My Climbing Boyfriend!

On Friday towards the end of my day shift a reminder popped up on my phone to message Kathi. I’d met her and her husband at Joshua Tree right at the very start of my solo Astro travels and we’d made fast friends and managed to meet up a few times over the next couple of years. Having been out of touch in Australia I wanted to check in. I was pleasantly surprised when she replied telling me she was in Joshua Tree for a few days thanks to a last minute decision to make a quick trip. They weren’t in their Sprinter van as normal but staying with friends and meeting up with old friends (Michael from the Mystery Machine) in Hidden Valley. After initially dismissing any possibility of me going down there thanks to my half-done van, the gears started turning in my head – why couldn’t I go to Joshua Tree? Even better, why couldn’t Dan, Cleo AND me go to Joshua Tree? Less than an hour later, Dan arrived at SLAC to pick me up and the idea had been formed. Dan being Dan, he was immediately on board with it. It had been too long between road trips that weren’t to Lake Tahoe for the snow. We went to the Stanford climbing gym only to find it closed for Spring Break, then caught up with Kyle and Vanessa over beers and dinner at the Palo Alto Nut House, amongst the whole of Silicon Valley’s tech industry which I was happy to no longer be a part of. It was a semi-late night so no time for packing, that would have to wait until Saturday night.

My 12 hour Saturday shift took a long time to go by but I managed to organise what I would need in my brain at least before driving home and getting everything together with Dan. We would have been on the road at around 7:30pm but we had to wait for my friend Rob to arrive and pick up our house keys since he was taking over the residence for the time we’d be away. We’d happily agreed to have him stay with us only to give him the place to himself while we adventured southward. After a quick Rob visit, we got everything into the car in some sort of order and with Rob sat on the bed, we hit the 101 going south. We dropped Rob on the way then really got going out of the Bay Area around 9pm. Having not had dinner, it was a long wait to the In ‘N’ Out somewhere near highway 5 around 10:30pm. I’d driven up until that point to give Dan a chance to recover from the surprise bout of food poisoning he’d experienced over lunch (thanks to a tuna dish that I’d made). After Dan put a couple hours in, we were at the Coalinga Rest Stop, a place I had frequented before. Lights were out and we were asleep within minutes.

While it had started out warm in the van when we hit the sack, it had quickly cooled down and, unbeknownst to me, Cleo had been a needy child throughout the night wanting to sleep with us on the sideways bed that is just too small for two adults and a pitbull. Dan vowed that we would be stopping at a Walmart to buy a dog bed because he would not endure another poor night’s sleep because of his canine. Now we had a side mission! I checked in with Kathi and Shannon, letting them know our conservative ETA and we continued the drive south with the bright orange sun sitting just over the busy highway. Driving during the day was such a pleasure, we were treated to snow capped mountains and greener hills than I’m used to seeing in California.

We stopped at a Walmart somewhere inland of LA and we found a perfect bed for Cleo as well as some last minute supplies (beer!) before driving on by LA and into the beginnings of the Joshua Tree desert. We got to the park entrance around 1:30pm and waited in the queue to get in. I was surprised. Though Joshua Tree is always pretty popular, I’d assumed that being a Sunday afternoon the majority of people would be leaving. Apparently not! Thanks to my national parks pass, we were soon waved through, officially out of phone reception and on our way to Hidden Valley. As we drove past the packed parking spots, I wowed at the tourists and pointed out a few of the climbing crags from my past visits to Dan. He seemed suitably impressed/intimidated.

At the campground, I warned Dan just as I had with Jon to put on his best smile in the hopes of nabbing a shared campground with someone. Halfway through the first loop though, we found we could look as mean as we liked. Kathi and Shannon were waving to us from Campsite #12, their rental car parked in its driveway. Being the amazingly good, generous people they are, they’d got to the park early in the morning and found us a campsite before going out climbing for the morning. Good thing to because there wasn’t another spare spot in sight.

