Albion Monitor /Features

Amtrak, Dolphins & Fries to Go

by Simone Wilson

Hiking the Southern Coast

Dolphins have it easy, arcing south toward Mexico 50 yards offshore, working a tidal corridor alive with fish. Overhead, pelicans work the same ocean strip, plummeting into the waves in competition for the tasty fish. As for us, we're stuck here on the sand 50 miles from Mexico, walking a beach lapped by cool foam, which isn't a bad place to be on a hot July afternoon. All us vertebrates are all headed south, each to his own locomotion.

Those of us on the annual week-long San Diego County Coastwalk are following a much less ambitious regimen than the "Whole Hikers" traversing the entire California coast. While we're ambling along the San Diego coast, logging about eight miles a day, a smaller, select Coastwalk group is trekking the entire California coast: 1,100 miles, the equivalent of 42.3 marathons over the course of the summer. In comparison, we're regular couch potatoes, halting for two or three lunch breaks a day, lounging on the strand, taking dips before sauntering a few miles more down the silver beach.

For northern Californians used to springy blufftop trails, sand trekking feels like the proverbial two steps forward and one step back. By the time the border-to-border Coastwalkers get here, they'll have seen as much sandy beach as they ever want to see. (Or who knows, maybe a couple of die-hards will go home, shower, launder their Coastwalk T-shirts, tilt their boots north and light out for Oregon.)

Amtrak's Alarm Clock

If the coastal terraces of North and Central California are relatively pristine, with rocky coves and remote headlands, this southern stretch is heavily urbanized. Heavy traffic skirts the shore. Sunbathers line up at faux-Polynesian snackbars for fries and cokes. Surfers boogie on in-coming waves. The campgrounds, even when they're well maintained, seem beat up -- the ground so impacted my tent stakes bounce back at me when I try to hammer them into the earth.

At San Onofre State Beach, the campground is a frontage strip wedged between the interstate and the cliffs. Just opposite our campsite is the border check whose harsh lights glare all night to discourage illegals from hiking north on a different kind of coastwalk. Amtrak parallels the highway, and at 4:13 a.m. I'm jolted awake by the train roaring through my tent. Mentally, I know the tracks are 50 yards away but I'm still flattened by the overwhelming whaaaa! of the train as it rushes by.

For much of this trip we walk along the beach and gaze up at mansions perched on crumbling cliffs. At the southern edge of San Clemente, we all pick out houses we wouldn't mind owning in another lifetime. My fantasy house is a modest Spanish-style cottage with a red-tile roof and bay window. As we walk a little farther, a garguantuan palace looms up behind it, and I realize my cottage is a mere outbuilding on the grounds of the Western White House, Richard Nixon's presidential digs. As we continue south I picture Haldeman, Erlichman and their boss holed up there on the cliff, plotting to suppress the Pentagon Papers while the suns sinks in the west.

Next day we encounter another charming landmark: San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant, one of the ugliest sights on this or any other coast. The plant looks like two mammoth cupcakes with cement icing, flanked by factory-grey ramparts, and we trudge past it on a cement walkway sandwiched between a chain-link fence and featureless walls the color of lunar craters.

Way Station Then and Now

Even if development has altered some natural features, it hasn't wiped out all traces of California's early history. One night we camp at Las Flores Adobe, now on the grounds of a Boy Scout camp. In the 1830's this was the site of an asistencia, a way-station along El Camino Real, the trail that connected the Spanish missions. Many of the 21 missions were inland, so mission-hopping travelers weren't doing the 18th and 19th century Coastwalks. Even so, the Camino made it possible to walk the length of California, a practice Coastwalk continues in its own way.

We set up tents on the grounds around the original house; where the plaster has broken away from the wall, adobe bricks are visible underneath. Without its rainfly my tent is mostly mesh. I set it up in a grape arbor next to the adobe and that evening look upward at a silhouette of leaves.

Ironically, the really pristine stretch of San Diego coast is the one zealously guarded by the Marines of Camp Pendleton. They've given our group a first-time permission to traverse their several miles of private beach, but dove-grey helicopters zoom in arcs overhead, as if challenging our passage on their shore. Finally the four kids in our group scrawl FRIENDS in five-foot letters in the sand as the helicopter makes another low pass.

"They saw it! They saw it! We're saved!" the kids leap around jubilantly. The mega-chopper-- which resembles a futuristic prop straight out of a Schwarznegger flick -- makes a final pass, and before it loops away over the coastal hills I see the pilot wave.

The Department of Defense has kept this immense coastal property in a fairly natural condition, says base wildlife biologist Slater Buck, who meets us one day to point out the preserve at Santa Margarita Estuary. Troops need rugged terrain for their maneuvers, Buck explains, so the Corps leaves these hillsides of coastal scrub relatively undisturbed. It also cordons off pockets of habitat for the endangered Least Tern and traps coyotes that ravage their nests. "A couple of coyotes can wipe out a tern preserve in two nights," says Buck, while the sleek, paper-white Terns wheel overhead like delicate origami creations.

Receding shoreline

After the open spaces of Camp Pendleton, it's a shock to rejoin civilization, where houses are jammed together on the cliffs. In revenge, the shore is advancing on the houses.

Just north of Encinatas, the cliffs are in the process of doing what California seacliffs do crumbling, eroding -- in short, going away, leaving house foundations cantilevered in space. We watch anxious residents hammer new stairways and pour cement in what is probably a losing battle with a receding shoreline.

After awhile we run out of beach. A rocky point blocks our way along the shore and we take a public access trail uphill to the city streets of Leucadia. Where the trail switchbacks up the slope from the beach, there's gap in the long line of bluff-top houses. "I wonder how many houses fell in here before they decided to make this access trail," asks Debi Byrd, coordinator for our hike.

When the summer-long Coastwalkers get to the beaches of San Diego at the end of their Oregon-to-Mexico tour, they're sure to notice the contrast between the expanses of the north and the congested south: bigger highways near the beach, more houses choking the cliffs, more surfers, train whistles, night lights, noise. Then again, maybe they'll notice the dolphins.

On the last evening of our walk, we watched a score of dolphins working their favorite corridor as the sun set. Suddenly two of them broke away from the pack and, out of sheer exuberance, body-surfed in tandem towards the beach, the wave speeding them towards the shore. When the wave finally broke, they had vanished in the foam.

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Cotati writer Simone Wilson is a former Coastwalk board member and has been participating in the event since 1984.

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Albion Monitor August 12, 1996 (

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