90,000 Miles to Me

21,185 Miles • Down the California Coast

After Science Hack Day, I spent a few days in the area visiting my cousins, and had two other visits to make before leaving, one to St. John of San Francisco, and the other to the beach and my first sight of the Pacific Ocean in many years.

I used to live in easy distance of the ocean, in the Los Angeles area, and it felt strange to realize that I hadn’t seen it in so long although I’ve been back to California several times. I walked around on the sand for a few minutes until I had had enough sensory stimulation. Yeah, I’ve definitely gotten more sensitive as I’ve gotten older.

I was also eager to get out of the city before Halloween night, as I felt like the unfamiliar white van could be a target for any pranksters. It is quite possible I was worried about nothing. Anyway…

From there I headed down south toward Los Angeles and a dear old friend.

Along the way, I spent more than a week putting the restorative effects of nature to good use as I decompressed from the recent emotional upheavals and social time. It all turned out well, but still took a lot of energy, and I needed to recuperate. 

There is a primitive campground on BLM land called Laguna Mountain, which was well out of the way, and therefore not crowded, so I stayed for several days. It sported some great views, including this sunset and the one at the top of this page.

Sunset at Laguna Mountain reflected in the van window.

As an experiment, I covered all my clocks so as not to be able to associate time with numbers, so I could learn to associate it with more tangible things: sun, light, shadows, hunger, sleepiness. 

I’ve been noticing for a while that although I don’t have a job to get to, appointments to keep, or really any kind of schedule at all (with occasional exceptions), I still look at the clock frequently to tell me how I should feel. Do any of the following sound familiar:

  • “It’s only eight o’Clock, I can’t go to bed yet.” (although tired)
  • “It’s already 10 am, I’ve stayed in bed half the day!” (although rested)
  • “It’s already 3, I haven’t had lunch yet.” (Would I have felt hunger without the clock signaling it?)
  • “I haven’t gotten anything done and it’s already 1 o’Clock.”(cue shame)  Or,
  • “I’ve gotten so much done and it’s only 1 o’Clock.” (cue pride/justified slacking)
  • etc.

My grandmother ate dinner at exactly 5 o’Clock for so many decades that she would be hungry exactly at five and unable to eat at any other time. 

I’m not that bad, nowhere near it, but I was still upset that how I feel about myself, and the signals my body would be trying to send me, are so often filtered through, if not dictated by, a number on a clock.

Covering my clocks at first produced lots of anxiety, and a somewhat helpless feeling of not knowing how to plan my day, then it was freeing. And then I didn’t want to go back to numbered time. 

Other numbers have been fun, though. I spent a lot of that unnumbered time doing more math. I’m almost done with the algebra book my friend gave me.

When I left Laguna Mountain, I drove 14 miles back to route 25 and then 19 miles to Pinnacles National Park, but (the very small amount of) parking was full and you can’t see the pinnacles from the roads, so they were turning people away. Since the road does not go through the park from the east entrance to the west entrance, I had to go back the 19 miles to the 25, which didn’t make me too happy.

There was also this detour in the way. Now that is what I call a closed road.

The only reason I left Laguna Mountain to keep a Skype date with some friends (see, I do have some schedules, sometimes), and found wifi from the parking lot at the library in San Ardo. Thank you for not turning off the wifi when you close! (They had weird hours, only 2 to 3 hours each day, and different hours every day of the week.) 

After Skype, I wanted dinner but it was getting dark and it was more important to find the new campsite before it got too dark, so I drove up the mountain on a dirt road, but couldn’t find the campground fer nothin’. Trying another tactic, the GPS rerouted me miles around, but halfway there the road was blocked by a locked gate and there was no other way around.

Pulling out my computer, I looked up cached webpages (no internet) for my backup sites, and ended up driving a very windy and long road through an army garrison, through Los Padres National Forest, along which there were supposed to be half a dozen campsites, but all were either paid, closed, or accessible by 4WD only. So I kept driving and driving, getting more frustrated and desperate and hungry and tired and motion sick from the tight turns, and ending up at the coast.

With no cell reception to look up the GPS coordinates of my backup-backup spots along highway 1, I drove south some ways (exhausted at this point), looking for anywhere I could park. All I found were lots of “no overnight parking” signs along the road, or “day use only” signs at turnouts, and one very expensive campground. 

