Story and photos by Scott Johnson //
In December of 2002 I decided I was ready to do something new, disappear for Christmas. I was a NOLS graduate, Wilderness First Responder and my car got great mileage, why not? I loaded up just after school got out for winter break and started towards Big Sur, California. That’s a long way from EL Paso, Texas. I was going to stay at Andrew Molera State Park just south of Carmel. I had been there before and loved the grassy field surrounded by eucalyptus tress and the narrow path down to the rocky beach. I honestly don’t remember if I didn’t own a cell phone at the time or just didn’t use it out of town due to roaming charges but I for sure remember using a pay phone in the parking lot more than once.
Andrew Molera State Park is along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) on one of the most amazing drives you can go on. Coming from Southern California you hit a stretch north of Pismo Beach where you wind along the coast and you want to stop at every curve to take another picture. The further north you get, the more majestic the view and the closer attention you should be paying to the road. Once in the parking lot of the State Park you must have a plan together. There are no showers or facilities, no stoves allowed at the campsites and there is about a half mile hike to the sites themselves. As I recall the sign says a quarter mile but when you’ve forgotten something in your car, it’s more like a half.
Well, now what? I’ve driven all the way here with almost no plan. It’s a day or two before Christmas, a person or two was upset with me for vanishing at such a special time of year but I was ready to do this. As I hiked away from the parking lot towards my campsite I started to wonder who else might be here at Christmas time, who else thought this was a good idea? Not many tents were to be found so I had a nice selection of spots to choose from. As I looked around I was starting to feel like I was in strange company. I almost felt like an expatriate on some remote island in the South Pacific. There were no families, Swedish bikini models, or like-minded adventurers camping near by. It looked more like “permanent inhabitants” to me.
The only food you take to your tent is that which is ready to eat, mostly snacks, water, maybe some wine. You are camping in the sense that you are sleeping in a tent and can’t see your car but roughing it doesn’t come to mind because you know what is within reach. This really helps when you don’t have a plan by the way. I set up my tent, unstuffed my sleeping bag, wandered down to the beach and soon realized I was bored as hell and needed a beer. Now the walk back to the car seems pretty short. I was within 24 hours of my last shower so I was feeling good about heading into public. I may have headed south down PCH, might have been north and soon found a restaurant/pub. It was heaven. Whatever they poured me on draft was of course the “best beer I’ve ever had”. The waitress/bartender had a local look to her and beads in her hair. I thought she was awesome. I remember some sort of pub fare like brat wurst for dinner that evening. I couldn’t give much more detail but I remember being so pleased with myself because I in theory was “camping”.
On Christmas morning it was official, I was really doing this. I was alone in a tent. I looked out and was greeted with the site of two deer (not reindeer) eating grass. I hatched a plan for this day back in Texas. Students and friends had given me a few gifts that I stowed away in my second backpack. Also I packed a miniature Christmas tree, homemade toffee and a camp chair. I loaded that pack on my shoulders and headed towards the rocky beach. I walked past my “neighbors”, not one person was out and about that Christmas Day. I hit the beach and looked for the perfect spot. There it was on top of a huge rock that was a few feet out in the water. I had to time the waves just right and bunny hop from rock to rock to get out there but I made it. Perched on top I did my best to get traditional. I propped open my chair, set up my tree and placed the gifts under it. Now the thought hit me, who would ever believe I’ve done this? So, I climbed back down and ran over to another rock and took a few pics from a distance of my Christmas tree. I remember having some toffee and opening up my gifts but the only gift I remember was a shirt from banana republic that was too small.
Back in the parking lot I had to get in touch with the world and tell friends and family Merry Christmas from the pay phone. I recall having to answer the question “tell me again why you are doing this?” I don’t think I had a great answer, all I wanted was a great story.
When we leave home, pack a bag, and make a conscious choice to do something different we a bound to have a great story. On that particular “camping” trip, I did my grocery shopping in Carmel where Clint Eastwood was the mayor or some such thing. I ate at restaurants along the PCH like Nepenthe. I snuck into the fancier RV campsite up the road to shower and I never once lit a fire or had to dig a hole. Christmas in Big Sur was more about breaking the norm and doing something while I could. Looking back now I know I’ll never have that chance again.