It’s been a tough year for Big Sur. The Dolan Fire burned almost 125,000 acres of the region between August and December 2020. After that it rained, and the rainfall on fresh fire scars was feared to cause mudslides, and it did. On Thurs. Jan. 28, 2020, a debris flow crossed Highway 1 and collapsed a section of the road into the ocean. Efforts to repair the highway have been underway since February, and the road is scheduled to be back in service by the end of April. Tourists have had to avoid most of the hiking trails, and since February, it has been impossible to make the famed Highway 1 drive along the coast from Morro Bay to the Golden Gate.
With months of firefighting, precarious weather and road conditions as background, we took our time exploring this area. Initially we jumped from one place to another, looking for beaches, visiting Garrapata and Pfeiffer beaches. Pfeiffer Beach is a particularly beautiful spot. Rocks just offshore have a natural opening. The tide billows through, and at certain times, the sun sets right through this natural window. We met photographers setting up to catch views of the sunset on a calm afternoon. (The wind makes a big difference, as the second time we visited the wind was so strong we had to hide in the lee of the rocks, then leave.)
Once we realized that Big Sur is all about the views of the rocky coast, and has few beaches to walk on, we began working our way south from Carmel along Highway 1, stopping at the overlooks and taking any available walking trail along the the cliffs. Soberanes Point has a particularly nice series of trails along the rocks.
Weather and Covid have conspired to close some important stops in Big Sur. The Point Sur Lighthouse is a beautiful area, but has been closed for months. I just read that it is reopening for docent-guided tours. It sounds like there will be no wandering along the shore on one’s own.
There is a beautiful beach lying just north of the Point Sur lighthouse that I was looking forward to visiting when the grounds opened again, but I found that it is permanently closed to the public. This comes as a bit of a shock in California, where the right of pedestrians to walk on any beach up to the high tide mark is a law that has withstood years of attack by the rich (look up David Geffen and the California Coastal Commission…). About 15 miles of coastline, including this beach are fenced off and posted by the El Sur Ranch. Jonathan read up on it and the owner is seen as a great benefactor of the region, honorary member of the fire department, generous to local causes. I remain puzzled by why the ranch is allowed to keep long sections of coast land private in the face of laws to the contrary. The property goes back to a land grant in the mid-19th century, and I’m sure there are reasons, even if I don’t particularly like missing out on this stretch of the coast.
When I become discouraged that sections of the coast are not available to visit, I have to keep in mind that we have had great success in visiting most of the coast that can be reached on foot without overnight camping. One of our favorites is the Carmel River State Park, right down the road, open most of the time, a perfect place.
I poked a lot of limp sea creatures this week. It turns out that pieces of jellyfish that wash up on the shore look a lot like beach glass. Some bits of jellyfish are perfectly transparent and shimmer like crystal under the sun, while others are cloudy and frosted-looking, like nicely rounded beach glass. My efforts were rewarded, despite those icky experiences, because we found a lot of interesting glass and pottery on the beach.
The three lowest tides of the month fell on consecutive days this week, and we took advantage to collect sea glass. Arriving at Sand City beach, we found a number of serious beach glass collectors at work. Six or seven people, each wearing wet suits and boots, sometimes a parka, sometimes elbow length rubber gloves, waded in the surf. For more than an hour, maybe even two, they ranged along the shore with a long-handled tool, scraping up beach gravel and glass, rummaging through the pieces, and putting some in a shoulder bag, while wet to mid-thigh and up to the elbows. We admired their hard work, and wondered what they did with their finds.
As we walked down the beach, we stopped to watch a man collecting in the surf. He was dressed head to toe in protective gear, wet suit, boots, gloves, and hood, with his scoop and collecting bag. He noticed us and waved, then approached us, extended his scoop and showed us the glass he’d found. He then offered me the pieces. “Really?” I asked. He nodded. I thanked him and collected several very nice pieces. He turned back to the water before I had the chance to ask him what he did with his finds.
We strolled up the beach, looking for beach glass along the high tide line. There were lots of pieces to collect, and though we didn’t find any exotic colors, we didn’t have to wade in the waves to find pieces. On the way back, we stopped at our beach glass friend again, and asked what he did with his finds. He said he made things from them (hangings with driftwood, for example), and sold some. He offered me more pieces and I thanked him and asked why he was sharing with me. “Karma,” he said. “You give some away and you find some more.” We thanked him again, waved, and went our way.
