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.

Carnomore Adventure Just Outside Los Angeles

Palos Verdes Peninsula

Palos Verdes 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.

When I saw the light come on in this new guy’s eyes, I saw a young explorer opening up to his amazing adventure ahead. I met him as he was headed north exploring the rocky and chaotic California coastline below the famously tall and intimidating, rocky bluffs of Palos Verdes Peninsula. High above waterline there may be rich swells in million dollar homes, but down here Mother Nature is raw and beautiful, the swells are dangerous, and therefore attractive to guys like us.

I didn’t get his name but he gave me some good info on my southward route. The next rocky outcropping creating a point about two miles ahead of me was too wet for him to maneuver but the tide was going out so I might find it passable. He had gone up the bluff, around the point, then back down another path to the coastline. 

His question to me was how was I hiking ten miles from Redondo Beach to Rancho Palos Verdes, roughly half the Palos Verdes Coastline, solo and then getting back to my car. He said he was doing five-mile segments then getting out on the street and walking back to his truck.

My Autonomous Vehicle

My Autonomous Vehicle

Here’s my response that made the light to go on in the new guy’s eyes. I said I use the LA Metro bus system for lots of my “Just Outside LA Adventures” and this morning I caught the 232 bus from downtown Long Beach where I live, and rode it to Redondo Beach. It took about an hour and cost $1.75. I hiked south and am about to connect with the 344 bus at Rancho Palos Verdes which will take me over the peninsula and reconnect with the 232 bus back to Long Beach. Time about 70 minutes and cost $1.75. 

His umbilical cord to his car had been cut. He heard as a solo explorer a smarter way to reach challenging, beautiful and interesting places. He desired to move through those places at a meditative pace and then keep walking forward, curious about what is next.   The new guy was free of the burden of cutting his dream day short to go fetch his car parked five miles back down the road. 

This is not about demonizing cars or drivers. It’s about smart use of tools around us to reach adventure. One of the secrets of urban living in California today is transit systems serve all but the true outback regions of our state. Virtually all counties, cities and towns run bus or train service. It may not be frequent, but it is cheap, reliable, safe and web accessible, making planning easy. And because transit is social, the exploration begins when you step out your door and into the shared social space. 

I know it’s not for everybody. That is part of the explorer’s experience, developing skills, calculating risks and going where others fear to go. 

La Metro 534 accesses Malibu beaches and mountains

La Metro 534 accesses Malibu beaches and mountains

As a carnomore in Los Angeles I have used LA Metro trains and buses to reach the coastline from Long Beach to Malibu and mountains ranges from Malibu to Mt Wilson.  Beyond treacherous parts of Palos Verdes are wide, smooth, populated beaches along the beach cities north of Redondo, Santa Monica and Los Angeles – all with abundant transit service. The Metro 534 bus runs from the Expo Train Line through Santa Monica and beyond to Malibu. I call it my surf and turf ride because it takes me to several great snorkeling shores and challenging trailheads up into the Santa Monica Mountains.

Exploring the southern California coastline is best done as a point-to-point adventure. Heading north or south, (or because the coastline is often more west or east than north or south, it's acceptable to say up or down the coast), doesn’t really matter. The sun will be in your eyes heading down the coast and you will likely have a tail wind. Headed north your calves will get sunburned and often you will have a cool breeze in your face.

Consider how far and fast you would like to hike on the beach then match that with transit routes and schedules. It is very straightforward to start a hike anywhere along the sandy stretches of LA area beaches described above and calibrate where it get off and connect with a bus to return home. 

Your tour will be affected by tides and information to plan your trip is found at www.saltwatertides.com. High tides make many parts of Palos Verdes impassible and dangerous. Low tides offer more coastline access, tidepools and awe inspiring rock formations to explore. Low tide on sandy beaches means easy walking at a receding waterline.

Charlie's Angel

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.

One of the advantages of taking off time from normal life and thru hiking a gauntlet such as the California Coastal Trail is that your body gets tempered to the trail. After the first couple of days that backpack becomes less like a bag of rocks weighing down on your shoulders, hips and legs. The miles become rhythmic and routine. After a few days body fat seems to dissolve and muscles emerge. Daily mileage increases while overall fatigue decreases. Trail hardened and tempered, you become a lean, unclean, hiking machine.

But as a sectional hiker I squander these advantages and get to relive the pain of the first two days of hiking each time I start a new section. Little of the old conditioning remains from the last section. New blisters appear on at least three toes, muscle cramps return to my legs like an old nemesis, all this combines with fresh sunburn creating my complete overall misery. But by day three I find the groove described above and move on with minimal misery.  

                                  Pajaro River Crossing

                                  Pajaro River Crossing

Day three of this section from Carmel to Santa Cruz starts just north of Moss Landing on a wild stretch of beach. From my informal overnight on the beach I walked about a mile up to my first significant river crossing. On this morning the Pajaro River was spilling into the Pacific Ocean with a current fast and deep enough to dissuade me from crossing right there on the beach, so I walked upstream to find a flatter, wider spot that looked more tame. After stripping off my shoes, socks and shorts I pitched it all, along with my backpack, into my brand new 6-mill extra large trash sack, twisted the top closed and secured it with a mean slipknot.

