Big Sur: Our semi-wild life and semi-crisis in this semi-wilderness

  • The Big Sur coastline, fog rolling in.

When I think of Big Sur, it is the wild radish I will always remember.

The crunch of it in my mouth, similar to the texture of a radish, but a milder, sweeter flavor.

A wilder flavor.

Ranger Betty Lee, our new boss, was walking us around Andrew Molera State Park in July, which was to be our new “home” for three months of volunteering, a commitment that would be unfulfilled because of family emergency.

She pointed out pale pink flowers on a leggy green bush, then broke off the fruit, a tiny bit of green just slightly wider than the stalk, and handed it to me.

“Wild radish,” she said, two words that will forever capture an abbreviated love affair with this bit of rugged California.

Andrew Molera, a former ranch given to the state and converted to public lands, is part of the stunning Big Sur coastline of central California. It’s larger, more well-known sister park, Pfieffer Big Sur, is about five miles south.

This remarkable stretch of coastland also includes Los Padres National Forest, but escaped overdevelopment not through federal protection, but because private-property owners, who controlled nearly a quarter of the land, wanted it to remain open country, according to author Shelley Alden Brooks, who writes about the area in Big Sur: The Making of a Prized California Landscape.

“These residents, the majority of whom were Democrats, tapped into the movement for growing private-property rights and disenchantment with the federal government to argue for greater autonomy in land management,” Brooks wrote. “Yet, to secure a voice in the regulatory framework, they worked with county and state officials to protect and promote a ‘semi-wilderness’ in Big Sur by banning all new development within view of Highway 1 as well as other restrictive zoning and open-space measures.”

Semi-wilderness. It is a description that fits our current semi-wild life: A life half apart, only half connected to civilization.

Andrew Molera is a perfect example.

The land was donated to the state in 1965 by Francisca Molera, and named for her brother, who helped popularize artichoke growing in California, promoting the crop after World War I in the family’s fields in Castroville, now deemed the artichoke capital of the world. Francisca stipulated that the donated land, which had been used for some ranching and farming, remain relatively undeveloped.

We camped near an open meadow, part of the former fruit orchard and dairy pasture, a sunny view from our window of tall Monterey cypress, California bay, sycamore and oak, several hundred years old. No phone, no Internet, no television. Just serene quiet and occasional fog enveloping us.

Only 20 miles up the road is Carmel, teaming with people, food, money and activity, where we shopped for our son Nate’s birthday gift, got sodas and enchiladas at Bruno’s market and picked up the New York Times. Only a little farther to Monterey, where we caught a movie at the Osio Theater, one of my favorite independent movie haunts.

But at Andrew Molera, those activities seem far distant.

Sharon, who ushered us through the hiring process at Andrew Molera, showing us the park with her dog, Harvey, stopped by to give us official vests, caps and badges. She explained the rules and regulations, noting that our allotment of shower tokens should not be exchanged for cash.

Our job at Andrew Molera was supposed to be camp host, and we planned to help people check in and settle at the walk-in campground. Unfortunately, the campground water system and trails to it were washed out by floods two winters ago. Although state parks had hoped to have it reopened, it was still undergoing repair.

So, we became parking-lot hosts, helping people navigate the small, dirt lot, the self-pay kiosk and the hiking trails. Sometimes a park aide would staff the kiosk, complete with a cash register and debit/credit card reader. But often, when they were assigned elsewhere, we were on our own, and prohibited from handling money, only able to direct visitors to put their $10 day-use fee in the small, manila envelopes and into the iron ranger. We raised and lowered the American and California flags, policed the area for trash, and placed reminder cards on cars for those who had parked without paying before we arrived at 10 a.m.

Mostly, we encouraged reluctant visitors to take the one-mile flat walk through Creamery Meadow to the sometimes windy, wild beach where visitors stacked bone-white driftwood into makeshift shelters, and the Big Sur River empties into the ocean through braided sandbars that make excellent swimming spots. We assured excited hikers holding dog-eared trail books of the life-changing experience that awaited them on the eight-mile loop up the Ridge Trail through redwood groves and gorgeous views of the Santa Lucia Mountains, steeply down Panorama Trail, then back along the Bluffs Trail, through stands of wildflowers with views of the breaking surf. We told them not to miss the hidden beach with purple sand. We directed quiet souls to the Bobcat Trail, which meanders along the river and near Highway One, under the shade of redwoods and past meadows thick with tall, golden grasses. For the most macho, the Molera Trail, straight up the mountain on steep switchbacks, a trail we hadn’t tried, mostly because of poison oak and ticks said to be thick at the top.

We have developed a comfort with the semi-wild that I couldn’t have conceived in my days in noisy, smoke-filled newsrooms, filled with the clatter of keyboards, squawking police radios and expletive-laced shouts that increased around deadline, all of which I loved and, regularly, added to. I drove home through traffic, sirens and people, people, everywhere, to a house where I knew all my neighbors, just steps away.

