It had only been a few weeks since my dear friend—my brother—my twin (as he would say)—David Abair had passed on from this earth. They say that it’s always the stars that shine the sharpest that fade the fastest. And again, that truth stood solid on strong feet. Since he left, I had been swirling around in a vicious bog of mourning, self-loathing, and anger—each fueled by booze and bad decisions. Finally, after a week or so of self-destruction, I washed up in my aunt’s garage, dry as driftwood and empty as a vacant clam.
My wife, Camila (Milla!), had been super patient with my sorry ass, but after a couple of weeks of my sulking and drinking, she’d had enough. Lucky for me, Milla knew exactly how to pull me out from the depths of depression: backpacking.
Early on a Saturday morning, Milla dragged me out of my aunt’s garage. She had already found a trail in Big Sur, and although we had always dreamed of packing into the immaculate hillsides of this awe-inspiring stretch of California coast, at that moment, I didn’t care. I was too submerged in myself and my own problems. However, once the sound of the road rolling under rubber tires commenced, I started to feel my inner wounds begin to heal as the gypsy boy in me began to stir awake.
“Although it was middle of Summer, washed-out trails were still very much prominent.”
The trail we wanted to do was a bust. After driving through a magical little neighborhood tucked away in a Redwood grove—a place that seemed to burst straight out of fantasy—our plans were shot to hell as a gate exclaimed “ROAD CLOSED.” As we sat in front of the gate, trying to conjure up Wi-Fi to find another spot, a tweaker in a Dodge Stratus approached us.
“Hey,” the man said, “how can I get out of here?” I was put off by his query because the one road in was the same road out. So, either Milla and I had stumbled into a neighborhood that we had no business in, or this dude was trying to rob us. I told him to turn around and go out the way he came in. He thanked me with shifty eyes and got back into his car. We got the hell out of there.
Every trail near us was closed. Big Sur can be a tricky place to backpack—or even hike—because when storms out at sea first touch land, they pummel the Santa Lucia Mountains. This causes mudslides that wash away various sections of the many trails weaving through the region. Although it was the middle of Summer, washed-out trails were still very much prominent. But then, like a bioluminescent animal in the depths, a memory flickered with a trailhead tucked away in its light.
TBT Andrew Molera Amidst a Pandemic
It was the first time Milla and I had ever explored Big Sur together. The COVID-19 pandemic was in full effect, so we joined thousands of other people on Highway 1, all of us escaping the lockdowns by basking in the beach’s breath. With crisp blue skies and intervals of cotton-like clouds, this particular day was perfect for cruising Big Sur.
Milla and I skipped the stop at Big Sur’s famed Bixby Bridge. There was a throng of spectators crawling on and around the bridge. Seeing this concert-like spectacle filled with parked rental cars, photographers with large lenses, and selfie soldiers discouraged us from stopping. We decided to check out Pfeiffer State Park, but it was closed due to massive mudslides. Since most of the restaurants on the Big Sur coast offer large outdoor seating, our trip was more focused on wining and dining, as opposed to hiking and exploring.
Nevertheless, we did end up finding a trail. Andrew Molera State Beach was alive and kicking according to the internet. Due to COVID restrictions, though, the parking lot at the Andrew Molera State Beach was exclusive to locals only. So, Milla and I had to find parking on the crowded stretch of Highway 1 above. We got super lucky, as a space opened up not far from the hill that led one down to the trailhead.
“… sitting there like a temple entrance in a Zelda game, a doorless doorway.”
The hike to the beach was short but fun. A few minutes into the day hike, we removed our shoes and pulled up our pant legs to cross a small creek. The clear water felt good on my feet as I made my way across the stream. After drying our feet, putting our shoes back on, and walking a little longer, the trail opened up to sand and driftwood. There ahead of us, waves crashed as the day dwindled into golden hour. We hooked to the left to get some privacy, our decision exposing us to a long stretch of empty beach. After some brief exploring and a quick nap on the sand, Milla and I made our way back to the car.
Initially, we had not seen the trailhead just feet from our car. But now, after shaking the sand from our shoes, there it was, sitting there like a temple entrance in a Zelda game, a doorless doorway. The old, dilapidated wood was embraced by green vines. It was too late to dive into this intriguing trailhead, so we made a mental note to come back during our next Big Sur visit.
The Doorless Doorway
Now, nearly a year later, Milla and I stood face-to-face with that very same doorless doorway. As usual, it was super late. At this point, tardiness seemed to be a motif in our backpacking endeavors. Another lesson learned: avoid trails on AllTrails or Google that do not have recent comments from other users—even if the app says they’re open.
