Special to the Campus Times
A faint fragrance of rotting seaweed wafted across our campsite every night. The mosquitos lazily came and went. Even the seasonal ticks decided to only attack one of our group members. These were the worst and only worries I had the entire trip I went on with the Coastwalk California, a nonprofit.
I spent five days, from July 18 to the 22 with my partner and a group of around 20 people I had never met in my life. We ventured across beaches, through the woods, mud and streams. We did it together and for a common purpose: to learn about the marine life and habitats around us. By the end of it, I had walked 31 miles.
Let me make something clear – I am not by any means an athletic person. I do the occasional yoga class or walk with my dog, so I was not physically prepared for those next five days, but I also was not prepared for the absolute beauty of nature that I would witness.
On Tuesday, I drove five hours to San Luis Obispo. However, Coastwalk does offer other walks along the coast so it is accessible to everyone. Once I got to the campsite, I was greeted by Mike Minky, our walk leader for the week. I came prepared with basic camping equipment and hiking gear, but if you find yourself not having those items, Coastwalk can connect you to people who do.
After setting up camp, we all gathered around the “chuckwagon”, which stored most of our food and supplies for the week, graciously towed and looked after by Robert “Bob” Adams. Someone broke out the hummus, pita bread, chips and salsa, and soon enough we were all on a first name basis. Adams was a military plane technician and was a foster parent. Trish Nugent and Laurel Meier were aunt and niece, Donna Barnett was a physical therapist. Pamela and Lee were best friends traveling the world for decades now. David Rubinfeld grew up in Canada and had the most interesting stories that would later keep us moving on our walks. Diana Savage was over 80 years old and had been on almost every Coastwalk since the very first one. It seemed like everyone there was either a doctor or nurse or lawyer and over the age of 50.
I quickly became comfortable with this group of complete strangers. I remember thinking to myself, due to my ignorant assumption that they would have a lack of ability due to age, “this is going to be a walk in the park.” I was later proven very wrong.
Later that day we went on a four mile hike along the stunning Fiscalini Ranch Preserve trail. Local tour guide, Duffy Burns, came along with us to share his knowledge about the land and the seaweed we came across. There were stringy pieces that looked like spaghetti and others that rattled like maracas. We walked by a large rock in the sandy dirt path that looked a little odd, with deep, bowl-like craters in it. Burns told us that for hundreds of years, the Chumash tribe had used those craters like we might a mortar and pestle.
On Wednesday, we broke camp and drove to the Boucher Trailhead, then hiked eight miles to the Hearst Ranch Winery. It was a long day, but each site we saw was worth every step. There was the 100 foot tall Piedras Blancas Light Station that we got to go inside. Not far away in the water was a massive white rock, covered in seals and birds. A local marine biologist joined our group and told us that the massive elephant seals we heard barking for miles around, fully grown, could weigh up to 4,000 pounds at 13 feet long. Some think that they are lazy creatures, laying on the beach and sleeping all the time, but they had just come back to rest after working hard in the deep ocean to feed themselves and their pups for many months. Every day, they would dive down deep depths to catch lantern fish and squid, only sleeping for two hours at a time.
Southern Californians may be used to long and warm, sandy beaches, but Northerners tend to have rockier and more dramatic shores. While some parts of the trails had sheer cliffs to our sides, there was always a breathtaking view of the crystal clear ocean down below and a sea breeze to cool us down. Our group of newfound friends were always kind and encouraging to my partner and I, which would make the next few days easier to endure.
Thursday morning we woke up to a light rain in our new camp, refreshing us from the day before. My partner and I walked the first five miles along the Estero Bluffs and even got to see a shipwreck. The story goes that the owner of the boat let his friend drive but, with not much experience, he ran it into the bluffs. The equipment was costly to remove, so now it remains rusted and wrecked across the rocks.
With no judgment from the group, my partner and I realized it would be best to rest that day and return stronger the next. We explored town, where we found the Coalesce bookstore, celebrating 50 years that week. It had twists and turns throughout with books from floor to ceiling. In the very back, a path led to a beautifully kept secret garden and chapel. The birds sang, water fountains dribbled, and a sweet sea fog rolled in. It seemed like something from a fairy tale.
Back on the trail, the 9-mile hike had turned to 11. Not everyone had been able to finish, but Minky prepared us by stationing some of our vehicles along the trail earlier just in case. That day we finished by singing along to classics, with Minky’s local friends who came to play the guitar and the accordion.
I found myself starting that Friday in a war canoe, rowing across Morro Bay to the esplanade. The beach had once been used in practice for Normandy, still littered with explosives and now a wildlife sanctuary, with only a few trails cleared up for hikers. We hiked seven miles along a beautiful sand dollar covered beach and then finally up a muddy, mossy canyon that led us to a parking lot. There was no stopping these folks, they were persistent.
I talked to Coastwalk member Linda Schwaberow along the way.
“You gotta keep moving, otherwise things start to fall apart,” she said, while carrying extra water for the group, a first aid kit and her own bag of personal items.
“If I have to go to the post office, I walk. If I have to go to the grocery store, I walk,” she said.
Over 75-year-old Schwaberow had been on many Coastwalks before and can no longer drive, so she enjoys walking everywhere now.
That night, Sally Krenn, a local botanist, came to talk to the group about the surrounding eucalyptus trees and other plants. We learned that pine cones can be heard “popping” when hot, releasing their seeds. The ones around us were actually edible.
Saturday was the hardest for me, emotionally and physically. We set off to Montaña de Oro State Park. Our goal was to hike the Point Buchon trail on the PG&E land and make it to Windy Point. Seven miles in we sat down for lunch and when I got up, I realized that my sore ankle I had been ignoring that day just could not go any further. I reassured the group that I would meet them back at the trailhead and eventually everyone except my partner had left to continue on.
I broke down and cried from the pain and the fact that I could not finish on our last day. Only a few minutes later, Barnett came back. Respectfully and in a matter-of-fact way she told me that I needed to take some ibuprofen, get my foot up and let her take a look. She practically walked me through a meditation while massaging the pain away. In a few minutes I was back up and enjoying the absolute marvel of a coast around me. After successfully making it back to camp, Savage shared with me Coastwalk’s scrapbook. In it were maps and photos from the very first walk to now, as well as letters from state officials thanking them for their work and newspaper clippings showcasing them. I took in those final moments feeling gratitude for what I had learned and accomplished with a group of strangers who had now become my friends.
I never thought I could have been physically able to complete those 31 miles and will not ever forget my time with Coastwalk from the summer of 2023. If you would like to take part in a walk with the California Coastwalk Organization, see their website for details at coastwalk.org.
Lindsey Pacela can be reached at email@example.com.
In an earlier version of this story, Coastwalk member Linda Schwaberow’s age was misstated. She is 75 years old. The Campus Times regrets the error.