June - Sept 2003
Published July 18th 2003.
For those of you who, while happy enough to share Janette’s philosophical reflections about life on the trail, are really more interested in the trail itself- what it is and what it isn’t - this week’s notes from the field will be right up your alley. Not that there aren’t some valuable insights offered about the less tangible aspects of the trek - there’s a bit of that as well. But on the whole, we come to a very real understanding about why they talk about needing support for the completion of the CCT. As you will learn, to say that portions of the trail are “incomplete” is putting it nicely...
“Today is Friday, July 11th and we are staying two nights at Olema Ranch Campground just south of Inverness. We will have today as a rest day, so we all have laundered our clothes and bought sundries at the camp store. The campgrounds vary from privately owned ones like these, “fully developed,” you might say, and most attractive to the big motor home folks, to what the State Park System calls “environmental campgrounds." This is shorthand for “bring your own water, don’t expect a picnic table, but you will find the odd pit toilet here and there, and don’t bring much stuff because it all has to be carried down the trail to your camp site which is designated by a post in the ground bearing the appropriate, number." (In fairness to the Park Service, I must add that the purpose of an environmental camp site is to offer a quiet, more remote experience, away from the more customary energy of regular campgrounds. It affords a place, available to those willing to hike in with what they need. In our case, we have been fortunate that the camps have been close, not miles from the parking lots!)
Most nights we have camped in places which fall within these two extremes. Our favorites usually have wide grassy areas, tall shade trees and shrubs between the sites. But to rank among the most favored, hot showers are a must. We enjoy the feeling (and effects) of overall cleanliness every four or five days. We are a jolly, good-natured group and take what comes and make the best of it. After all - this journey is about hiking - the experience of walking, being in the open air, not an endeavor to recreate the comforts of home, as a mobile cocoon from which one can be a voyeur on the activities of others.
Yesterday was a “short” day, only 11 miles from Dillon Beach to Tomales Bay State Park. At 8am we were transported across the fog enshrouded Tomales Bay from Lawson’s Landing to Tomales Point courtesy of a local fisherman and his dual engined Whaler. ‘There’s lots of poison oak going up the trail, take extra care,” he called out when we had alighted as he was backing his boat away from the empty beach before disappearing into the grayness.
The previous day we walked from Bodega Bay to Dillon Beach. This entailed walking the two long sides of an isosceles triangle along the shoulders of the highway because there is no public trail close to the coastline. We ate lunch in front of the general store at Valley Ford. Across the street, the Post Office sports a tall steel post with a cross member on top, from which hang long cables. A memento of the Christo running fence which snaked its way 24.5 miles across the Sonoma & Marin hills in 1976. Inside the Post Office, is displayed a commemorative plaque, a handkerchief size piece of the white fiberglass cloth, and framed photographs of the local installation. “It was very beautiful,” the Postmistress volunteered, “In the evening, for a couple of hours around sunset, the doth turned a pale pink, and when the curtain and chains moved in the breeze the sound was beautiful too.” I inquired about it only being installed for two weeks. “Yes,” she said, “Such a pity - we would have loved to have had it for the whole summer.”
The words “whole summer” are a reminder that we too must move on. We have already completed 408 miles, a third of the distance from the Oregon state-line to the Mexican border.
I mentioned before that the weather has been more than kind. Not a drop of rain (since we started, June 3rd). The closest was the night we pitched our tents under the trees at Van Damme Campground and experienced the rain forest effect in the morning. Some days there are extreme differences in temperature, and none more than the day before last when we hiked 17.5 miles. This, by a few tenths of a mile, was our “longest day,” Usal to Union Landing,. Walking on the marine terrace in Sonoma County we have experienced mighty powerful winds. I'm glad to have an effective wind breaker with a well-designed hood. The foggy mornings give way to sun, and if we have no alternative but to walk along the highway, then the heat of the pavement has brought us all to stripping down to our “last layer.”
I have brought five pairs of footwear, all packed in a bag reserved just for shoes. Each day I wear a different pair from a choice of high top Lowa boots, and two pairs of Merrill low-tops. In camp I change to Nike “trail” shoes, which could be used on the trail, in a pinch, but fall far short of the Merrells in terms of foot comfort and protection, especially on rough terrain.
On days when we expect to ford one or more rivers I clip a pair of Chaco walking sandals to my day pack, and use a small piece of Pack Towel to dry off my feet and legs before putting on my regular shoes and socks again. I always hike with a double layer of socks, usually Ultimax liners and Coolmax outers or something a bit heavier with my Lowa boots. Even if I neglect everything else (except maybe for sunscreen) I keep my feet clean & smooth with lotion and so far have remained blister free. The most challenging terrain for me is not the uneven pastures, dried out after cattle have left their hoof impressions, but the sloping edges of the pavement shoulders which present the foot with the same relentless angle, mile after mile. For protection on the outside of my big toes, I have used blister technology pads from Dr. Scholls and the cushioning effect offers a very comforting feel...
