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Big Sur: Finding the Light

The Golden Door • Pfeiffer Beach • Big Sur, CA • 12/28/16 • Canon 5Dmk3

"Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure" -Paulo Coelho

The last few months of 2016 were a blur. My schedule was busy. That crazy election happened.  I had a few personal projects started but none of them went anywhere. When it came time for my birthday, I gave up my yearly ritual of spending it in Yosemite.

I let things get away from me. I had become too busy thinking that I forgot to listen to my heart.

When I realized this, I needed to reconnect. Even if it was just for a day or two, I knew it would help. It was still close enough to the Winter Solstice, so I knew where to go. Big Sur and the Golden Door were calling my name.

That Tuesday morning, my dog and I hopped in the 4Runner and headed north. Driving through LA to start any adventure is always a test. It can go horribly wrong, even at off peak traffic hours. As expected, we crawled our way through that soul crushing LA traffic. For a while, it seemed like everyone had the same idea we did in heading north. "Keep pushing on", I told myself.  There was a reward waiting in San Luis Obispo. There we  met up with a couple of my close friends from Chicago who were en route to San Francisco for New Years. They were taking the scenic route like me, but had a more time sensitive agenda with their rental car. Dinner was all the time we had to catch up, but it was a nice break from the driving.

After dinner, we got back on the road and made a quick stop in Morro Bay. I had this idea for a shot the last time I was there but I needed darkness.  The dog enjoyed the chance to run around in the sand for a bit while a grabbed a few photos of what I call the "star factory".

Star Factory • Morro bay, CA • Canon 5Dmk3

Star Factory • Morro bay, CA • Canon 5Dmk3

After Morro Bay, it was time to get back on the road.  It was starting to get late and I was getting tired. We still had some distance to cover and find a place to camp for the night. After a couple hours winding our way up PCH, we arrived at Willow Creek. We tuned off the paved highway and headed up the dirt road in search of a place to call home for the night. A mile up the road, we found one. I was exhausted so I wasn't being picky about a place to sleep for only a few hours. It's also a bit of luxury sleeping in the back of the 4Runner. Park it and you're done. I went to sleep with a smile on my face that night. Arriving at a destination in the middle of the night always does that to me.

Not knowing exactly where we made camp, my anticipation had me up before the dawn. Waking up in a mystery world has become one of my favorite things about these adventures and I wanted to enjoy every second of it. In the cool blue dawn, that world was revealed to me. I reveled in this world while the dog tried to make sense of what the heck we were doing. I shuffled some things around in the truck and we headed down the steep dirt road. The morning's agenda wasopen, which gave us a good five hours to explore. I wasn't sure where we were going that morning, but I'd know it when I see it.

Our house • Canon 5Dmk3

Our house • Canon 5Dmk3

Heading down the driveway • Canon 5Dmk3

Heading down the driveway • Canon 5Dmk3

A few miles up PCH, we came to Pacific Valley.  The air was cool, the sun was still unseen and the waves were crashing a fine mist into the air. This was the spot to explore. A trip over the barbed wire was made easier by a steep staircase that resembled a ladder more than anything.  To my surprise, the dog made quick work of it and I had to follow quickly.  Sometimes I forget that she's a bit of a mountain goat and her leash is still attached to my wrist. Stumbling over, I made it with face planting into the grass. We headed down the path through the meadow and walked along the cliffs looking for that perfect spot. We passed by a couple of them until we found an interesting rock that offered views of the surf crashing below. I grabbed a few frames of dawn's glow creeping over the aquamarine bay. 

Dawn Patrol • Canon 5dmk3

Dawn Patrol • Canon 5dmk3

What cliff? • iPhone 7+

What cliff? • iPhone 7+

As the sun came over the horizon, we kept walking along the cliffs. Each little peninsula offered a different view of the surf pounding the rocky below and creating a mist that hung in the air.  The sun was sitting above the hills now and adding a dramatic backlighting to the scene. We stayed here for a while, taking some photos and then just sitting and admiring the world in front of us. I realized that this one of those moments I was looking for with this trip. In that space, everything melted away. I was connected to my heart again. I knew that whatever the rest of that day brought us, it was going to be good.

