Coastal Trail


June - Sept 2003



Published September 12th 2003.

Wherever we go we will encounter obstacles.  Whether we stay at home in Laguna or whether we decide to hit the Coastal Trail, life will send us natural, man-made and emotional hurdles to get past as best we can.  Here at home, these may be in the form of a detour due to construction, a stream blocking the road on a rainy day or heavy traffic.  On the trail it might be getting around boulders or coming up against rusty chains with “keep off’ signs, (and the emotional hurdles - well trying not to let frustration get the better of us, for one!).  It’s all about access…

Saturday, (9/6)      

         “If you are reading this article on Friday, September 12th, then this is the day when the 2003 Coastal Trail Expedition walks along Main Beach on the way from Crystal Cove to Aliso Beach - subject to any minor last minute changes!


        Now, as I write I am sitting in the garden of the San Pedro Hostel and it's Saturday, September 6th, our layover day.  The sky is cloudless.  I have rigged up a temporary desk and chair under a mature fichus tree, the roots of which have raised the adjacent sidewalk so at the end of this twenty-foot section the slope results in an unplanned eight inch drop off.  You could call it a step, but either way it’s a mini version of the geological turmoil we see very day in places along our coast, where natural forces are unhindered and tides take away then build back the beaches, in annual harmonic rotation.  Bluff top trees fall victim to the indomitable power of the ocean as it eats away at the cliffs, reducing the width of the marine terrace.  Man’s desperate engineering solutions to keep homes from toppling into the surf become most grandiose as real property values rise.


        From Gaviota to Ventura we spent half a dozen days walking various terrains. First came miles of wide, deserted sand. Beaches with few access points are rarely visited - who walks a dozen miles a day, except Coastwalkers like us?  And along these beaches the sand is checkered with globs of tar.  Who knows why but this was the first day I chose to walk barefoot.  I had no notion that the black ooze would attach itself to the soles of my feet with an even, eighth inch thick layer.  The socks, which I put back on my feet later, were rendered unsalvageable and it took me half an hour to soften and clean off the tar from my feet, with mechanics hand cleaner, after we arrived at camp.  Scientific evidence credits the tar as naturally occurring and not a result of the off-shore oil drilling rigs.  Since tar-riddled sand has scant appeal to beach-going vacationers it seems these miles of coast could be saved from development and become part of the vast open space of Los Padres National forest to the north.  This is the popular hope of many locals we are told.


        Then, when the sand became sparse and the rocks more prominent, we were forced to choose between boulder hopping, getting wet walking in the surf or clambering up the steep bluffs to the railway line, (growing up in England, my childhood was far too restricted to have permitted walking along the tracks, so when passage was thwarted by steep rocky outcroppings, I was thrilled to adopt this unlawful path).  The best part was when a train came along. We stood about fifteen feet away and waved at the driver.  He waved back and when he blew the whistle I was frightened for a moment, even though I perceived the sound as a welcoming gesture.  The trains run frequently, as we can recall from their close proximity to our campsites along this part of the coast.  At El Capitan State Beach the tracks curve around the camp and our tents were less than a hundred feet away.  I snuggled in my tent and imagined (just for a moment) what it could be like to actually lay on the track with a train approaching.  This particular train was so long and so heavy I cannot think the sensation would be much different.  The ground vibrated and the noise was like being under the flight path at the boundary of LAX.  Standing close to the tracks it’s possible to see how, as the wheels pass over, the ties move up and down in a rhythmical dance.  I was amazed at the stability of the coarse rocks as the ties lifted, then bedded down again.  I never saw one jagged rock move out of place or fall off the angle of repose.  Even where informal footpaths cross the tracks I saw only minute evidence of displacements, surely a tribute to decades of engineering trial and error.


        Boulder hopping can be fun when the boulders are evenly spaced, not slippery and the tops are flat.  Conditions like these do come together, but since the coast is not a theme park, the occurrence is happenstance.  When the boulders get huge, sometimes naturally, or more often as engineered rip-rap, they are difficult to climb up and down.  I’m five feet tall, so an acre of three-foot boulders is a time-consuming challenge.  We cannot always hike when the tides are most favorable (due to our overall schedule), so on the morning we were going along the beach at Montecito, the tide was high.  We have walked in the ocean many times, waded across rivers up to our thighs (including the slough at the east end of the Santa Barbara City Beach), so as we came up to the point around the gardens of the Miramar Hotel, I chose the ocean route instead of continuing my slow pace on the rip-rap.  An incoming tide increased the challenge of backtracking and fenced private property made it impossible to access the Highway.       