So, at first, I was uncomfortable with the quiet and the isolation. One of our first campsites three years ago, was on a hill in sight of Arizona’s Mexican border. We couldn’t see another human for miles. As we sat on camp chairs, there was only a profound silence. That night, I anxiously peeked out the windows, wondering what was “out there.” Coyotes howled in the crystal-clear air. Now, I cherish the aloneness, the separation from tension and frantic activity.

At Andrew Molera, you could see intensity in the faces of the visitors driving up to the kiosk, some having rushed from their California jobs or foreign destination for a brief vacation. There was a tightness to their faces, an edge to their voices when they asked why you didn’t have change for a $20 bill, annoyed that it was taking too much of their limited time. I recognized it.

And, in a bizarre, zen-like, way that is so totally unlike me, so different from me that old friends and colleagues would howl if they saw it, I would try to calm them, tell them they were in the right place, that the trail just minutes away was amazing and beautiful, that maybe they could share their $20 bill with another visitor and we could staple their two parking envelopes together.

Soon, they would be talking with another, cash-challenged visitor, smiling, laughing, the strain visibly falling away, and I would start thinking, maybe I should teach yoga and conflict resolution.

We were finding our way around the Big Sur area, buying Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch at the Henry Miller Library, where we also bought tickets for the international movie festival that shows short films on the lawn. We found spots along the rugged coast where we could get cell coverage to make phone calls, and drove to the end of the road, Gorda, where the huge landslide had closed Highway 1 for a year and a half. It is now reopened.

We met other camp hosts, the local sheriff, park workers. Betty Lee frequently stopped to check in on us and answer questions, like when do we use the radio to summon a ranger (pretty much only life-threatening situations), can horses use the trails (yes, some of them), what about dogs (only service dogs, with papers.) You would be shocked at some of the service dogs I met, with papers, including a teacup shih tzu, which I was hard-pressed to imagine providing any service other than sniffing, annoyed, when the doorbell rang.

Betty Lee took us to see the washed-out campground, wading through chest-deep grass to see the trees being planted to stabilize the bank of the Big Sur River, which had changed course after the flooding. She showed us the historic Cooper Cabin, the oldest structure in Big Sur, built by the Molera’s grandfather, and now in an off-limits area.

It all was beginning to feel familiar, like we belonged here. We invited friends to come stay in our spot and share this amazing place.

Then my mother got sick. She is 88, but very active and healthy. My sister Nancy, an artist, lives with her and paints in her nearby studio. It has always been a great comfort as we travel. We know that Nancy is there for any emergencies, and will let us know if we need to get home fast. Nancy started to ring the alarm bells. Mom was not herself. She seemed to have no energy. She couldn’t catch her breath walking across the room. She had swelling in her legs.

When I talked on the phone to mom, normally stoic, upbeat, never one to complain, she sounded weak and a little scared. She had doctor’s appointments in the next few days, and reassured us we didn’t need to panic or come home.

We thought about waiting for the doctor’s assessment, but I didn’t like the sound of things and, especially, didn’t like not having phone service for an immediate update. We gave our tearful, very reluctant, goodbyes to the rangers, who were wonderfully understanding (“We don’t hold grudges when life happens.”) skipped the Henry Miller movie night, threw our chairs in the back of the van, and started driving toward Arizona.

We were back in a day and a half, and learned that mom had atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat. She was given medication to slow her racing pulse and eliminate fluid buildup, and scheduled for a cardio-inversion, where doctors attempt to shock your heart back into regular rhythm. She felt better, but spent most of the day in the recliner in front of the television, very unlike her.

In the wild part of our semi-life, we are often out of range, with no cell service, no television, no Internet, no newspaper delivered to the doorstep. We try to find service every few days to check in with family to let them know we’re OK and make sure they are.

We aren’t backpacking into wilderness areas, carrying our necessities on our backs. We have a van with a bed, bathroom, shower, kitchen and electricity. But we don’t have all the things city people do.

We have one frying pay and one soup pot to cook in, and we eat great food that Tom cooks. We have a fancy pot to heat water for my pour-over coffee every morning, and insulated cups to keep our drinks hot or cold. We try to never run out of beer, and lately I’ve developed an addiction to Kombucha, so we have several bottles of that in our dorm-sized fridge. But we can’t run to Dairy Queen, or Quick Trip, or Safeway on a whim, so we think strategically about what food we have on board.

And I have to admit that we have relaxed our personal hygiene somewhat. When I worked and lived in a house, I took a shower every morning, frequently washed and blew dry my hair, wore makeup, and never wore the same shirt two days in a row. None of those things happen now. We shower when needed, sponge bathe other days. Not enough amperage for a blow dryer, so my hair air dries. The first couple years on the road, I brought makeup for special occasions. This year, I tossed it. I can wear a shirt two or three days if it doesn’t get dirty, and don’t ask how long since I shaved my legs, or I’ll tell you about high school in the early-70s when none of the girls shaved as a feminist statement. Rest assured, I do brush my teeth, use deodorant and put on clean underwear each day. As I said, we’re only semi-wild.

