Being At Big Sur – Northern California, United States
Being At Big Sur
We take Route 1 south in winter. Back and forth we drive along the teetering highway in the truck we have baptized Yellow Jack. South of Monterey other, lesser, roads drop away. The car takes mighty curves like a champion and I hear echoes of alcoholic Jack Kerouac, going mad in Ferlinghetti’s lovely cabin, waiting for his equally mad friend Neal Cassady to careen down these highways like an avenging angel.
My own friends and I try to match that madness, roaming at will, stopping at overlooks crumbling into the rocks below, at a bridge to watch the fiery sun sliding into the Pacific. The steep, flowering slope disappears beyond our feet. Far below, long rows of whitecaps, glazed orange by the sunset, crash softly onto realms of sand. We share our stories while the sun sets and our gaze slowly recedes from the horizon to each other. Later that night, we scoff at the safety of our small cabin, impatient for experience. At moon-dark foggy promontories, we search for the secret stars. A cliff-top lighthouse sweeps haze-light through the ink. Peeps of mountains appear through the thick plate-glass of water vapor. These misty night roads reek of reckless car-crash death, but we revel instead in automotive freedom-joy.
In daylight we hike into the redwood hills, playing gnomes and trolls amidst the venerable, disapproving trees. The fractals of the canopy shade us from a windy sky. A waterfall crashes amongst giant ferns and mossy stones, and we risk life and limb clambering alongside it. And then, just a few hundred yards away, the flora changes radically, opening into buzzing olive grove meadows. A weathered old man sits on a bench above the long river valley, underneath green stacks of mountains, dreaming of the past. I wonder who he has seen here on the shoulder of California, and what poets and painters have captured his unique spirit. My friends push onwards, and I leave the old man to his unknowable past. We ramble back to the car underneath those heaped crags and crests, peering into the deeper Sur where dusty Steinbeck adventures wait eagerly for our feet.
But we return to our car, frantic for the road, and the eternal spectacle continues. Waterfalls sing onto the beach. Trees dive into the Pacific. Bungalows and castles perch on earthquake lips. National Geographic calls this one of the best homes in the world, a place where civilization and environment match perfectly, and I know this claim is true. This coastal marvel is no national park, but a perpetual frontier, where the inhabitants lead their intense, solitary lives surrounded by the rumble of surf and the shade of emerald mountains.
We park Yellow Jack again and tramp down the dusty path towards the ocean, through a long, sloppy mud-tunnel and out into a hidden cove. The tide rages in as we crouch on a long finger of rock, filming the waves pounding into sea caves and sending spray far above us. Orange starfish, purple sea urchins, and green anemones cling to the volcanic rock as waves slosh over them. Then, we clamber around the stony and water-smoothed point, through boulder caves, and up to a tremendous height above the beckoning water. Seals and sea lions bark in the distance, millions of terns and gulls swoop merrily, tiny lizards scuttle nervously in the heat. Seaweed kingdoms slosh far below amidst the endless crashing caves and blowholes. And the Pacific! Stretching out towards some palmed-treed Avalon, the ocean seems full of the promise of eternity.
Wise old monk Henry Miller ended his time on earth here, growing a family in bald joyous life-affirming shouts. His wisdom peppers our journey. And at last, after searching the tarmac of the long highway, we find his tiny memorial museum, full of watercolors and rare manuscripts, a haven for outsider art. I buy a disc of the man himself reading from his timeless books and we dig the heavy New York accent, thick and rapturous, intoning passages as we snake far above the ocean, weaving scarily above nightmare canyons into the highlands. He speaks of the wild, pagan romps of his youth and of the quiet green heart of life he found at last, in a simple cabin high above the booming ocean.
Then, our time in this magic place nearly through, we take books of poetry and walk through the wet night meadow behind the glowing inn, while a party rages inside in imitated incandescence. We sprawl in nostalgic Adirondack chairs and drink sweet nectared wine beside the roar of the winter Big Sur River. The night wind swirls around the soft pools of our golden flashlights. We read transcendent verse aloud into the endless mountain night. And although few moments of perfection are allowed in one small life, we understand that this purity is common here, in the legendary, haunted Grande Sur.