Soil erosion is a constant along the California coast. Sometimes we walk along stretches of decaying pavement that were once Highway 1 (since relocated further from the bluff edges), or close to edges, the undercut of which is masked by clumps of vegetation. In these places those who carry hiking sticks are at an advantage, since they can poke around before placing their foot on a precarious tuft of grass, and warn the rest of us “hole on the right” - a warning which is passed along the line of hikers. The one occasion when I experienced true fear was the morning we passed Gleason’s Landing north of Bodega Bay where there were a dozen houses abutting the narrowest sliver of land next to the Highway. A few are still occupied, some are boarded up with utility meters removed, some have “unsafe-do not enter” notices nailed to the entry doors and some have disappeared completely, right over the edge, leaving behind little more than a jagged edge of highway asphalt, a few feet from the white shoulder line.
One house sported a “for sale” sign and the side gate, leading to the deck, was open. The place appeared vacant so I stepped through the gate and stood next to a patio chair on frail wooden boards and peered over the decrepit railing. About fifty feet below (and I mean below, not beyond!) the waves were crashing against the cliff, to me that was scary enough, but as I raised my head I turned to the left and there, not more than thirty feet away, I saw, through a clear glass wind shield, the horizontally projecting remains of what had once been a vertical reinforced concrete stilt maybe 24 inches x 18 inches, with a three-foot long cross member on top. It was the loan remnant of a dwelling vanished long ago and poised against a clear blue sky it looked like a giant hammer, ready to knock down any wave that might threaten its existence. I imagine the next storm will easily demonstrate the power of nature in the face of inappropriate man-made obstacles.
Fear propelled my feet back to the highway, and I walked for a long time on the inside of the white line, as a token of comfort that I was walking on a real road.
At Sandystone Bluffs, which are particularly prone to erosion, I have seen corrugated drainage pipes cantilevering more than fifteen feet into mid-air, waiting for one more storm, which will cause them to break off, crash to the beach below, and hasten the erosion from what remains of the fractured pipe on the marine terrace. When we walk along the beaches it is easy to look up and see all the trestle type structures, high up on the bluffs, acting as one last hope to hold up one more stretch of coastal highway.
Road maintenance has been an ongoing activity, not just along the coastal bluffs, but inland too, where the steep hillsides have been cut back to even steeper angles to afford narrow, no shoulder, two-lane highways. There is little margin for driving error, and even less when we form a narrow line of bodies along the side. One passerby called us across between Cal-Trans and The Sierra Club - a reference to our bright orange safety vests which we put on over our day packs when we travel on a highway.
If you are wondering why we are walking along highways (hiking is usually done on hiking trails, you might say) this is the answer. The purpose of Coastwalk in organizing this expedition is to bring notice to the public of the existence of the California Coastal Trail, which has 62% of its 1,200 miles on designated trails. But more importantly (its purpose is also) to highlight the remaining places where the trail is incomplete and encourage private land owners to grant easements for public hiking or find ways to make outright purchases of the most spectacular coastal properties for the benefit of everyone.
The trails along the 11 miles of bluff tops at Sea Ranch are the most carefully manicured we have encountered so far. When we walked all along on July 4th (having gained the temporary right, because we rented two Sea Ranch houses for three days), we encountered more folks walking trails than any other place yet - probably because folks who live or vacation there, and the third that are weekly rentals, are offered easy access to the private trails. In many places, including Sea Ranch, and our town, the coastal access, open to the public, is a trail, perpendicular to the coast, leading from a highway to the beach. While these welcome trails offer access to beaches, Coastwalk’s vision, which is supported by the CA Coastal Conservancy and the State Parks System, is to have a continuous trail all along the California Coastline. Sometimes it will be on the beach, sometimes on the marine terrace above a bluff, and sometimes further inland when nature affords a particularly beautiful stand of trees, a river may cut a deep gorge, or something else compels the trial to wander from the sound of the waves.”
Such is Janette’s commentary that it helps us to wrap our minds around the very real obstacles that stem from the “incompleteness” of the CCT. It is important to remember that even with the precautions taken by the sponsors of the CTE in mapping out alternative routes and providing third party transport for the missing portions of the Trail, the trekkers have experienced significant difficulties. Imagine if any of us had tried this alone, without outside assistance - that is when we begin to grasp the incredible value of the efforts of Coastwalk in promoting the completion of the CCT.