Misadventures of Big Sur

For a person who treasures the outdoors and finds peace being surrounded by nature I have a real issue with Big Sur, maybe even a vendetta. Actually, I’m starting to think that Big Sur has a vendetta against me.

If you are unfamiliar, Big Sur is one of the most beautiful places in the US; it has a wide variety of wildlife, ecosystems, dedicated remote wilderness areas, scenic vistas overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and huge redwood trees.  I’ve spent the majority of my life in Pennsylvania and while I have many fond memories of the outdoors on the East Coast, nothing quite compares to a place where the mountains meet the ocean and the trees are thousands of years old.

McWay Falls just before sunset

McWay Falls just before sunset

1998 Gary Fisher Big Sur  Acid yellow frame perfectly complementing the candy red RockShox fork. 

1998 Gary Fisher Big Sur

Acid yellow frame perfectly complementing the candy red RockShox fork. 

I first heard the words, “Big Sur” when I was around 16 years old. A popular mountain bike manufacturer, Gary Fisher, named one of their high-end bikes after this place. This bike became an obsession for me; it was my equivalent to a Red Ryder BB-Gun. I researched the bike, where to buy it, drooled over it at the local bike shop, saved and saved and saved for it. I even resorted to begging my parents to get if for me at every possible holiday. Most 16-year-old kids want a car. I didn’t want a car. I wanted a bike. At one point while researching this two-wheeled piece of art I realized that I had no idea what Big Sur actually meant, so I began looking into it. After reading one article and becoming a self proclaimed expert on this place I didn’t just want the Big Sur, I wanted to ride the Big Sur all through the wilderness of Big Sur. Like most 16 year old dreams, mine never came true. The bike was always too expensive and California was always too far away.

No caption necessary 

No caption necessary 


16 years later I happen to live in Southern California, which is a short 6-hour train ride away from the Central Coast, and I have a friend who lives nearby that has a car. The dream is still alive! My epic, almost 20-year-old, fantasy was about to come to fruition. I called my good friend James, who lives in San Luis Obispo, and we began planning our trip. James isn’t a mountain biker (yet) so we settled for a long weekend backpacking trip. The research started all over again. I spent hours pouring over maps and backpacking websites to find the perfect route. The epic Ventana Wilderness was calling us and I could not wait to get started. Our Plan was to head out early on Friday to the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, check out McWay Cove and the scenic water falls, and then pick up a trail just south that would put us right into the wilderness. I estimated the 25-30 mile loop would have us back for dinner on Sunday.

Beards are a must for any wilderness excursion

Beards are a must for any wilderness excursion

Friday morning we hit a few minor snags with some of our gear and food preparations, so we didn’t leave San Luis Obispo until almost 2 in the afternoon. With a 2-hour drive ahead of us we accepted the fact that we may not be able to make it as far as we planned that day, but we could make up for it by hiking and setting up camp in the dark.  With our backpacks loaded and headlamps ready we set out for a night trek into the wild.

Immediately we ran into trouble. We couldn’t find the trailhead, which was oddly un-named on the map, but after looking around we decided that one of the trails near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park “had to be” the trail we were looking for. At about mile 4 of our mountain accent we came across a sign that alerted us to where we actually were. Nowhere near where we needed to be! We were in a small day hike trail system in the State Park. We were pretty deflated, but I was determined to make my long sought after Big Sur trip happen. We turned around, came back out to the Pacific Coast Highway and began searching for the missing trail that was supposed to be leading us into the Ventana Wilderness. We walked up and down the highway, checked and rechecked the map, asked any random person we came across and finally by midnight we realized that our dream of Big Sur solitude was slowly dying.

This is what the wrong trail looks like

This is what the wrong trail looks like

We determined that this mysterious trailhead didn’t exist. After a few unsuccessful attempts at blazing a trail directly northeast through impassable mountains, and hiking to a beach campsite a mile down the road that was full. We had two options; a.) sleep in the car and wait until morning so we could actually see what we were doing and then find our way, or b.) bag the trip all together and reschedule it for another weekend. We weighed the pros and cons of each situation and decided that we shouldn’t try to force our adventure. We wouldn’t be able to cover nearly as much ground as we originally planned and we could find plenty of outdoor adventure back in San Luis Obispo.

Wine country outlaw

Wine country outlaw

Reluctantly we headed back down south and started brainstorming for the rest of our weekend. We ended up renting bikes and doing winery tour in the country and a short local day hike. We were down and out, but made the most of our weekend and vowed to come back with a full-proof plan to overcome our first bad experience with this beautiful place.

Fast-forward about 3 months. I’m fresh off my first MMA loss, feeling pretty low. I was in need of a break from the gym and a break from life in general.  What could be better than a trip to Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness to regain some balance in my life? I could also clear my head and get some redemption from our last botched journey. We thought we were prepared last time – this time, we had a foolproof plan and route. There was definitive proof that the trails existed, we had our gear and food worked out days beforehand and we were determined to make things work.

I headed up to SLO early in the week to meet my friend James again. I also wanted to head up that way to personally thank one of my sponsors who stepped up with a week’s notice to help cover some of my training expenses for my first fight in the UFC. Hortau is a company that specializes in wireless and web-based irrigation systems. Basically, they find ways to save natural resources and maximize crop output. Pretty awesome stuff; anyone dedicated to helping the environment and the blue-collar community is a friend of mine. We got together and did a campaign to raise drought awareness in California. I’ve always considered myself a conservationist by doing my part to reduce my consumption and influencing those around me to do the same, but I think this makes my conservationist status official!

