Big Sur Impossible
by Max Talley
How do you even know when you’re there—at the epicenter? A thought as you drive north from Cambria on California Highway 1 past San Simeon. It’s not really a town to arrive at, more of a region, a state of mind. We can get all National Geographic and speak of a land mass where the rugged Santa Lucia mountains slide right down to the ocean. Besides the sudden cessation of palm trees, that’s maybe the only clue. You round grassy meadows beyond the elephant seal strewn beaches, still near enough to the sea to smell it—salty fresh or fouled by algae. Then you take the first of many hairpin curves, down through a riverbed before rising up into jagged hills of rock and yellow-brown dirt. Sense the altitude, the sky through cypress trees. Yes, it’s beginning…
From the 1990s to now, I’ve driven it from the south, from the north, hiked the mountains and coastal trails, stayed in motels, once at Ventana—long ago—and at a monastery on a ridge. I even lived there, as close to the middle of a vaporous place as one can be, yet still can’t quite fathom it.
I soon roll into Ragged Point. Is this inn/restaurant/gift shop propped on a wide mount overlooking the water Big Sur? No, more the southern edge of the Big Sur Coastline. A ninety mile span that most don’t consider before driving it. Ninety minutes? More like two hours, if you’re lucky enough not to be trapped behind a caravan of Winnebagos and RVs sputtering along. The first thirty miles seem amazing, fantastic, primordial, magic. But doing the whole journey in one shot is a test of focus, of braking and accelerating, of steering through extreme turns. All the time watching out for oncoming drivers drifting across the yellow lines on a slim two-lane highway carved through a wild terrain not quite ready to sacrifice that wildness.
The worst hairpins appear early on. Feel relief when you reach Gorda, a flyspeck town famed for Gorda Rock and perhaps the highest gas prices on the entire California Coast. Many drivers and families are ready to pause at their deli, maybe stay at the hotel, or brave the restaurant. I say “brave” because instead of hearty grills serving pub fare, local restaurants tend to be gourmet spots with French chefs and astronomical prices. You’re not an eighties rockstar or a Hollywood actor traveling with an entourage? Sorry… The best deals are $10 sandwiches incubating behind frosted glass in delicatessen refrigerator units.
Visitors come to Big Sur for the postcard views, the contrast from whatever clustered city or town they inhabit. It seems like a lost paradise, at least for a weekend in good weather. Why do artists and seekers come? Why have I returned over and over, after forsaking it and moving away, after forgetting it for years during fires and highway slides? The human desire to make sense of it. To grasp it, possess it, take a little piece home with you to burn eternal, or at least for your lifetime. And that’s why I try again. Failure guaranteed. You can’t put your arms around Big Sur and give it a bro hug, can’t somehow insert yourself and become one with nature. Too fucking large. And just when everything finally seems clear enough to define it, to impose logic, the fog sweeps in to obscure the borders between land, sky, and sea.
Beyond Gorda comes a two-mile strip of straight, level highway. Tourists remain slow and cautious. Can’t trust the 55 speed limit after fighting the road’s hazards for a half-hour. I speed up to eighty, maybe ninety, to pass the sluggish vans ahead. A dizzying, joyous rush. Only once in many trips did I race right by a hidden highway patrol car. Claimed he was doing me a favor, marking me under 75 mph, instead of the double-charge above. Still a hefty ticket. Now I know when to accelerate and where to slow down, near the ruins of Pacific Valley Station, so I’m sailing at a mere 60 mph by the uphill slope with hiding spots. Not recommended for foggy days or the myopic. Hear the scree-scree-scree! of seagulls circling overhead; witness the foamed waves roiling against immense rocks. Getting closer now.
I stop at Lucia, a postage stamp town made up of a hotel with a gift shop and gourmet restaurant. Only the hotel is still open after a 2021 fire. Troubling, as I will be staying at a retreat room where the Benedictine Monks live, mountain high above the coast. Their provided dinner is limited to a light salad, a questionable soup, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Options? Drive twenty minutes back to Gorda or thirty twisting minutes north to Big Sur proper. No, not a town, but a series of restaurants, art galleries, and hotels sprinkled along both sides of the route.