On the way back, Jonathan added to my collection of beach pennies. I’m not sure what happens to pennies once they start rolling around in seawater, but the surface erodes and the copper surface peels and bubbles. I haven’t been spending much actual cash, so I still have all three. I’m not sure anyone would take them, even CoinStar.
A few hours of beach combing is hard on the knees and the back, so on the second low tide of three in a row, we made a much shorter visit to McAbee beach. We’ve visited before and noticed that there is a lot of very small beach glass in the sand. Rather than spending a lot of time stooping and peering, we took a plastic bag and collected about 2 quarts of sand from an area that seemed to have a lot of small pieces. Once we got it home, we could search the sand for tiny pieces of glass. I have been using these to make earrings filled with mini beach glass, filling little bottles and vials with colored pieces. I had been crushing glass bits to fill some extra-tiny vials, but that is both a bit of a mess and more time consuming than you’d think. My new collection of itty-bitty pebbles of beach glass will let me make as many little bottles of glass as I want. I’ll go back to making larger items after that. (Click the link in the side bar of this post to visit the Etsy site where I post the beach glass jewelry I make.)
We didn’t get through all the sand and tiny glass before it was the third and last day of low tides for at least a month. I thought I’d have a try at scooping into the water like the pros, even though I don’t have a dedicated tool. I dug out my wetsuit and water sandals, and got ready to dip in the ocean. Turns out, I’m not that good at getting wet. The day was sunny and warm, and there were women in bikinis lying on the beach in places, but I watched a woman raking in the water while a wave broke over her shoulder. I just couldn’t do it. I waded around and got wet up to my knees and elbows, and we collected some lovely beach glass. We also decided that we probably did just as well on land as getting wet. If it were 90o F. out, I might give it another try, but now I have so much glass that I don’t need to go beach combing until the next extra-low tides at the end of April. I’ll just walk on the beach and enjoy the view.
I am a big fan of islands, and looking toward Europe from Canada, I found several islands out in the Atlantic that I’d like to visit, including the Azores out in the center of the ocean, and three groups off the coast of Africa, the Republica of Cabo Verde, Madeira, and the Canary Islands. These were all identified by Europeans during the 1400s, when the explorers we learned out in grade school, including Prince Henry the Navigator, took voyages of exploration into the unknown Atlantic. Portugal dominated the seas and world exploration at that time, and today the Azores and Madeira are still overseas provinces of Portugal. The Republica de Cabo Verde was a Portuguese colony, but is now independent. The Canary Islands are a province of Spain.
What these islands have in common other than their Iberian ancestry, is delightful climate. Even the Azores, that appears to be out in the North Atlantic, has a range of mild annual temperatures that don’t fall below freezing and rarely reach 80oF. Distance is the issue for visitors to the Azores, since flights are long, though there are direct flights from Boston–Wait! We should not go there yet.
Needless to say, our beach combing would be interesting on any of these islands. Advice for people visiting the Azores is to pick one or two places to visit among the nine major islands, as transport between islands is costly. I’d like to visit one of the smaller islands by ferry, just for the experience. My choices would be shaped by which airport we landed at, as Ponta Delgada, one of the major cities, is on the eastern edge of the group, and the only island nearby is tiny Vila do Porto. There is a ferry that takes about five hours. If our plane landed on Lajes, in the central group of islands, there are nearby islands that could be visited easily by ferry. Festivals on the Azores tend to be related to religious holidays, with processions and flower bedecked displays. These largely take place between Easter and the end of August. Carnival is another event celebrated on all these islands. Folk dancing and colorful costumes are traditional, and embroidery is a widespread local craft. Visiting during Carnival, Easter, or Christmas might be more crowded, but there would be lots of good things to see.
Our next stop might be Republic of Cabo Verde, off the coast of Africa near Senegal. The best time to visit is in January and February, when the temperature mostly stays below 80oF and there is scant or no rainfall. Most of the annual rain falls during September, a month that might be better elsewhere. I first learned of Cabo Verde as a young stamp collector. Small countries used to issue beautiful commemorative stamps as a way to make money. Collectors all over the world would pay for unused individual stamps, blocks of stamps, or stamped envelopes (First day of issue covers). There are some gorgeous ones by well known artists.
Like many island groups, Cabo Verde has a number of endemic bird species (found only in this place) that would give us new challenges in our bird watching. As you can imagine, there is plenty of seafood, and even a small wine industry, which we would do our best to support. A good reason to support Cabo Verde by visiting is the fact that the country has made strides in decreasing poverty and building a strong economic foundation. About 30% of its electricity now comes from wind farms, and there is probably more to come.
