I knew the trail would be crowded on New Year’s Day but I went regardless.
After a quiet morning at my cottage studio, ensconced in the southerly window seat, watching a calm blue sea through the ornate framework of tangled Monterey cypress trees, a cup of tea beside me and a book on my lap, I decided that I would go for a wander. Despite the tranquility of the scene, I could feel a buzzing energy beneath my skin, a nearly tingling restlessness of a bodysoul ready to stretch, move and walk. What could be better than to begin the New Year with a good ramble on a bright sunny day?
I stashed a few essentials in my small daypack—water, almonds, a couple of clementines, my red bandana, soft shell, fountain pen and notebook—strapped on my walking sandals, hopped in the car, and drove just south of the Carmel Highlands to Garrapata State Park. Sure enough, Highway 1 was crowded with parked cars for a long distance in both directions.
Garrapata is close enough to town that it nearly always seems to be busy (though not nearly so much as Point Lobos, which is positively overrun and loved to death), and normally I simply pass it by, heading for somewhere less trafficked, deeper in the heart of Big Sur. I guessed that the crowds might be thinner if I drove further, say to Andrew Molera State Park, or down to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, but somehow I didn’t feel inclined to go that far or spend much time in the car.
My desire was to be in a redwood canyon, amid the presence of those noble trees that I adore, so I decided to make my way along the busy Soberanes Canyon trail rather than the Rocky Ridge climb overlooking the sea. No matter which path I chose, given all the traffic of a holiday, it would not be a walk for solitude. I tried to ignore the noisiness of groups of teenagers on the trail, along with the obvious (read, oblivious) city folk who were clearly out of their element but animatedly having a good time; frequently I stepped aside to let groups and families pass on their noisy way down the narrow trail.
I endeavored to simply appreciate the beauty of the alluring canyon with its evergreen trees and happily singing stream, but I found myself pushing on faster than I would normally stroll on one of my soulful rambles. Perhaps if I get up a bit higher, I’ll leave some of the casual day strollers behind, I thought.
In the green confines of the canyon it was cool enough that I wore my goosedown vest, though I soon warmed sufficiently from the climb that I didn’t really need it. I opened my senses wide to the tall trees and their canopy overhead, a notable presence around and above, feeling a sense of delight in my leg and gluteal muscles working on the steady ascent. The trail was too busy and steep to stop and linger with any hope of quiet or solitude, though in a dozen places I felt a yearning to return there on some midweek winter day when the canyon would be more tranquil. I was new to this hike, and as I climbed I toyed with the idea of heading up to a ridge—surely such a destination is where it would lead—where I might get a good view of the Pacific and find a serene place to sit. Perhaps write a bit.
On and on I climbed, thinking each rise would reveal the crest that I wanted, perhaps a lower hillside amid the high ridgelines still towering above me. Yet each section of trail yielded only another stretch of climbing. Near the top of the redwood canyon, following an athletic family with four teenage girls, I watched them ascend the steep slope of chaparral, separated in distance and moving at points along the trail according to their respective musculature, speed and constitution. From my perspective, it seemed the handsome, super-fit dad had reached a summit, where he stood waiting for the rest of his clan to catch up.
I’ll just go up there to the top, I thought, huffing and puffing. Surely it’s a good view.
By the gods, the short distance proved remarkably challenging, and I halted repeatedly to catch my breath and rest the dodgy knees that groaned loudly from effort. Just ahead of me, the mother ascended easily behind her youngest daughter who moved with hiking poles and was clearly uninspired, encouraging her repeatedly.
“Just keep your eyes on the prize, honey. This is the steepest part. It’s much easier after this.”
I drew my own encouragement from her ongoing stream of positive talk.
As we collectively stopped for a moment, I said aloud to the mom standing ten feet away, “Climbing with you, I feel like I have my own private hiking coach.”
“Great!” she beamed with bright eyes and cheerleader enthusiasm. “Glad I could help you a bit! This is probably the most difficult hike on the peninsula, but totally worth it.”
￼Climbing on, I chuckled to myself. Naturally in my naiveté I picked the most challenging ascent. Sort of like deciding to write a book, I sighed.
Scrambling up the sandy trail, I flashed back to the Superstition Mountains in Arizona, one of my first backpacking trips as an apprentice ‘rites of passage’ guide, where I followed my co-apprentice, an experienced wilderness man, off the trail, down a steep and rocky slope, and then up a challenging stream bed. A dozen times I was ready to turn back, to find an easier route, yet I struggled on. Grumbling. Ascending the backcountry canyon, we eventually found ourselves in an unimaginable oasis—a high ravine with clear pools, a primeval temple of great sycamore trees and jagged red cliffs, utterly pristine and magical. Had I chosen an easier way or stuck to the main path, I would never have encountered something so deeply alluring.
Looking out over the rugged reaches of Big Sur as I paused again to catch my breath, the day’s ascent seemed an apt metaphor for my journey the past years: struggling on towards an unknown destination, going much further than I had originally planned, but at a certain point knowing that I would push on to the end and see it through, no matter what.
