Tuesday, November 3, 2015

on the road: santa monica, big sur, monterrey and some california art

Finally... California!

It's been fun playing around with all the little bits of material and photos I collected out west. Though closer to my next cross-country road trip than my last, going through these photos, printing them and tearing them up and layering them with shells and stamps and papers brought me right back to campgrounds and coastal roads between Santa Monica and Monterrey.

After packing up my tent at Joshua Tree, I drove west, sad to skip the incomparable Slab City and Salvation Mountain, but happy to stand in the icy tide at Santa Monica Beach as the sun went down over the lifeguard huts, and, after two weeks by myself, even happier to hear my future sister-in-law say "Let me grab your bags! Also, I have mojitos waiting for us inside." Um, yes!

I stayed in Santa Monica two nights and while she was at class, I ventured south to San Onofre, a little town of friendly surfers and big waves at Old Man's and Trestles surf breaks. Heading north at dawn, I passed through Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, stopping at San Simeon State Park to camp overnight. 

San Simeon is a nice campground – nearly empty, flat tent spots, nice rangers, good fire pits and a little creek leading to a driftwood beach – but the real beauty here is Moonstone Beach down the road, overlooked by towering red sunburnt cliffs covered in ice-plants, and a beautiful spot to make a sandwich and watch the sunset.

I left my towel drying on a tree and my little camp stove outside my tent while walking to the beach and they were both stolen. Other than having my car broken into in Manhattan, I've never had anything stolen on a road trip before. The silver lining: I got to (nay, had to) experience Centrally Grown, the most beautiful coffee shop and market ever, with an "edible flower island" overlooking the early-morning-fogged Pacific before heading up to Big Sur.

Just north of San Simeon is a sea lion rookery, a protected crescent beach where hundreds of sea lions haul up on the warm sand and raise their chubby babies. And then.. Big Sur!

A stretch of coastline in between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, Big Sur is held in a kind of reverence by many people because it is just so extraordinary. Enormous brush-covered cliffs slope and dive dramatically into a perfectly turquoise ocean. Cerulean waves smash their thousand-mile stories upon the white shores and swirling white foam licks rocky islands as the current retreats, an endless pounding symphony of salt water meeting ninety miles of sparesly populated, nearly undeveloped, sun-kissed coast. After the most expensive gas station in the country (the only one for sixty miles) there's two hours of windy cliff-hugging roads, a couple campgrounds and state parks, two or three restaurants and a lot of beautiful blue.

One issue while road tripping with a small budget and without a set plan is difficulty finding lodging on weekends in popular but remote destinations. After snagging the very last open site in Joshua Tree, I wanted to avoid stress and find one early at Big Sur, but every state campground had its 'full' sign hanging by 10am. I went to McWay Falls, hiked Julia Pfieffer State Park, had lunch at the stunning silver crescent of Plaskett Creek beach and hiked around poppy-strewn cliffs until late afternoon and nothing had opened up yet. 

The undeveloped nature of this beautiful area means there are no hostels, few hotels, private campgrounds cost $70/night and even "rustic" cabins and yurts run over $150/night. The most interesting boondocking spot I've ever found was a small dirt pullout on Nacimineto-Fergusson Road, a moderately terrifying, cliff-hugging washboard road five hundred feet up and straight out of a Jeep commercial, and even that was already claimed by RV-ers who's bravery earned them the most spectacular campsite on the California Coast. Signs prohibiting overnight parking dot the main roadside of Route 1, and ignoring them could mean free camping, or it could mean a state trooper's flashlight in your face at 3am. I was saved when I started chatting with Ben, the camp host at Kirk Creek campground (also full), who listened to my situation and allowed me to pitch my tent in the host spot.

Kirk Creek is on a cliff overlooking the crashing waves of the Pacific, with a wobbly, rusty fence and a couple little trails down to the beach and a spectacularly hazy, salt-rippled sunset. At dusk I found Ben with his guitar and we settled into a campfire and a few beers and he shared stories about hitchhiking in the southwest, being a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and other tales of growing up in the sixties until near midnight.