I was happy to greet them with a hug and huge thankyous for the campsite and it was nice to finally introduce them to Dan and Cleo who they’d heard a lot about. We caught up on recent stories as I made us some sandwiches out the back of the van and Cleo inspected her new digs. With Kathi off climbing due to doctor’s orders, Shannon was chomping at the bit to get on the wall before the afternoon got away from us so we ate quickly. After tucking Cleo into bed inside the van, we threw our climbing gear into the back of the rental car and we were off to The Real Hidden Valley. As we squeezed into one of the last carparks in the lot, we came to realise that Spring Break was the reason for the madness which made a whole lot of sense. The popular hiking trail that led to the Hidden Tower crag was amass with college-aged students armed with selfie sticks and hair-flicking prowess. Kathi and I caught up on our walk through the grainy sand while Shannon and Dan got to know each other.

In the shade of the Hidden Tower, we racked up and met another party at the base of the rock. In typical fashion, the popular route “Sail Away” was busy and so Shannon opted for the harder “Wild Wind” route to its left and he was soon on his way up the crag as I belayed and socialised with the other climbing party. It was so nice to be back and right into it though Dan and I soon discovered we hadn’t brought enough layers for the shade of Joshua Tree! By the time Shannon was down I was cold and after I was done belaying my hands were bloody freezing! The 5.9 route wasn’t the perfect introduction for Dan but he made pretty good work of it, stopping at the bulgy crux to make sure he didn’t burn out too early on a multi-day trip. A good decision, I struggled at the same spot and needed much encouragement from Kathi to get across the awkward, slabby finish to the climb.

By the time I’d reached the peak of the tower, a plan had been formed between the two parties to leave ropes up and swap routes and so Dan belayed me down and Kathi offered to belay Shannon up “Sail Away” while Dan and I scrambled up to some high ground to reach the sun. We didn’t get to spend long there because Shannon made such short work of the 5.8 climb but it did the trick.

Dan’s turn next, he was quickly figuring out crack climbing, scraping up his knees and knuckles to get vertical. As he climbed I talked with the other party and discovered they had very interesting careers, one being a chartered pilot, the other a toy designer for Mattel. We didn’t waste any time swapping positions after Dan came down because we had another party waiting and so up I went. A much easier run up the wall than our first route, this was a really nice climb, but not something I was feeling leadable. Always grateful to Shannon for his route-leading, I enjoyed every centimeter of the quartz underneath my hands and feet.

After those two routes, there was still plenty of daylight left for another route or two but all of us demanded rock in the sun which we found just around the corner at Locomotion Rock. Here I saw a rare sight – Shannon and Kathi holding a guidebook since they weren’t familiar with this area. They picked out “Jumping Jehosephat”, a nice looking 5.7 crack with an interesting looking start and finish. Racked up and ready, we took up our positions, Kathi and Dan in the sun, me in the shady belay pit (wearing Shannon’s jacket for warmth) and Shannon on the wall placing gear as deftly as he moved his feet. Shannon disappeared at the end of the climb, setting an anchor over to the right of the climb where I lowered him down from. Dan’s turn now, he enjoyed this crack and climbed into the sun and to the peak of the rock. I had a huge smile on my face as he came down off the rock. Ever since I’d started climbing I dreamed of having a climbing boyfriend…. could this be him?

Happily done for the day, we retreated to camp as the sun started thinking about going down. We didn’t hang around long since we were all hungry for dinner and so after relieving Cleo we got in our respective cars and drove the twenty minutes out of camp and into the town of Joshua Tree. The Indian Restaurant we’d pegged for dinner was packed to the walls and the plan-b Thai joint was the same so we ended up at Panda Express huddled at a table by the door. With hot food going into our bellies we started talking Burning Man. Kathi and Shannon had got me excited about the idea of attending the event as 2-year Burners and so they were essentially our advisors sharing with us a tonne of knowledge about how to get tickets, how much fun it is and what it’s like. We yabbered non-stop for a few good hours before our tiredness finally told us to get back to camp. We split in the carpark, K&S going back to their friend’s house in J-Tree and us en route to the back of the nearby Walmart for a pallet hunt. Not wanting to buy firewood as a matter of principle, Dan drove slowly past the loading area of Walmart and we were rewarded with a big pallet that I swiftly threw into the back of the car before we made a quick getaway. We’d be having a nice fire tomorrow night!