Moving north, Madeira is a single large island and three much smaller islands off the coast of Morocco. There’s a choice to be made in visiting. The three warmest months are June, July, and August, when rainfall is lowest, with average high temperatures around 80oF. However, recent record high temperatures in these months reach 100oF, so you might want to accept more rainfall for a month with milder weather, perhaps during April or May when there is just over an inch of rain. The other months average three or more inches of rain, so take your umbrella.
I had no idea that Madeira was so popular with cruise ships. Madeira is the most-visited place in Portugal for cruise ships, more than Lisbon. Half a million visitors a year disembark from cruise ships. They go on walks that border an extensive series of canals, they taste Madeira wine, and eat a fusion of Portuguese and local cooking. There is even a colorful endemic bird to look for, the Madeira firecrest. I think that it must get crowded in Funchal, the main city and port, so I’d look for a rental house somewhere outside the city.
Last, but far from least, is the Spanish group of islands. The Canary Islands may be the best known of all these Atlantic destinations, as they are very close to the coast of Morocco and have been known for hundreds of years. The name for the islands comes from the Latin word “canis” for dog, as dogs were mentioned in connection by Pliny and other early writers. There is even a breed of dog from this region, the Presa Canario, a big dog formerly for fighting, not birdlike at all. Canary birds are named after the islands, not the other way around.
There are eight main islands in this group, many more smaller islands, and a number of unoccupied but mapped “rocks”. The population is over two million, mostly on two islands, Tenerife and Gran Canaria. Described as having “long, hot summers and mild winters,” there is almost no rainfall May through August. It’s no wonder that the Canary Islands are popular with European vacationers and retirees. This is another big cruise ship stop, and the cities may get crowded, but there are lots of places outside the two capital cities, Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. I’m sure we could find a wonderful spot for a month.
Prince Edward Island, Canada, often called PEI, was almost our destination about a year and a half back. We ended up going to Charleston, SC instead, but I think that when Canada is available as a destination, we may give PEI a visit.
Statistically, PEI is the most densely populated Canadian province, and the smallest. Tucked between Cape Breton Island and New Brunswick, PEI is connected to Nova Scotia by a bridge, so no ferry ride is needed to get there. The island is a popular vacation spot, with agriculture and fisheries the other industries. In the summer months, farmer’s markets are likely to have veggies to go along with the fish you grill on your patio.
Beach combing is promoted as a holiday activity on PEI, one of the reasons we first looked at it as a place to visit. We’d explore the coast looking for beach glass and other finds. There are miles and miles of beaches all around the island.
We also like to visit some quirky places, and AtlasObscura.com never lets us down. PEI has a Potato Museum, a museum and Hall of Fame related to fox ranching (for fur coats?), and the smallest library in Canada. The place we’d actually visit is the Edward Arsenault Bottle Houses. Rather than waiting for bottles to become beach glass, Arsenault saved empty bottles and used them to build three different structures. It sounds like quite a hobby.
Also notable is the fact that Anne of Green Gables, a favorite novel, is set on Prince Edward Island. The town of Avonlea in the stories is modeled after Cavendish, PEI. There are a number of places that take advantage of the association, including Green Gables Heritage Place, with “the house that inspired Anne of Green Gables,” and Avonlea Village, a “tribute town”. If you read the book as a child, you might want to stop in.
While looking for information about PEI, I came across this illustration from the cover of a brochure about the island that was published in 1900, "The garden of the gulf, Prince Edward Island – and its handsome and delightful capital Charlottetown – being pictures and description of the charms of city and seashore as summer resorts“. PEI looks very inviting.
After my previous post, we would have gotten off the ferry at the north end of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. One of the first things we’d see is the “World’s Largest Fiddle” (60 ft. high), along the Sydney, NS harbor where the ferry lands. From there, if we don’t decide to stay locally, we’d make our way toward the Atlantic coast. If we make it past Isle Madame, where there is a provincial park, we’ll wend our way off Cape Breton Island and on to “mainland” Nova Scotia.
The coast is full of inlets, with only one road leading south, so we’d probably take double the travel time calculated by Google maps. We might stop to have a brief quarrel in Bickerton, then agree to spend the night in Spanish Ship Bay, just because I like the name. The next day, we’ll continue toward Halifax, perhaps renting our home for a month somewhere along the coast northeast or southwest of the city. That would give us access to anything we need in the way of services, including my monthly visit to a retina specialist, and still let us explore the Atlantic coast. Nova Scotia has been visited by Europeans since about 1597, when explorer John Cabot landed somewhere between Maine and Labrador, often thought to be Nova Scotia. This means that beach combing along the coast could yield anything from a fisherman’s boot lost in the previous month to a 16th century Venetian coin.
