I’d been planning some kind of a road trip for a few weeks and I needed a motive. I was originally thinking I might drive cross country to visit my home town in Pennsylvania, but the problem with heading east out of Southern California is the 1500 miles of desert that must be crossed between here and anywhere else. You won’t see a tree between Pine Valley and Dallas. And the northern routes are not much better, because you still have to cross Kansas or Nebraska. Los Angeles is too close, Seattle too far (although the idea of driving to Alaska did cross my mind), and the idea of being alone in San Francisco was depressing.
Just an 8 hour drive, and a place with which I’m quite familiar. And camping is cheap.
Now I just needed the flimsiest excuse to go.
Ostensibly , I would just getting away for a few days to enjoy the fresh air and solitude, but I wanted another component to this trip. I decided it was to be a journey of self-examination.
The only problem with that is, I have been examining myself for as long as I can remember, going back, at least, to elementary school. In fact, I consider it my biggest personal fault, constantly second-guessing and analyzing the consequences of my every move, always worrying about how I come across. I would never be described as “care free”. Someone recently had told me point-blank that my head was so far up my ego’s ass that I’d lost track of the horizon. Or words to that effect. And she was a friend.
An intrinsic problem with self-examination is who, exactly, is examining who.
Ultimately it didn’t really matter because the idea was already set into motion and had taken on a life of its own.
I was packed and out by 8:00 Sunday morning. First stop would be Morro Bay, traditionally for me the jumping off point to Big Sur. I had booked a room for the night at a motel called the Fireplace Inn, but, unfortunately, that was the extent of my planning. I was obsessed with a couple things: would there be any available campsites in Big Sur, and why again was I even taking this trip in the first place.
Being Sunday morning, it was smooth sailing all the way up through Los Angeles on the 405, even through the Sepulveda pass, and the 101 through Ventura County was not much worse. I took the 154 bypass out of Santa Barbara through the Santa Ynez mountains reminding myself that every car coming toward me down the two lane mountain road was likely driven by someone who had just spent the entire weekend drinking wine in Solvang, and probably most of them were either as soused as herring or hungover
When I rejoined Highway 101 in Buellton , the traffic was heavier and angrier, the road clogged with some very aggressive shit-head drivers, the kind that like to get up on your ass, pretending they’re about to push you off the road. So far, not relaxing, not tranquil, and the only examining I was doing was staring at the ominous grill of the SUV who was ten feet off my bumper.
Finally, signs showing San Luis Obispo getting closer, then the cut off to Highway 1 and Morro Bay. I was still obsessing about campsite availability in Big Sur, but it was a relief to leave the 101 traffic behind me. Before checking into my motel, I drove over to Morro Bay State Park and saw that the sign in front of even that cheesy little campground said “full”.
After an excellent grilled snapper in a seafood joint called “Born’s”, and a relatively pleasant night in the motel, I was on the road again by 6:00 AM, hoping to snare a campsite early. The signs were not promising. San Simeon campground was booked up, as were several campsites in the Los Padres National Forest, south of Big Sur. With an increasing sense of dread, I arrived at the Big Sur State Park ranger station right before it opened at 9:00 AM. My worst fears were then realized: all campsites in the state park were booked up until labor day, two months away.
What kind of a half-ass trip was this anyway? Poorly planned, poorly conceived, impulsive. And I really didn’t have a plan B. Turn around and head back to San Diego? Drive another 300 miles to the Siskiyou Wilderness? Try and find a motel that I can’t afford in Carmel? Sleep in my car?
And the self-reflection thing was turning out to be bullshit, too. The same unresolvable thoughts, self-denunciations, and concerns were pinballing around in my mind as always. Of course, jamming up the road and worrying about a place to sleep is not conducive to tranquility but so far, not feeling the love. I had cursed several drivers on Highway 101 yesterday and even cursed a seagull in Morro, yelling at it to “shut the fuck up” when it was squawking loudly in the motel parking lot. What kind of person am I? How is sleeping on the ground possibly going to help me? What help am I even seeking? Only one or two people even knew where the fuck I was, and I doubt that they gave it two thoughts.
At that point I remembered a campground at the north end of Big Sur. Several years ago, I found myself in the same locked-out situation but I had stumbled upon Andrew Molera State Park. It is a rustic, walk-in campground, consisting of only 24 campsites, but it’s fully a 1/2 mile walk down a fairly rugged trail from the parking lot on Highway 1 to the sites and there are no reservations. First come/first serve.
I jammed the 6 miles up the road, through the commercialized part of Big Sur. Molera was my sole hope. The sign at the turn-off said “campground full” and my heart sank, but I parked, raced down the trail with my backpack, and it turns out that I practically had the place to myself! I pitched my tent in in the shade of a small coastal oak, site #3, and ambled back up the trail to formalize the deal with the ranger. I was ecstatic.