I was grateful to Dan for driving us back to camp. I felt like we’d spent most of the day in the car and I just wanted to be stationary. I got my wish soon enough when we were under the stars of Hidden Valley. Within minutes of pulling in we were approached by a Spring Breaker in his sedan asking for a camp to share. We happily obliged, I’d felt bad leaving the campsite unoccupied while we were in town but it was good to help someone out at 11:30pm. Justin pulled into the camp and we exchanged a few pleasantries as he set up his tent and we made up our camp. Cleo seemed to like her bed and we soon got comfortable in ours.

Kathi and Shannon met us at camp around 8:30am, not long after we’d risen. We all met Justin properly as I made egg burritos in the kitchen which were passed around. Justin already had plans to climb with a local and so we would remain a party of four. Same as yesterday, we piled into K&S’s rental and drove this time to the Lost Horse area, taking up the last spot in the pull-out area, meaning we were probably a bit late getting to the crag. It was nicely warmer than it had been yesterday and I was excited to climb in the sun again.

Same as yesterday, the popular “Dappled Mare” route was busy and so we prepared for “Mare’s Tail”, a 5.9 three pitch. A stiff grade for Dan who’d only climbed outdoors a couple of times before, this would be his first multi-pitch but typically, he was keen for anything. As Shannon racked up, we taped our hands in the hope of protecting our knuckles for this longer route.

Shannon was off on the first pitch, heading to the right and rescuing another party of climbers off the first pitch by building them an anchor they could retreat off. Dan followed and I was grateful to have nothing to do but sit in the sun with Kathi and watch Dan head up. He moved fast on the last half and I had to hurry up to get my shoes on and tie myself into the rope.

I cleaned Shannon’s gear as I moved up the route, enjoying the friction of the slab and the width of the crack. I met the boys standing happily on a ledge and made myself safe before transferring gear over to Shannon. Dan was a little unsure about the whole situation, sitting on the side of a vertical wall with a few bits of metal holding him onto the face, but he kept his head. Shannon started up again and we watched, getting beta for the first hard move of the route. Typical Shannon, even as he was describing the difficulty of the move to us, he made it seem deceivingly simple. Dan’s turn to climb after Shannon called out his readiness and he was off. He struggled a while at the crux and I felt bad for having explained the logistics of backing out of a multi-pitch if one in the party couldn’t climb the grade. He figured it out eventually and muscled over the bulge in the rock, learning that it was ok to trust some friction in his feet to push himself up. He’s a climber!

As Dan climbed out of sight, I thought I’d make use of my anchor time by inspecting my rope and I was horrified to find not one but two places where the core was exposed. Eek! Thankfully both spots were in the last five meters of rope so I tied in above the damage for the remainder of the climb. I didn’t mention this to my climbing partners until after the climb and they didn’t seem to notice the damaged coil of rope around my torso.

I hung around at the crux the same as Dan before getting up the second pitch, impressed with Shannon’s lead head to get us up to this point. Dan seemed more quiet than usual at this anchor point, understandably so because there wasn’t much of a ledge to stand on, so he was fully sitting in his harness.

Shannon warned us of another tough point at the start of this third pitch and he wasn’t wrong. Friction! Friction! Friction! Oh, and a tiny fucking finger crimp. Good thing we’re all tall, shit for us would be a really shit sequence for a short person. The rest of the climb was nice, with just the right mixture of slab and crack – the symbolic Joshua Tree style. We exchanged banter with the party next to us as Dan climbed, calling each other naughty words only a few minutes into conversation. I really don’t think you get that in any other sport.

As I cleaned Shannon’s anchor, I learned that two of the pieces had been left by previous climbers as part of a bail anchor and so I finished the third pitch with two more nuts than I’d started with! Shannon graciously let me call them my own even though he’d been the one to spot and use them. I was getting closer to a full trad rack!

Dan was cheery as we exchanged gear, we had one more half-pitch to go but it was practically a scramble to the top. It was a relief knowing the hard work was done. Kathi met us at the top of the rock where we all sat to enjoy the view (or in Shannon’s case, organise gear) before the walk down. Kathi, having got phone reception at the top of the rock had had quite a productive morning!

