They walk along the coast or in the coast, depending on obstacles
You are from Santa Cruz if you know that summer starts at noon. So, we know the overcast morning will lead to a golden afternoon when we hike up from Gazos Creek to check in on the iconic redwood, the scorched but thriving Candelabra Tree.
For the past fifteen years, every three or four weeks I’ve hiked with three guys. In five mile increments, we have walked the beaches and cliffs from Santa Cruz to the Golden Gate Bridge and back, three times. The game is to walk as close to the ocean as possible, in it if necessary, but today we climb the mountain of the Candelabra Tree.
Meet The Pillars
With deep sarcasm we call ourselves The Pillars. The joke is we see ourselves as rebels without a compass. Sleepy John came up with the name while on a beach south of San Francisco, when we came upon four massive cement columns, 100 feet tall, that were attached to a cement wall high up on a cliff. Ocean wave erosion had removed the base below the columns and these giant pillars hung in mid-air. We stood beneath the pillars and took photos pretending we were holding them up. Pillars not touching the earth reminded us of our unmoored ways and with the psychotropic help of medical knee-medicine, we decided that we were pillars floating in mid-air.
Our leader, radio legend “Sleepy” John Sandidge, 83, recently retired from his iconic show “Please Stand By” on KPIG radio, is tasked with being El Jefe. He must make the final decisions. Sleepy John is where the “what-the-fuck-were-we-thinking?” stops. The founder and initiating spark of the group, he always seems to get it more or less right. Everyone who knows Sleepy John agrees, he is good at telling people where to go.
As the owner, operator and impresario of the Rio Theatre, and a leader in the Midtown resurgence, Laurence Bedford, 65, is our point man and link to all things French. Laurence is our pathfinder. His fearlessness terrifies me, but I follow him anyway. One day he got so far ahead we’d thought we lost him. One lost pathfinder… last seen on his way to work.
While Netflix has The Lincoln Lawyer, we have The Tesla Attorney, the famed defender of liberty, the group’s consigliere, Ben Rice, 74, tasked with keeping us out of jail. And that is the point, for us to transcend structure, be it laws or time. “Pillars” is a laugh on us, but I think for the alternative Santa Cruz, Sleepy John, Laurence and Ben really are pillars of the community. I think of myself as a stump.
Why do we hike? Of course, hiking does have that financial benefit, free travel. Why do we do this? This is not “recapturing our youth,” we are well aware of our physical decline. The other night Julie says, “Richard, let’s run upstairs as fast as we can, and then make violent love.” I go, “Whoa baby, one or the other.”
I ask the guys, “Why do we do this? Why do the four of us meet every three weeks or so, and schedule an entire day, or more accurately unschedule an entire day, to walk and talk together until we are exhausted?” This is not the movie Stand By Me where four coming-of-age boys take off together on a lark, these are four mature men (mature at least in terms of age) who never stop working on their careers. Why do these workaholics do this?
Sleepy John says, “To me it’s the bonding. These hikes are number one on my list of things to do and I think they deepen the bond with you guys.” Ben Rice laughs and cuts in, “Bullshit! I come on these hikes because I need to keep you hoodlums out of the slammer.” As we all laugh I’m thinking that John and Ben are both right. What is up with bonding?
The Consigliere To The Rescue
Today, we rendezvous at 9:00 am on Western Drive at Highway 1 and choose to walk into the mountains seeking forest majesty. The Candelabra Tree up Gazos Creek captures our imagination. The massive 200-year-old redwood, with five limbs coming out of the twenty foot base in the shape of a candelabra, survived last summer’s wildfires and today we hike to check in on the burnt but alive tree. “Burnt but alive” reminds us of ourselves.
I hop in Ben’s blue Tesla, Laurence and Sleepy John join our buddy John Leopold in the second car. Our consigliere is taking it easy in his Tesla, trying not to get too far out in front of the second car and this is a great thing because about ten miles north of Santa Cruz on Highway 1, there are six CHP cars hiding behind every curve, and they are pulling people over.
Oh shit! Our boys back in the rear car are probably speeding to catch up to us, they could be smoking weed (sometimes they can display a frightening proclivity to indulge) and if they get pulled over this hike could take a turn towards jail. We try calling them, but our phones have no signal. Fuck!
Ben turns his Tesla around and heads south to warn them about the CHP speed traps ahead. G forces from the Tesla acceleration give me a facelift and an instant cardio workout, and we spot them coming on a long straightaway. Ben flashes his headlights again and again, the universal signal for “cops ahead.” As we pass them, they are hardly speeding but we can see their big, shit-eating-grins pressed against the windows. We meet up at the trailhead and I ask them if they got our signal to slow down.
“We couldn’t figure out why you were flashing your lights. We were driving slow anyway; we were pretty stoned.” Yet another close call averted by complete incompetence.
One for All and All for One
This anecdote is not only a testament to Ben Rice’s character, but it really is One for All and All for One. We are the Four Muscatels, albeit a cheap wine needing fortification, but we do have spirit. When I was stumbling-stoned, lurching sideways, Laurence got between me and the edge of the cliff to protect me from going over. We’ve crossed cliff trails where a section of the trail had fallen away, and we pulled each other across the abyss.
Put your life in the hands of your buddies, it gets pretty easy to open up about personal problems and revelations. I’m sure our wives and girlfriends shake their heads at our hikes, but sometimes you can get your head together on the trail with your comrades. I can bullshit myself, but I can’t bullshit them. What we’ve found over time is, when one of us is having tough times with his lady or his children, there’s nothing you can do but listen. You let him talk about how it feels to bleed and let that clean the wound. With time, it always does.
Endorphins – give me more!
We get to the Candelabra Tree trailhead. Maps are flat, and they make the trail look flat, but I’m huffing and puffing within a minute. Taking care of business on the trail has two goals. In: oxygen. Out: carbon dioxide. After a spring and summer of leg injuries, this is the first hike I’ve felt leg power since I took up running. People tell me that running can damage my joints, that’s why I smoke them before I run. After four months, I got too high and pushed too hard, my knees went sideways, and it’s taken me until now to stay up with the boys on the trail. It’s worth hiking with these guys just for the serotonin and endorphins. Does cannabis increase dopamine levels? Well, they do call it dope.
Sleepy John hands me a joint and I hit it so hard, the power of speech leaves me. Too high to talk, I take the lead and start pumping, feeling my recovered legs powering ahead, climbing with rhythm up this mountain. The sweat pours off me, my heart pounds and endorphins light up my brain. I feel natural ecstasy. After a few minutes I turn around to see how far back the boys are and Sleepy John is ten steps behind me, 83 and climbing.
We walk to the Candelabra Tree, it is blackened but still strong. We sit at the base of the tree, sharing food and knee medicine. It’s remarkable how much the old tree looks like us; weathered, burnt, with a wary eye out for what might come. The unique shape of its trunks have been formed by living through past trauma, just like us. The trunks of the tree could be a symbol of our hiking group.
The Candelabra Tree is doing fine, and just like us, it may be scorched from living through fires, but for now, it stands tall and stretches to the sky.
Richard Stockton’s, 74, latest book of personal short stories, Love at the In-N-Out Burger, is available at Bookshop Santa Cruz and at Amazon.com.