2017 Close-out: Of Jellyfish and Cheap Champagne

When 2017 began, my intrepid travel partner and best friend left from Portland to explore the Columbia River Gorge, then south through Bend to start out our year. As the year progressed, we visited more waterfalls, camped in forests and mountains, and moved in together. We wanted to find a way to close out the year with a bang on a budget, so in the end we decided to explore a part of the coast neither of us had much visited: Big Sur.

To that end, we left with minimal planning and maximum hopes, leaving on Saturday morning to begin the long drive south. We drove through the corridor of flaxen grass and rolling hills with sporadic cattle. Although the hills can be scenic to someone who has never seen this kind of ruminating grassland before, to us it can be summed up more simply: utterly boring. It is mesmerizing in its nothingness. It is the open land of cattle and orchards and olives. Our first stop was at Granzellas, a kind of beacon of civilization in Williams, California. Known for its sandwiches, olives, and if you are my dad – the garlic. As a business venture it is unbelievably smart, offering clean bathrooms and a chance to stretch your legs while grabbing a strangely boutique bite to eat. We only had time to grab some food to go, and we were off.

We arrived to our hotel after many a podcast and playlist, and got settled. The first location on our agenda: the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. One aspect of this famous location that seems interesting is its dedication to conservation. Although much more expensive that we initially thought, we decided it was better to spend the money here and now and it was going to be going to a good cause. What we hadn’t counted on was the fact that many other families had the same idea. The scene we encountered could, I suppose, be compared to life on a coral reef: bustling, diverse, occasionally overcrowded, and with a few people taking pictures with bright flashes.

Still, the place did a wonderful job of instilling the sense of awe. Behind the huge glass windows was a replicated kelp forest, with sea creatures darting and diving. In the darkened hallways of the jellyfish area, adults stood silent and pensive over these surreal and elegant and strange creatures. The touch pools were packed with families poking and prodding the various sea urchins, decorator crabs, and assorted sea grasses. Additionally, a whole wing was dedicated to art made from recycled trash. The ocean has depressingly become a dumping ground and there are nearly innumerable stories of the way our human litter is affecting the livelihood of those who live in the oceans. It served as both a good reminder to recycle what can be recycled, make smarter food choices when it comes to seafood, and art and activism can be a powerful mix.

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Can you tell I like jellyfish? 

The ocean is both enticing to me, and horrifying. The deepest parts of the ocean are not touched by humans and the life is so diverse and the distance between locations is so vast. The scale of our lives compared to lives in the ocean varies so much. We watched in one tank as a turtle chased a fish for a meal – there is no morality in nature. Simply survival. One can take this with a negative connotation, with words like “savage” or “cruel,” but to me it is the absence of this. The absence of our ideas of “right” and “wrong,” the absence of “good” and “evil.” Simply existing.

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After visiting the aquarium, we got dinner at Sly McFly’s, which had a zero minute wait time as opposed to a thirty minute wait at Bubba Gump Shrimp. We sat in the strange little biker bar by the windows and people watched and ate. Afterwards, we treated ourselves to a caramel apple cinnamon roll – screw any ideas of a diet I might have had. It was incredibly good. We were going to go back to the hotel to recharge, but instead I fell asleep and slept through the night.

Day 2

Breakfast locations in Marina are sparse, to say the least. We ended up going to a little coffeeshop called Coffee Mia Brew Bar & Cafe. This place is simply buzzing with personality. There are brightly colored walls, tall tables with mosaics accompanied by stools. The workers seem like your friendly uncle who knows everyone by name and how they like their coffee. We got our breakfast burritos and coffee to go, but I imagine we could have spent the whole day in this one spot, watching the various interactions and microexpressions of the whole, bustling, atmosphere.

We drove to Big Sur on California State Route 1, the longest State Route in California. The Pacific Coast Highway is aptly named and incredibly beautiful. As I drove, I had one eye on the road and one eye on the passing coastline. This is a road that is renouned in the state to be a thing of beauty – a place where people drive for the simple joy of driving.