At the end of one story about a long-ago love Ben laughed, wiped his eyes and said "I haven't thought about that in twenty years. Thank you for that." I don't know why this stayed me or why I'm writing it now, but something about that struck me: explicitly thanking someone for helping bring back a long-lost memory, and the gratitude I felt for having been allowed into that moment. I sort of feel like that's something I want to accomplish with my art as well: an appreciation of each others' experiences and nostalgia and understanding of the world around us, what has happened before us in old places and what awaits us in the new. I am not always a good listener but I have a heart and a canvas that want to be.

At dawn I was up with the sun, momentarily melted by the peachy haze of morning light settling on the ocean, and then headed north on Route 1 over the Bixby bridge, over twisting roads and into the Monterrey peninsula.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, an incredible rocky peninsula full of wildflowers, wind-twisted pines and gentle seaweed-strewn coves. I happened to be there just in time to watch a sweet harbor seal give birth to her pup on a bed of beached kelp, the surprised pup learning right away how to stay close in crashing waves.

After a few hours of wild cliffs, Central California smooths out into gently rolling fields and bluffs. Up the coast through Carmel, 17-Mile Drive, Santa Cruz and Pescadero. I stopped at Pigeon Point Light for a hazy, sun-kissed afternoon picnic and then drove a little north to Point Montara Light. 

Both lighthouses are owned by Hostelling International and the light keepers' quarters have been turned into private rooms and bunk rooms for roadtrippers and international travelers. Pigeon Point even has a hot tub perched on the edge of the cliff under the stars! I stayed in a women's bunk room at Point Montara for two nights, quickly claiming a top bunk, leaving everything that wasn't a camera lens and then roaming around Montara's private beach cove and nearby Half Moon Bay until dark.

Half Moon Bay is a beautiful, sleepy but eclectic little beach town about an hour south of San Francisco. I walked around the beach watching the full moon rise over Maverick's Pier, a sneak peek at the impending lunar eclipse. Sometime in the afternoon a fierce homesickness started to sneak up on me and by night it was full-blown. Like, so sad. I like traveling alone and, in the deep middle of nowhere, I even prefer it for the chance to really be alone with my thoughts and my sketchbook. But Half Moon Bay was so lovely and relaxing that all I could think was, Mike would really like it here, and I would like it more in his company, and was overwhelmed by the realization that my roaming may not always get to involve both of us.

At 3am the rustling and whispers of my German roommates woke me up as they headed out to watch the eclipse. A dozen of us – students, international travelers, Silicon Valley escapees, a weed picker and an artist headed down to hike the PCT – sat out on the cliff together underneath the light tower, wrapped in blankets, chatting and watching as the moon and clouds grew rusty and then blood red. Around 5am the cold ocean air sent us all inside to warm bunks. Something about the conversations I had at Point Montara stirred me a bit and made me feel more grounded and less far from home and I was deeply thankful for that full moon.

As the quote by Rumi goes, "We are all just walking each other home."


  1. Finally!!! I live in SLO and have been waiting for the art that came from your trip out here.Beautiful photos. Is the surfer painting for sale?

    1. Thanks Beth! I'm finally getting to process everything together and get some art out of it. The surfer painting will be for sale during my shop update on Friday, November 13th.

  2. I always wondered if you ever got homesick ;-) Great shots too.

    1. Yes, definitely! Just gotta push through it though... it's worth it.

  3. Your photos are stunning. Thank you for sharing your part of the world. I love it!

  4. I loved this: I am not always a good listener but I have a heart and a canvas that want to be.

    Such beautiful pictures and notes about your trip--thanks for sharing!

  5. oh mae mae mae....i love your story of experiencing california. and the story of the man you listened to around the fire. i have a hard time believing you aren't a good listener because the way you listen to the WORLD is a beautiful thing. xo

  6. Beautiful....art, images, words! Thank you so much for sharing your heart...

  7. mae, i LOVE this. makes me itch for more travel :) so, so much beauty here, in your art and your words.

  8. I really enjoyed this post and seeing your absolutely fabulous photos.They were stunning and beautiful! The one of the seal with its flipper on its head just cracked me up--looked like it was recovering from a hangover :)