Finally, I found one turnout that didn’t explicitly forbid overnight parking, and stealth camped behind a large rock that didn’t in the slightest hide my big, white van from roadside view.

I slept badly, anticipating a knock, and although all was fine, I was worried all night. 

At the first light of dawn, I woke up to a gorgeous ocean view, parked in one of the parking spots as if I had just gotten there that morning, and went back to bed for a couple more hours of much better sleep.

I started driving to camp at 7 pm and finally parked at 11:30 pm, was nauseated from the windy road in pitch blackness, with curves highlighted by bright headlights sweeping across a dense, tropical jungle, and had only two granola bars for dinner but was too sick to eat more anyway.

My overnight haven turned out to be Vista Point by Willow Creek Picnic area. 

Looking to the left…
…looking to the right.

After sleep and breakfast, I did a little algebra to unwind, and then left around noon to find a better (legal) campsite. After asking at a gas station (there’s no cell service for miles), I finally found Willow Creek Road to get to Alder Camp, a primitive (and free) campsite (there are very few of these in California). 

The dirt road was very rough in places, and extremely steep. Like 40˚ to 50˚ grades in places, I kid you not. Add occasional ruts and potholes, and after about 8 miles of this, I dubbed it the Worst Road Ever. 

I shouldn’t have kept driving. Although the possibilities for turning around were few, there were a few. I kept imagining scenarios in which the engine couldn’t pull the 7,000 lbs of van up these steep grades and wondering how I would get rescued, and it occurred to me that if I were wishing I had a better rescue plan than AAA (they’re not coming up here), I shouldn’t be driving there. And then I swore not to tell my mom about this. (Hi, Mom.)

But I felt I had too much invested in the drive (not a good basis for decision making) so I continued to the top. The camp was lovely but not at all worth the trip, and so shaded from the densely wooded forest that my solar panels got practically no sun to power the fridge. My nerves were shot and I was extremely anxious about the steep downhill trip ahead of me. Plus, there was no ocean view like I was wanting. Plus, there was one other set of campers, two guys, who were kind of noisy with music and RC cars. They weren’t excessively loud, I was just on edge. All of that meant, though, that I didn’t get out of the van once.

The scene out my front window from behind the partitions.

The next morning, I decided to drive back down and get it over with instead of spending days in anxious anticipation. And yes, my van did stall at one point, on the upslope of a hill that the day before was a downhill so steep that when the van went over the top, the horizon shot above the top of the windshield and I believed for an instant that I had gone over a cliff. 

Going back up it, when the van stalled, I rolled back down a bit (which did not require going into reverse), took a deep breath, said a fervent, short prayer, patted Serenity on her dashboard, and then coaxed her all the way up the hill. When we rounded the top and drove a few yards, I stopped, prayed again, cried a bit out of relief, and swore that the next time I find myself on a road I am not feeling okay with, to let my predefined expectations go and turn around.

It took me about two hours to get back down, including breaks for my nerves.

I spent the rest of the day at the coastal overlook where I had overnighted, as it was indeed a great view, and in the evening went back up the road just a little ways to the first pullout which I found out later is in fact a legal camping spot. There were three of these along the road, but I didn’t want to drive any farther than the first. Getting this far did involve a pretty steep hill, but it was still manageable, and only maybe a quarter mile up the road.

This is the first steep turn up the Worst Road Ever. Some lengths of the the road are better, a few are much worse.

The next morning I finished the algebra book at the overlook, serenaded by the gentle swoosh of waves against the rocks. I made it all the way through the book, did every single problem, every exercise, every example, and got them all right, most on the first attempt. I am smart! I can do it! Algebra is fun!

That afternoon I headed south and got seasick along highway 1. And saw some sea lions. 

Then I turned inland to camp at Shelby Campsite in Carrizo Plains National Monument, which is the only free camping for many, many miles. I wish I could have stayed longer so I wouldn’t be going so far out of my way just for overnight, but California camping (and everything else) is so expensive. 

I am quickly loosing my longstanding sentimentality toward all things California. Nothing traumatic has happened, it is just very expensive, overly regulated, and not transient friendly. None of those things are exclusive to California, it just hurts more coming from the place I love.

But I do like this: 

  • Town name: Buttonwillow, CA

I somewhat made up for the detour by staying inland for the rest of the trip to LA, which my stomach thanked me for even though it was hotter to go over the Grapevine. Highway 1 was beautiful, but not good for my vestibular sense. 

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