Don’t Go Chasin’ Waterfalls

“How many bikes?” asked the guy at Big Sur Adventures.

“Just one,” I said.

“You alone?”

“Yep.”

Jimmy had just left on a 3-day dudes only backpacking trip. I was ready for an adventure of my own. I’d heard about this pop-up electric bike rental biz that opened after last winter’s storms left a section of Highway 1 closed so I went down on a whim. “Good timing,” the guy said as I signed my forms. When the road reopens on October 14, he said, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity will disappear faster than the mist in the Big Sur redwoods.

The Mercury News said biking through Big Sur with no traffic was like visiting the Louvre on a private tour. I was excited. It was an epic Indian summer day—80 degrees. I had to park in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, then hike in 30 minutes through the campgrounds and steepish trail to reach the pop up.

With beefy tires and an electric motor, my Rad Rover power bike was a cross between a mountain bike and a moped. (Love Rad’s slogan: The ebike that makes you feel like a kid again. So true!) The bike had an easy learning curve. I felt like much less of a dork than the time we rented Segways in Golden Gate Park and got flipped off by all the locals.

The suggested route was 18 miles round trip — out to Julia Pfeiffer State Park and back. Sounds like a trek but totally do-able because the e-bikes have pep.  And even with five levels of pedal assist, pedaling is involved so you get a decent workout.

I snaked around Highway 1’s curves with a bird’s eye of the blue green coves and thrashing waves. The redwood trees smelled fresh and clean. Having the whole highway to myself was amazing. I shared the road with maybe 20 cars during my ride. A smile was plastered to my face the entire afternoon.

In no time I had traveled nine miles to iconic Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park where far below sat a stunning white sand beach. McWay Falls Waterfall poured into a cove with the prettiest aquamarine water I’ve ever seen.

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The guys at the shop said the beach was inaccessible, but anyone who knows me knows I can not be near a river, stream, lake or ocean without submerging. I looked all over for a way to get down that treacherous cliff, the one that said “STAY OFF! DANGER!” 

A wooden observation pathway curved teasingly along the cliff. As I walked it, I thought there has to be a way down. I found one way but the terrain looked sketchy plus I would have had to navigate a rocky outcropping at the bottom to get to the beach/waterfall. Every ounce of me wanted in that water. Then I saw the ILLEGAL sign and cooled my jets.

On the way out I chatted with two nice chicks in their 30s from San Francisco. We fangirled over how the pretty water was, etc. Then one asked, “Are you alone?”

“Yep.” 

Soon I started back, waving at other e-bikers as we passed. Being so isolated from the mass of humanity was heaven for a crowd-avoidant person like me. It was almost 5 pm but still warm and sunny. The guys at the shop told me to look out for a dirt pullout and green gate leading down to Partington Cove. “Can I go in the water there?” I’d asked.

No, they said, the cove was too rocky and dangerous.  Yada yada yada.  I locked my bike at the gate and hiked down the quick but steep trail, passing a few bikers walking up. At the bottom I found myself alone in a remote cove. The water was definitely not Julia Pfeiffer Caribbean blue –more like bong water brown, littered with big blobs of seaweed and lots of rocks.

But the only child/rule breaker in me said: You are going to get in that water even if it kills you

Then the words of the guys at the bike place echoed in my ears…it’s really rocky…We wouldn’t advise it….

I pictured myself eating it or getting trapped under a boulder. If anything happened it would be after dark when they noticed I hadn’t returned my bike, then they would have no way of seeing my bike from the road. I did not want to recreate my own version of “127 Hours”  with me in the James Franco role.

Hot, sweaty and defeated, I looked around. Nearby a pithy waterfall gurgled its way into the cove. I stripped down to my bikini, plopped into the 4 inches of water, awkwardly leaned back, and let the cool water tinkle over my head.

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While sun drying on a rock afterward, I  looked closely at the seaweed blobs. They looked just like… SEA OTTERS. Then I remembered after the bike guys told me I’d die if I went into the rocky cove, they said to look for sea otters. There must have been 50 baby sea otters bobbing in the waves. At least I think that’s what they were. Still not positive but bringing bino’s next time for sure. 

I had to return my bike by 7 p.m. so I hustled up the trail, hopped on my bike and rode to Nepenthe, the Big Sur institution perched 800 feet above the ocean. The last time I’d been there was with Mary Jubb, who passed away a few years ago. We were high school juniors road tripping down 1 to go check out UCSB. Mary ordered the roast chicken, I remembered, and we probably tried to order Barcardi cocktails and got shut down. I sat there with that glorious view, those sweet Mary memories and that killer glass of Chard, and soaked up the moment.

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On the dusky mile ride back I did not see another soul. Zooming those curves, damp hair drying in the warm evening, I felt like the last person on earth. A few bikes were left in the Nepenthe lot as I left, including the two women I’d seen back at Julia Pfeiffer. We talked again about the amazing day and they asked me to let the rental guys know they were running a few minutes late.

I returned my bike and began hiking back to my car. The sky soon darkened but I flicked on my trusty iPhone flashlight. The road threaded through campsites with tents and families sitting around fires. The smell of oak and eucalyptus drifted through the air. It was all good until suddenly I found myself walking down a dark deserted road with no idea where my car was. The trees rustled and everything was eerily quiet.

Just then two figures came walking toward me from the opposite direction. Silhouetted against the black forest I imagined two big hairy ax murders. They came closer, oh my god. Forget “127 Hours,” I was going to star in “Nightmare on State Park Street.”  I start to freak… soon we were face to face. Relief flooded me when I realized it was the SF women I’d chatted up throughout the day.

“Oh hey, you lost too?” they asked.

Map in hand we crunched through the trees together. They told me they recently completed grad school and this was their last blast before starting careers as mid wives.

Miraculously we stumbled our way through the forest, crossed a bridge and stumbled into deserted Lot 4 where our two cars waited.

“What’s your name?” asked Midwife 1.

“Kim.”

“Kim, it’s so cool you said ‘Peace Out’ to your husband and did this alone,” Midwife 2 said.

I laughed and told them I’d quite enjoyed my own company. 

We hugged it out and got in our cars.

Truthfully I was surrounded by a bunch of baby otters (I think?), a couple of midwives, Mary Jubb and best of all, the gorgeous Big Sur scenery.

I hadn’t been alone. Not at all.

6 thoughts on “Don’t Go Chasin’ Waterfalls

  1. Such a great post! Gave me chills at the end. Bittersweet and beautiful. Wish I could wrangle a day to do this myself between now and 10/14. But grateful I got to experience it vicariously through you. I’d totally be chasing those water dunks myself. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Wonderful story, Kim! What an adventure you had with yourself! My very first backpack trip was in Pfeiffer Big Sir State Park — I remember the hot pools. I didn’t see that stunning beach though. I think we should go back there and figure out how to swim there… Love you!!

  3. Wow, between the deliciously descriptive prose and gorgeous pics, I felt like I was riding through Big Sur on the back seat of a gizmo’d up bicycle built for two. Had never been but can now cross Big Sur off my bucket list.

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