    Fortunately, I sought the hand of Big Steve.  Rounding the point, always waiting for a trough to help reveal safe sand for stepping between the rocks, the bottom fell off sharply and soon the ocean was up to my waist and the waves bouncing off the rip-rap were soaking my shoulder.  Steve kept a firm grip on my hand and reminded me to keep watching for sandy footholds.  I never felt my life was in danger, so when we reached the next stretch of sand I laughed and thanked Steve.  Silently I reminded myself to avoid so much wave action in the future.


    When we got to Malibu there was plenty of action and not all from the waves!  We camped three nights at Leo Carrillo State Beach, and on the afternoon when we first arrived, the Mayor of Malibu and a group of his supporters paid us a visit.  They brought a ten-foot long, bright blue banner proclaiming ‘City of Malibu welcomes the Coastwalkers.’  We were assured that Malibu is a visitor-friendly community and that there is plenty of access so everyone can enjoy the beaches.  The City of Malibu even spends $180,000 annually from its own budget on additional clean-up and law enforcement at the three-mile long Zuma State Beach, we are told.  At the second largest beach, Surf Rider, we saw plenty of surfers enjoying the waves.  The ocean appeared polluted even though locals assured us it was only the ‘red tide’ that caused the water to be a murky brown.

    On the day we walked along Escondido Beach we were fortunate to have Elizabeth Pollock as our hike  leader. Her parents have owned a traditional beach bungalow there since the nineteen sixties. We ate our lunches sitting on the narrow deck with it's rafter extended overhang and watched the ocean.  Interludes are pleasant when one is insulated from crowds. Adjacent homes are seldom frequented by their owners and all ones attention is focused on the rhythmical sounds and movement of the waves, not the constant din and aggression of Pacific Coast Highway.

    Houses which appear so grand from the highway are often unrecognizable from the ocean side.  Unsuspecting  guest are greeted with carved stone entry features enshrining massive wrought iron-hinged oak doors, or tall, slender slabs of hi-tech metal, devoid of visual hardware in an effort to defy their function.  Little can these visitors suspect that we Coastwalkers, like the dressmaker in an alteration shop, are privy to all the crumbling concrete, out of plumb pilings and misaligned beams, which have been nipped, tucked and fortified in every way an engineer can dream up to extend the life of questionable foundations.

     From my vantage point as a Coastwalker it seems that all efforts along the Malibu coast are directed to: a) keeping the ocean from washing the houses away, and b) keeping anybody who does not own property on a particular stretch of beach from gaining direct access to that beach.  How can this be, you may ask, since the Mayor has personally told us of the many public access points along the Malibu coast?

     The story unfolds when a local activist, Steve Hoye, from ‘Access For All’ joins our group.  His legal points seem watertight, but in the real life drama of a courtroom battle, I wonder if environmentalists’ goals would not be better served by a spokesperson who embraces the idea of consensus building rather than uncompromising confrontation.  Mr. Geffin is his nemesis and it’s a fight which Mr. Hoye’s actor’s background appears to relish.  Are we well served?  Maybe - maybe not – I’m just traveling by.  I can be a more effective participant with issues in Laguna Beach.

         In fact  Mr. Hoye casually mentioned how timely Laguna Beach has been in assuming control of its O.T.D.’s (Offers To Dedicate) before any have expired and so we have gained additional perpendicular access ways to the beach.  In Malibu, we see inactive gates along PCH with faded coastal access signs attached, sporting rusty chains and corroded padlocks prohibiting entry to concrete steps, poured years ago, which go down to the beach.  One gate even had a restaurant’s trash receptacles parked in front.

     The days are passing, we walk on.  Los Angeles is next.  As if a curtain has been lifted, we are walking along the sand and there, between numerous buildings, we see wide gaps, and what is filling the gaps you may ask?  Well, one of Southern California’s most valuable resources of course - parking lots (every entry $6.00)!  ‘There’s the ultimate beach access,’ one of our group says.  We travel on, every step closer to territory with which I am intimately familiar - Santa Monica, Venice and Marina Del Rey.


        So, if today is Friday as you read this - venture to the beach and step out with Coastwalk. See you all soon!  There’s less than 10% of our l,200-mile journey to walk…"

     Once again, Janette’s report of life on the hike parallels life in general.  Some obstacles are overcome by a court battle or are temporarily skirted, while others are gotten past with the helping hand of a friend.  And sometimes it’s just a question of dealing with a little tar on your feet!

Jennifer Erickson