Sunday, 22 April 2012

Returning to Big Sur, and Then Returning Again

Henry Miller once wrote that it was in Big Sur, the wild central coast of California, where he first learned to say “amen.” I had the same experience about two years ago when I accidentally stumbled upon Big Sur’s lush mountains and rocky coastline and intense blue waters, its unrivaled meeting of land and sea.

The Big Sur coastline.
 In August 2010, I left New York on my third transcontinental train trip, my second one alone after being shown the ropes on a weeklong trip with my father in 2005. The final stop on my itinerary, after a few days in Denver and San Francisco, was Monterey, which I really had no other incentive to visit other than the fact that it was there. About 100 miles south of San Francisco, Monterey is a relatively small town of 30,000, which owes its outsized renown to its celebrated aquarium and its designated mascot, John Steinbeck.
I took a train and a few buses into town and stayed at the international hostel a few blocks from Cannery Row. In the morning, I rented a bike—the kind of luxury these shorter trips allowed me that, on a four-month trip, are no longer available—and started out along the bike path around the peninsula towards the 17-mile drive. In Carmel, I heard that there was a Monterey-Salinas Transit bus running south into Big Sur, and that it allowed you to store bikes for the ride. I bought a few sandwiches and hitched my bike to the front of the bus. On the way down, while struggling to peer down every canyon, to watch the waves crash on the craggy shore, occasionally pushing my eyeballs back into my head, I spoke at length with the bus driver, who told me about his kids and his ambitions, and gave me recommendations about what to see in Big Sur. Mostly, he just endorsed the advice of a newsletter I had picked up: the best thing to do in Big Sur is to “do nothing.”

He dropped me at the picture-perfect Bixby Canyon Bridge, and told me to bike up the old coastal road, which fell into disuse and disrepair since being replaced by Highway 1 in the 1930s. It winds in and out of the canyons and over and around the mountains which the new road bypasses with its lovely newfangled bridges. The scenery was stunning: the canyon opening up, the road ascending, redwoods lording over all. The road proved too rough, though, and soon my ogling was interrupted by a final rupture somewhere in my bicycle. Sweaty, dirty, and dehydrated, I had to lift the lifeless bike almost three miles down the mountains and wait on a ledge overlooking the Bixby Bridge while my friend the bus driver finished his route further south. Back in Monterey, I somehow skirted the bike store clerk’s admonitions that I wasn’t supposed to bring the bike into the mountains, and convinced him to give me a free bike the next day.
I was more prepared this time, and picked up the bus in downtown Monterey. Following the driver’s new advice, I finally took the bus past the Bixby Bridge—around the curve in the road that I had seen hundreds of cars and RVs take the day before as I sat helpless at the bridge, hoping someday to make it past that curve and into the promised land. I picked up a sandwich again at the deli in the town of Big Sur and biked downhill to Andrew Molera State Park, where the Big Sur river flows into the Pacific. I spent that day frolicking on the beach and on a little cliff extending into the ocean. There was a large rock sticking straight out of the ocean in front of the cliff, and on it was a group of tiny grey birds, one by one lifting themselves into the strong winds and landing back on the rock. They seemed to be learning how to fly.

Eventually, I lifted myself off that cliff and reconciled myself with leaving Big Sur only by promising that I’d eventually return. Though I slept in Monterey all three nights, I had basically commuted to Big Sur both days. The next morning I took a bus to Salinas, explored the excellent museum at the National Steinbeck Center, and then a final train to L.A. 

I thought a lot about Big Sur after that trip, and Brahna was basically right in her last post that I have been chewing her ear off about it since the beginning. The day after taping Jeopardy in L.A., my parents and I retreated to Sequoia National Park to decompress. I flew from Fresno, where I’m writing this now, to Montreal, and the next night participated in my first meeting as an editor for the McGill Tribune. Brahna, who was also an editor, had just arrived in Montreal from New York, and the rest, of course, is history. Anyway, Big Sur remained in my mind as nothing less than the place where I first learned to say “amen.”

