charlie gandy

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.

Day Trippin' Dates on the Edge

South of San Clemente

South of San Clemente

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.

At first I virtually ignored her. She was always there but I was focused on faraway challenges at altitude. Yes, she had mysteries to solve but none of allure of an alpine peak standing tall and questioning my skill and resolve. She was legendary for her charm and beauty but invisible to me until I radically change my lifestyle and became a Carnomore. With this new perspective her magnetism was irresistible.

We had thirteen dates that were daylong dalliances on stretches of Southern California dream beaches from Coronado to Malibu. These were get-to-know-you, no commitment, escapes from the real world. We were opposites, which lowered my expectations even farther. I was a Colorado mountain-man attracted to curvatures, contrasts, hard effort, summit rewards and danger. She was California calm, peaceful, usually safe, inviting and casual. As we spent time together her rhythms and warmth comforted me like no mountain had ever. And like my beloved alpine settings, her natural, exotic beauty was breathtaking. Forever changing as daylight gave way to glowing sunsets, she radiated romance as she slowly revealed her secrets to me.

Each time we got together I always brought my best game.  My approach was to be open-minded, curious and ready for whatever challenges she posed. Early on she showed me that while being engaging and beautiful, she could also be cold, challenging and outright dangerous. Different personality, but she is just as unpredictable and hazardous as a 14er can be on a cloudless summer’s day with an approaching storm.

Who would have thought that danger and beauty could be so alluring? *

*Excerpt from “Steele Savage Takes the Edge” an imagined bodice-ripping saga revealing the sensuous secrets of its author, Charles Gandy.

Yes it did happen sort of like that, but with less bodice ripping.

In 2014, I sold my Jeep and became a Carnomore. I had many reasons to question my relationship with cars - the high expense of car ownership, pollution, lousy traffic conditions all over Los Angeles and the associated stress. I didn’t commute by car so I wasn’t a hostage everyday. But when I did drive around the city like everybody else I got caught up in endless traffic jams and delays, I often felt trapped, frustrated and impotent. Sitting on the 405 with thousands of other captives, idling and waiting for my turn to move forward a few feet then repeat the process over and over and over. I thought there must be a smarter way to get around SoCal.

Before I sold my Jeep and adopted a car-lite, Carnomore lifestyle I experimented with public transit and experienced the sharp contrasts to driving. It’s very much like the differences between suburban and urban living. Buses and trains are public while cars are mostly private.  Getting used to the circus that is living with random public encounters while riding public transit was a virtuous challenge that spiced up my daily routines.

I learned that the rhythm of public transit is different than driving and takes some time to appreciate. Getting to know the personalities of different train and bus systems helped me grow confidence and transit agility. SoCal transit systems are shockingly punctual, down to the minute. Due to decades of investment they reach more far-flung neighborhoods and trailheads than ever. And while service is not as frequent as systems back east, most waits are less than 20 minutes. And public transit is cheap. $1.75 gets me to destinations from Long Beach fifty miles up to Malibu or, in the other direction, to Orange County cities all the way down to San Clemente.

But isn’t it faster to drive? Yes, except during weekday commuting times, holidays when drivers flock to beaches and other attractions, and random crashes jamming up the system. Any of these conditions can make driving slower than buses or trains.

Intercity travel by bus and trains was my biggest Carnomore surprise. I could walk from my near beach apartment in Long Beach to the Greyhound bus station, board a bus equipped with wifi with a ticket bought the day before online, and travel to downtown San Diego for $11.00. I got there in about the same amount of time it would take to drive, without having to drive, without parking hassles, without spending about $80 on associated expenses.

Same outrageous cost and convenience difference with trains. From Long Beach I can drive to San Luis Obispo for $140 or take Amtrak for $41. It will take a couple of hours longer by train unless I try to leave Los Angeles under any of the conditions listed above. I get an amazing seat equipped with wifi and a million dollar view of California’s coastline in my “autonomous vehicle” that delivers me in downtown SLO within walking distance to everything, including local buses connecting to beaches up and down the coast.

Lastly, I’ll point to David Henry Thoreau’s insights when his friend the carriage owner challenged him to a race to a village about 10 miles away, driving verses walking. Thoreau reasoned that while his friend would arrive a about three hours before him, if the calculation included the amount of time needed to get ready for the race, Thoreau would be the obvious winner. The amount of time his friend would work to pay for various expenses of owning the carriage, fuel, maintenance, parking, etc. would negate his vehicle’s mechanical advantage.

According to AAA, SUV’s cost about a dollar/mile to operate in SoCal. So driving the normal 15,000 miles/year costs $15,000. Even the smallest cars cost in the $7,000/year range. That is a lot of time spent earning enough money for basic transportation especially when such cheap and attractive transit options are readily available.

As I mentioned above, less bodice ripping.

So my Carnomore day trips started with exploring the California coastline from Long Beach by running 15 miles south to Huntington Beach then returning on the OCTA 1 bus route that conveniently runs up and down the Pacific Coast Highway. This segment is mostly excellent hard packed wet sand and a beach bike path. There’s only about a mile of road south of Seal Beach.

My maiden section of the California coastline is a nice compilation of many of types of conditions. Beaches, trails, streets, and roads make up the route passing thru urban commercial areas, suburban neighborhoods, wetlands, bays, state parks, marinas, a military base, oil fields and crossing the San Gabriel River. With only about ten-feet elevation change along the entire route, it couldn’t get any flatter.

My favorite place in this section on the north end is going around Alamitos Bay Marina. Interesting boats of all shapes and sizes dock here and this marina is famous as the one used to film the opening scenes of Gilligan’s Island. “Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale a tale of a fateful trip, that started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship…”

At Seal Beach the US Navy stores weapons in camouflaged bunkers and usually has at least one ship docked there. Don't ask too many questions about any of this.

On the south end my favorite part is strolling into Huntington Beach’s downtown from the beach. Styled as “Surf City USA”, this town’s young at heart, hang loose attitude prevails over all here. I fit right in. 

So this first date was enjoyable and the Carnomore approach worked well. But I knew this was not the prettiest or most interesting she could be. Nor was I the best prepared. I planned for more outings.