We spent three nights camping along the Pacific Coast Highway before arriving in San Francisco. Each night out there exposed us to new people and new environs and left us inspired to share them with you. Sometimes the tales have to do with food, sometimes they don't. Either way, expect one every Tuesday until we get to San Francisco.
I left Intelligentsia Coffee on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice around ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning. My destination was San Francisco, but I didn’t plan to get there until Friday. That gave me three nights of camping wherever I saw fit to do so along the Pacific Coast Highway. My only agenda was to have camp set up by nightfall, and after tacos for lunch in Santa Barbara, that happened for the first time 135 miles north in San Simeon State Park. Site 229 seemed like the right fit.
The sun had almost set when I heard a strange grumble behind me. I turned toward the edge of the woods where the noise came from and saw a tall man approaching. My pile of firewood was slowly accumulating around the base of the steel drum in which fires are permitted in San Simeon State Park. "They might give you a ticket for that," the voice said. But Leroy, a native of West Virginia it turns out, told me without an ounce of intention in his voice. He spoke softly and in the manner in which a teacher might address a student.
Leroy was in a bad bike accient in Florida three years ago. He no longer took the marathon rides he used to. His main trip now was the 30 miles to Cambria up Highway One from his home in Morro Bay.
"You're not supposed to gather," Leroy informed me. I let him know my curated pile of twigs were down branches and that I would never sacrifice tree limbs for fire more to make a good impression than anything else. I had three stacks: the small stuff I'd put over leaves and fallen pine needles, drumstick-size twigs that I'd teepee over those, and enough Louisville slugger-size branches that would ensure at least two hours of warmth and tall flames.
"Yea they don't like you doin' that," he said, "but I didn't see nothin. Where ya from?"
"I'm from West Virigina. I don't work anymore. I can't," he said. "I'm crippled."
I thought it a strange thing for an avid cyclist and someone who walked with grace to my campsite from theirs to say, but didn't let it stop me from pulling a Mad River Extra Pale Ale from the cold pool of half-melted ice in my styrofoam cooler and prying it open with a decade-old Leatherman for him. I held it in his direction. He took it with a large hand and then, for the briefest of moments, the sound of glass bottlenecks clinking together was louder than the crackling pine burning in the fire. The orange glow it cast was enough to reveal Leroy's grey beard, but the grey beard wasn't enough to conceal a face that looked as though it had seen three lifetimes worth of stories unfold before its two blue eyes.
In Central California, on the Pacific Coast, the difference in temperature between afternoon and evening is twenty degrees. The best way to combat the drastic shift is with layers of clothing and by the time the moon was high in the sky casting its clean silver glow on Leroy and I, I was wearing almost every shirt I brought. Leroy didn't sit down on the weathered picnic table to drink his beer like I did. He finished it standing up and soon after faded into the shadows, relying on the subtle glow of his own now smoldering fire to get him home.
Without the distraction of another person, the sound of waves crashing onto the Pacific shore 300-yards away came into focus and mixed with the sounds of night creatures and burning pine. It left me in a trance that lasted until I heard another voice address me from over my shoulder.
“Hi there,” she said. Her voice caught me off guard and I quickly turned my attention from the fire.
“My grandson and his wife just left and we have some extra food. Would you like a burrito and some hot chocolate?”
I could see her camper over her shoulder. The door was open and soft yellow light spilled into the otherwise black night.
“Wow. That would be really great. Thank you so much. I’m Craig," I said, extending a hand.
“Carolyn. I’ll bring it over for you. Are you alone?”
She turned on her heels and likely left a cloud of dust in doing so, but the night sky and pale orange glow of the fire did nothing to prove it. I turned back to the fire unable to get lost in the depth of its flames. I had become too distracted by the kindness of Carolyn’s gesture and the fact that the situation was one that could never happen back home.
Two campsites away I could just barely see the outline of Leroy’s fire and wondered what he was up to.
“It’s nothing special,” Carolyn said, walking towards me again – this time with a paper plate in one hand and a Styrofoam cup in the other.
“Oh I disagree. Something tells me it will be a fantastic meal. Thank you again. That’s really kind.”
“My pleasure. I guess we’ll be seeing you in the morning.”
With that I took what Carolyn brought over and felt the weight of two burritos in one hand and the warmth of hot chocolate in the other. I stood facing her camper in a daze for a minute as she walked back toward her camper, not entirely convinced I wasn’t dreaming, before retreating to the picnic table to thoroughly enjoy my dinner.