One of my favorite websites to check for places to visit is Atlas Obscura, where contributors report odd sights and experiences, and where I found the world’s largest fiddle. There are a number of these for Nova Scotia, including the Oak Island money pit, a spot that is said to hold a fortune in treasure for the person who can get to it. Many have tried and failed due to quicksand and other hazards, but hope springs eternal in a gambler’s heart, so people occasionally still try to figure out why no one has been able to get to the bottom of the pit. The Curse of Oak Island reality TV show claims to have found the secret of the treasure to be revealed in the final episode of their eighth season, available on Amazon Prime in 2021. I’ll have to tune in.
Nova Scotia has been occupied by native people for thousands of years. The Mikmaq are the most recent group, from late prehistory to the present. Some sites can be visited, though pre-European life was relatively simple, with survival the principal goal. The arrival of Europeans started construction of all kinds, and today
Nova Scotia is a colonial history buff’s delight, with a long record of being caught in the crosshairs of international politics. Toward the end of the 1700s, Acadian settlers were expelled for being allied with France, some of whom ended up in Louisiana as Cajuns. while British loyalists moved in from the former colonies after 1776. In the 1800s an influx of Scots escaping the Highland Clearances shifted the population toward Gaelic speakers. Every war seems to have pulled in this strategically located area. Ruined forts and fortifications intended to protect the coast can still be seen in many places.
Nova Scotia is also a great place for lighthouse aficionados. There is an excellent map that shows the 128 lighthouses and places that once had lighthouses. There are lists that tell you whether you can visit, drive by for a photo, whether the lighthouse is so remote you can’t even get a decent photo, or whether the lighthouse is no longer in existence. The map is very nice-looking as well.
Since we are nature lovers no longer capable of long wilderness hikes, and archaeology buffs but not necessary fans of old forts and other stony places, we’ll spend most of our month visiting the coast and admiring the crashing waves. We’d look for some of the birds that live in the northland (puffins!), and visit Halifax for markets and restaurants. We’d like to think that by the time we can get across the border into Canada, Nova Scotia will be ready for us.
I have shared a lot of photos of the California coast this year, where we continue to find trails and beaches that we haven’t visited before. We are gradually getting nearer to our goal of walking as much of the shore as possible between Big Sur and Santa Cruz. As more and more people get vaccinated, the “travel question” is emerging. Where will we go when it is safe to travel again. I don’t know when that will be, but I’m starting a list of possibilities. Most of the suggestions I plan to post are islands, because that’s the kind of place I like to visit.
I’m starting relatively close to home, with Newfoundland, Canada. I’ve seen the colorful buildings in downtown St. John’s in the opening scene of “Republic of Doyle” on TV. If you haven’t seen that clip, and would like an orientation, this map shows you that Newfoundland is an island just off the coast of mainland Canada. It’s a big island, about the 16th largest in the world, slightly larger than Cuba, and just smaller than New Zealand’s North Island. St. John’s is the capital, on the extreme eastern of the island, facing the Atlantic Ocean. It would be interesting to be there through a storm and watch the waves break on the rocky coast. On the other hand, I would probably visit Newfoundland during the summer months when storms are less likely.
When we decide that a place may be worth visiting, one of the first things we do is look at the annual weather. Jonathan and I aim to travel from March or April through the end of October. Here’s how Newfoundland looks in terms of temperature and rainfall:
You can see that the lowest rainfall and warmest temperatures come in July and August, followed by May, June, and September. I include September based on another chart that shows the ocean is warmest during that month. Personally, I don’t plan to go swimming in Newfoundland. May doesn’t have much rain, but is pretty cold. The best time to visit is the best time to visit many places, in the middle of summer. On the bright side, Europe is getting to be so hot during these months that a visit to Canada may be just the thing.is
Beyond the view of St. John’s, and the legendary Newfoundland dogs, I only know of one place to visit in Newfoundland, the only confirmed Norse site in North America, L’Anse aux Meadows. Norsemen sailed from Viking settlements in Greenland, landing on the northern tip of Newfoundland around AD 1000. The weather was harsh, game was scarce, and the indigenous people were hostile, according to Viking accounts of the New World. There’s a difference of opinion over L’Anse aux Meadows. Was it a short-lived settlement, or a boat repair station that was used on and off for a century or more?