In the civilized part of our semi-life, we stay at my mother’s house in our old neighborhood, where we stop in the street to chat with our old neighbors. We visit friends we’ve known for years, some decades, and see our son, my mother and sister daily. I sew with my friend, Tami, and we sell our girl’s clothes at the Tempe Art Fair in December.

Out here, we sometimes don’t talk to anyone but each other for days. Or we meet new people. Usually, conversations are fairly circumspect, but some of those acquaintances have led to deep conversations and friendships that include visiting and planning joint camping trips. And sometimes, people from our stationary life, come and find us in our semi-wild life to camp.

When we’re at mom’s, we go to the movies frequently. When the Harkins Cinema at Scottsdale Fashion Square had five dollar tickets through Labor Day weekend for their anniversary, we saw four movies in four days. And I binge watched television on Netflix, HBO, Showtime and Hulu, series like Orange is the New Black, The Great British Baking Show, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Big Little Lies, which has opening credits driving along the California Coast that put me right back in Big Sur. Out in the semi-wilderness, we have no television. Our entertainment is hiking and reading. And I knit. I never miss the TV.

Mom’s first cardio-version was a bust. Her heart went into regular rhythm only for a moment, then immediately reverted to a-fib. She also had a bad reaction to the anesthesia, breathing very shallowly, so they had to use NARCAN to quickly rouse her, and couldn’t get a second try. They sent her home with additional medication and rescheduled for three weeks later. Tom and I pitched in on household chores, shopping and cooking, helped take mom to doctor’s appointments, which she complained seemed to happen daily, and exchanged thoughts with Nancy over her progress.

The second try was a success, normal rhythm, and an appointment for three days later to see if it would “stick.” It did, and mom began to perk up, moving more, doing laundry, getting back in the kitchen. When she grabbed the car keys to drive to the grocery stores, we knew she was definitely on the mend.

And we started itching to be back on the road. The window at Big Sur had closed, so we came up with a new plan, Utah, Nevada, Oregon (annual friend reunion at beach house), California (stop at our first park volunteer experience at Prairie Creek Redwoods, reconnect with college friends in Malibu), and back to Arizona in November.

As I write this, it’s 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning at Hannagan Meadow in eastern mountains of Arizona, and we are semi-wild again. No phone, radio, television or Internet. I have no idea what Trump tweeted in Washington’s early hours. Instead, I am watching some very pretty birds, I think, looking in our bird book, that they’re dark-eyed juncos. They’re hopping around under the aspen trees just feet from my chair, their backs rosy in the sunlight as they search for bugs.

And if I close my eyes, I can easily visit the creek where I sat with my morning coffee and listened to the water burble past. Or the cliffs at Westport-Union Landing State Beach, where we watched the sunset over waves crashing on the rocky coastline, or the mist on my face as I walked with friends through the intensely green Fern Canyon at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, or the oppressive heat as we pushed our paddles, moving our canoe past alligators in the Everglades.

Or the taste in my mouth of that wild radish in Big Sur.


  1. Reply
    Nancy Warfield September 10, 2018

    beautifully written! thanks for conjuring up BIg Sur in my dining room this morning. aaah! I love how you describe van life. Exactly like I imagine it.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 10, 2018

      Thanks, Nancy. You’re gonna’ LOVE it!!!!!

  2. Reply
    David September 10, 2018

    Beautiful photos and beautiful descriptions of Big Sur and Molera Park. You bring the place alive. Sorry your mother had atrial fib and you had to cut your stay short, but glad she’s feeling better. I can just see you and Tom talking down the city folk with their edgy voices and the tightness of their faces when you didn’t have change for $20. Also love seeing how these journeys are changing you and Tom.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 10, 2018

      Thanks, David. I’m so very zen now, until Tom shakes the soy milk without the top on and sprays it all over the vehicle. HA! See you soon.

  3. Reply
    Meredith September 10, 2018

    Beautifully written! I was having a busy day til I sat down and read your latest. Ahhhh. I can see and smell and taste it all too. Thanks for taking me there. Yes, keeping teaching zen to me and all! 😘

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 10, 2018

      Thanks, Mer, ohhhhhhmmmmmm

  4. Reply
    Robyn September 10, 2018

    Judy, that was a fabulous read … I want to go there now … but it will have to wait until I put the washing on the line … sorry to hear about your mum but glad she’s now better …. R xxx

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 10, 2018

      Thanks, Robyn, you’re here in spirit.

  5. Reply
    Pam September 10, 2018

    Beautiful. Love and aloha to you both.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 10, 2018

      Thanks, Pam, Love to you, too.

  6. Reply
    Hans Laetz September 11, 2018

    Which horses can use the trails?
    Seriously – lovely, just lovely – I can smell the wild radishes from here.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 11, 2018

      Ha!! Tom said the same thing. I hear Don Carson whispering in my ear!!!

  7. Reply
    Bob Golfen September 11, 2018

    Lovely writing and terrific photos. I love that part of the California coastline. Marci and I have been itching to hit the road as well, and you and Tom are inspirations!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 11, 2018

      Thanks, Bob. Jump on in. The water’s very fine!!!

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