We follow one photographer, surfer, and overland traveller – Ross Ruddell, as he prepares to embark on an epic journey down the pan-American highway, surfing his way from California to Tierra del Fuego, over the course of three years. This is his story. You can keep up to date with Ross’s adventures right here, and at Project Bliss.
Over to Ross:
When I was in the Coast Guard the crew would take their ship out for whats called a “shakedown.” The purpose of these mini-trips? To see what worked, what didn’t, what would break, what wouldn’t, and how life in that environment functioned. Recently, I decided to do my own “shakedown,” a dry run, to test my set-up and fix any last minute problems. I planned two small trips up North to Big Sur, California (I’ve broken down my trips into two separate posts, Part 1 and Part 2 — I know, so original).
The Dry Run: Part 1
The drive up from San Luis Obispo on Highway 1 is nothing short of
magical. The highway hugs the coast through the beach towns on Morro
Bay and Cayucos before hitting Cambria. Usually, these places are
socked in with a thick marine layer of fog, making everything grey and
gloomy. But, I was blessed on both trips with sunny skies, light off-shore
winds and some of the best fall light the Central Coast can
The first trip was a quick one — only two days, one night. The goal for this trip was simply to test how all my gear fit in the car and how easily, or difficult, it was to access while on the road. A friend and I drove up to Sand Dollar Beach, right next to the KOA Plaskett Creek campground. Sand Dollar is a huge bay, with a half-moon shaped beach covered in gritty, dark, sand. The waves are usually huge here, even when the water is flat everywhere else down South Sand Dollar is sure to have head high waves. It’s a swell magnet and usually the first place I check when I am in need of a good wave. I’ve been up to Big Sur dozens of times, surfing, camping and just exploring this amazing part of California. Cliffs, hundreds of feet tall, loom over the beach giving it an amphitheater like ambiance — it’s beautiful (see image below).
But, walking up to the cliffs edge and checking the surf literally took my breath away on this particular day. The sun was casting a golden glow over the sandstone cliffs while below perfect, peeling waves roped down the sandbar. Adult dolphins, with their newborn babies were playing in the surf, teaching them how to swim in the sea. I cannot accurately describe how rare it is to have the weather, wind, tide and swell all
come together so perfectly. It flat-out just doesn’t happen. I had never seen something so spectacular and I knew this was a special moment. Without wasting another minute, I suited up as quickly as possible and made my way down the long winding staircase that led to the water.
When I got down to the beach, the waves, which had appeared small and controlled from atop of the cliffs, were in fact easily double overhead and absolutely detonating on the sandbar. Hollow tubes were spitting their guts out. I was tripping out, couldn’t believe my good luck.
During a lull in the waves, I quickly paddled out, and immediately I was surrounded by a pod of 15–20 dolphins playing in the waves. The same pod I had seen from the top of the cliffs were now swimming my way, curious as to who this unsual “creature” was playing in the waves alongside them. Their newborn babies swam up to me, I was within a foot of their sleek, grey bodies. I made direct eye contact with a few of them, and I knew that something very special was happening. I surfed, not by myself, but with a crew of dolphins and just as I would with friends, we were trading waves and splashing water. The baby dolphins would swim fast towards a breaking wave, dive under, and then launch out the backside of the curl, sometimes getting a few feet of air before crashing back down into the water. Golden droplets of water flew off their backs with the East winds blowing them further. Not once did the dolphins leave my side while I surfed wave after wave that afternoon. I caught a few good rides, mostly big drops, and a few racy little corners. The swell really started to fill in as the sun went down and since I still had to make camp for the night, I paddled back in.
I changed out of my wetsuit and together, my friend and I, started to drive the long and steep dirt road back to our campsite. The ridge line that runs along the mountains of Big Sur is spectacular, offering vistas of the whole coast from a few thousand feet up.
My car is set up to have a sleeping platform on top, with gear storage underneath. I pulled out one of my plastic totes, the one that held all my cooking gear and got to work making dinner. I use a BioLite
stove to cook. This requires me to build a small fire inside the actual stove before I can officially start cooking. Getting a fire going during this trip proved to be harder than I anticipated given that the wind was blowing about 40 miles per hour (that’s my excuse and I am sticking to it). But, I eventually got it. Once the stove was ready, I took out my pressure cooker. I’ll be using this on the trail as it makes cooking so much easier, healthier and quicker. I just throw whatever I have in the pot, latch the lid down and cook it for about an hour.
We threw sun-dried tomatoes, chicken, sausage, shrimp, barley, chopped
onions and peppers along with chicken broth all together to make a
Trail food is good no matter what, mostly because you’re so hungry that
everything tastes good. But that night I took my chef skills to a whole new level. It was beyond good. Once finished eating, we finalized our sleeping arrangements.
The stars didn’t disappoint that night. We were greeted with a black sky peppered with bright dots of white light. The Milky Way streaked through the middle of the darkness offering contrast, reminding me just how tiny we are in comparison to this massive universe. The size of everything in Big Sur makes you feel small and staring up at the sky with a full belly, cuddled in my sleeping bag, head resting on a pillow did nothing but affirm that this is how I want to live. Simple, outside, and always reminded that my life, in the big scheme of things is just a faint blip on the human radar of existence.
Night passed too quickly and the sun was up before I knew it. Packing up camp was pretty easy. The more I do it the more I know where things go and how to make the best use of the limited space I have. One successful night down and so back to San Luis Obispo I set off. It was now time to clean everything and assess the entire process.
After a thorough cleaning at the local car wash I had a major gear “explosion” in my parents driveway — much to the delight of the neighbors of course. Let’s just say the condo my parents live is located in a pretty affluent part of the town (across from the University). So me rolling in with a loud Subaru and shit strapped over the roof of the car, isn’t always met with warm smiles. But what’s a guy to do when prepping for a journey south? So, without hesitation, I completely gutted my car, cleaned my cooking supplies and re-loaded for a more in-depth dry run of what life on the road was gonna be like. I was feeling pretty strong and ready for a my longer test run but, more on that in Part 2.
To be continued…
Ross Ruddell, 29, San Luis Obispo, Calif.