Today, L’Anse aux Meadows is a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are reconstructed buildings to see, artifacts from excavations at the site, and a nearby historic park where blacksmiths hammer, weavers spin, and visitors can observe some of the tasks that the occupants of the site carried out in AD 1000. I would like to visit this unusual site, even though getting there takes a bit of work. St. John’s is about 500 km from L’Anse aux Meadows, and according to Google, it would take more than 11 hours to drive there. For us, that means at least one night on the road each way.
Unlike our usual plan to stay in one place for a month and explore from that base, Newfoundland might require a different strategy if we’re really going to the far northern tip of the island to visit an archaeological site. I’d plan to spend two weeks in the St. John’s area in an Airbnb. We’d rent a car and explore the coast, going out from St. John’s as far as we could comfortably visit in one day. During the second two weeks of our stay, we’d take a road trip, stopping overnight in Grand Falls/Windsor, the largest town in the interior (pop: aprox. 15,000). From there we’d drive to the west coast of Newfoundland, possibly stopping another night near Gros Morne National Park. We’d make the final drive up the northern peninsula of Newfoundland to St. Anthony’s, a far northern town, about a half hour’s drive from L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Park. Staying in the area for four to five nights, we’d have time to rest from our long drive, and to see L’Anse aux Meadows at a leisurely pace. We’d also look at the coast and do some beach combing.
With a few days left in our month in Newfoundland, we would head south again. Depending on where we can return a rental car, we’d drive to Stephenville on the west coast of NF, or back to St. John’s on the east. If we could work it out, we’d drive all the way to the southwest corner of Newfoundland to Port aux Basques, drop our car and board the ferry for Sydney, on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Since we’re visiting Canada just now, Nova Scotia will be my next stop.
If you’re going to explore, you need maps. The map on your phone is indispensable, but it’s not enough. There are places both inland and along the coast of California where cell phone signals disappear, but there’s a solution for that: Paper resources. Two in particular have helped us out, the DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer for California, and the California Coastal Access Guide.
The DeLorme atlas is a large format book of maps that covers the entire state. When you start down a rural road and then lose your phone signal, you can check and see whether the road eventually connects with something else, or whether you will have to turn around. There’s not quite as much detail as a USGS quad sheet, but it takes up a lot less space. We tend to leave it in the car; it’s there when we need it.
The California Coastal Access Guide is a big help when you’re trying to stop at places all along the coast. It’s great for us because we’d like to walk the entire coast, and figuring out how to get to the beach can become a big headache. California has valuable state laws that protect access to the coast, at least as far as the high water mark. No matter who lives in the adjacent property, landowners cannot prevent people from walking along the shore. Unfortunately, people don’t always behave themselves, and papparazzi can hang out on the high tide mark trying to photograph the rich and famous in their houses nearby. For that reason, some wealthy land owners have tried to close off their beachfront to keep out the public. David Geffen, record producer, is one of the best known. He spent twenty-seven years trying to sue various California agencies so that he could block access to the beach in front of his house in Malibu. He lost.
That doesn’t mean that homeowners with beachfront property have to make access easy. Many “coastal access” points have only minimal markings, and have only one or two parking spaces. The trail to the coast may be narrow and almost invisible if you aren’t looking for it. The Coastal Access Guide lists points of access all along the coast, with some useful directions. A chart is included that tells whether there is a beach, a trail, parking, and whether dogs are allowed. We use it to plan visits when our children bring their dogs.
Even this resource isn’t complete. Developers have to assure coastal access as part of the permit process before housing can be built along the shore. This means there are narrow coastal access paths through some neighborhoods that are not in the Coastal Access book. We do our best to discover them. When we find an area that seems apt for beach combing but doesn’t have an obvious path or parking area, we drive along the road closest to the water looking for the Coastal Access symbol.
In Carmel Highlands, there are two neighborhoods along the water. We wanted to visit Yankee Point, an irregular chunk of land off Spindrift Lane, but found no way to get to the water. We’ve made a couple of passes, but haven’t had any luck getting out to Yankee Point, despite a tempting trail visible in GoogleEarth.
In the next neighborhood to the south, off Yankee Point Drive, there is no access to Yankee Point, despite the name. At the very south end of the street, though, we found a narrow coastal access trail that leads to a tiny beach at the mouth of Malpaso Creek. There are a few places for cars to park on the street, too. We were so pleased at having found a hidden coastal access point that we walked down to have a look. The trail has a beautiful overlook of the inlet, one trail to the beach, and another into the woods upstream for a short distance. Highway One passes overhead on a high concrete bridge, yet under its span is a patch of woodland with good birdwatching, and toward the end of the trail about a quarter mile in, there’s a tiny stand of redwoods.
