Blaze a trail of epic proportions through this infinite Californian universe. Dive into the Pacific, glide over sand dunes, conquer a mountain, taste the rush of victory, savour meditative moments and touch the stars in the cinematic City of Angels. Make extraordinary memories. Embrace everything. Be epic.
A Golden State of utopia
Jet engines roar with savage power as we release the reins and charge towards lift-off. Escape velocity attained, we are liberated of gravity, soaring above a deep blue runway, reality left in our wake. An instant later, our jet skis return to the ocean’s surface in a cloud of salty spray and, traction regained, we accelerate towards the next wave that sends us airborne into an intense awareness of just how remarkable this trip is. Despite our addiction to adrenaline, some of us ease off the throttle and, from two miles out at sea, savour the tranquillity and panoramic views of Santa Barbara – its Spanish colonial heritage, palm-lined boulevards and standing guard, the Santa Ynez mountains.
Only two hours earlier, our 12-strong crew had been racing down one of those sun-drenched mountains on dual-suspension bikes, navigating an obstacle course of twisting trails, berms, loose gravel and bum-tightening jumps. While descents were the main meal of the day, some chose the challenge of an ascent laced with an extra dose of lactic acid and endorphin rush.
A pod of seals surfaces near our jet skis, drawing us back to the present. Further afield, Danny can be seen flying solo, having wisely jettisoned Gavin in favour of greater speed. Suddenly, he is hurtling towards us like a rogue torpedo and we quickly manoeuvre aside out of his trajectory. As we strive to steer clear of his perilous path, he cuts dizzying donuts in the waves with a huge grin splitting his face that seems to embody the ‘Be Epic’ ethos of our trip.
Twenty-six hours earlier
Twelve friends of 30 years converge upon the City of Angels from near and far, marking the beginning of this story. In flight, our fastened seatbelts keep us from floating away on a rising tide of excitement. The Spirit of Australia stays firmly on course. Sleep is impossible. Touchdown.
The last time we travelled together, most of us barely had a hair on our chest and Richie still wore berets. That was all about to change when, some months ago, Richie spoke the words “Will you marry me?” to his beloved. Four words – the catalyst for a chain reaction leading to this epic weeklong send-off for our once legendary mate. It is time to ‘Make Richie Great Again’ before he ties the knot.
We pile into our 15-seater, trailer-equipped Sprinter and follow the pristine Pacific coast northward. “Road trippin’ with our favourite allies, fully loaded we’ve got snacks and supplies, it’s time to leave this town, it’s time to steal away. Let’s go get lost in the USA”.
The sleepy fishing and surfing town of Ventura is our first destination. At the town’s historic pier, it’s all about foggy ocean swims and fresh local seafood. A couple of cold ones pulls us further into the seductive rhythm of the journey and before long we’re back on the road, cruising to Santa Barbara.
After about a hundred miles, the day’s driving comes to an end as we reach the American Riviera. This idyllic little stretch of coastline is our base camp for the next 18 hours, starting with an action-packed afternoon intended to jolt the system out of the Australian time zone and into the soul of California.
Just a bunny hop from our hotel lies a bona fide playground for anyone looking to get their mountain biking fix. It’s as fast and explosive as you could hope for; the only limit being one’s nerve. Some hit the trail with natural style, others make progress rivalling that of drunk turtles and many are quite literally brought crashing down to earth. It’s an epic entrée to this multi-day extravaganza.
The mountains melt into the Pacific Ocean and we find ourselves piloting jet skis on choppy seas at insane speeds, absolutely immersed in the moment … until we are running on fumes, having eluded Danny’s hunt, and return to shore.
Going the distance
So, it turns out that mountain biking and jet skiing go together like fish and chips, which is exactly what’s on the dinner menu. Still dripping in chain oil and windswept with Pacific salt, we enter Brophy’s, purveyors of fresh seafood and one of SB’s tastiest harbourside restaurants. We’ve been awake for more than forty hours but in the company of good friends, with good food and wine, it’s no challenge to stay awake a little longer. Eventually, the day’s endorphin rush slows to a trickle and with liquid amber flowing, rest is just around the corner (at the Best Western). Speed folds into sleep.
