The gray, somber, ever-present fog clung to the coast north and south as far as our eyes could see. As we looked down the last stretch of Highway 1 and saw wispy shreds of the fog yielding to blue sky and warm sun, our spirits lifted. Ah, there's Big Sur, a cup of loveliness sheltered behind a coastal ridge and tucked up next to the shins of very steep mountainsides covered in dry chaparral and regal redwoods.
Big Sur looks like Shangri La, the fabled land of perfection in the high mountains, and in a way it is just that. But the perfection lies in its enigmatic ruggedness and inaccessibility that seduces you nevertheless. Warm yet forbidding, it has an allure that bewitches the heart. Even on the worst weather days when the wind is howling cold, the vistas are grand and inspire poetry, art and soul searching.
We four friends locked up the car at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, slung on our daypacks and strode forth, ready for a bit of bugs-in-our-teeth adventure, gnarly personal challenge, ready for transformational experience. Heck, just a nice walk would do. If we were 30 years younger, we'd have headed up into the Ventana Wilderness whose tawny flanks guard the valley's winding road and river. But, we are not 30 and we really only wanted a good look around, so we chose the Buzzard's Roost Loop that starts by crossing a low-slung footbridge across the Big Sur River, skirts it heading northwest for a short way and then begins zig-zagging upward to the ridge top.
Coastal ridges that face north are furred in redwood trees, whose tall regal bulk in turn hide the ridge tops rather neatly. We had no accurate idea of the climb we were undertaking, could not see the top nor the trail, but it was shady, fragrant and very accessible, so we took it. When you have fond memories of being 30 and have worked out a little bit now and again during the preceding weeks, you find that you are a little overconfident and plow ahead.
I remembered our hike on the Kalalau Trail on Kauai last November. I measured this trail to that with a yardstick of muddiness and steepness well in mind. This is not so bad, I thought. The surface is well trod and very easy to see. The shade of the redwoods and bay trees kept us cool as we strode up and up, encountering a few other hikers who looked very comfortable as they came down the trail.
I have to say right here that no matter where I hike, virtually all other hikers look better than I do when it comes to breathing rate and volumes of sweat. I win when it comes to sweat. I often appear to have emerged from an epic battle with a fire hose and a dragon somehow. As a point of reference, I sweat just standing watering my garden at home on a warm-ish day. It is rather impressive, I have to say.
There is a branch in the trail that says Buzzard's Roost with arrows pointing left and right. You get to choose! We had no information about which direction was considered better, so we chose the left-hand direction and continued on. Two of us were in better hiking condition than the remaining two, and one of us was hiking in heeled sandals. It was not me. You can bet that if I were the one hiking in heeled sandals, I would have turned an ankle right off the bat and ended up cartwheeling down the near-vertical steep slope and landed like a javelin in the river. Guaranteed. Loose ankle joints help me swim well, not hike fast. I am not a billy goat with little tiny firm feet. I have flippers.
I began to sweat. I felt pretty capable of doing the hike, but I don't think I looked very capable with sweat streaming down my face. No one else I saw was sweating. No one was even damp. This has been a characteristic of mine since I was born. I remember doing trampoline in gym class in middle school and having the other girls look at me with wide eyes and furrowed brows, surely alarmed at my appearance. You cannot look cool as a 12 year old with a tomato-red face and streams of sweat coursing down your face, soaking your gym clothes. After four bounces on the tramp, I was a mess. My friends would look away, probably praying for me. I tried to ignore it, like my mom taught me. "Just ignore them, Christine. It doesn't matter what they think."
So I climbed up and up, wiping away streams of sweat, striking nonchalant poses when hikers wanted to pass us. I could still not see the ridge where the buzzards roost, but I was enjoying the beautiful splendor of Big Sur's nearby mountains, across the valley. A huge fire torched the area in 2008; I saw stands of skeletal tree trunks in the distance, testimony to the intense heat of the fire back then.