On the Saturday of MLK holiday weekend, we set out to visit Monastery Beach and arrived to find it packed with cars and people. The crowds were too much for us, and we decided to try Yankee Point Drive. Sure enough, there were three other cars parked, but still room for us. We stopped at the overlook to chat with a young woman sitting in the sun. We said how much we enjoyed this lesser known spot of coast and she told us that this was one place she always came by herself. There were a few other people along the path, and one family on the tiny beach, just the right number.
If you live or visit anywhere north of the Bay Area, there’s the best possible list of access points that includes even the most carefully hidden ones. The Hiker’s Hip Pocket Guides to northern California (Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt, and DelNorte counties) include every possible access point. It can be a lot of fun finding your way to these lesser known places. We used the Hiker’s Hip Pocket Guide in Mendocino and saw some lovely tiny beaches with its help. When you move to a new area or plan a longer stay along the coast, these guides are worth having. We find new places to visit almost every time we thumb through their pages.
That’s one way to look at it. In our case, the error wasn’t intentional, just a momentary lack of judgement that turned out really, really badly.
It rained for two solid days this past week, and when the sun came out on Friday, we wanted to go somewhere interesting. We settled on the Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge, a place we’d been to before. This time, we packed a picnic and planned to walk a few hundred yards out to the beach, rather than walk the trail among the trees.
We made a few detours on the way to look at storm effects on a different beach, so we got a late start. By noon, we turned off Rte. 1 and headed west along the short road to the park. Less than 1/4 mile along, we could see some big puddles, and some tracks going through them. I didn’t remember whether the road was paved under the water and mud. It didn’t look great, so we sat and debated for a minute. Then we went ahead.
That was a mistake. We should have gotten out and gone for a look, which would have convinced us of the futility of driving through this spot in a Prius. We plunged on, and within less than a minute realized our mistake. It was impossible for Jonathan to turn the car around in the mud, and though he successfully backed up about half way back to the paved road, we stuck fast about 100 yards from safety. And yes, the few vehicles that subsequently passed us as we waited for assistance all had four wheel drive.
We tried to get ourselves out of the mud, but we had no tools and the mud was very thick and sticky. In no time, our boots weighed about five pounds per foot, with huge clods of mud stuck everywhere. After a half hour of effort, we realized that we were slowly slipping toward the field of newly-planted cauliflower that lay beside us, and not getting any further out. I got on the phone with road service through our car insurance, State Farm, and started the process of getting help.
When the tow truck arrived, we ran into our first problem. The driver had a big truck but not four wheel drive. He believed he would get stuck. After trying to help us with boards and a shovel for a half hour or so, Francisco went on to his next job promising to alert the State Farm roadside service. After about 20 minutes, I called State Farm again, and when I explained where we were stuck and what was needed, I was told that once a car is more than 100 feet from pavement, it is considered off-roading. She didn’t say that outright, but told me I wasn’t eligible for towing. When I protested, instead of explaining the options, she cut me off, connecting me to a woman who handled roadside assistance for non-State Farm calls. This woman was helpful until the end when she explained that she had to reconnect with State Farm in order to process my request. She connected me to another person who said they would send someone. We got to the end of the call when my phone rang. I put the first person on hold, went to the second, also from State Farm, who said we needed to start the process again. I explained that I was on the line with a State Farm person who was going to dispatch someone and was told that would take care of it. I returned to the person helping me who said she would text me the details.
That’s where we lost State Farm. Apparently, I should have hung up on the person helping me and gone with the new voice. After both people were off the phone, we never heard from State Farm again. No text with the name of a tow company, no text asking whether we were still waiting for help, not another peep.
In the meantime, Jonathan googled “tow service near me” and ended up getting a person who was willing to get the job done. He didn’t like the mud, he was afraid his truck would become mired, but after backing in toward us and extending his tow cable to the max, his first pull broke his tow cable. Fortunately, he had a spare, and after changing cables, he spent about 90 minutes winching us toward his truck, then moving the truck forward, and winching again, a slow process of getting jolted toward the road. We sat in the car so that he knew where we were and that we were out of the way if the cable snapped again.