By the time we hiked back down, it was past noon and we were all looking for lunch. Since it was a warmer day, we thought it a good idea to have lunch back at camp where we could check on Cleo.

Cleo happily ran around camp inspecting all the nooks and crannies amongst the rock as we ate lunch. We hung out for about an hour before contemplating the next climb and I requested somewhere near camp where Cleo could join us. Shannon immediately suggested Chimney Rock, a short walk from camp. Happy with that, we made off in that direction. Having survived his first multi-pitch, Dan cracked a beer on the way, retiring from climbing for the afternoon.

AGAIN! The popular route “The Flu” was taken and so we were soon on “Raven’s Reach”, a 5.10a route. I think Shannon was secretly happy with this because he always wants a challenge.

We socialised with the party next to us, Kathi talking to someone she knew and Cleo found herself in heaven, Dan too – beer in hand sitting in my comfy chair. I struggled up the climb after Shannon, falling a couple of times at the awkward inverted cave thing before making my way up. I was rewarded with a great view of Dan and Cleo, tiny specs amongst a mass of boulders.

The day had turned cold in the shade and so again we were hunting for sun. We only had to turn around to find it on the right side of “The Wall”. I have no idea why Shannon was interested in this climb, he wasn’t interested in leading the bolted route and understandably so. He set up a top rope on the 5.10a “Chalk Up Another One” – a pure friction balancy clim that pushed my feet to their limit. Shannon cursed as he stood static at the crux trying to find holds amongst the featureless slab, pointing out that another bolt would have been nice where he was. Still not falling, he figured it out and moved upwards. Dan, watching on, was also providing entertainment by trying to arrange himself in my chair in precarious positions.

After lowering him down and getting on the rock myself I spent ages at the crux, falling multiple times before edging my way up with excessive use of vocals. My feet were screaming at me and my fingers felt compressed against the tiny pinches I found on the rock. Pea-sized features in the rock felt like ledges above the tough section allowing me to make fast work of the top.

At the crest of the rock, I made myself safe at Shannon’s anchor and spent a while fidgeting out a cam before climbing over the crest and untied myself from the rope. Still safe on two pieces of gear, I threw rope off the cliff before dismantling the gear and walking down off the backside of the rock. Having not brought my Tevas, I walked down barefoot and felt sure I didn’t take the most direct route down. At ground level I came out in the middle of an occupied campsite. I excused myself to the climbers there as I walked out of the cavity in the rocks and they didn’t seem to mind. Back at the base of the crag, it was just past 6pm and I was happy to be done for the day. The last climb had taken it out of me and I suddenly felt extremely tired. I was grateful for the short walk back to camp.

Dan could hardly wait to get a fire started when we got back to camp and he made light work of breaking apart the pallet by throwing it at boulders sunk into the ground. I watched in awe at his energy. Not ready to cook dinner yet, I gained some energy by having a face wash and a sit-down by the fire chatting. Justin showed up just before sun-down and we shared our stories from the day. Dan and I made nachos for our party which we served up to some happy customers – the least we could do for our campsite hunters. Everyone drank and talked around the fire for a few more hours and Dan and I managed a satellite viewing.

Kathi and Shannon had an early start in the morning to get to Vegas before flying home and so we said our goodbyes. It had been a quick visit but I was grateful to have seen them and for Dan to have met them. We promised to keep in touch and see each other again at another crag soon.

We were in bed shortly after, looking forward to a slow start to the morning with no specific plans.

Around 8:30am we were aware of movement outside the van. It made sense for Justin to be up and about but we couldn’t explain the rest. We laughed at Cleo a while as she played guard dog, staring through curtains that blocked out vision as if there was a imminent threat she was assessing. When I finally emerged from the van, I was confronted with two chicks sitting on a boulder right by the van, their car parked across the road in front of a dumpster. They were clearly waiting for us to leave. On my way to the bathroom one of them wanted to pet Cleo and I told her she could wait until I went to the bathroom. While I was walking around with Cleo Dan had words with them, explaining we wouldn’t be leaving for a few hours, but that didn’t seem to sway them. When I asked Justin, he’d said they could stay with him once we left, which was totally fine, but he didn’t expect them to camp like this. Anyway, soon enough, they’d pretty much moved themselves in, bringing wood to the fire ring and cooking up their breakfast at the picnic table. Not impressed at their blatant rudeness but also not willing to fight it, we just collected our things from the table and moved camp over to the back of the van where we ate a parfait and chatted with Justin. I think he was dreading spending the rest of his week with these dickheads.