It’s a strange feeling to not be around any sort of artificial light. Unlike my Brooklyn apartment, camp 229 at San Simeon State Park didn’t have a streetlight outside the window. There weren’t even any windows, lest you count the one that zips open and closed in my two-man tent. Cars didn’t honk or drive by. There was no sidewalk for people to gather on and smoke cigarettes. No bars for folks to loosen up in and carry their fleeting spirit out onto the street. Corner Store carried an entirely different meaning and the closest Chinese Takeout place was easily 30 miles away.
The only light came from the moon, fire, and the headlamp I wore around my neck and turned on occasionally to make simple tasks simpler. For a quick instance I did just that to look at the plate of food Carolyn had brought over. There was a scoop of homemade salsa on the plate next to the burritos and those were filled with beans, cheese, and rice. I ate them quickly and thought about stick-to-your-ribs food and how beans were exactly that. I was grateful to have neighbors and share in their leftovers.
The hot chocolate cooled quickly in the crisp Autumn air and soon it was just me, the fire, and a Mad River IPA. The IPA part of the equation faded quickly and I used a stick to spread the fire thin until it went out and left me with the moon. With the help of my headlamp, I traded jeans for long johns and slithered into my sleeping bag – too naïve to the wilderness to consider the fact that my sleep might very well be disturbed by creatures who know the woods better than I do.
One of my favorite sounds is the long zip of a tent opening and closing. I like it because it’s a sound you only heard when you’re far from life’s essentials. At night, the sound rings in the end of a day. In the morning, when your tent may or not may not be wet with dew, the sound marks the start of a day in the same way church bells claim Sundays. Though before daylight can happen, night needs to fall. Full with burritos and hot chocolate from Carolyn and beer from the store back in town, I broke the night’s silence letting myself into my tent.
I was lying on my back. In the pitch black of the Pacific wilderness it doesn’t make sense to sleep in any other position. It was with the top of my tent catching the moon’s glow that I managed to close my eyes. But the last thing on my mind was the reality of the situation. I was going to bed in the woods. Back home in Brooklyn going to bed means walls, memory foam, heat, and a locked door. The hand I was dealt had none of those cards. Are there bears out here? Leroy said something about coyotes. I figured that by putting myself in the situation meant I couldn’t be that concerned with reality, so I let myself drift off to sleep.
It didn’t hit my tent, but it came awfully damn close. It felt close when I woke up in the middle of the night anyway – my only company the unfamiliar skirmish outside my tent and the pitch-blackness it was happening in. Without an idea of the time or where the moon was in the sky, and with my mind washed over with sleep, the sound seemed to be coming from something no smaller than a gorilla. My heart raced and I propped myself up on an elbow. Darkness didn’t fade, nor did the rummaging on the other side of my tent. I waited in a daze for the mystery beast to throw itself at the canvass partition that divided us, but the noises drifted further away. I took the silence as a sign the animal was getting closer – living out its innate instincts and ability to hunt. It never happened. I grabbed my iPhone: 3:48am. I managed to find sleep and held on until the sun came up.
Carolyn's husband Patrick joined me as I got the fire going for breakfast. We shared bread and bacon and coffee. He told me about immigrating to the states from Chile as a teenager and how he works as a mechanical engineer, but most of his interests were biological in nature. When I told him I was heading to San Francisco he told me about Araucaria trees in Ghirardelli Square that are native to Chile. He went on with passion and in great detail about the common firefly, luciferin, and how lampyridae species are billions of years old. He also told me about the animal that woke me up the night before. It had woken him up too, only he caught a glimpse of it from his camper window.
The sun was just over the horizon when Patrick told me about the raccoon. I had already finished my breakfast of beans, eggs, and bacon, but when Patrick walked over with a cup of coffee for me I fried up some more bacon and we cut into a loaf of sourdough.
“Did you hear the raccoon last night?” He asked me.
“That’s what that noise was? I had no idea, but definitely heard it outside my tent,” I told him. “It sounded huge.”
Patrick told me he watched the crafty bastard get into the cooler he had sitting behind his camper’s trailer hitch. The only thing that kept the raccoon from eating a week’s worth of food was Patrick waking up and shooing it away. He brought the cooler inside and scratched his head in the early morning hours thinking about hunger and what animals can do to satiate it. We took care of our own hunger getting to know one another as the low sun cast long, sharp shadows everywhere.