It was approaching sunset when we emerged, covered in thick gooey mud, boots, wheels, spatter everywhere. We paid a fortune to the nice man with the tow truck, thanked him for his persistence, and headed home, speculating what we would have done if the sun set and we were still stuck. Abandoning our car over night sounded like a terrible idea, but so did sitting in the car and starting all over again with State Farm.
As we drove home, we noticed that the car was shuddering a bit at higher speed. We attributed it to the mud chunks gradually coming off the wheels. The next day, we picked off the largest lumps of mud, then scrubbed the car with a broom while hosing it off to get it clean enough to take to the car wash. There was less mud on the interior because we’d put plastic shopping bags under our boots. On his return from the car wash, Jonathan gave me the bad news, the car still shook at speeds over 40 mph. Monday it goes to the shop for alignment and we hope that’s all it needs.
This is a tale of our desire to get to one destination overtaking our common sense. In all my writing about travel, I harp on the fact that it isn’t necessary to go to any particular place in order to have a good visit. I should have paid attention to my own advice!
It’s been a long year, and bird watching has helps us get through the months of isolation. On January 13, 2021, we went to Jacks Peak county park to look around. Walking through the woodland of pine and oak reminded me of birding in Brunswick Heads, NSW, Australia. We found the group through our delightful neighbors, and went on walks with them during our month in the area. It was a high point in a year of high points. The trees and plants at Jacks Peak are completely different from Australia, but the overall environment is a similar mix of forest and open areas.
The climb to the top of Jacks Peak (a hill, really) isn’t difficult. From many places you can see the Monterey Peninsula and the ocean to the northwest, and from other spots we saw the ocean over Carmel to the southwest. The day was unusually warm for January, in the 70s, and the parking lot only had a few cars. Conditions were perfect. The trails are easy to follow, and I was again reminded of birding walks in Australia where we chatted with other birders as we strolled until someone spotted a bird. We always see more birds when we’re with a group, there are many more eyes, and some are highly skilled spotters. Others recognize birdsong. Still others carry spotting scopes or camera equipment with long lenses. After the day’s outing, we receive an email with photos of many of the birds we saw. Going with a group is the way to go.
On Jacks Peak, we did pandemic birding, just the two of us. There didn’t seem to be many birds at all so we basked in the sun and enjoyed the walk. As often happens, though, our path eventually led through a few trees that suddenly appeared to be full of birds. It was difficult to decide where to look first. All the birds were moving so fast that it took several minutes of trying to follow birds from branch to branch before we could identify any of them. There were ruby-crowned kinglets, chestnut-backed chickadees, and a blue-gray gnatcatcher. These are little bitty birds that rarely stop moving. In the trees nearby, we could hear scrub jays. We spotted a brown creeper climbing up the trunk of a tree.
As fast as it began, the flutter passed, the flock of little birds moved off, and the forest seemed entirely empty again. We congratulated each other on what we’d been able to identify and assumed we’d stroll the rest of the trail back without much more to see. Just as we were deciding which trail returned to the parking lot when we walked into another busy stand of trees. Another mixed flock of small birds was browsing through, and we squinted and twisted and adjusted our binoculars to try and identify them. Though it was a mixed flock just like the others we’d seen, here the birds were a bit different. There was a red-breasted nuthatch, and some other tiny birds including a Pacific wren. There were kinglets, but also yellow-rumped warblers, a bird that time and again we identify as something else until it turns to fly away and flashes it’s yellow backside. Townsend’s warblers have similar colors, yellow with black and white, but there seemed to be something different. After a lot of staring we identified a different warbler, and back at the car with the bird book (Sibley Guide to Birds) we identified a new bird for us, the Hermit Warbler. It’s getting to be a big treat to see a bird we’ve never seen before.
When the flock passed, we continued back to the car. Despite our good fortune, we would have identified more birds if we had been with a group and we would have enjoyed the company. We may not get back to our birding friends in Brunswick Heads, but we look forward to the time when we can go out again with fellow birders. In the meantime, we’re staying in practice and enjoying the outdoors.
We are living in California because we have family here and we like the weather, but we didn’t expect this area to become the National Covid Hotspot. We do our best to resist strolling downtown areas, shopping in stores, and any other activity that involves people. We get outdoors for a few hours almost every day, and walking along the coast or the beaches is our favorite activity.
One of the most beautiful places to visit in this area is the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Point Lobos covers a rugged rocky point with many tiny inlets. The offshore waters in the Marine Protected Area are described as some of the richest in the US, and the scuba diving the best on the west coast. We live just a few miles away from this wonderful park and looked forward to getting to know its trails.