After breakfast, the bad vibes from camp didn’t have us in the mood for climbing so we closed up shop and took Cleo out for a leisurely walk. We said goodbye to Justin who was heading into town, wishing him well for the rest of his break and with the camp invaders. We slowly strolled through camp, contemplating the experience we’d just had and discovering that the backside of the campground that I’d never stayed at was much more secluded than the main loop. It was nice to show Dan where I’d climbed and camped before and to have a close up look at the Joshua trees flowering which neither of us had ever seen.

A half hour or so later, we got back to camp and didn’t waste any time pulling out. We drove over to the road by Cyclops rock and parked.

Dan was keen for some easy climbing and I was in the same boat. After a quick peruse of Justin’s guidebook, I’d remembered “The I” route on Cyclops rock that I’d climbed with Jon and thought that would be perfect. Justin’s guidebook rated it as a 5.3, Mountain Project claimed 5.8 and a sign on the approach pegged it as a 5.7. Whatever, we were going to climb it! It was about 10am by the time we got to the base and being an especially popular route, I expected a wait, but the last members of a party were about to ascend and a free soloist quickly followed them up, leaving the crag free by the time I’d organised my gear on my harness. Perfect!

My first trad lead in months, I started my scramble up the easy route. Definitely towards the 5.3 end of the scale, it was very rewarding climbing with generous holds at every point, good protection and a great view of Cleo sitting in the front seat of Ramsie in the distance. Dan was patient as I set up my anchor – a lengthy process having not done it in a while, but I was satisfied it was safe. I sat in the eye of the cyclops as I brought Dan up, not able to see him for most of the climb but happy to see the top of his helmet when he reached me.

He was happy with the climb except for the last nut I’d placed. It was one that required patience and finesse to get out (my fault) and when I offered to lower down and retrieve it, he said “Fuck it! I’m over it!” and left it for me to get. We both laughed out loud when I fiddled for about 5 seconds before it came free. “That was hard!”

In honour of Jon, I performed a human bridge in the cave that formed the eye before we walked off the back of the rock, running into a few hiking tourists on the way.

By the time we got to the base of the route to retrieve our gear, a guided party was heading up the route so our timing really had been perfect. We could have gone either way for the rest of the day in terms of climbing versus not climbing. Without committing to a decision, we drove over to Intersection Rock for a snack and a play with Cleo, people watching the crowd that came and went from the carpark.

When we felt rested, we wandered over to the base of Intersection Rock for a look at potential climbs. Without a guidebook no one in sight, I didn’t have the confidence to pick out the “Beginner’s Three” climb but “Upper Right Ski Track” was empty to my surprise so we jumped on that. At a 5.3 grade, this is a signature climb of Joshua Tree – a popular option at sunset and in full view of the campground. This is another climb I’d done with Jon and so I was happy to do it again. On the scramble to the route, I yelled out in surprise and joy as I looked at a size 11 nut just sitting in a crack below me. When Dan asked what was up, I raised the nut like a trophy – yet another addition to my climbing rack!! Three pieces of gear in two days is unheard of! Better yet, not one of those pieces was a double-up of what I already had. Cool! No such thing as a lost and found in the climbing world – finders are keepers!

Just before I was about to set off on the ski track, a climber came up to us and as always, I feared he was about to say, “what you are doing is totally unsafe” but instead, he just asked if he could free solo the route before we set off on it. Sure thing, mate! Off he went, running up ahead of us. I don’t care what grade it is, fuck that!

