SAN FRANCISCO — What do you do when you embark on a long journey, and right after your first steps some ornery dude in a pickup tells you to get the heck off his property and go back to the beginning?
Well . . . exactly what he says, of course.
Not an auspicious start in 2011, but that’s how four friends for Santa Cruz, Calif., began a piecemeal walk from their hometown to the Golden Gate Bridge — not along the road, mind you, but as close to the crooked line where land meets sea as possible.
In their exploration of 80 miles of largely uninterrupted coastal beauty, the friends wandered over sands, through World War II bunkers and up steep cliffs. At one point, they even stumbled onto an optical illusion.
When they reached their destination in November, the group, joined by several others in celebration, slapped palms on the international orange railings of the famous bridge, and ventured out over the water to the Marin Headlands.
“It infatuated me,” said the group ringleader, local radio personality “Sleepy” John Sandidge. “I’ve always been someone who, going on a hike, wanted to see what was around the next corner. And driving up and down this coast, I was always like, ‘What’s over there? What’s on the beaches? What do the beaches look like?’”
Sandidge is no stranger to epic walks. He made a similar trek a decade ago, and also walked to the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur. For this trip, he recruited Richard Stockton of Planet Cruz Comedy Hour, theater owner Laurence Bedford and attorney Ben Rice.
The four wandered. They picked through landscapes, looking for paths to that point out on the horizon that you are drawn to because you haven’t been there, and because going there looks like it might be kind of fun.
“Once you do it a few times, you really want to do the whole thing,” Sandidge said of their walks, arranged when each could find the time. “Because what you find out is that each segment is totally different, each five-mile segment or three-mile or whatever you take. And there’s nobody there!”
The elder among the group, Sandidge took point first, then handed it over to Stockton after too often emerging from his forays bug-bitten and bloodied. Rice, they joked, was along not only for companionship, but to offer legal counsel should the situation arise.
“No one’s been indicted,” joked Rice. “We several times got to these signs: ‘Private Property: Do Not Enter.’ We didn’t know, you know? We came from the beach. Most people, they don’t care.”
Bedford once proposed donning official-looking jackets, an idea cooked up to fool landowners into letting them pass. The memory of the inaugural walk still hangs with him.
“Our first day, our first hike, we’re trying to make it down this dirt trail by Western (Drive). This guy, he came to us gnarlied-up. ‘You boys lost?’” Bedford said. “That was the very first day of the trip!”
The coast of Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties is surprisingly unspoiled. Standing on Highway 1, there are secrets out beyond the bluffs, unseen beaches, vistas that have never made the cover of a guidebook.
The hike isn’t easy. The group found themselves trapped by tides, or negotiating steep ravines that can be a puzzle to get in and out of, and once solved are often filled with poison oak.
“You can’t walk on the beach the whole way. You have to do part of the trip on the bluffs, and that’s where you run into these obstacles,” Sandidge said.
Sometimes they would overshoot their car and have to walk back. Gazing down from a bluff one day, they spied an artist using wet and dry sand to draw a massive, M.C. Escher-like stack of cubes, turning the beach into an enigma.
Sometimes the ocean turned them around.
“A lot of getting stuck on the beach and having to go back because the tide corners you off on the point,” Bedford said.
Sandidge talks about putting together a coffee table book about the walk, and they collected hundreds of pictures along the way. He hopes it could be a way to raise money for a coastal trail, allowing more people to make the same walk with greater ease.
“At least part of my idea is to get a trail along that coast so that everybody can walk on it,” Sandidge said. “Because there are parts of the trail — well, that there is no trail — and where there’s private property, and there’s no way to do it without trespassing. Of course, we found a way.
“I can’t share that information with you,” Sandidge continued wryly. “It’s national security.”
The quartet is not the first to set off on foot along California’s coast, of course. Gaspar de Portola did it, as did Juan Bautista de Anza. In 1910 and 1911, J. Smeaton Chase chronicled his horseback voyage along the coast, and more recently members of the nonprofit group Coastwalk trekked from Mexico to Oregon.
In 1972, the same voter initiative that created the state’s Coastal Commission mandated a coastal trail along the length of the coast. That effort is being led by the state Coastal Conservancy, but 40 years later the trail is only 60 percent completed, and hard to spot in places.
Moreover, it is severely lacking between Santa Cruz and San Francisco. A 2003 report to the Legislature noted that at the time, San Mateo County owned the third-lowest percentage of completed trail miles. Santa Cruz County was the lowest.
“There are definitely gaps in the trail system as you head north out of Santa Cruz,” said Tim Duff, a project manager with the state Coastal Conservancy. “It’s really just one segment at a time.”
To help address the problem, the Coastal Conservancy gave $250,000 to the county’s Regional Transportation Commission to push the scope of just-completed Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail plan beyond Davenport and up to the San Mateo County border.
As a result, the plan calls for new trails through the Coast Dairies property next to Wilder Ranch and more. Duff said $2 billion in voter-approved park bonds are laying the groundwork for future coastal trails as well.
Sandidge, Rice, Stockton and Bedford aren’t waiting around. Arriving at the bridge on a picture-perfect late fall day, the quartet embraces and celebrates. With faces still beaded with sweat, already they are looking ahead.
“I wanna go south! Are we going south?” Stockton hollers to Sandidge.
“Yeah,” Sandidge shouts back over the wind.
Distributed by MCT Information Services