My friend in heeled sandals called back, "Hey, it's the top!" (She is undeniably the sunniest person I know.) I called back to my dear husband, "The top!" and rounded yet another hairpin curve in the trail. False alarm. More trail, but it now includes sets of steps set into the trail where erosion has worn it down. On we go, and I'm a fountain still, drops trickling down my glasses, my nose, my ears, and my eyes. I could be installed as public art somewhere. I feel good though, to be out in nature with friends, looking for adventure, feeling pioneer-ish or something.
Swimming doesn't prepare you for hiking except for the mental perseverance part of it. Only flip turns remotely compare to hiking, and even that's a stretch. My legs were holding up okay, but only just. I'd have to get out and hike more often, I was thinking, willing the end of the uphill to come soon. More sweat splatted onto my shoulders, clung to my eyelashes.
The top! The view! We had emerged from the blanket of redwoods to the manzanita-covered ridgetop where the temperature was drier, much warmer and very pleasant. The work of hiking uphill was worth it as soon as we saw the distant hills, a diorama of steep mountains plunging to a cool pale ocean in the distance and ridge after ridge of redwood-crested land wrapped gently in drifting fog. In the sun, I could begin to dry off again. We milled about looking for a place to settle down for a rest. There is a radio relay shack at the top and very little space to spread out and enjoy a picnic, so we stood and ate, looking at the views. The food was arrayed by the trail on top of my overshirt. A young boy, gaining the flat ridgetop after emerging from the brush at the side of the trail eyed our food. We were just getting to the end of our lunch. He avoided eye contact with us but said to his older sister, "Did we bring food, too?" He looked so desperate, being ten years old, skinny and tired, that we handed over some cookies for him. He accepted them like a prize.
Rather than taking a nice warm siesta in the sun or sitting on a rock and basking in the glow after the uphill push, everyone gathered up the remnants of lunch, shouldered the daypacks and began the descent down to the river again. Oh lordy, my thighs began to feel the extra work immediately. They held up, bless 'em, but they complained about the abuse and mistreatment.
There is a tradition started by a younger sister: Be sure to savor a root beer float after a good sweaty hike, so I kept that in the front of my mind as I descended. We felt good and happy, satisfied and tired at the end of our adventure, and all of us indulged in a huge overestimation of the distance of the hike. 1.8 miles had become 4 and then 15 and finally 24 miles. With tigers. As in, "Man, that had to be at least 4 miles!"
"I think it was 10 for sure."
"Did you see that snake?"
"Yeah, it was this long (hands indicating a 12-inch span)."
"Nah, it was this long (hands held much wider)."
"I heard a tiger roaring."
Once we reached the level again, we took the trail to the Big Sur Lodge and bought some cool treats. There are big rustic sofas in the lounge area, which is where I sucked down my RBF, truly a hiker's ultimate gourmet food.
Still feeling held in the mellow arms of Big Sur, we drove south to Nepenthe to show our friends the view as well as the gift shop and gardens. The decks were crammed with visitors, probably the most crowded day of the year to be there. Finally, we drove back north to The River Inn and brought out blankets from the car to the back lawn to enjoy the remainder of our food and listen to live Brazilian jazz. The Inn has great music every Sunday afternoon, and the food served in the restaurant is very tasty. If you're really lucky, you can sit in Adirondack chairs in the river as it flows gently by down behind the Inn. Once the blankets were spread out, we all fell asleep, surrounded by music, dancing babies and all kinds of happy humanity. I took pictures of tree tops and the band while my companions snored on softly; it seemed the images were more of sound than subjects, now that I look at them.
My sweat and effort were already remembered proudly, even fondly, as I recalled the hike and listened to the samba rhythm. Isn't that the way it always is? In Big Sur, no matter what happens, how hard the hike or crowded the road, once you're there it rocks you peacefully in its big natural embrace.
Causes Christine Bottaro Supports
The Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, The United Way