The climb follows an angled crack and it was nice climbing. I didn’t have any protection for the top half thanks to my small-sized gear, but the moves were easy enough. At the top, I set up a very neat anchor, a huge improvement on my previous attempt and I was ready to bring Dan up. As I’d warned Dan, he couldn’t hear me and I couldn’t hear him so we communicated with rope tugs and he came safely up to me. He’d enjoyed the climb as much as I had and we sat atop the rock enjoying the view for a good while before contemplating the way down.

We coiled the rope and moved over to the rap anchors were Dan was a little daunted by the whole process. He’d only abseiled a couple times before and he was still getting used to trusting the gear. We set ourselves up to simul-rap so we could go down together and we lowered ourselves down nice and smooth. Dan looked firmly at the wall for the descent but I think after the fact he’d enjoyed it. It was our first time climbing together just the two of us so it was a nice way to end.

Back at the van, Cleo was happy to hang out with us as Dan heated up some lunch/dinner and I sorted through our gear – I had to update my mental inventory with all the new gear! Dan thought it a bit weird that I enjoyed the process, but I found it calming to go through the individual pieces that were keeping us safe. We lingered a long while in the carpark, sitting and looking out at the rocks we’d just climbed and throwing the frisbee around. Joshua Tree has always been a special place for me and now it was a special place for Dan too.

It was around 5pm when we left the park, we had a two hour drive to LA ahead of us to catch a show. Dan had booked it on our drive down, it was a comedy show featuring Joe Rogan and others at the famous Comedy Store. Starting at 10:30pm, we had plenty of time to stop for a roadside shower then at Walmart for more beer and Ross (a discount clothes shop) to buy suitable city-going attire.

We enjoyed a nice sunset against the snow-capped mountains, feeling fresh and clean as we drove west towards the big city.

By the time we got there, we had just enough time to find free parking and walk the Hollywood strip to find dinner at a fast food joint, then on to the show. We were surprised to find a line when we got there and we huddled together to stay warm. We eventually got inside the venue around 10:30pm, grateful for the warmth and atmosphere. We were seated quickly at a tiny table with two others just as the show was introduced. Over the next three hours, we say 10-15 minute sets from multiple comedians, the highlight being Joe Rogan. We are frequent listeners of his podcasts and lovers of his stand-up comedy so it was a pleasure to see him live and experience his energy in such a small venue. Each comic had their style and they all had the room in laughs with their very LA-style jokes that most people related to. At 1am, I was woken up from a sleep I hadn’t realised I’d fallen into when a comic made a joke about a “pussy pop!” When he shouted the word “POP!” I felt my head bob up and knew I’d been asleep. Whoops. We managed for another two comedians and, unclear on when the show would end, decided to make our exit. It had been along day and we’d seen who we came to see.

It was a very brisk walk back to the car with a run at the end for me to get over the cold. We were happy to find Ramsie and Cleo safe and sound and we were soon on our way to the beach. Dan drove us through the suburbs and to a roadside park right by the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean (34.039936, -118.577186). We were all in bed and asleep within minutes, too tired to be worries about the no parking signs that didn’t seem to have any effect on any of the other cars parked along the roadside.

In the morning it was Wednesday and we still didn’t have to be back home until mid-Thursday. Another day with no plans and nowhere in particular to be, this was Dan’s part of the holiday. We started off with a stroll along the beach we’d parked at, watching the surfers enviously as Cleo ran amongst the sand. Following that, we stopped in at a Maccas for some coffee (Dan) and a parfait (me) which we enjoyed parked at Malibu Pier. While the surfers were out of view, we enjoyed the ocean breeze through our open windows while we watched a pair of crackheads go about their morning business. Just as my Australian flag on the dash drew the attention of crackhead #1, we pulled out and continued driving north. We were hunting for our perfect morning hang out and so we kept our eye out for a beach that would suit us.

During our search, we thought the territory looked familiar and we realised we’d driven through here in November of last year just after terrible fires had raged through the area. The green and yellow hills made us doubt this was actually the site of the fires but turns out the recovery had just been that good! It was a beautiful sight to see character come back to the coast so soon.