Waiting at the Bixby Canyon Bridge, August 2010.
It rained sporadically but extremely hard during our first night in Big Sur. It seemed to have stopped just before we opened our eyes saw the orange rainfly of our tent brightened with at least a little light. We intended to use this momentary pause to dress, make breakfast, and maybe even enjoy a quick hike before it inevitably started raining again. We emerged from the tent, and beheld the view.
The Kirk Creek Campground was built in the 1930s to house prisoners from San Quentin who were 
hired to build Highway 1 for 35 cents per day. The fact that it is part of Los Padres National Forest and also on a 100-foot bluff directly over the Pacific Ocean tells you all you need to know about the amazing land-and-sea combination of the Big Sur coastline. The view from our site, across the little campground road from those directly on the edge of the cliff, was of the highway hugging the rugged coastline for miles to the south, and of the ocean reaching to the horizon in the west.

We wanted to go on a nice hike in the mountains or along the coast, but, needing lunch supplies, decided first to drive down Highway 1 to that Big Sur deli of my memories. Then, driving back north, we stopped at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, or, rather, in a small pull-out beyond the park entrance, so as to skip the absurd $10 entry fee. The draw there is McWay Falls, billed somewhat falsely as the only waterfall in the U.S. that flows directly into the ocean. It actually used to flow directly in the ocean, until a 1983 landslide a few hundred feet up the coast brought tons of sediment into the cove, creating the pristine beach onto which the waterfall now falls 80-something feet before then running into the sea. For what it’s worth, the massive scar from the landslide, which cut through Highway 1, is visible from a spot in the park which has the remains of a cabin built by Julia Pfeiffer Burns and her husband, whose respective families were some of the first white inhabitants of Big Sur in the early 20th century. Of course, I found the idea of having a house right there on the coast, especially before all the modern traps and conveniences, absolutely tantalizing.

McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
We continued driving back south, intending to spend the afternoon hiking some trails which led into the mountains across the road from our campground. Before leaving, thanks to the advice of Brahna’s extremely outdoors-minded brother-in-law, Asher, we had bought rainproof clothing so as to stay relatively dry while hiking. We had to reconsider these plans, however, as the buckets of rain suddenly turned into sheets of sleet and then pellets of hail pummeling our car. Instead, after pulling into the campsite, we sat in the car and watched, appropriately enough, a classic noir film called, “Detour.” It is one of several noir movies included in a box set my father was given awhile ago and never particularly liked. I don’t really know why, but I brought the box along as the only DVDs we’d have for this trip. Brahna and I have intended to watch “Detour” since the beginning of our trip, but had to continually postpone our plans after one or the other of us protested out of fear. The plot description on the box said it was about a hitchhiker whose benefactor-du-jour suddenly dies on the road. The hitchhiker, knowing he’ll be accused of murder, disposes of the body and takes the man’s clothes and car, assuming his identity. Later, down the road, he picks up a female hitchhiker who suddenly turns to him and says, “What did you do with the body?” I had repeated that line, in a hushed voice, to Brahna so incessantly that neither of us, whether in a motel or a campground, thought we could handle it. We decided to watch it that day in Big Sur only because it was daytime and because we presumed no shady characters would dare to be outside in such dreadful weather. “Detour” turned out not to be scary at all, but, like all noirs, comically overwrought and nonsensical. As the film entered its final scenes, the rain stopped slapping at our windows, and we got anxious to start hiking. 