Having been to San Simeon State Park before, Patrick went on in great detail about the network of wonderful trails that surround the park. I decided I'd go for a hike before taking down camp and hitting the Pacific Coast Highway. The bacon was gone and Patrick and I finished the bread and drank the last of our coffee. We shook hands. Patrick made his way nextdoor and I started to clean up camp before finding the trails.
That's when Leroy came by to say good morning.
I couldn’t quite remember, but I was pretty sure Leroy was wearing the same thing that he had on the day before. Not entirely important, but it's important to know he’s that sort of fellow. He’s consistent. His pace never varies. Nor does his relaxed drawl or enthusiasm for stones, as I would find out. I stayed seated at the picnic table as Leroy waltzed over with the sun to his back. I rinsed the dishes from breakfast and put them away. There was room for Leroy to sit down, but he didn’t.
“How’d ya sleep?” he asked, standing by the fire I kept burning.
“Oh, fine. Except I woke up to what I just found out was a raccoon getting into Patrick and Carolyn’s cooler.”
“Oh yea, they’re clever critters when they’re hungry.”
He continued to stand as he went into greater detail about his life – which began in West Virgina. Florida and a bike accident happened. That forced surgery and a scar on his left forearm and left him unable to squeeze the front break on his bicycle. But it wasn’t enough to keep him from making the thirty-mile trip to San Simeon State Park a few times a year.
“I like it here," he said. "It’s quiet. There’s cell service and you can have campfires." When he said that the wind shifted and blew warm heat from my fire at us. “And there’s lots of neat stones.”
“Stones? How do you mean?”
He turned around and got ten steps closer to his campsite before he answered me. “I’ll show ya,” he said, without turning around.
He was carrying a small tin bowl when he started back towards my site. He held it steady as he walked and its clean silver edges reflected the sun’s early morning rays. When he put it down on the table in front me I saw two inches of water and a bounty of small rocks, each a different color. Some pink, others white, and a few the most peculiar of green.
“Those are jade,” he told me, "for my daughter."
Then he took one of the thinner, white stones and held it to the sun. "You can see through most stones," he told me, handing me the stone to see for myself. I did like he did and found light fighting it's way through the stone in three places. He gave me the stone and one other.
"Patrick told me there's some great trails around here," I said, all the rocks back in their bath. "Do you hike much?"
"No, not really. I like to ride."
I hiked alone; walking first over dry hills and then down a valley into deeply wooded forest. Something stung me in the nose at one point, otherwise I was alone with silence for the better part of the early afternoon.
I had two beers left from the night before and wanted to leave them with Leroy, who rather enjoyed the one I gave him before my hike.
He preferred to sit at his campsite, in a small chair with its back to the woods. With a few bits of bread laid out ten feet in front of him, chipmunks, birds, and squirrels took turns keeping Leroy company.
"I'm hittin the road," I told him, noticing all his gear (camping, cooking, cycling etc.) was neatly laid out on his picnic table. "Wanted to leave these beers with you. And thanks again for the stones."
"Oh awright, thank you."
I took three steps toward my car when he called out, "Here now," he said, holding a small black pot at the end of his right hand, "take this. I don't need it. I got two of em. Save yourself some money."
We shook hands.
I could see dust hanging in the reflection of my rearview mirror as I beeped my horn and waved goodbye to Leroy, Patrick, and Carolyn.
I hadn't been on the Pacific Coast Highway for five minutes when I saw the zebras Partick and Leroy told me about. They roam the 250,000 acre property of Hearst Castle, which extends to San Simeon State Park in the south and the highway to the west. That's why I camped there the first night. Not to see the zebras, but because I found out the day before you can take a tour of the castle's wine cellar.
George Hearst bought 40,000 acres of ranchland in 1865. Fifty years later, his son William Randolph inherited the property, which had grown the acreage it is today. By 1949, 165 rooms were built and Hearst Castle was finished. The property is owned by California State Parks, but the Hearst family owns the contents therein. So the castle and it's furniture belongs to the Hearsts, but the land it sits on is the state's. Similar rule ties into the wine cellar, which is stocked with bottles of old vermouth, Chablis, Bordeaux, and German riesling from the twenties, and Nuits St. Georges pinot noir from 1878. The state owns the actual bottles, but the family owns the wine.
I left the castle at 3pm and started to think about where I'd camp. I had done a bit of research and figured I could hit Plaskett Creek Campgrounds by nightfall. Sand Dollar Beach is across the street and the name intrigued me. But when I pulled off the highway near Salmon Creek Falls, the lad who made my coffee told me about campgrounds up near Treebones. "When you pull of the highway, you'll see a sign. You can go right for Treebones, but turn left," he said. "That's Will Creek Road. There's no fee to camp there."
