We three (K, J, and yours truly) set out, bright-eyed & bushy-tailed, on our road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway in California.
Three suburban dudes, convinced there’s nothing to worry about in the California wilderness, even in January. We had plenty of beer, an item that was a camp stove in name (if not in function) and entirely too much canned soup.
Adventurous, rugged hobos–and proud.
Starting out in Orange County–about 30 miles south of Los Angeles–we decided our first overnight stop would be in Big Sur.
Ambitious, but doable.
Mental imagery of the majestic & ragged escarpments, towering over the rough coastal waters of central California, was all the motivation we needed on that first day.
We hit the road, Black Sabbath blasting & dirty jokes cracking the whole long way. Little did we know how much self “Sabotage1” we had sown…
(1 – Sabotage: Black Sabbath’s 6th album, released in 1975.)
After an 8 hour drive, filled with no less than a dozen instances of the word “cows” being yelled at maximum volume (Californians are unable to see them without letting everyone around them know) we stopped at the first open campground after Ragged Point.
Nearly pitch black by then, we rolled our dirty Corolla in on the short dirt path. Though the campground seemed inhabited, we couldn’t find anybody to ask questions.
There was an old camper trailer hitched to a pick-up truck with the lights on, but an 8.5 x 11 inch paper taped to its door requested not to be bothered after dark, and to leave the camping fee in the appropriate receptacle.
I respect you, dear reader, just enough to let you fill-in the blanks as to how three inexperienced, impatient, and exhausted twenty-somethings navigated the honor code in this situation.
We found a secluded site on the edge of the campground, closest to the boundaries of the dense echoing forest. Each of us set to work preparing our own puny parcels, since we each had our own tents.
Mine was a single person pop-up tent, with its poles integrated into long pockets spanning its exterior: convenient & sturdy enough for a beginner’s mild night in the woods.
K had a more conventional pole tent, the kind with breakaway pole segments connected with elastic cord. He set it up near the middle of our site, closest to the fire pit.
J had a sort of single person sleeper tent that I could then only describe as a coffin. I learned later that it was called a bivy, and is used on mountaineering trips, where it might be necessary to sleep on narrow ledges.
I was ignorant of this, and tried not to judge him, but I thought it was… strange.
We decided to build a fire with some wood we bought back at the gas station. This is where things got a little whacky.
Taking inventory of all the tools we brought with us, we realized the only things we had that were even remotely suitable for log-splitting were a cheap machete from a big-box department store one of our parents’ gave us for Christmas, and a pocket knife.
After many silly little whacks–and a Three Stooges In The Woods sequence where the machete got stuck, so we found a grapefruit-sized rock to pound the back of the machete through the log–we ended up with enough wood for maybe 20 minutes of low flame.
I learned this is actually a common technique for processing firewood on bushcrafting expeditions. It’s usually done with a sturdier knife and a smaller piece of wood, though.
Janky caveman methodologies aside, we were making it work.
Using brute force, an embarrassing amount of our limited supply of toilet paper, and half a quart of lighter fluid, we managed to get our fire started after probably half an hour of scratching our heads and wondering how thermodynamics worked.
After a disproportionate number of calories spent in a boujie-Bear Grylls quest for fire, it was time to eat.
We each grabbed our choice can of soup from the trunk of the car, where we had simply thrown each can without any sort of box or bag to contain them.
Tired, nearly defeated, and starving, we each set to warming our soup by the fire. One of us had a pop-top can, and set his can to broil at the fire’s edge.
The other two of us were not so fortunate. And we didn’t bring a can opener.
But we did have a dull pocket knife!
Showing true grit, with a dash of revolve, we blindly stabbed at the top of our cans in the dim glow of the fire, which was now close to embers.
Crouched & dirty around the fire, we each felt a cold drop on our shoulders.
Serried flecks of rain drifted down from the black sky above, and settled on our pathetic energy source in a microscopic sizzling blanket.
Quiet tension rose in each of us as we begged the spirits of the forest to bless us with chunky meatball soups. Prayers to Progresso were muttered in our circle of desperation.
Finally, we used a pair of pliers we (inexplicably) had to remove our soup cans from the coals.
