The Siren Song of the Sea

California Coasts PCH 1
California coast along Pacific California Highway 1

One thing I looked forward to when I got to California was the drive up the coast via Pacific California Highway 1.

It did not disappoint. At times it is a challenging drive with curves and extreme drop-offs (often without guard rails), but the scenery more than makes up for any driving inconvenience.

My decision to keep each day’s driving to 3-5 hours at most turned out to be a wise move. I quickly lost track of how many stops I made just to take in the view and snap some photos. I credit the abundance of pullouts and overlooks, each more beautiful than the last, and seemingly endless opportunities to stare at the amazing views. At some point I had to accept I had seen enough through the camera and drive on past some stunning views.

I am in northern California now, staying for a bit with some friends in Arcata. And I expect as I continue up the coast and go along the ocean in Oregon that there will be plenty more stops along the way to take in nature’s wonder where land meets sea.

Click to open any image below and start a slide show to see them all.

Waiting for the Knock on the Door

Stealth camping
Stealth camping, San Luis Obispo, CA

One of the few times (to me) in van life that’s on the margin is stealth parking on an urban street in hopes of getting a quiet sleep for the night. In California it is far more difficult than any state I visited to do this. Most of the usual choices for a night stopover when driving through somewhere (WalMart, restaurants, quiet residential streets, e.g.) are prohibited here by laws and fines with lots of posted signs, a ridiculous about of signs even on highways well beyond city limits.

In some places where I see numerous run-down RVs parked and obviously camped out for much more than one night despite the signs, I drive on. I always prefer places populated by active van lifers and RVers than those living in a parked RV. Thankfully, due to some apps I use, I can often locate places like the photo above from last night, places where someone’s posted a review of a successful knock-less night. But sometimes those places don’t pass my inner comfort critic, so I move on to something similar nearby.

Last night was an alternate spot, and a restless evening somewhat from outside noises but certainly from 1 a.m. brightly colored flashing lights. I can fully black out VanGeist where even if I have inside lights on, you cannot see in from the outside. Plus, my van more resembles a working trade van than an actual RV (partly from Winnebago’s design but mostly from my outside modifications for this generic look).

As I peeked out the back window through the smallest unzippered slit in the window cover I could make, I saw a commotion won the short block a bit. Two officers where shining flashlights over and in two darkened parked cars. After a few minutes, they got in their car and drove exactly one car length further on my side of the street, got out, and knocked on a car’s window. The occupant responded and was greeted by ”Get out of the car,” yet I could hear him say ”I thought it was okay to park here overnight.” More mumbling, more flashlights, but soon the car’s occupant went back inside and the police drove past me to the corner and turned at the next street.

I do not think they were cleansing the street of vehicles with people sleeping in them. Seemed more like they were looking for someone or something specific. I spent the rest of the night restless, tensing a bit when any vehicle passed by, wondering if they would stop and I would get the knock on the door. But night passed, and in the early dawn hot coffee with a breakfast burrito from just around the corner rewarded my perseverance to hang in there for the night.

This was the closest I came to a knock on the door in the middle of the night in well over two years of van traveling and street camping. I am doing more of that this Van Life 2.0 in VanGeist than I did in my Travato in 2019. So far, I have learned a lot about picking locations, watching for signs whether a spot is viable and above all, cultivating an inner sense to stay or go. Cool thing about being in a van is if the vibe is off or you feel uncomfortable even if not knowing why, you simply drive on to somewhere else.

Sometimes in life we seem stuck in a tensed state, metaphorically waiting for that knock on the door. Whether it is our internal mental fear generator that takes a few coincidences and weaves together an angst-riddled false conclusion or a series of body pains that tips our mind over into dark places, it is often difficult to break free from, or logically dispel, these phantom threats.

Being someone who worked through anxieties decades ago, part of what helped me was a cartoon I kept on my refrigerator. One person is seated, and other standing at a large wall graph with a pointer. The graph is a huge, jagged bell curve which she points to near the top of the curve and states ”This is what we worry about.” Then she points to the end of the bell curve where the line barely is above the base axis and says “And this is what we worry about that actually happens.” Something to thing about next time the worry gremlins tap you on the shoulder and want to get in.

Worth It

Rincon Beach - beachside 2

As I thought about driving the California coast from south to north, I hoped I could find places to camp for the night along the ocean. Sounds of relentless surf are so soothing and grounding yet not always easy to find such a place to overnight in a van.

In the wee hours before dawn today I left Los Angeles driving in a low fog that became a dreary, smoggy, chilly morning. Driving through Topanga Canyon was fun but would have been visually stunning had the fog surrendered to the sun, but Sol never made much effort to give me a good view of the hills and canyons. Fortunately, once on the coast and with some morning hours to burn off the fog and miles to churn heading north up the coast, the day turned to blue skies and sunshine.

While I may have more chances along the western Pacific coast all the way to Washington, yesterday I stumbled upon the RV fee parking at Rincon Beach near Ventura. This stretch of Pacific Coast Highway 1 is clearly quite popular since there were only two spots left unclaimed. Most days I overnight at free spots or sometimes a National Forest or other federal land where the camping fees are low. I avoid RV parks and rarely visit state parks, but today I decided this spot was totally worth it. Going online to pay what by California standards is an average fee, turned out to be two to three times more than I have paid for a camp site for one night.

Settling in shortly after 1 p.m., knowing I would have a whole afternoon enjoying sunshine, sounds of the surf, and time wandering the beach and playing tag with incoming waves helped muffle my inner critic’s whine ”Did you really just pay $44 for a one night camp site?” I lost that game of beach tag when a faster-than-I-was incoming wave spread over my feet with the shock of the cold Pacific Ocean awakening an ”Oh yeah, I forgot about that” memory jolt.

Since I looked out west over the ocean, I was hoping for a glorious sunset to close out my afternoon camping by the beach. While any sunset over water is beautiful, yesterday’s lack of clouds at sundown made for a simple evening light show. Still, did not dampen my serenity from spending a pleasant afternoon watching and listening to cascading waves of surf and sound. And as you might imagine, I slept like a baby last night with that lullaby in my ears.

Los Angeles Panoramic Splendor (Despite the Intense Smog)

Smog? Um, yeah
Smog? Um, yeah

Wow. Nothing shocks one quite like taking the beautiful, winding drive up to Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, CA, only to stand at the top for the amazing panoramic view of…intense smog. I had heard that during the early months of the pandemic shutdown the smog around LA cleared up! I can only imagine how beautiful these views would have been back then.

Despite that, Griffith Park is an amazing place. May linger another day just to explore it more and time to wander through Laurel Canyon and some other significant spots I recall from way back in my semi-hippie days. For now, this brief taste of the views, hills, and canyons around the observatory will have to do.

I took the drive up intending to stop and wander on foot, but all the parking around the observatory was $10 an hour, so wasn’t doing that. I did stay a little while in my illegal parking spot, but only about 10 minutes. On my drive down, however, I came across a large, free public parking area with several trailheads. So I parked and took a nice two-mile hike (half constantly up hill, the way back constantly down hill). Ironically, the hike led up to…the observatory! So got to spend more time there after all.

Early morning at the Griffith Observatory
Early morning at the Griffith Observatory