"Did it hurt when you got punched in the face?"  -The Otto Bros aka the toughest Honorary Hortau Employees

"Did it hurt when you got punched in the face?"

-The Otto Bros aka the toughest Honorary Hortau Employees

The Hortau team, as expected, was a great group of guys. They have big plans and everyone in the company had a genuine interest in improving the agricultural landscape as well as the environment. I’m proud to be an honorary member of their team.

After taking care of business for the week, James and I packed up the car and set out for Big Sur 2.0. This time, nothing could get in our way! Well, almost nothing could get in our way.  As we pulled out of San Luis Obispo we noticed a few clouds rolling in. I immediately checked the weather and there was 90% chance of rain that day but it seemed like it would be a short-lived passing shower. The report said the rain would end that evening so we made sure our rain gear was handy and kept right on driving.

By the time we made it to Big Sur, it was an all out torrential downpour. Reassuring ourselves at the trailhead that the showers would pass shortly, we secured our raincoats and rain flys and trudged on. We anticipated that the first 5 or 6 miles of the hike would be the most difficult. We were starting at sea-level and climbing over 3,000 vertical feet to reach our campsite at the top of the ridge. The rain didn’t let up and as we got closer to the top of the ridge, the visibility was down to about 20 feet and the winds began to pick up. Just before reaching the campsite, we encountered a massive redwood tree downed by the storm. As we passed it we both made a mental note not to camp anywhere near this type of danger. When we reached camp, we were both completely soaked, shivering and the campsite had absolutely no cover from the wind that nearly blew us off the mountain a few times on the way up.

Packed and ready for adventure minutes before the rain came

Packed and ready for adventure minutes before the rain came

Setting up camp proved to be a huge task. Our fingers were so cold we could barely unsnap our backpacks and when we finally got the tent out it was blowing all over the place. Eventually we made something that resembled camp and changed out of our wet clothes. We started to come back to life once we had some dinner and warmed up in our sleeping bags. By the time we finished eating we noticed that the low side of our tent was carrying about 3 inches of water. The foot-ends of our sleeping bags were sitting in the puddle and it was creeping closer and closer to the rest of our gear. At this point, things were pretty bad, but I kept trying to focus on the positive. “At least we’re safe in the tent and we’re somewhat dry and with any luck we’ll fall asleep and the rain will stop.”

By the time James and I fell asleep we had crammed ourselves into the driest corner of the tent and neither of us thought twice about the “survival spooning” we were doing. A few hours later I was startled awake when something kept hitting me over and over in the back. When I snapped out of it I realized that a bear wasn’t mauling me, the wind had just picked up and our tent wasn’t capable of withstanding 65 mph winds. The pole collapsed and was whacking me in the back, which meant our stakes were being pulled out of the ground by the wind. I pressed myself as far into the corner of the tent as I could to stop the tent from smacking me and I went back to sleep.

The next time I woke up the fix wasn’t as easy. The hood of my sleeping bag was drawn tight around my head and face so I could stay as warm as possible. When I woke up there was a puddle inside my bag that had made it’s way up to my nose. As soon as I moved the water ran straight down into my bag. This is by far the worst way to wake up in a tent. I threw the sleeping bag open and realized that it was morning and then I saw what the problem was. The rain fly had almost completely blown off the tent and rain was pouring in on us. I woke James and broke the news to him that everything in our tent was completely soaked and then I went out and tried to reattach the rain fly. I got back in the tent drenched, fingers barely working and at that point we decided that Big Sur hates us. And not only does Big Sur hate us, Big Sur has defeated us again.

James and I ate a quick breakfast and started packing. We broke down the tent and stuffed it in my bag and got moving back down the mountain to the car. Our packs weighed at least 15 pounds more on the way out since everything was completely saturated. When we neared the bottom of the mountain we decided to try to take something positive out of our experience this time around and the best we could come up with was, “At least we were able to make it through the night this time”. So pathetic!

Too wet and depressed for photos  After everything that has happened here, I still can't wait to go back and find what I've been looking for the past 16 years  *photo courtesy of The Ventana Wilderness Alliance 

Too wet and depressed for photos

After everything that has happened here, I still can't wait to go back and find what I've been looking for the past 16 years

*photo courtesy of The Ventana Wilderness Alliance 

We were almost to the car when we came across a ripped up bag of garbage scattered everywhere. Stinky old meat, produce and plastic wrappers were everywhere. As much as I hated Big Sur at that moment for crushing my childhood dream, there was no way we were going to leave without cleaning up that mess. One of the most beautiful places in the world should never be treated that way.

Our car was packed with wet backpacks, muddy boots and the worst smelling trash you could imagine and once again Big Sur was in the rearview mirror getting smaller by the minute. Yet all we could think about was how this place skunked us. We were 0-2 and the irony of our second defeat just rubbed it in our face even more. The guy who is concerned with the draught epidemic in California gets slammed with 4 inches of rain in 48 hours. I guess the third time is the charm…at least I hope it will be.

Pat Cummins3 Comments