After walking through the mystical doorless door, we found ourselves on a small trail, but not for long. After a few steps up an incline, we were on a larger dirt road. In front of us stood a mountain, bare and gold from the yellow dry grass with patches of green shrubbery and small trees. On top of the mountain, a small patch of trees stood out on the sun-scorched meadow. Milla and I agreed that those trees would be our first break.
Shortly after walking up the dirt road, another smaller trail swung off to the right and up the mountain. Neither of us was prepared for how steep this trail would quickly become. I could hear Milla panting behind me as my own breath struggled to rise, my upper thighs burning and sweat beads pooling on my brow. I put my head down and charged it.
In just under two miles, Milla and I had climbed something like 1750 feet. Now we stood looking back down on Highway 1, the coastal breeze cooling our red strained faces and refilling our lungs with fresh air, soothing our short breaths. It was a tough hike up. Milla and I had not really been hiking recently, so our bodies were not ready for such a strenuous stroll. Nevertheless, it felt good… until we saw how much water we had.
In all of the chaos of trying to find a trail before the sunset that day, we had totally spaced on buying water. Convenient stores are scarce in Big Sur, so we would have had to drive almost back to Carmel to buy water. But, in the frenzy of trying to get on a trail before daylight dimmed to darkness, the thought of the most important companion—on any hike—had somehow slipped our minds. This was not good.
Now standing under the grove of Redwoods that looked so small from below, I began to panic inside. Sure, we weren’t going to die up here from lack of water—our car was only two miles down the mountain—but it was principle. I was appalled that both Milla and I could forget something so important. With my phone in hand, I desperately started scouting Google Maps for a possible remedy. Luckily, not far away on the map, a blue line promised what we had forgotten.
With our packs still on, we made our way north to the towering white peak known as Pico Blanco; just across the valley from us. If the map was right, the water was just down in the valley between our location and Pico Blanco. However, Milla and I had already learned once to never trust streams on a map. But what choice did we have?
While driving down the Big Sur coast, the gold fields of wind-blown foxtails looked soft and magical. Now that we were in the thick of them, though, they were far from pleasant. As the ruthless foxtails grew taller around our legs and made their way into our socks to pester our ankles, Milla’s complaints became louder. I was a little annoyed because we needed to correct this crucial mistake. I pushed forward and Milla followed, grunting her voice of reason with every step.
We didn’t make it far. Having grown up running wild through off-trail excursions in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the foxtails didn’t bother me much. Milla, on the other hand, was not stoked. To make matters worse, not only were the foxtails getting taller and thicker, but the forest was starting to surround us with an even worse plant to have a run-in with. Poison oak was everywhere, head high and waiting to fuck up our day. This was the end of the line. Defeated, I told Milla we had to turn back. She sighed and glared at me with that look that said: “I told ya so, dummy!”
It was far too late to keep walking the trail, as we originally planned. So, we pulled off our packs and made camp right there on the trail, inside of the Redwood grove. There was a clearing and it looked like we weren’t the first to camp there. I was still pissed about the water. We wouldn’t even have enough to cook our food. But then Milla came through with a game-changer. After rustling through her pack, she pulled out a little bundle and started to pull out ingredients. She had Hawaiian rolls, some green olives, salami, and dates. She quickly unpitted the dates, carefully smashed the olives and dates onto the salami, embraced them with the sweet roll, and handed me one of the most delicious sandwiches I had ever tasted. We laughed about the water, although deep down I was still butt-hurt about the mistake. Then, off on the coast as the sun bid its farewell, a divine spectacle began rolling out over the sea. Any worries about water quickly evaporated.
Cloud Ocean Soaked in Sunset
What was once a blue ocean was now replaced with a sea of clouds. Directly west, the sun was sinking, becoming a deeper orange as the miles of clouds submerged it. As it grew darker, the colors it spewed onto the fluffy cloud surface became more vibrant. Most of the clouds were light blue, a color not too far off from the waves they cloaked below. But around the sun, like a crown of light, soft pink, fire orange, and rabid red bounced into our eyes. Milla took out her camera and started to snap away fervidly. My little sunset chaser was at work.
The colors didn’t stop when the sun went down. In fact, they grew more impressive. Now, high in the sky and burning bright was Venus, a heavenly treat. Milla was still running around the vicinity with camera in hand, reaching for the perfect shot.
I sat there and watched her, a smile on my face. What a lucky guy I was. To be loved by such a beautiful woman who loved these adventures as much as I did. Between her electric aura and the sunset-drenched coastal clouds, I was completely stunned.