When I finally reached what I previously imagined as the top or summit, where Mr. Fit and his daughters had been waiting but were now gone, I found the trail winding on, a long dusty snake slithering up toward a yet higher ridgeline. The path was significantly less steep than the 32° grade I had just ascended for the past 0.4 mile, but I laughed with weary exhaustion. Bugger.
I gazed back over the canyon from which I had just climbed, toward the southerly coastal summits draped with trailing wisps of pale cloud, and west towards the blue sea ablaze with a great white ribbon of sunlight. All the landscape shimmered green from the recent rains, and everywhere I turned my eyes I felt the subtle sense of renewal, a welcome change after the long months of drought and thirst.
Were the slope more forgiving or welcoming, I could have rested there for an hour and been utterly content, gazing towards the Ventana wilderness away south. Yet I knew from the mother’s encouragement of her struggling daughter that somewhere up ahead sat a bench (where they would all meet up and take a family photo), and I decided that I would simply go on. The bench would be my victory celebration, after which I would make my way back down, having already gone much further and higher than planned.
When I finally reached the ridge top, well above the tree line, wide open and carpeted with wild green grass, I was buffeted by the cool winds, rapidly cooling the moisture of my perspiration-soaked shirt. The cliffs and summits of Big Sur are often obscured in fog, but the view all along the coastline stretched clear, stitched loosely with a few white cotton clouds.
￼I cannot say it was exactly tranquil at the summit, not with a dozen or more people laughing and talking as they milled about the various vista spots of jumbled boulders, but the stunning panorama and sense of accomplishment from the trek made the climb worthwhile. I hadn’t come for quiet ‘soul time’ (though I would have welcomed it, as I always do), not on a national holiday, but rather for a good ramble, and in that I had succeeded brilliantly.
What a curious episode of grace, I mused, that just at the most difficult part of the climb, when I was ready to turn back, I found myself alongside the mother and daughter, encouraged to go on towards an unknown destination despite the great difficulty. Grace, indeed.
I slipped off my walking sandals to be barefoot on the cool earth, strolled to the edge and gazed out over the blue Pacific, some 1850 feet below me. Suddenly a kestrel rose up on the wind’s current and hovered just a dozen feet away, russet wings rapidly beating the air as he hung suspended in the breeze, his keen eyes scanning the green slope below. In a flash, I felt my heart soar and the tiredness of my body seemed to fall away. I’ve not seen a kestrel or falcon—nor had such a dramatic hike—since living in Spain four years ago.
In Andalucía, a pair of kestrels lived somewhere near our whitewashed, stone farmhouse on the hillside amid the gnarled olives, and I frequently spied them when I was out wandering the groves, hiking, or even just standing on the terrace, gazing out over the campo toward the turquoise wedge of the near-distant Mediterranean. I always felt graced when they appeared.
I stood for several minutes watching the small falcon swoop and dive, then hover again, hunting the steep hillside until he disappeared. For the briefest of moments, I imagined the tattooed wings on my forearms pulsed ever so slightly, dreaming of flight.
Walking along the westerly edge of the summit, as I prepared to descend the Rocky Ridge trail, thus forming a loop back down to the coastline far below, the kestrel swept up and hovered close at hand, bold and unafraid of human presence.
“Hello, beauty,” I smiled.
He plunged, veered swiftly left, and vanished into the canyon, leaving me once again graced by his presence. It felt oddly like an affirmation of sorts. A wild blessing. A welcome touch from the soul of the world.
My trip down through the steep chaparral was slow going in places, the incline being sandy and a bit treacherous, though there is little danger of going off a cliff. The vast majority of hiking mishaps happen on the descent, and despite my precaution, the grip of my Keen sandals was insufficient on the loose gravel and I took a short slide, using my hand as an emergency brake, which didn’t fare well for the skin on my palm. Using spit to wash away the grit and some of the blood, I wrapped my peeled palm in the bandana I had stashed in my rucksack and kept going, even more slowly. Thankfully I had landed backward on my left ankle, plantar-flexed against the rocky ground rather than twisted out to the side and severely spraining it.
The bright disc of sun sinking down to kiss the welcoming sea, I finally found myself at the bottom of the long hill, bundled up against the cool breeze, walking back to my car parked on the noisy highway, feeling well-tired but happy with my unplanned adventure to the Big Sur ridge top. With its steep climb, the five-mile loop offered a solid workout for the body, and even with so many others on the trail, I felt deeply nourished in my soul from the wild beauty of my surroundings. I suspected that my quadriceps (and perhaps my calves) would tomorrow have something to say about the climbing and descent. So be it. I would go home to a hot shower and a warming bit of New Year’s Day soup, perhaps even a glass of nice bubbly.
I smiled at it all, thinking that the trek and metaphor would make a good and fitting epitaph for my life:
Inspired by nature and wild beauty, he went much further than he had planned or imagined. It was worth the climb.
Friend, whether you set out to climb a ridge summit, or perhaps find yourself struggling up an unexpectedly steep, slippery slope at a stretch of your life, or simply going further along a passage than you anticipated, may you meet unexpected grace and guides along the way. Remember that angels almost always show up in human form. (That said, falcons or other wild ones are entirely plausible disguises.) And when you finally reach the summit—or simply arrive back at home, exhausted—may your heart open wide, whatever the view may be, and you possess a fuller sense of yourself for having made the challenging journey.