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We wanted to go to a waterfall that we had seen only in photos – McWay Falls, which seemed to lie right at the heart of Big Sur. When we did a little research, we did find some news which was a little dismaying – you are not allowed to get close to it. McWay Falls is prized as it falls right onto a pristine white beach, lapped at by azure waves. The beach is so pristine because of the hillside to get down to the falls is a dangerous, slide-prone slope that is surrounded by a fence. Instead, hikers hike down a path, through a culvert-shaped tunnel, and onto a viewing platform that hugs the hillside. Still, the view is worth it.

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We also took the time to hike around on top of the outcropping behind the waterfall. Although you can’t really get close to the waterfall (or indeed, any body of water that seemed to be heading that direction), you come to a secluded campsite where an estimated 80% of visitors miss. It is still busy enough that I’m not sure if I’d want to camp there, but the expansive, low trees make for some easy climbs and fun explorations.

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Although we wanted to explore more, one thing we could not seem to avoid was people. This was a very popular destination, and the number of cars in each parking lot was a testament to that. We stopped at Nepenthe, the cultural melting pot of all things expensive and artistic, and got coffee and some pastries at Kevah, the accompanying open-style cafe with a view. We stopped into a few more state parks, and even accidentally drove into a restaurant guarded by a security guard (only to go frolic on the shore, then sheepishly drive back), and drove past the lighthouse we wanted to visit (gate was closed) and the Bixby Bridge (absolutely packed with people). Rather than focus on the disappointment of missing these sights, we just tried to enjoy the drive and listen to our music.

As this was New Year’s Eve, we thought we could impulsively come down here and find a party. What we found was an inexpensive hotel outside of Monterey, that is just the right distance that it would have cost an arm and a leg to Uber into town. Instead, we decided to see what nightlife we could find in our little town of Marina. We started out at an Oyster Bar place with a very earthy name (Sand and Wood… Salt and Sea… Wind and Willows… or something of this nature). It was snazzy and classy, and priced to match. We sat at the bar with a very friendly and attentive bartender, that I wished I caught his name because I have to say, the service there was superb. I had a Moscow Mule and my partner Kiva had an Old Fashioned. For food – we got a hearty salad and bread and cheese platter.  I know, strange choice of food in an oyster bar, but my seafood allergy hinders a lot of my trying of seafood. Also, oysters are gross.

After this, we did call a cab to explore the bars of Marina. What we found was… depressing. The first bar we came to seemed like a biker bar straight out of a bad film that stereotypes biker bars. Heavy rock music, air thick with cigarette smoke, leather clad bearded men (maybe women too), and a general atmosphere of “You don’t belong here.” Needless to say, we decided to explore other options. The next bar had a promising name, but was about a third full, and it seemed like the place where you go when you have nowhere else to go. Rather than go here, we went back to the hotel. The beach was brought up as an option, but there was a police station on the road to get there, and carrying an open bottle of champagne did not seem wise on a night when we felt the police would be out in force. We debated going out to the hot tub, and in the end spent the countdown in our room, watching it on the television. The moment of the year change was not our best. Still, we drank our champagne, and were cozy and warm. We watched the fireworks from the balcony and retreated to our room. 2017 was quite a year, and us struggling to find the perfect place and the perfect moment rather than enjoying the organic flow seemed apropros to the year behind.

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Day 3

We finally got our beach walk. Minus the champagne bottle, of course. Still, we started 2018 by walking along the beach and watching the ebb and flow of the waves. We had breakfast at a greasy little diner, with a waitress who looked like she just got off the night shift as a nurse at the hospital, bless her heart. Afterwards, we began the long drive home. We closed out 2017 with a visit to waterfalls and chasing the hopes of finding beauty. We did find it indeed, but at a place where it seemed to us all-to-discovered. Not that I mind the shift where more people are travelling to these places – it is my hope that when more people see the beauty of nature the more they will work to preserve it. That being said, it will require a lot of work to keep the wilderness wild. On that note, when travelling do not forget the principles of Leave No Trace. It’s our land. Let’s take 2018 to balance the utilization and appreciation of nature.

Until next time – never stop adventuring.

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