The monks have retreated to solitude; visitors are asked to refrain from talking. So there is beautiful calm up above. A demigod feeling while watching the procession of tiny cars far below through wisps of fog. Your phone won’t work, nor is there WiFi. Can we exist in a 1999 reality, or have we become too spoiled? The only options at the hermitage are vigorous walks and reading books. These restraints eventually reveal a world we have trampled over. Of concentration on a single pursuit rather than multitasking, of watching time unfold through nature and the advance then retreat of light. I can’t stay aloft for long. Though burning to escape the speaker-phone volume of the California masses, I find extended isolation daunting. We need a community, sympathetic people around us. Acoustic guitar strapped on, I whisper-sing far from neighboring ears, barely fingering the strings. The silence is so overwhelming, it feels almost rude to strum and bellow into the void.
North of Lucia, I read the forbidding sign for Esalen Institute. By Reservation Only. No drop-in visitors. The once expensive bohemian center, to realign your chakras and transform into a benevolent businessman, has become even more exclusive, more pricey. Where CEOs can take ayahuasca and soak in hot tubs while downsizing 25% of their staff remotely. Drum circle freakouts for trust fund influencers seeking meaning within their artificial sweetener lives. Here, even the eucalyptus groves smell expensive. When you can sense wealth behind electric keypad gates, the high fencing walls skirting the highway, you are passing the millionaires’ bohemia.
The spirituality of religion and of New Age culture has deep roots on the Big Sur Coast. Throw a lilac in any direction and you’ll hit a yoga instructor or a network tapper. But where there is light, darkness exists too. Rumors of witchcraft and cults hidden beyond the ridgeline. In reality, more a flirtation with Wiccan practices: casting spells, enchantments, exacting revenge on the soulmate who souled you out.
Various sober residents over the decades have spoken of the Dark Watchers, who appear in shadowed forests and between giant outcroppings. They are described as either “little people” or tall, thin wraiths. Stories persist of a 19th century sea captain who shipwrecked his crew off the rocky shore. Are those sea lions howling at night or the cries of phantom seamen? A female ghost haunts Palo Colorado Canyon some say; others insist the recreational drugs are very strong. It is common to hear of landlords burning sage to clear their homes of bad spirits. Are they cleansing demons and witches, or the monsters within humans that can be unleashed by living alone for extended periods, living in a chaos without clear rules, clear logic?
My landlady for a tiny redwood cabin, interviewed contractors in 2008 to get an estimate on a staircase repair. When she turned them away, I asked if the estimate was too high. “No,” she said. “They had ghosts. I could see them in their faces. I won’t hire haunted people.” It was later explained that she had glimpsed traces of their past as criminals, of jail-time, of drug use. Paranoia, superstition? Longtime Big Sur residents have their own detection methods, divining rods. Some of it sounds like pure hokum, yet they have endured—in a place difficult to endure in. Drive by and all you see is beauty, serenity, the perfect getaway. To actually live there means dealing with extreme winds and cold, summer heat and wildfires, rainstorms and mudslides, wooden structures prone to leaking. To be one with nature means your neighbors are not only raccoons and skunks, but rattlesnakes, scorpions, bobcats, and mountain lions. All tangible things though. It’s the remoteness, the lack of a true center that can slowly warp the mind.
Approaching Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, the route rises high and turns come fast. Concentrate. Have you heard of the Highway 1 Club? Not something to seek membership in. A designation for people who have driven off the road, off the cliff, plunged over the side and somehow survived. I attended traffic school after my 2009 Big Sur speeding ticket and a 1980s safety film played of a man discussing how he reached for a cassette on his car’s floor and when he looked up, was plummeting downward. The camera focused on his unscathed face before panning back to show him in a full body cast. The audience both laughed and gasped.
