A mini, one-night adventure down south into Big Sur.
I only had 25 days back home in California before I had to return to Boston to start working, so I made a point of trying to be outside, doing as many CA-only things as I possibly could before returning to the East Coast. One of the top things on my list was Big Sur.
I’ve been camping in Big Sur in the past, but I was so young that all I remember is having a temper tantrum, breaking my bike helmet, and not being allowed to ride my bike for the rest of the trip –I’ve been wanting to try and cover up that memory with something fresher. Big Sur is so close to my house that to not have been there in more than 10 years while other people fly around the world to visit seemed a little bit crazy. With this in mind, I managed to convince three of my best friends to do a one-night-but-lots-of-fun style adventure in Big Sur before I left to fly east.
After deciding that morning that we were actually going to go, we threw together our camping gear, a small amount of food (and an even smaller amount of water), and got out of Santa Cruz around 1 pm. We drove down the coast on Highway 1 towards Big Sur and talked about how we didn’t have more than an inkling of a plan of where we would sleep. Bryson has camped in Big Sur a few times recently so he had a couple of spots in his head that we could check out as we drove down the coast; the only problem is that these campsites fill up with reservations months in advance; so trying to find a site without any reservation is (very) unlikely.
The idea behind this micro-adventure was to let loose and unwind, so we made a point of going to the beach and hanging out before we bothered to look for a place to sleep. We swam through the crystal-clear blue-green water to an island off the beach and, after exploring for a bit, got caught in a rip current on the way back, so it took us a while to swim the hundred feet back to shore.
“Well that sucked,” I said to Bryson as he walked the last few feet to shore.
“Yeah, that’s one of the strongest rip-tides I’ve ever been in.”
We stood and waited for Joseph and Ryan to get to shore. We all sat on the sand soaking in the sun when Joseph spotted a kite stuck on the cliff, about 75 feet up.
“I’m gonna go get it,” he said.
The rest of us all laughed at Joseph’s antics for a few minutes until we saw the shale fall off of the cliff around him.
“Yo, I don’t think you can go any higher, man,” Bryson yelled up to him.
Joseph turned around and looked down at us all with a grin, who knows if he heard what Bryson had said, but we could tell he was determined to grab the kite. He struggled a few more feet up the face of the cliff before realizing that he definitely couldn’t go any further.
“It doesn’t look like it’s that easy to come down, either,” Ryan said to Bryson and I.
At this point Bryson, who has gotten into rock climbing while in college, dropped a couple of climbing vocab words about crumbly rock that’s bad to climb on and being stuck mid climb with no good way to go. I didn’t know what any of the slang meant so I just listened as I watched Joseph, 60 feet up the cliff.
“Jo, seriously, come down.” I’m not sure who said it; it might have been all of us at once.
He leaned against the face of the cliff for a few more minutes and then decided to take our advice and head back down.
Around 6 o’clock we decided to look for a campsite more seriously. Unsurprisingly, our hunch that there wouldn’t be any open spots was true. We also realized that we didn’t have any kind of camp stove to cook our food, so we needed to find an open campsite to cook up our measly dinner. We drove for a half an hour inland to a campsite that did have spots, but has no view of the ocean and was full of mosquitoes.
We cooked up our hotdogs and cans of vegetarian Annie’s chili – that I barely remembered to grab on my way out the door that morning – while swatting at the bugs. It’s amazing how being outdoors can make hotdogs and fire-warmed cans of chili taste so good.
There is a retreat center in Big Sur called Esalen that lets the public into their hot springs after midnight. Bryson had told us about this while we were hanging out at the beach, and we all wanted to try and go midnight swimming. The problem was we didn’t want to have to drive for 45 minutes back to our campsite after jumping in the hot springs on the coast so we decided that we would leave our kitchen in the woods for good and camp somewhere else.
As we made our way down the windy road back to the water we watched as the sun went down and the full moon rose into the sky. There’s nothing quite like looking at a vast expanse of ghost-lit ocean with nothing but the bright white moon and your best buds to keep you company.
We got to Esalen a little bit before 12 am to try and make sure we got a spot in the hot springs.
“Hey,” Ryan said to the young man and woman working the gate that night. “We’re here to, uh, swim in your hot springs. That’s a thing, right? If we come after midnight?”
“Yeah,” the man responded. “But we’re all booked up for tonight. You have to sign up in the morning if you want to swim at night.”
We all looked at each other in the car and said “shit.”
“So there’s no way we can get in tonight?” Ryan asked.
“No, sorry. But here’s a brochure.”
Ryan took the brochure, even though he knew none of us would even open it up, thanked them, and we turned around and drove back to the highway.
“Well what do you guys want to do now?” Bryson asked us.
We had planned on swimming and then returning to the windy road and sleeping on a pullout, but that road was another 15 minutes further south and none of us wanted to backtrack.
“Why don’t we just drive up the highway and find a pullout? It’s not much different than sleeping in a pullout on the other road,” I said.
We talked about whether or not a Highway Patrol Officer would kick us out of a pullout and decided that if they did we could just drive home. Everyone agreed and we sped up the highway with the windows down and the music loud, looking for a place to sleep.
We didn’t have a plan as we made our way up Highway 1 in the middle of the night, but we found a Vista Point with a parking lot that had a nice place to sleep right on the cliffs, overlooking the Pacific.
We all slept like logs that night, even though Ryan didn’t have a sleeping pad. I think we were just happy that we didn’t have to drive back up the coast in the middle of the night, trying to stay awake long enough to make it home.