Some mornings the light waxes poetic. • 5dmk3

Some mornings the light waxes poetic. • 5dmk3

Can we stay here forever? • iPhone 7+

Can we stay here forever? • iPhone 7+

An invitation • Canon 5Dmk3

An invitation • Canon 5Dmk3

After our exploring the coastline, we started our journey north with the plan of arriving in the town of Big Sur around lunch time. That left us some time to check out Mill Creek Trail off Naciamento-Ferguson road.  I'd driven past this spot so many times and wondered where the trail led. A pocket of Coastal Redwoods was waiting for us in the valley below.  Per usual, my dog set a hurried pace on the single track. We passed a few hikers along the way before we got down to the creek. My fish/dog went immediately into the cool creek and started splashing around. I had a  feeling that was gonna happen. Not a big deal, adventure dogs get dirty. She upped the ante on that by laying down afterwards in the redwood needles. Bad move. When she got up, her shaggy hair had trapped all sorts of forest debris. She was a hot mess. I didn't find too much to shoot down there, so I decided we should head back and get on the road.

Follow me! • iPhone 7+

Follow me! • iPhone 7+

Golden Door

A slow, tourist filled drive up PCH eventually landed us in the town of Big Sur. I stopped and grabbed a sandwich to enjoy like every adventure; sitting on the rear bumper of the 4Runner with a dog begging for any morsel she can get. Naturally, she got her way.  We were still ahead of schedule, but I figured we should head to Pfeiffer Beach and just hang out until it gets closer to sunset. 

It turns out that it was one of the smartest decisions I made that day.  The little road that turns off PCH and leads to Pfeiffer Beach is unmarked, but somehow half of California knew where it was that day. After waiting in line, the attendant told us the lot was full and that it might open up when some people leave. No big deal, we had 3.5 hours until sunset. So we circled back time and time again until the lot was open. We parked and walked down to the purple sanded beach to scope out the scene. A few photographers were there but nobody was lining up yet. I knew it that would drastically change in an hour. I ran around with the dog on the beach for a bit and then headed back to the truck to get the camera gear.

Back on the beach, the work began. Without a swarm of cameras, I had time to scout my shot. The weather was perfect.  No clouds anywhere in sight.  This was crucial for the Golden Door to really work. I knew everyone would want the shot looking through the hole in the rock towards the sunset. But that isn't me. I've always wanted something different.  Not the dream that everyone sells you. I've found my photography mirrors my life in so may fashions.  This was just one of them. 

As more photographers showed up, the jockeying for position started. Using their tripods, people staked their claim like it was the gold rush. Like I imagined, the center was the most popular. I stayed off to the left side, casually staking my claim but trying not to look too eager or confident. I've found this can work against sometimes and draw people over towards you. It's always a game in these scenarios and I was ready to play.

As golden hour started, the show had begun. For the second time that day, I was the beneficiary of a fine mist created by the crashing waves. Hanging in the air and drifting through the hole in the rock, the mist became the perfect canvas for our beloved star to paint upon with its ever warming brush. As the sun inched its way towards the horizon, its lateral movement showed off the idiosyncrasies of the spot. Certain rocks need certain sized waves for the optimum splash up into the air.  Too big of a wave and the splash would be higher and only partially illuminated but the sun. Too small of a wave and it looks like an anticlimactic fireworks display. It took constant evaluation to nail that perfect splash with the glowing door. 

After I knew I nailed my shot I came here, I looked around at the scene I was in. It was a lot more chaotic than i had realized. But there I was, calm in the midst of the chaos. Lost in my craft. Flowing with life. It's a wave that you don't want to stop riding, ever. That afternoon, I realized the was the other thing I was searching for.  It wasn't just the photo, it was the feeling of flow. I'm always floored when I have those moments. They seem to be triggered by amazing scenery. Is this why were drawn so deeply to them? 

After the sun had set, we made our way back to the truck. A big smile lit up my face for the second time in 24 hours. Driving back down PCH to meet up with more friends, I put on a playlist of my favorite Grateful Dead songs to keep that mood glowing.