The descendants of the original ranchers who settled the “Big South” are a close-knit bunch. They want nothing to do with newcomers, with tourists. The super-rich rockstars and Hollywood denizens own impressive homes they rarely visit. Perhaps Thanksgiving this year, and Memorial Day next year. Mention is made of Eric Clapton or Peter Gabriel, but not of seeing the person, just their property. Those without fortunes, the post-collegiate youth, are determined to live local, to play badass at the farthest reach of the once wild west. They work at bars and restaurants, often pooling together to live four to a cabin up a remote forested canyon.
I found it difficult to connect to strangers while living a quarter-mile from Nepenthe. The artists and writers nearby created in solitude, not gregarious by nature. Some locals were friendly, at least on the surface. What do you do? is a loaded question. A reticence to dig too deep. There are rangers, carpenters, bartenders, and body workers, but also a whispery world of weed, methamphetamine, and guns. A secret economy. This is not to say residents act unfriendly or spiteful. In a wildfire, Big Sur neighbors are heroic in their dedication to help others. During normal times, self-sufficiency is key, and is expected. Rental housing remains rare and always expensive. Van life, camper life are a reality. Keep moving. You can’t stay overnight at tourist turn-outs.
I finally reach the heart of this vague place, roughly thirty miles south of Carmel. Cell reception is terrible under redwoods and WiFi access only sprouts in select spots. I visit Henry Miller Library for an author’s book event. Again and again I’ve done this. I have been the author; I have been the audience. Parking was packed tight out on Highway 1 and yet few lingered inside the library grounds. The parked cars sat filled with Internet desperadoes. So we attend ghost events from a fading culture of books, of readings, of live bands, while the highway traffic remains jammed. “Tell us about your name,” library director Magnus asks the author, but not for a crowd on the lawn like back in 2010 or 2014, but for microphones and a podcast. He continues: “Something has happened with publishing…”
The traveling masses seek a level spot, somewhere stable with an Ambrosia Burger reward, with a view for an Instagram-worthy photo. Nepenthe becomes a small city on weekends, parking impossible, while downhill nearby, poets read to spirits, musicians play to impatient audiences wandering in and out of performances. How do you kill off artists? Name their town an art colony.
What about the original hipsters, beatniks, and iconoclasts? Allen Ginsberg witnessed the best minds of his generation “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” And you might see your neighbors emerge from their yurts, leaky cabins, or Mickey Meunnig redwood structures in the same disarray. Many tried to capture the essence. Jack Kerouac came south to escape the unending drinks and parties accorded to him in San Francisco. He succeeded in describing the waves crashing against mammoth offshore rocks in poetry. But Big Sur didn’t soothe him, instead supplying a different form of madness. Hunter S. Thompson hunted feral pigs in the hills and valleys during the early 1960s but couldn’t last long. Henry Miller grasped the folly of artists believing Big Sur would enhance their creativity. Instead, the vastness of nature overwhelms. You are but a speck in a primal universe. The elements take charge. Thought you were going to write a novel? Instead, you built a fence after the previous one rotted from the rains and tumbled in a mud slide. Miller committed to an austere life high on Partington Ridge. Even he, one of the kings, had to eventually leave for Los Angeles.
So it’s useless to write love letters, to declare your undying affection. Big Sur is not hateful, just indifferent. It has seen us come and go for eons. Our lifespans less than an instant in its cosmic consciousness. Big Sur is the crust of the Earth exposed, the jagged western edge of a continent maintaining structural dignity while a relentless ocean hammers against it. Priorities, man. The beauty you see for an hour, a day, a weekend, is one frozen image in the constant chaos dance of creation and destruction. Store everything beautiful inside and travel on. Any paradise that makes you immediately wish to move to it, is often the one to be most suspicious of.
My trip has come to an end. I’ll try again as soon as I forget all of this. And again again after I forget all of that.