Our first visit to Point Lobos wasn’t until almost two months after we moved into the area. Why did it take us so long to get there? Its popularity.
One million people visit the park every year, and there are 150 parking spaces. Doing the math, that means an average of 2,740 people visit the park every day of the year. If three shifts of visitors took turns each day, every car would still have to carry six passengers to fit a single day’s visitors in the 150 available parking spaces. The park closes at 5 pm, so there’s no sunset viewing or dinner picnics, either. Instead, it is possible to park along the highway. Many visitors do that, but it results in a long walk. By the time we parked along the road and walked in, we’d be out of time and energy to look around. We decided to visit a) during the week, b) in the winter, c) not during any holiday season, d) when the weather was poor.
This January, the weather has been glorious. The four inches of rain that we should be getting has not come, and the number of gloomy days has been a minimum. We ended up going to visit Point Lobos on a Monday afternoon, arriving at the entrance between 2:30 and 3 pm. The entrance was open, the “Full” barrier that is usually in place from 8:30 am most days, set aside. We were able to drive into the park as far as we wished and to park anywhere we wanted. Every parking zone had a space or two available. Once out of the car, we had to keep our masks on while walking on the paths. People passed us so frequently there wasn’t time to remove our masks before we needed them on again. The park may not have been full, but there were still plenty of people enjoying the views. We plan to visit more often once we have our “2021 Limited Use Golden Bear Pass”. (For $20 per couple, people over 65 can access state parks from January to Memorial Day and after Labor Day without paying the $9 Senior day use fee.)
On our first visit, we headed for Gibson Beach at the far south end of the park and were rewarded with a beautiful beach reached by a stroll past those harbor seals, along wide, level trails beside rocky cliffs.
In a park like Point Lobos, where there are so many visitors every day, there are also a lot of people to answer questions. We chatted with a volunteer docent, and passed staff members and docents along the trail and on the beach. There are also a lot of rules. No dogs, no bikes, no picnics on the beach, only in three designated picnic areas. If this sounds regimented, remember those 2,740 people per day trying to walk on the trails and the beach, see the harbor seals, and have a picnic. It takes a lot of management.
Fortunately, there are other options if you want to watch waves crash on the rocks or walk along the beach without strategizing about parking. Right in Carmel, Pacific Grove, or Monterey, there are beaches that can be reached on foot from any of the hotels or Airbnbs nearby. Street parking is easily available during this winter of Covid, though it may be more difficult to find during the summer months.
Driving south from Carmel on Route 1, there are pullouts that let you see the spectacular rocky coast from many places. There isn’t usually access to the beach, but for scenery, (and keeping your shoes clean), this drive is great. If you go far enough, you get to Big Sur, a composite of parks, reserves, beaches, and campgrounds (campgrounds are not yet open).
Driving the opposite direction, north from the Monterey Peninsula along Route 1, Ft. Ord Beach offers broad beaches and fewer people to share with.
We went to the corner of the Monterey Peninsula nearest our house on a gray Monday. Rain threatened, but never got worse than damp mist. The waves were big, 10 ft. or more, and we sat on a park bench to watch for a while. The water was a beautiful dark blue-green, and the breaking waves created patches of pastel color that were gorgeous and unexpected on such a day. As we sat, Jonathan noticed something in the water, a seal, perhaps. I said it was one of the many clumps of kelp, but had to eat my words when there turned out to be a large group of sea otters riding the waves and fishing. We used our birding binoculars to watch the otters float on their backs under the curl of the huge waves, riding up and over just for fun, or diving underneath as waves broke.
Following the breaking surf into the distance, we discovered surfers bobbing on their boards, waiting for a really big wave. A couple of them took off on long rides away from us along the shore. Nearby, we watched a few spectacular wipe-outs. When we left, they were all still in the water, waiting for that best ride of the day.
When we are not at the shore or planning a walk along the shore, we are checking the tide tables, either to go beach combing at low tide, or to watch the surfers and the big waves at high tide. We always have a mask with us, but most of the time outdoors we don’t need them. Watching the ocean has become one of our favorite diversions. The waves are constantly changing, breaking and whooshing onto the shore. On a sandy shore, the crash of the waves themselves is the loudest sound, while on a rocky beach, the rattle of rock and pebbles stirred by the waves and the undertow can be louder than the sea itself. The ever-changing, but always the same breaking of the waves is mesmerizing, a kind of meditation that lets me forget about the things that I can’t do, if only for a few minutes.