We found the trail surprisingly sunny, and cached our rain gear and fleeces in a bush. As we climbed higher and higher, our view of the coast widened to include many series of crags and promontories to the north and south. When we finally turned back due to lack of water, we actually ran part of the way down the trail, luxuriating in the cool sea breeze and the clean air. Back in the campground, we decided to relax and read for the rest of the afternoon, instead of investigating a road heading east into the mountains that seemed to promise great scenery. That choice seemed ratified when our neighbors across the street—it’s funny how campgrounds often mimic civilized society—invited us to bring our chairs to their campsite, one of those abutting the cliff’s edge, to watch the sunset. Gale and Deanne Sandholm of Helena, Montana, were excellent hosts, lending us their binoculars to spot the distant spouts of grey whales migrating north. The sun set too quickly, as always, and Brahna and I excused ourselves to make a fire to save ourselves from the sudden cold. The Sandholms, who seemed to be in their 60s, retired to their mini-RV. Rather, they went “inside,” as Deanne put it, and as Brahna and I repeated to each other throughout the cold, and then rainy, night.

Brahan, the morning we left Kirk Creek campground.
 We took advantage of another brief dry window the next morning to disassemble the tent and pack up the car. We drove back up Highway 1 and into the same Andrew Molera State Park which I biked into almost two years ago. We hiked out to the cliff extending into the ocean, in front of the rock that still had birds on it, and ate our lunch and braved the wind, and I resolved for the second time on that spot, though now certainly with more truth and feeling and companionship, that I couldn’t possibly be happier.

Molera Point, April 2012.
The Big Sur River was flooded with spring rains, so we couldn’t cross it to get to the beach. Instead, we drove north on Highway 1 towards Monterey, leaving Big Sur with heads turned around and promises to return, not knowing then how soon that return would be.

We stopped in Carmel, the artists-colony-turned-BoBo-heaven just below Monterey, to explore the Point Lobos State Preserve. At the beginning of a trail down to the ocean, I passed a sign warning hikers to avoid poison oak. It had a picture of the shiny leaves. Just a short way down the trail, I accidentally brushed my leg against precisely those shiny leaves, and a few yards later did it again. I told Brahna, “I just brushed against poison oak, I’m going to break out in a rash.” Sure enough, later that night, my left forearm developed a seven-inch long bubbly, blistery rash, so swollen it prevented the entire arm from bending properly. It has since opened and cracked several times, but seems to finally be on its way out.

 Our home for the night was one of our characteristically awful motels, though we did enjoy our first showers in quite a while. We decamped the next morning to a café on Cannery Row, to do some careers and trip research, and then drove out to the ocean to watch the massive waves that came after the storm earlier in the week. The next day in Salinas I worked in a café while Brahna explored the Steinbeck museum, which I still remembered from my last trip. We spent the afternoon driving south through the Salinas Valley, stopping for lunch in Soledad, which, like most towns in the area, is almost entirely populated by Mexicans. After another stop at a grocery in King City, a town that features prominently Steinbeck’s East of Eden, we headed west on a small road into the mountains. We were going back to Big Sur, our exile having lasted all of two days.

Sometime in the course of the research I’d done in Monterey and Salinas, I discovered that there are two remote National Forest campgrounds in the mountains above Big Sur, accessible only by driving 10 miles east from Highway 1 or 30 miles west from King City on the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road, itself the only road, besides Highway 1, out of Big Sur. That road, coincidentally, is the same road into the mountains that Brahna and I nearly explored the day we watched “Detour” in the car and went on a hike once the rain cleared up. Driving into the mountains, through a massive military base, we enjoyed the idea of having made a complete loop in the last few days. We set up camp not ten miles from the Kirk Creek campground above the ocean, and even drove nearly all the way back there, through a thick redwood grove and along the unguarded edge of some pretty serious coastal canyons, for a glorious sunset. Our view of the coast this time was even wider than it had been on our hike. We saw our old campsite occupied by a new tent, the site of our friends, the Sandholms, occupied by yet another mobile home.

Our site in the mountains was one of only two in the eight-site campground occupied that night. The creek rambling and murmuring just a few feet away was a pleasing lullaby, but it also obstructed my usual paranoid observations of the sounds of the night. That uncertainty, plus the cool mountain air and my mangled left arm, made it a difficult night. We broke camp later than expected the next morning and finally did leave Big Sur, with heads turned around and promises to return.

1 comment:

  1. really ? somehow you haven't mentioned the poison oak arm to us

    well written - can sense the beauty