We rise with the sun after just a few hours’ shut-eye and crawl into the oversized people-mover. Daniel is behind the wheel steering us to SB’s best roaster for an urgent caffeine hit. In the rear-view mirror, a few faces look like turds rolled over twice, smeared with squiffy smiles – and it’s only the beginning of the second day. Strong coffees revitalise and ninety miles later we’re at Pismo, home to some of the most beautiful and sculptured sand dunes in the state.
With the 35-footer parked right on the beach, we transfer to dune buggies equipped with chunky treaded tyres and roll cages, perfect for exploring this ever-changing desert terrain. Looking like giant metal beasts we trample south, parallel to the water’s edge and then turn sharply east into a vast alien landscape filled with nothing but sand and sky as far as the eye can see. Putting pedal to the metal, we roll rapidly with the rise and fall of the dunes, feeling steel chassis rattle and strain under the force of powerful engines. Completely distracted by ‘next level’ fun, we quickly lose our bearings in this featureless maze, venturing ever deeper where we realise some of the dunes conceal sheer 100-foot drops beyond their crests … but only after Daniel and Richie drive over one such ridgeline to find themselves in total freefall. A close call and lesson learned – respect the dunes!
By this stage, we’ve lost two vehicles – Moshe and Dave, Brad and Gavin – into the wilderness. Eight of us remain and we’ve found ourselves bogged deep in the sand. Some of the dunes are so steep that, approached at the wrong angle, they can stop you in your tracks. Getting unstuck can be difficult. Even with eight of us, it requires lots of digging, pushing and pulling to dislodge the buggies. It’s a bit like an F45 workout on soft sand, which turns out to be effective training for the main event. With buggies returned, we’re back on board the Sprinter. Foot on the gas, wheels spin and spin and sink and sink deeper. Everyone disembarks. With the tide rising, this could be a very expensive mistake. Did anyone read the insurance policy?! A very solid team effort amid yellow jacket attacks and forty-five minutes later, aided by Brad’s driving expertise, we’ve freed the ten-tonne gorilla, pounding our way off the beach to solid ground (eh, was Danny swimming this whole time?). The road trip begins again in earnest. Goodbye Pacific coast. East, we go.
Migrating to nature’s heart
In preparation for our imminent private ranch stay, we stock up at all the big chains – Whole Foods, Walmart and BevMo! – with organic grub, processed junk and enough alcoholic variants to open a bar. There’s also the obligatory dirty burger at In-N-Out. Now, well prepared for going off-grid, we cruise further inland, feeling the mercury rise dramatically. It’s an epic 180-mile drive filled with entertaining banter (special comedy feature from Moshe and Gavin as Sergio and Nate bro, their American alter-egos), and all genres of music. Some tunes capture the crew with nostalgic potency – acoustic tentacles reach deep into the recesses of minds and deliver old memories and stories to the present; or simply compel us to ‘sing’ together flawlessly out of tune (except Tal). The mountainous landscape followed by narrow gravel roads indicates that we are closing in on Redwood Ranch, on the edge of Sequoia National Park in the southern reaches of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. A final steep descent and we are home, deep in the green woods.
There is an instant and collective “whoa” at the magnificence of the 190-acre property. From the house, which was once a wooden barn, a streaming river can be heard. In the dry afternoon heat, it’s not long before we’re cooling off in one of the river’s pools fed by a waterfall and surrounded by verdant forest. It’s a wholly immersive experience.
A long nightcap
Rivers of wine and whiskey begin to flow as daylight fades away. Spanish tapas materialise and we’re enjoying a catered seven-course dinner under a canopy of stars. Charge your glasses! Salud. A few stories about Richie, the man of the moment. Some words of gratitude from Richie, notably “the valiant work by Daniel and Edan in organising this event and to everyone for making such an immense effort to be here”. Glasses clink. More cheers. And then, steadily increasing slurred conversation.
