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.

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 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.