Photos Courtesy of Coastwalk: Wild Coast and Free: The Coastwalkers trek on the Lost Coast.

Morning dawns with the clang of camp cups, the zip of sleeping bags and the chatter of short conversations. Eucalyptus sway above, and beyond, the typical coastal summer gray. Fleece-adorned, multi-pocketed people hustle and bustle, washing dishes, taking down tents and loading gear. To my left, a skinny fellow is perched atop a white van stretching a web of bungee cords over gear, and to my right, a woman searches around for her cup. In the middle, the big, calm chef, Steve Jones. "How about some leftover beans" he asks me. "Mmm-- sure."

Then suddenly everyone is packed and the busy throng, perhaps too well accustomed to one another, squeezes into the white van. They are ushered to the place they hiked to the night before, a good distance away from their campsite. Then the van door bursts open and the Coastwalk crew spreads out onto the windy beach, strewn with its blue jelly polka dots. Each person seems content with the rhythm of their own feet and I feel happy to be with them.

Ahead, Linda Hanes struts steadily forward, her short blonde-gray hair mostly tucked in a ballcap, long walking-poles in her hands. Her dark blue eyes are clear, and I sense a devoted will behind this unimposing woman. Hanes is a retired librarian from Sebastopol, and the leader of the group.

"This trail will one day be regarded as one of the most spectacular long distance trails in the world," she says.

Hanes is one of nine Californians walking the coast from Oregon to Mexico, outlining a vision that will encourage many more to follow in their footsteps. They picture the entire state shoreline connected by a 1,150-mile, unbroken hiking trail. The group, averaging 60 years of age, is hiking this great distance in order to publicize the idea and demonstrate the feasibility of the route.

Coastwalk president Linda Hanes.

They are from Coastwalk, a nonprofit whose mission is to educate, coordinate, and promote the trail. Since June 2, they have been inching their way from California''s northern border towards its southern one, where they plan to arrive on September 22. At roughly the middle of their 112-day journey, from July 28 to Aug. 4, the hikers will pass through Monterey County. They encourage the public to support the project by joining them for a short jaunt or a weeklong trek (see below for details).

Coastwalk represents the inspirational wing of a larger effort to implement what has come to be called the California Coastal Trail, or CCT. In 2000, CCT was selected by the White House as one of 50 nationwide Millennium Trails. In 2001, state agencies were assigned the duty of completing the trail in a "timely manner."

That same year, a constitutional mandate was passed requiring California to provide public access to the coast.

With state and local backing, the nine Coastwalkers have roused quite a media storm as they stomp their way down the trail. They have been featured on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle and on national public radio, as well as on local TV news programs all along the way. As a result, a bit of fame is coming their way as they travel, with honking cars and strangers stopping to say things like, "thousands of people will use this trail, what you''re doing is really great," and, "you guys are heroes." Each of the nine walkers, though, has their own reasons for going the distance.

Janette Heartwood, 65, of Laguna Beach, professes ecological motives. "I give to Greenpeace," she says, "but I''m not going to go out on a little boat in the middle of the ocean with a big tanker! This is something I can do."

Wallace "Jay" Nichols insists that the trail is "not some crackpot Californian idea." He points out that the reasoning for unbroken coastal access is laid out in the ancient Roman Codex Justinianus, which reads in part: "by the law of nature these things are common to all mankind--the air, running water, the sea, and consequently, the shores of the sea."

Jean Kenna from Palm Springs has a more personal reason for joining the trek: She says that she was wavering on the trip, but when her nephew died at only 43 years old she realized "we can''t afford to turn anything down in life."

Whatever their reasons, the group has had some good adventure on the way.

Near Ghiradelli Square, they stayed on the Balclutha, a three-mast ship built around 1890. There an old park ranger sang them pirate songs. On the beaches, they encountered colored glass fishing balls used by Japanese fishermen years ago to hold their nets aloft and a strange stake, inlaid with Chinese characters. Near Humboldt the trail passed an old stretch of Highway 1, cracked and crumbled, its white lines vaguely traceable amidst the redwood forest that has overtaken it.

Each night volunteers of Coastwalk come to meet the hikers, bringing dinner with them, from fish filets to hummus and shish-ka-bob. Virginia "Ginny" Gregurek says simply, "Every day is the best hike, and every night is Thanksgiving."

The Coastwalkers have spent $3,000 each to ensure that a support vehicle helps them arrive at their often out-of-the-way campsites. Sometimes they camp at the same location for three nights, walking ahead each morning, and driving back each night, for lack of adequate sites. Local Coastwalk volunteers also meet them each morning to help them maneuver the broken and often confusing route, or lead them inland through city streets where development dominates the coast.

A bull-kelp ensemble.

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In many places, much remains to be done before casual travelers could conveniently use the CCT.

Today, about 40 percent of the trail is non-existent. It will take decades to plan and to build the trail over these many miles, although Hanes said, "a substantial amount will be done in the next ten years."

The largest hurdle will be gaining the use of now private lands, which account for 20 percent of the trail''s distance. It is roughly estimated that it will cost $660 million to pay private coastal landowners.

Use may be granted through easements, which would allow walkers use of the right-of-way; in other cases, outright purchases will be necessary. In the best-case scenario, it will take years for state agencies to allocate the money. And some owners are not willing to sell.

Dick Wayman of the Coastal Conservancy, which is providing the bulk of funds for the project, says that the $660 million figure is deceiving.

"Land is often purchased as part of other projects such as state parks," he says. "California Parks and Recreation Department will also put funds into the trail.

"There is a lot of local interest," Wayman says, adding that he expects local governments and nonprofits to help purchase land.

Coastwalk already has maintenance crews in every coastal county and will be playing an active role in finding volunteers.

In a recent research report, the Coastal Conservancy laid out what measures it would like to take in the Monterey area. One goal is to improve non-motorized access along 17 Mile Drive between Cypress Pt. and Forest Lake road. Also, they will try to widen Highway 1''s narrow shoulder where it winds through Big Sur. Plans also include a new trail linking Andrew Molera State Park with Pfeiffer Beach, as well as trails through the recently sold Palo Corona Ranch.

Perhaps most exciting, they plan to work with the US Forest Service to create a new path that runs along the seaward slope between Highway 1 and the Coast Ridge Trail.

The day ends for Coastwalk with quiet. After dinner, one couple withdraws to their tent, and I can see Ginny Gregurek reading on the campsite stage. Linda Hanes is editing a journal entry to be posted on the Coastwalk Web site, and Steve Jones is chatting and brushing tears from his eyes. "It''s just sunscreen," he says.

To Join Coastwalk leave a message with Steve Jones at 707-795-7537 or reach Linda Hanes between 6-8am or 6-9pm at 707-795-7537. Campground schedule: July 28: Sunset State Beach, Moss Landing. July 29-30: Monterey Vets Park. July 31: Coast Road. Aug 1-4: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

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