Coastal Trail


June - Sept 2003


Chapter FIVE.

Published July 11th 2003.

     When we first informed our readers that Janette Heartwood would be our embedded journalist for the CTE03, we mentioned that Janette might be reporting on various issues and challenges that come up in the life of coastal towns she passes through - with the idea that the trials, tribulations and achievements of communities similar to Laguna Beach might provide insight into concerns in our own community - especially regarding the problems of enjoying our natural treasures while at the same time trying to preserve them.

     If you have been following these notes, you may remember that earlier on Janette did relate in her notes some similarities between Laguna Beach and Crescent City.  However, since that time, the hikers have been passing through areas where the terrain doesn’t lend itself to coastal communities.  As they continue south, and variations in the coastline permit, they will again encounter areas similar to ours.  In the meantime, such is the serendipity of a long journey undertaken by an individual with a lively intellect, that we have been privileged to share some of Janette’s insightful reflections about life on the trail, the mental and physical challenges of traversing difficult terrain and the dynamics of spending a lot of time with a rather finite group of people under conditions that are often strenuous.

     Janette’s latest - dare we say “communiqué?” - addresses a very important element of group dynamics - leadership, or more specifically the differences between a leader and a guide and the relevance of such differences to those who are the followers:

Wednesday (7/2).

     "A quarter of our journey is behind us.  We are staying three nights at a house in Sea Ranch overlooking the Sonoma coast.  As further evidence of our progress, this morning when I opened the AAA map for the CA Northern Section I saw that it stops at Noyo, adjacent to Fort Bragg

     That town already feels like ancient history, a town where we spent the day doing laundry, eating ice cream and generally hanging out.  Not the bucolic layover day we had envisioned after two days of hiking first 16 plus, then 17 plus miles, preceded by the backpacking portion along the coast...

     In Fort Bragg I took a few moments at the public library to look up meanings for ‘guide’ and ‘leader.’  I have observed much variation in the way our leaders have chosen to conduct their tasks I first became fascinated by the subject of leadership as I witnessed the elegant skills of our youngest ‘through hiker’.  ‘J’ Nichols is 35, holds a PhD in marine biology with sea turtles as a specialty, and heads the 5 person team on the non-profit Wildcoast.edu, which he founded after graduating from the Univ. of Arizona.

     Towards the end of our second week of hiking, our group faced the greatest challenge up to that time.  We had been working well together all along and on the day that we started at 5 am from Guthrie Creek, walked around False Cape, past Cape Mendocino to arrive at Singley Creek, our teamwork had numerous opportunities to be solidified.  Rocks along the False Cape headland are uneven, often slippery and, with the waves washing around our ankles, each step must be considered before we move ahead.  I am so intent on making the long step onto a wide flat rock that I fail to remember the warning, repeated more than once by Coastwalk leaders, never turn your back to the ocean, always watch the waves.’ As I am successfully placing my first foot on the big, flat rock, but before I have gathered my second foot onto the same rock I feel a gentle but firm hand grasp mine.  A body now

stands close as a bigger than usual wave unexpectedly crashes over my knees.  I do not lose my balance.  I do not feel afraid.  The power of the wave has dissipated.  ‘J’ let’s go of my hand and we journey on.  In recalling the moment, I remember I laughed.  I felt joy in my heart.  This would not have been the case had I faced the wave alone.  I would have scrambled to keep from falling onto the rocks and a deep seated feeling of abandonment, left over from childhood, would have engulfed my adult reasoning.






    Why I recall this incident is because, later, around the campfire I retold the story and thanked J again for his help.  He smiled in response and I presumed the incident had no more significance, until a week or so later when we were doing our End of the County wrap-up session. J  then recalled the incident and as he retold the story, he used the words ‘Janette and I stood close on the rock, and as the wave came over I felt safer because together we were stronger.’  I doubt anyone noticed my eyes becoming as wide as saucers.  My heart transmitted the understanding to my brain as I gained a fine insight into leadership skills.

    How could such a simple act and the retelling of it be such a powerful memory for me, you may ask?  The answer is because my experience is contrasted with those of a couple of other women ahead of me and I felt their pain.  They called out for assistance but our day leader only responded by continuing ‘to lead.’  Once he was past the boulders he stopped and watched as the others hesitantly picked their way.  He responded later to the effect that he ‘monitored’ the group’s progress and deemed that everyone was managing okay and did not require assistance.

    The joy which I feel, in holding the hand of a person whom I trust, to help me down a steeper than usual cliff, to make a step up higher than my legs will accommodate or to cross a body of water is evident in the photo which appears on the www.california-coastaltrail.info site for Tues. July 1st.  My pants are rolled up as high as they will go, the water is halfway up my thighs, and Big Steve is holding my hand as we ford Schooner Gulch.  I am laughing the whole way...I am not afraid...I trust Steve, he is a worthy part of our team.

    Last week I thought a lot about trust.  We had been walking along the marine terrace, close to the bluffs at Point Cabrillo in Mendocino County.  We stopped for lunch above one of the many small beaches, and I sat down close to the edge (but not so close that my feet dangled over the side).  I ate my lunch in quiet contemplation and it was only when I had finished, and was thinking of laying down that I became aware that everyone else had chosen places behind me, much further away from the edge of the cliff.  I reflected on how vulnerable I would have been if a prankster had come up and shoved me - ‘oh so slightly,’ and how scared I would have become.  But what joy!  We have become a solid, effective unit and our days of traveling down this glorious coastline are much enriched by the team’s strength.               

    For a few of our days, most noticeably those which entail walking along Highway 1 we have been without a day leader.  So we appointed a leader from within the group. When Jon led us along the pavement edge, the rhythmical tap, tap, tap of his hiking sticks were like a friendly metronome.  I enjoyed the days we have hiked just by ourselves.  The experience is quieter, more ethereal; more as I imagined a coastwalk would be (not counting the Highway of course).

     I'm looking at my notes taken from the Random House dictionary.  Their definition of Leader: ‘to go before, or with, to show the way’, does seem to fit.  But I prefer the concept associated with the word Guide: ‘to assist a person to travel through, or reach a destination in an unfamiliar area.’  From now on I will hope for more Guides and less Leaders.”

And once again Janette has shared with us her amazingly heartfelt and personal reflections on a journey that is proving to offer a somewhat unique opportunity for observation of community living - both on the grander scale, in the way towns cope with issues, and on the smaller scale, in the way that an interdependent group of individuals works toward a common goal.  Thanks Janette!!

Jennifer Erickson