We drove only about 15 minutes before finding a stunning little beach (34.032940, -118.742340) that looked worth an explore. Another u-turn from Dan (he was getting good at them by now) and we parked, hoping for the best. We were properly rewarded when we saw the fresh water outlet meeting the ocean. It was a tunnel underneath the road with a miniature waterfall feeding clear water into the ocean. There was no discussion, we just gravitated towards it and started following the stream up river. Cleo was immediately in her element, traipsing through the water, drinking when she wanted and scrambling through brush. After the tunnel we walked along a sandy rocky river bed that was a trickle compared to what it could have been. The greenery here was stunning with only a few blackened tree trunks giving away the recent history of the place. We came across concrete pilons, bits of fencing, but the place was otherwise untouched. Barefoot, the going was pretty slow but that was the perfect pace for this lazy morning. We went under another road before finally turning around, marvelling at the scenery all around and how luck we’d been to find this place. No photos since our phones were left in the car.

When we emerged back onto the beach, I gave Cleo a wash in the fresh water before we strolled along the sand underneath a couple of mansions that stood out over the high tide line. I was impressed but all Dan could think of was the short life-expectancy of the homes thanks to the harsh conditions.

We’d been exploring for a couple of hours and so had both worked up a hunger. Just in time too – only a short way up the road was Neptune’s Net – a fish and chip shop made famous (for me anyway) by a scene in The Fast and Furious between Paul Walker and Vin Diesel. It was a beautiful sunny week day but that didn’t mean all the tables were occupied. After only a few minutes of standing at the bar though we got lucky and thought we might just have been sitting in the seats of our Fast and Furious actors! We shared a plate of fish, calamari and chips while soaking up the sun and sipping on cold drinks. This pace wasn’t getting old yet.

After lunch, walked across the road to inspect the surf below the sea cliffs and were chuffed to find the one clifftop bench free and so occupied it. We watched the surfers and chatted away, noticing after a while that there was a giant dead whale on the beach surrounded by a few cones. Poor thing. Before going over to have a closer look I spotted a pair of live whales heading slowly north along the coastline in the distance. Dan confirmed my sighting and we watched them until they disappeared under water. The whale looked very sad up close and couldn’t have been more than two years old – just a baby – a very sad sight.

Having made pretty much no progress all day, we figured it was time to put some miles in. Dan was very happy to drive, good thing too since I was tired. Before I fell asleep in the passenger seat, I requested a beach somewhere that we could nap on. By the time I woke up, we were in Santa Barbara near Steam’s Wharf (34.411998, -119.688419). We packed a few things into a bag and Dan was on a mission to find his girl the perfect spot out of the wind so she could sleep. We meandered around a while considering our options and hit the money behind a mound of sand with an old cannonball and rope half-buried in it. While I ventured off to the bathroom, Dan made a makeshift wind-shelter and bed using the rope of the cannonball, fashioning cushions out of sand underneath our mat. The three of us lay down to the feeling of success and just watched the world go by until I fell asleep on Dan’s chest. Obviously staying out until 2am was catching up with me!

When I woke an hour or so later, Dan and Cleo were still in position – Dan had been people watching but Cleo was in the sleep camp with me. I could have fallen back to sleep but we had to find camp somewhere tonight! We threw the frisbee around to get us invigorated, even getting Cleo a little bit interested in the flying disc at one point. After 5pm, we joined the rest of the crowds in retreating to our car. Santa Barbara was a really nice spot!

I drove this time as we ventured north, Dan looking after camp research. He’d been quiet in his concentration for a while before exclaiming that we’d be camping on the beach tonight (we hadn’t had enough of sand and waves yet). Apparently Pismo Beach is the only place in California where vehicles are allowed on the beach and so is the only place on the American west coast that you can camp by the waves. This got Dan very excited and he’d soon convinced me. After our laziness, we were racing against the clock to get to Pismo before sundown, managing a quick stop for firewood before making our way to the road that ended in sand. 4WD advised? Whatever. There seemed to be a main highway that was pretty well hard packed!

Dan let some air out of the tyres a mile or so in and took over the driving which suited me just find. All was well until we got to a fresh water crossing that got us imagining a big green van getting stuck as the tide comes in, sinking the ship and taking it out to sea. We’ve all seen it on YouTube, we just didn’t want that to be us. We stopped short of the crossing and got out to inspect. The tide was coming in and while the water wasn’t too deep and the ground felt hard, we were still pretty sketched out. We watched a couple of vehicles make the crossing and I pushed Dan over the edge – let’s do it!

