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Following the Paper Trail

California law grants access to the entire coast. A band of hikers finds out the hard way, along 1,196 miles, that it's a work in progress.

September 27, 2003|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

They began walking down the California coast at the Oregon border -- sticking as close to the shore as they could -- 3 1/2 months ago. Averaging a dozen miles a day, they endured blistered feet, shinsplints, fiery rashes from poison oak and several broken bones.

They spent their nights on beaches or public parks, sleeping on the ground, and arose every morning on stiff legs to walk some more.

The four men and six women, most in their 60s, included a retired librarian, a teacher, a telephone repairman, a surveyor and real estate agent, a housewife and a wildlife biologist. They were, at best, weekend walkers. One had never slept outdoors.

Many of them had never met before, and yet on a clear spring day, they set out together to hike 1,196 miles of what, at least on paper, is known as the California Coastal Trail.

They waded waist-deep through murky, brackish estuaries and hired boats to ferry them across large rivers. They used ropes to scale bluffs. In places that were underwater during the day, they waited for the tide to recede and teetered across algae-slick rock under the light of the moon.

For individual hikers, such as recovering cancer patient Linda Hanes, this was an epic, restorative quest -- a chance to experience California as pioneers had done and to breathe new life into a 30-year-old effort to forge a trail the full length of the coastline.

But for some people living and working along the route, the hiking party represented an advance guard of visitors who might trample on their private property or crowd their solitude.

The clash of these values would play out all along the trail.

In 1972, California voters approved Proposition 20, the state's Coastal Initiative, reasserting the public's interest in the coastline and decreeing that "a hiking, bicycle and equestrian trails system shall be established along or near the coast."

Yet, today, little more than half of the trail exists. And many of the remaining gaps are blocked by barbed-wire fences, locked gates and shoulder-to-shoulder houses. Completing the route would require the state to buy rights of way and make other improvements at a cost of $322 million or more.

The expedition was organized by Coastwalk, a nonprofit group based in Sebastopol, Calif. The hikers knew there would be obstacles, places where they could not walk -- beneath the wave-washed cliffs of Big Sur, for example. But they did not count on so many man-made barriers, clear indications that many oceanfront landowners don't warm to the idea of a public trail near their property.

The California Constitution guarantees the public the right to walk on the beach, below the mean high-tide line. As a rule of thumb, that means walking on the damp sand -- a portion of the beach that is not always accessible because of high tides, rocky headlands or impassable cliffs.

Getting to the wet sand often means crossing private land. That's where the conflicts arise.

As the hikers confronted no-trespassing signs, military police and private security guards, they were forced to reconsider their goal. Sure, you can walk along the highway from one end of California to the other. But can you have a continuous trail?

"This whole coastal trail seems like a faraway dream, from what I've experienced," said coast walker Jean Kenna, 65, of Morongo Valley, after one discouraging day on the dirty shoulder of a highway. "We have had to do so much road walking and scrambling across rocks."

Yet such feelings tended to fade on a crescent-shaped beach scattered with agates that glinted in the sun. Feet that ached from pounding the pavement were forgotten with the whooshing breath of humpback whales below the cliff of Highway 1 in Big Sur. Anything can seem possible during a summer spent walking the edge of the continent, with the promise of the morning's ocean as smooth as glass or a sunset spectacle of pink and orange confetti dancing on the water's surface.

Like the others, Hanes, a 63-year-old retired librarian from Sebastopol and Coastwalk's president, wanted to walk to further the public cause, and for deeply personal reasons. She began the hike timidly, unsure whether she would make it. Her strength was sapped, her balance a bit wobbly from radiation treatments for cancer.

"Some people want to sail around the world. Some people have ambitions of climbing Mt. Everest," Hanes said. "I want to walk the coast. It's a big thing to do. Everyone should have a big thing to do in their life."

Wielding a walking stick, Coastwalk Executive Director Richard Nichols drew a line in the sand June 3. On one side, he wrote the initials for Oregon, on the other those for California. Then he handed over the willow stick to one of the hikers lined up on the Oregon side.

"I hope to see this all battered and dirty in Mexico," he told them.

With an exaggerated first step, the hikers began their trek in unison down a broad, black-sand beach in the northwestern tip of the state's most northwesterly county, Del Norte.

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