’t find a magic answer along that route and the corresponding clear path forward for my life and career, I did fall in love with northern California’s natural beauty and progressive magic. I was impressed by early adopter cities and towns attempting to embrace bicycle touring. It reminded me of more sophisticated bike systems I had experienced riding around and through European countries. Very civilized.

 Pacific Coast Highway near San Simeon moving inland, (see orange fencing), adapting to sea level increase

Pacific Coast Highway near San Simeon moving inland, (see orange fencing), adapting to sea level increase

My final reason for a car-free hike up California’s coastline is to witness climate change’s dramatically impacts. Every inch of the coastline is being affected by rising sea levels and extreme weather events. Big questions are on the horizon for communities along the coast related to resilience and whether to amour up or retreat, resist or re-adapt. For the CCT, these conditions and questions pose a rare, generational opportunity to improve the condition of the trail and complete the vision on its founders and today’s advocates. My role is to help make that happen.

About Charlie

Charlie consults with companies, cities and states interested in promoting active living. He's a nationally recognized expert in bicycle and pedestrian advocacy, and a popular consultant and speaker known for sparking innovation. Charlie founded Bike Texas, created the Thunderhead Alliance retreat for biking and walking advocates, played a key role in raising funding for and running the original "Bikes Belong" national political campaign to reinstate funding for biking, walking and public transit at the federal level, and originated and developed the Bike Friendly Business Districts program in collaboration with Bike Long Beach for the City of Long Beach.

Charlie is currently section hiking up the California coastline. He's finished Southern California in the past year and looks forward to the Central Coast next. Reach him via email here.