After preparing the campsite, I walked the mile-long path to the beach and back, then drove back south a few miles to pick up the trail head that climbs up through the Ventana Wilderness. I walked vertically up that path trying to shake off the claustrophobia of the car and my own thought patterns, but it was an arduous and steep climb and I was fucking exhausted, so after a couple miles I returned to my car and then to my campsite. The sun was finally settling into a prolonged dusk. After a couple plastic cups of red wine, I crawled into my tent and fell asleep.
A couple hours later, I wakened to voices. Somebody, several somebodies actually, had come in after dark and took campsite #2. My new neighbors were smoking pot and saying pot-smoking things and giggling for no particular reason, into the wee hours. No drums were being banged, and no banjo was being plucked, and I think the stoners were actually trying to tone it down a bit, out of respect, but it was still obnoxious. I eventually fell back asleep to their murmuring and giggling. And in honesty, even as I grumbled under my breath throughout the night for the kid’s to just shut up, in reality I welcomed their stoned yammering. Theirs were, at least, human voices, and not my own.
When I was in college, I read Kerouac’s memoir ” Big Sur”, and the next morning I reflected on Kerouac’s longing to escape his demons here in the solitude of the flowing water and redwoods. But it doesn’t turn out so well and, as Jack bounces back and forth between here and and his old haunts in ‘Frisco, he suffers a boozy crack-up, vividly and painfully described in the book. In fact, his friends said that Kerouac never quite recovered from his stay in Big Sur and he would soon be dead. With too much alone time on his hands and too much booze, instead of escaping his demons, they devoured him.
With that in mind, I decided to head up to Carmel to find a liquor store. The red wine wasn’t cutting it.
The scenic route up the coast was jammed with traffic and every view spot parking lot was crowded with tourists taking selfies, but Carmel was as I remembered it and the liquor store was where I’d left it 20 years before. But now the challenge: 3 days sleeping on the ground, no TV, no internet, no cell phone, just me alone with my thoughts. But, at least, a bottle of tequila.
I spent my second day in Big Sur hiking trails. The trail to the beach was about a mile long and, once there, there were plenty of trails along the bluffs overlooking the ocean. I took them all and, when I was done, I took them all again. Then I took trails through meadows and trail through woods along the Big Sur River. I was just trying to tire myself out. The intractable sky was vast and cloudless and blue and the day seemed to go on forever.
I’d heard before the term “walking meditation”, as if merely to be locomoting had the effect of quieting the mind. Didn’t work for me. My mind was a dumpster of senseless detritus: whirling inner monologues, half-forgotten memories, regrets, worries, and looping bits and pieces from old songs. The soundtrack that day was “Sunny Afternoon” by the Kinks and, of course, “Kodachrome”.
I heated up some Trader Joe’s chicken chili late that afternoon, and fiddled around the campsite killing time. Dusk, or at the very least, shade finally arrived. Tequila helped usher in nightfall. I crawled into my tent and read, my coal miner forehead lamp illuminating the pages, but too often my thoughts intruded. Sleep could not come fast enough and eventually it did.
Late that night, I wakened to muffled voices. New neighbors had arrived in campsite #2. At least these assholes were trying to be quiet.
I met Ben and Jake the next morning. Ben worked in a bike shop in Gainesville, Florida and Jake lived in the Twin Cities. I have no idea of how they knew each other, but they were bicycling together from Vancouver, British Columbia to Tijuana and had been on the road for over twenty days. We chatted while they packed up their gear. “How the fuck do you get through L.A. on a bike?” I asked. Ben said “We have maps.”
Day three was an exact replica of day two: hike, sit, hike some more, fiddle around the campsite, heat up more canned chili , drink a little tequila, wait for the sun to fucking drop out of view. My neighbors that night were Yuan and Jasmine, med students at U.S.C. At the risk of coming across as a creepy old man, I hesitantly struck up a conversation. They were heading up to the Bay Area to visit their parents before resuming their studies. I ask them if I could take their picture. “Only if we can get into costume,” Jasmine said. We chatted until nightfall, than the coal miner returned to his little, nylon mine shaft and fell asleep to the sound of girlish laughter.
The next day, Thursday, I broke camp and loaded the car, but I was in no big hurry to leave Big Sur. There was a huge, ancient sycamore tree across the way that demanded my attention for a couple hours. My inner journey had taught me one thing at least: being left alone with my own thoughts, no matter how pointless, repetitive, and depressing they might be, would not kill me. (And thank god for a quality sleeping pad.) And I’d somehow managed to do it without the internet, cellular service, YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, baseball scores and all the other time-sucks that devour our daily lives.
I sailed down Highway 1, stopped for some terrific fish-and-chips on the wharf in Morrow Bay, and rejoined the 101 in San Luis Obispo. By Santa Barbara the traffic had thickened and I began cursing aloud at the lame-ass motorists, tapping their brakes needlessly, slowing down a half mile of cars. By the Sepulveda Pass, traffic had screeched to a dead halt, a six-lane parking on the 405. It would be a good two hours before I even got to San Clemente.
Stuck in traffic, I turned on my cell phone for the first time in 4 days and, after a minute, it began to buzz with missed messages.