My plan was to walk with the bag over my head until it became too deep to walk, and then float the bag while swimming to shallow water on the far shore. About a third of the way across water was up to my waist and still getting deeper. The current wasn’t much of a factor so all is good. At about half way across water was up to my chest but the river bottom was smooth and sandy and seemed to be leveling out. While I was prepared to swim, I really didn’t want to. Lucky for me as I kept walking the bottom leveled off and I gained passage without incident.

The Pajaro is the first of several rivers I will cross using this method as I head north to Oregon.  

Beached Shipwreck

Beached Shipwreck

Not twenty minutes later I am back on the beach and wondering where the next coffee shop/water reload might be. A gentleman about my age is out headed south at a deliberate speed while reading a multi-page document. I engage him and ask about coffee. He is helpful with directions to an informal place just about a quarter-mile ahead.

My new acquaintance asks about my journey and I fill him in, including my latest endeavor, crossing the Pajaro River. He intimates that the Pajaro holds invisible and sometimes very visible amounts of untreated sewage from upstream communities. He tells me some unsettling stories of the impact this sewage has on the ocean and his beaches. I told him I was writing about my travels on Pedallove.com and invited him to keep up with me there.

Then he noticed something very interesting about our shadows and commented on it. I could see what he saw as was as surprised as he. We wished each other well and moved on.  

A few days later Pedallove received a nice email from this gentleman, his name is Rich Buckley. I will let him tell the story:

As I said goodbye to this sturdy sojourner, I then noticed how perfectly the early morning sun cast his shadow on the wet sand. It looked exactly like a shadow of an angel right down to the very wing-tip feathers.  

"Look there at our shadows. Your shadow is cast and looks exactly like an angel, wings and all....even the feathers," I said. 

"So it is. Like an angel," said Charlie.

"You seem to be on a mission assigned by a higher authority." I replied. 

We shook hands and bid each other farewell.

Charlie headed on north up the beach, carrying my fresh information on where to find food and water. I continued south into Pelican Point among several hundred seagulls and dozens of Pelicans. 

The river at the Point seemed clear of raw feces this time.

This beach is my sacred ground. And I just told a story to a soul who had walked 1000 miles of it after starting at the Mexican border forging chest deep across spring runoffs along his route. If you pulled his windy path straight like a string, it's probably even longer. 

Charlie writes for pedallove.org and plans to walk on to Oregon. Think I'll check out Charlie's posts. 

When Charlie said he was a writer, I immediately sensed he was an intended environmental voice so missing in California's many polluted coastal community waterways. 

Regardless of the community wealth, we are not treating our wastes sufficiently. Our inner harbors, our inlets, lagoons, and rivers amplify pollution signals on every sort. "Warning, polluted water. Do not enter this water"....blah, blah, blah...  

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out, that fertilizer field run offs, household detergents, phosphates, and raw sewage with floating feces make brown sea foam and smelly beaches. 

Often I've watched in sadness as every wave that washes up on the beach leaves a brown rim line. It's like washing your dog in the bathtub after it’s had a good romp in the mud.  

Among rebuilding our roads, cleaning our water, and stopping Chemtrails there are few to no organized voices. Officialdom and controlled media pretend it's acceptable.

When Charlie asked me what I sensed California Coastal Communities needed, a warm glow came over me as I unloaded my list of concerns. Maybe Charlie will be our oracle for truth. 

And then I saw his shadow on the wet sand. 

Thank you, Rich Buckley, for helping me to see clearer my opportunity to support the coastline’s health by listening to and amplifying your message. And the angel angle might just be helpful also.

Mile by mile as I moved northward the sand became much more hospitable. Less mush, more firm, better traction, less effort. The water from Denny’s yesterday is about gone and while I took seriously Rich’s directions, I didn’t find his informal neighborhood barista and water resupply. A few more miles and a quick incline up to the top of the dunes landed me at Sunset Campground where a very nice water fountain was waiting to satiate my by now considerable thirst.

A few more miles and it is time for some pizza therapy. Just before the Aptos River in Seacliff is an excellent little pizza place I think called Flatts Pizza. Not only is the pizza good and the diet coke cold, they have a small shaded porch with a power outlet to revive a camera/phone. It is a casual enough place to be comfortable with a weary wanderer resting for an hour or so while recharging his muscles and electronics.

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Seacliff is pretty much the end of wide beaches for a while. The trail goes onto bluffs and into neighborhoods of Capitola, Opal Cliffs, Twin Lakes then finally Santa Cruz. Pocket beaches were filled with sunbathers and surfers on the Saturday I walked through here.

The capstone of this hiking section was walking into Santa Cruz along an unused but preserved railroad track. In the 1990’s I traveled around the US as one of the Johnny Appleseeds of trail building and integrating bicycling and walking back into car-crazed communities. Frequently I would show an image of a bridge on this rail line that had a cantilevered walkway attached on one side. This was a critical route for locals to access the Santa Cruz’s downtown, Amusement Park and other beach amenities, so the city partnered with the railroad to provide safe pedestrian and bike access.

Santa Cruz Amusement Park

Santa Cruz Amusement Park

This day I got to walk along a relatively new bike/ped bridge immediately adjacent to the old, now distressed path attached to the rail bridge. What a nice way to be reintroduced to and experience one of my favorite, progressive cities, Santa Cruz.