I stayed out of the car while he revved up for the trip. Ramsie did just fine! Making a decent splash and gurgling along to the other side of the danger zone. I hopped back in, joyous and we carried on along the beach, searching for the marker that dictated the camping zone. We found it and a few dispersed campers another mile in and tried to make a quick decision as to a campsite, not confident we’d be able to do many sand manouevers in the van. Dan pulled Ramsie in half way between two caravans and we were camped, back doors facing the water. Woohoo! Camping on the beach! We got straight out and enjoyed the last few minutes of daylight down at the water, running around with Cleo and relishing the cold mist on our faces.

Dan dug a pit and got a fire going while I put all my layers on to stay warm and set up Cleo’s bed. She was ready to pass out as soon as the sun went down, she’d had a big couple of days! As I cooked us some spaghetti out the back of the van, I was happy to be at a perfectly legal camp, curtains open, lights on with only distant neighbours in sight. One of those neighbours decided to leave around 8pm in total darkness, getting their caravan caught in the sand multiple times before hitting the hard pack. We watched hopelessly, knowing we couldn’t help but keeping our fingers crossed for them. After a few sessions of hands-and-knees digging, they made it out and the beach was silent again. We sat by the fire eating dinner, warmed against the ocean breeze coming off the water. This was Dan’s definition of a perfect camp.

Amazingly despite all my sleep sessions of the day, I was shithoused by 9pm and so we saved some of the firewood and crept into bed, letting Cleo fall asleep with us nestled in the doona with the lights on. At some point we woke up, put Cleo to bed and turned the lights out, the noise of the crashing waves sending us to sleep.

Dan was up before me in the morning, drawn to the beach as the sun came up over the dunes. I watched from bed as he breathed in the ocean air, a man and his dog happy to be by the waves.

Once up, we took a walking tour through the dunes, Cleo running at top speed over the soft sand, knowing the she could go full tilt without getting hurt. We both sipped hot chocolates as we peaked over dunes, finding witches eyes and near-cliffs as we crosssed the sand. We ended up at the main camping area where there were pit toilets and a few more campers – most in caravans. Who knows how they’d managed to get out here.

Back with Ramsie and we figured it was probably time to get home. We packed up, trying in vain to limit the amount of sand that got into the car, then planned our exit route. Dan took the wheel while I played spectator and we tried going forwards first. That got us about a meter up the slight hill before bogging down so we thought we’d try backwards. I did a bit of digging then we tried again. Now we were back to our starting position and stuck again. Some more digging and another attempt. Three meters this time! Ha, ha, we were having fun with this. We let a LOT of air out of the tyres after another round of digging and this time Ramsie romped over the sand, her ass to the ocean. Dan got her turned around and I hopped in for the rest of the ride.

The water crossing was a piece of piss second time round, a slightly smaller splash this time and less nerve-wracking.

At the tarmac we were surprised to see the ranger station abandoned and so there was no way for us to pay the $10 camping fee. Even better!! We pulled over at a store parking lot to pump up the tyres, getting my compressor out as another couple in a Sprinter van pulled up asking if they could use our compressor also. They’d just experienced sand driving for the first time and so hadn’t prepared. They soon made other plans though when the fuse blew on the compressor. Hmm. It was my first time using the present Dan had given me. We’d managed to pump one tyre up at least! I replaced the fuse (of course I carry a bunch of spares) and we were off again. I only blew the fuse one more time before figuring out when to turn the compressor off when it was labouring. Done! Back on the road!

No more tourist stops, we had to get back home in time for me to sleep in preparation for my night shift. I took first shift and soon tired out, letting Dan drive the rest of the way as I slept a little. It was hard to close my eyes to the green hills by the highway but I was in my happy place. We stopped for food just south of the Bay and came into familiar territory and eventually home around 2pm. That only gave me a couple hours of sleep time but it was just enough. After unloading the van, we all stumbled into the apartment, showered and slept. It felt like we had been gone for weeks.

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