I drove ten miles from Salmon Creek until I saw signs for Treebones. I turned off the highway and saw the sign. I took a left. It was 4pm. Will Creek Road winds up into the mountains with about three feet to spare between road and cliff. It's all loose dirt and sand. None of it's paved. I continued to drive, kicking up more and more dust as I looked for signs of campgrounds. There were none - campgrounds or otherwise. The terrain was rugged. Thirty minutes later, the sun lower in the sky, and I had gone less than four miles. That's when I heard a dog's bark come through the passenger side window I had cracked open and put the car in park.
There was a deep ravine between me and the bark and I was at the edge of it. On the other side was a somewhat manicured lawn. The dog kept barking when it's owner saddled up next to it and looked over at me.
There was a No Trespassing sign too. That and the barking dog are what made me put the car in park. With the dog on the other side of the ravine, and its owner now sidled up next to it, I called out to man and beast, "Hello."
The dog stopped barking and my call hung ignored over the ravine.
"I was told there are campgrounds nearby."
"Campgrounds? No campgrounds up here. You can't go up there"
I had just over an hour before the sun would go and leave night behind. The drive up to the No Trespassing sign took forty minutes, so I'd have about thirty to find a place to camp once I made it back down to the PCH.
I passed three cars on my decent. They were all trucks and their drivers met my eyes with strange looks when they saw a Mazda battling the unpaved, cliffside road. I brought the car to a stop as one of the trucks passed. The driver had his window open.
"How you doin buddy?" He wasn't wearing a shirt and his skin had leathered from a lifetime in the sun.
"Good," I told him, not sure yet if that was the case or not. "Guy back in town told me there were campgrounds somewhere up here. All I found was a No Trespassing sign and a barking dog about a mile back. The dog's owner came out and told me there was nothing up that way."
"Oh, him. I know that guy. Come on, he can't tell ya that. I'm headin up there now. The road opens up to a clearing. I'm campin up there tonight, gonna be a full moon, bright as day. Just the sky man. You wanna follow me up?"
Plan B: Plaskett Creek.
"No, I don't think so. Heard about another campsite up the road a ways. Thanks though."
I missed it on the drive up. There's a post just off the road two or three hundred yards in. It's four feet tall and there's a yellow sign with a diagonal red line cutting through red flames painted at the center. Underneath: "No Campfires." There's a path that invites any and all deep into the woods to camp at their own risk. I was intrigued, but wanted a sure thing and the option of fire.
I pulled into Plaskett Creek at the tail end of dusk.
Much of California was in a state of fire weather watch. San Simeon State Park, only 35 miles south on the Pacific Coast Highway, allowed contained fires the night before, but when I pulled into Plaskett Creek there was yellow caution tape wrapped around the fire pits. The sun was too low in the sky to leave in search of campgrounds that permitted fire, so I checked in and setup camp in a corner lot that butted up against thick woods.
A couple came over and invited me to finish the leftover pasta they just boiled. The introduction happened fast and came with a sense of camaraderie. I used a thin tin spoon to scoop pesto from a glass jar and stir into a bowlful of cellentani noodles. I leaned against the couple's picnic table and got to know Martina and Bastian as I ate their food. This was their last night in the wilderness and they would leave to go back home to Hamburg in the morning.
"Have you heard anything about Sand Dollar Beach?" I asked after finishing dinner and rinsing out the bowl at a nearby pump.
"We haven't, no."
"Come on," I said, "it's just across the street."
We set for the beach with headlamps around our necks and beers in our hands. I had read that Sand Dollar Beach was near Plakett Creek, but wasn't exactly sure where. Fifty yards up the road from the Plaskett Creek entrance, though, is a worn path that leads up a short hill and into an open field. Countless footsteps have carved out a path there and it takes you to stairs that lead down onto Sand Dollar Beach: the largest crescent of sandy beach in Big Sur. Standing on the shore, the massive arch of Pacific cliffs traps the sound of waves breaking and causes it to echo.
The sand was cold on our bare feet, but not as cold as the water that raced onto the shore sporadically and with force as we stood with our backs to it.
We finished our beers and turned on our headlamps to make our way back to Plaskett Creek. Without any fires nearby the sky was dark and only disrupted by stars and our luminescent foreheads. We got back to camp and each got another beer and one more layer, then a car pulled up and someone got out to introduce themself.