We retire, not to bed, but to a small pit-fire encircled by wooden chairs, which Edan and Dave had set up while the rest of us finished dinner. It becomes the focal point for the rest of the night as we stretch out and sip more scotch until midnight comes and goes and flickering flames reduce to embers. We finally surrender to sleep on our terms, only after having squeezed every drop from this day, knowing that when this time is gone, it’s gone forever. There is only now. Embrace everything.
“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt” – John Muir
The alarm clock yanks Daniel from a deep sleep. It’s 5am. We’ve slept about ten hours in the past sixty. Daniel moves about the house trying to raise the dead. It’s an uphill battle and the real hills are still ahead of us. Strong coffee and uplifting stereo sonics is a remedy for most zombies who begin preparing backpacks for today’s Sequoia hike. After almost two hours of slow motion, we tumble into the Sprinter and we’re about to leave when Edan emerges from the house, moving like a sloth towards us. He collapses in the car muttering incoherently, saliva rolling down his chin (technically face rug). Though, in Edan, like the rest of us, there is an innate fascination with mountains that cannot be resisted and with the group now complete we set out.
It’s a steep and winding 35-mile drive to the trailhead, 7200 feet above sea level; about 6500 vertical feet above the ranch and in line with Australia’s tallest peak, Mount Kosciuszko. At this altitude, Sequoia National Park is home to groves of giant Redwoods, which stand upright, grand and imposing, stretching more than 300 feet into the sky, some having started their ascent 1500 years ago. It is also the territory of diverse wildlife, including coyotes, mountain lions and black bears, the latter having avoided extinction in this part of California unlike the sorry fate of their grizzly cousins (who still appear on the state flag).
The out-and-back hike rises steadily over four miles up to Lake Heather with an elevation gain of about 2300 feet and with our nav-man, Tal, having memorised the map, staying on course is assured. Step by step a fresh state of mind engulfs us – it really is a privilege to be in this spectacular environment. The influential naturalist John Muir said of California’s wilderness: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of autumn.”
After a series of steep switchbacks and about three miles in, we emerge from the dense forest to the ‘Watchtower’, a colossal pinnacle of granite rock with sweeping views of the valley below. With a head for heights, Edan comfortably perches himself near the precipice, taking in the scene from the best vantage point. It induces fear and vertigo in some, with pleas to shuffle back falling on deaf ears. Others take it all in from a little further back. Timeless beauty on such an awesome scale.
From here, the trail becomes increasingly rocky where it has been chiselled from granite cliffs. Along this segment, every step is rewarded with breathtaking sights – Mount Silliman’s jagged summit at 11,200 feet, sheer cliffs along the canyon’s northern wall and a series of cascades still trickling at the end of summer.
The gradient of the track finally flattens and then gently descends to an emerald-coloured glacial lake, framed by streaked granite cliffs, coniferous trees and a jumble of massive boulders. It is a mesmerising scene best soaked up from within the freshwater. Plunging in, the water is cold enough to momentarily take your breath away and soon enough limbs start to tingle with a false warmth. With spirits awakened, there is a strong sense of connectivity to and appreciation for the sublime natural world we encounter. Back on shore, we thaw out in the scorching sun, eat lunch and embrace a meditative moment of silence to fully absorb this sanctuary.
Kicking back at the end of the day
High on mountain love, we’re back at the ranch settling in for the afternoon at the watering hole. Like a force of gravity, we are drawn to the waterfall. There are enough shallow rocks to let one stand completely absorbed within the falls. Feel the river. It flows, not past, but through us, energising every fibre of our bodies.
Dan, Tal and Daniel travel upriver, beyond our waterfall, to scope out other swimming spots but none equal the oasis downstream. As the trio returns, Josh is scrambling up the southern embankment to the top of a large overhanging rock. After some depth checks and chest beating, he steps off and creates a splash. It’s a fun jump and he’s the only one to do it. Meanwhile, a fresh case of Pacific ale arrives lakeside adding to the uber relaxed atmosphere. Even Linton is carried into a rare state of calm such is the magic of this place.
Day dissolves into dusk and we float back to the house on aromas of Italian food cooked by ‘fly-in fly-out’ chefs. It’s boozy alfresco dining at its best with close friends and the halfway mark for this trip.