Do I really need to tell you that we had no spoons?
By now, our fire was dead, but after chugging down some lukewarm soup, our bellies were full & our spirits were up. And–thank the gods–we still had beer.
(Attentive readers may be wondering about the camp stove. Obviously, we forgot about it. That didn’t matter, because we later realized we didn’t have a propane tank.)
Spirits lifted, we each cracked open our warm Rolling Rocks and cheered to our misadventures. One of us had the presence of mind to bring a LED lantern, which we placed on a log stump near the picnic table in our site.
We were hobos in essence, but in that moment, we were each kings in our hearts.
Our merrymaking & joviality were short-lived, because the flecks of drizzle had begun to grow in size. We decided to stay up and keep drinking in K’s tent, since it was the largest, and we still had beer.
We pulled the tent flap back and stepped in, our feet (un)welcomed by a dreadful sloshing noise…
His tent had rained through.
There were no actual holes or tears in the material: it was simply not waterproof, or even water-resistant.
Draping an old tarp over the top of the tent, for some reason we all decided to pile-in anyway.
The footprint of his tent had luckily (?) been placed over a round micro-elevation, so that the very center of the tent was raised a few inches, and the rainwater settled on the edges of the interior.
We huddled together, knees to our chests, cramped on our island of darkness, finishing our beers in silence.
Each of us was trying to convince ourselves we were still having a good time.
When the beer was gone, we decided we’d had enough, and so K and I piled into my single person tent.
J’s coffin had a raincover on it which seemed to have done it’s job, so he decided to lay himself to rest in his sarcophagus like some sort of drunken, sopping Dracula.
Our night was not going very well.
But we each, in turn, managed to fall asleep. For a while.
At some point in the night, K and I awoke to a shuffling noise in the grass outside, accompanied by some sort of whimpering.
Doing our best not to release our beer-and-soup dinner into our trousers out of sheer terror, we peaked out into the blackness.
As our eyes adjusted, we could barely make out J’s stumbling silhouette, doubled over and fumbling with his coffin, which was now crumpled & formless.
We called out to him & asked him what was going on. He seemed unable or unwilling to answer us. He just kept repeating, “No, no, no…” under his breath, in a sort of disbelief.
It was still raining & he was obviously in distress, and we weren’t exactly comforted by the sight of him in this state.
We told him to just come into the tent, get out of the rain, but he continued to ignore us and handle his tent, pleading with it to regain its proper secure shape with all the grace & intention of a dozen chimps in a room with a typewriter.
He eventually accepted that it was not happening.
He walked to the car like a shackled man on his final walk to the gallows. He opened the door and crawled in, and slept there for the rest of the night.
Confused, with pity weighing our hearts & exhaustion weighing our eyes, K and I shrugged.
We accepted that at least J was sheltered, so we went back to sleep.
In the morning, we found out that he had got up to relieve himself in the middle of the night. Still a bit tipsy, and stumbling in the dark without a flashlight, he had trampled his tent by accident on his return.
We had a good laugh about it at his expense.
Somehow, in our sleepy, hungry, dirty, confused states, we were still ready for the rest of our adventure.
We had found solidarity and strength in our (in)experience, and felt a bit of pride in our resourcefulness, as miniscule & just barely effective as it was.
Hitting the road with a pep in our step, we were ready for the road ahead of us.
Also, we hadn’t paid, and we had to get the hell out of there before the attendant in the trailer noticed.
Obviously I don’t endorse this: campground fees are important to maintain them & allow the public to enjoy them safely year-after-year.
Dirtbags have limited vision when it comes to civic duty, though.
We were focused on finding a toilet, and burritos.
We were also already daydreaming about our upcoming adventures.
Big Sur in earnest–vertiginous mystical peaks & violent winter waters of majesty–lay ahead of us.
Beyond that, San Francisco, with its howling valley winds, living & breathing streets, and haunted foggy bay.
Further still, the enchanting prehistoric giants of the mighty, awe-inspiring Redwood Forest of Northern California, then the low dreamy nostalgia of Crescent City, near the Oregon border.
Romance aside, if I learned anything from this trip, it’s this:
Check the weather.
Know your gear.
Get out there.
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