Golden door crowd • Pfeiffer Beach • iPhone 7+

Golden door crowd • Pfeiffer Beach • iPhone 7+

Patient girl • iPhone 7+

Patient girl • iPhone 7+

Back at where we camped the night before, we met up with my friends Bryan and Gloria. They were making their way back to San Diego after a 10 day road trip for the holidays. Driving up the dirt hill, we spotted them easily. A late 70's Chevan turned adventure mobile with a giant wooden rack on the top. After such a fulfilling day of adventure, it was great to hang out and unwind with friends. Especially with friends that have bonded with my shy dog.

The wind was blowing pretty good over the ridge so we crawled into their cavern on wheels for shelter. My dog instantly took to van life. First turning Gloria's legs into a head rest and then taking over one of their beds. The van was a palace and she became the queen. 

 

After food, a couple beers and a game of cards, it was time for bed. We crawled into the 4Runner and I layed down. My dog was staring out the window at the palace we just left, her aunt and uncle inside. For the first time, I witnessed her separation anxiety from someone else but me. Seeing her form bonds like that warmed my soul. The scruffy shelter dog who didn't trust humans was now opening her heart to them.

After they turned the lights off, my dog curled up at my feet and went to sleep. Reflecting on the eventful day, I knew I was where I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Van life • iPhone 7+

Van life • iPhone 7+

Like usual, we got up early the next morning. We went for a walk up the hill while we waited for life to emerge from our friend's van. It didn't take long before they greeted the day. As the van door slid open, my dog's butt wiggles commenced. A shaggy bundle of joy was waiting to say good morning. 

None of us had much for an agenda except to explore. I already captured the photos I was after, so anything extra was a bonus. Our first stop was to check the surf. It was pounding that day, bigger than the day before. A solid ten to twelve foot waves were filling every bay. After watching the Pacific's fury for a bit, we headed up the highway. With cell phone service non-existent, we had the chance to use our CB radios to talk with each other. Our two vehicle convoy seemed larger than life there for a few minutes as we pretended we were truck drivers. 

Willow Creek Beach • Canon 5Dmk3

Willow Creek Beach • Canon 5Dmk3

Our next stop stop was Pacific Valley. I wanted to explore there a bit more and find some new vantage points I wasn't able to get to the day before. Bryan also had his camera with him, so it was the perfect place to stop. We hopped the fence and made our way through the lush green and down to the cliffs. Gloria and my dog waited patiently with each other while we took photos of the waves hammering the rocks below. Once again, the waves were creating a mist that hung in the air that was backlit by the sun. Because of that haze, the blues got washed out. I started seeing the scene differently and looked at it in black & white. Memories of photo class in high school flooded back into my mind.  The darkroom, the smell of developer, and the joy of discovering a new channel of creativity. This put me at ease. 

Pacific Fury • Canon 5Dmk3

Pacific Fury • Canon 5Dmk3

Bryan & Gloria • Canon 5Dmk3

Bryan & Gloria • Canon 5Dmk3

Sand dollar beach  

After lunch, we thought we'd take advantage of the great weather and head down to Sand Dollar Beach. I figured it would be a great place to relax and let the dog run around. There are few things in this world she loves more than running around on the beach and playing in the water. When my friends brought out a soccer ball, that changed. She suddenly had a new obsession, a big orange ball that was like none other she'd seen before.  When she got a hold of the ball, she managed to get her mouth around it. She decided to do a victory lap up and down the beach to show it off. It wasn't until she stopped that she really made it hers. After only a fe seconds of trying, she put a hole in the ball. We laughed as I realized I just bought my dog her favorite new toy. Discovering her love for that ball was one of the biggest surprises of the trip. It's been such a blessing. We've played with that ball every day since and has brought us even closer together.

A girl and her new obsession • photo courtesy of Bryan Lorenz

A girl and her new obsession • photo courtesy of Bryan Lorenz

After some time relaxing on the beach, we made the decision it was time to part ways. After 10 days on the road, they were starting their journey back to San Diego. I though it was a good idea to head home too as a storm was supposed to come in later that night. I was totally at peace with the decision.

With a sleepy pup in the back of the 4Runner, we started the journey back. The turns became a meditation of happiness as the coastline guided me. When the highway straightened out, I had time to reflect. Since we left home only two days prior, I had achieved all that I wanted to and more. Most importantly, I connected with my heart again. With all the question marks in my life, I need that more than realized. We may not always experience that feeling of being exactly where we need to be in life; but when we do, it fuels our souls like no other.