Celestial Wonders & UFOs
For about an hour or so, after the stars had filled the sky, Milla and sat next to each other, our gazes fixated on the celestial wonder above. Somewhere off toward the southeast, Jupiter shouted in all its brightness. All around up above, the Milky Way now crawled across the sky. The entire landscape was lit up, and a bright moon cruised along the cloud-covered sea.
I walked off to use the bathroom and my headlamp caught a curious little mouse as it jumped back behind a neighboring tree. As I sat back down next to Milla, a symphony of nature unfolded. There we sat in stillness, submerged in an undulating sea of cricket songs, the shuffling of small critters, sea lions shouting at one another in the distance, and the mighty Pacific Ocean rolling out its waves. Then our eyes caught something in the sky that at first resembled a satellite.
“Now that she mentioned it, it did seem to be moving pretty quickly for a satellite.”
The bright light was moving through the Milky Way at great speed. I pointed it out and shouted, “Satellite!” With a furrowed brow, Milla soon spotted it, too.
“Isn’t that moving a little fast for a satellite?” Milla queried. Now that she mentioned it, it did seem to be moving pretty quickly for a satellite. Then, it did something I have never seen a satellite do: it sped up, considerably. Then, for just an instant, it stopped right under the small Dipper, and then suddenly disappeared.
“No way,” we said in unison.
It was getting super late, so we took a sip of water—making sure to save some for the morning—and climbed into our tent. My phone had service, so I read a planet guide aloud. When the reading was finished, I opened up my Kindle app and began reading “Into Thin Air” by John Krakauer, also aloud. Not long after, Milla’s snoring interrupted my reading, so I opened my Notes app and began writing until my eyes, too, grew heavy. Soon I found myself nestled up next to her, sleep wooing my mind.
As my eyes grew heavy and sleep had me in its grasp, I heard some crunching outside of our tent. The sounds couldn’t have been more than 5 feet away, and it sounded as if the perpetrator was circling our tent. There I lay, eyes wide and attentive to whatever was stirring on the other side of our tent’s thin material. Furthermore, something kept hitting the walls of our tent, a small thing from the sound of it. I quickly realized that what was hitting our tent was either falling leaves are jumping mice. But the crunching kept circling our tent, and since we were right on a trail not more than two miles from Highway 1, I started to fear that it was a human.
Finally, I built up my courage, put my headlamp on, and jumped out of the tent with my large knife in hand, ready to confront this assailant. However, when I got outside, there was nothing. I gathered my bearings and walked off to use the bathroom. And that’s when I saw it, glowing somberly just above the clouds cloaking the waves below.
The moon sat there, an amber-orange glowing like an ember in the sky. The clouds still covered the ocean, and I could still hear sea lions arguing between intervals of crashing waves below. The moon, in all of its beauty and majesty, was setting just as the sun had, growing darker as it sank into the clouds. Sights such as these were rare, so I woke Milla up to see it.
Milla was grumpy at first. However, when her eyes met the large setting moon, she quickly forgave me. For about 30 minutes or so, we sat and watched the large orange moon until it finally sank behind the clouds. It was 2 a.m. and I was exhausted at this point. Milla and I reentered our tent. She quickly fell asleep—as she always does—while I laid there awake. The crunching came back, and whatever it was continued to circle our tent. This time, however, I was too tired to care. I realized it was most likely a curious deer or maybe a coyote, for we had heard their howls earlier that night. Then, as the clouds had done to the moon, sleep engulfed me in its warm embrace.
The next morning Milla and I awoke to a perfect day. The early morning fog was still hovering over the ocean below, but as we packed up camp, it began to fizzle away, presenting a clear blue sky with a pleasantness unique to Northern California coasts. Once our packs were all ready to go, a hiker passed us by, sharing a smile as he passed. Interestingly enough, considering that we weren’t far from the road below and that we were literally right on the trail, this man was the only hiker we saw during our stay. This spot indefinitely offered the seclusion we look for in the backcountry excursions.
We made it down the hill in less than thirty minutes. Having made such good time on the hike down, we had plenty of time to enjoy Big Sur for the day. At this point, we were quite hungry. So, we headed to the River Inn, a must-stop spot if one is cruising this part of the coast. It is a unique establishment, for one can order their food and seat themselves in chairs and tables that are set up inside of the Big Sur River. We enjoyed our American comfort food—burgers and fries—and then headed to the small surfer-style bus we had seen in the parking lot to get some dessert. And that’s where this journey ends, with two cones of delicious ice cream (I had the lavender, and it was explosive) to freeze the smiles on our faces. It was a proper conclusion to a wonderful experience, and as we sat there enjoying our treats, we were already plotting our next adventure.