An Essay on my recent vacation to Big Sur (a 1st draft)
Day 1: December 5, 2011
I was in the mood for a killing. Not of someone. Of myself. Not of suicide. Of reinvention. I had to get out of San Francisco. I had to go someplace where I could let my mind drift, to a place where I could let my feelings fall where they may, to a place where the landscape provided a thousand different pathways to resurrection: Big Sur.
Moby Dick’s Ishmael says, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” and so on, “I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” My substitute for “pistol and ball,” Big Sur, will always be my “spiritual home.” What is it about the place that attracts me? The beautiful vistas, for one; a chance to deposit into the woods all of one’s fears and neuroses: the woods and water accept all of it without complaint.
During the months and weeks leading up to my leaving, I suffered from various ailments: insomnia, a two month long flu, irritability, irascibility, a general malaise. I felt disconnected from my work and from my relationships. I took three hour naps in the afternoons which kept me awake most of the night. My diet consisted of coffee, alcohol, fast food. My exercise routine comprised two or three slow paced walks a day around Candlestick Point with my two dogs. Sitting at my desk for hours and hours, straining both my eyes and my back, pulling muscles I never knew existed, I felt myself unraveling; so before I knew what I was doing, one morning, with my thesis complete and its revision around the corner, I sat down and booked my trip. Four days in Big Sur should return me to myself, I thought. Four days and three nights of bliss.
Having dropped off my fiancee and our dogs at Delores’ house, I left Vallejo at approximately 10:00 AM on a clear sunny Monday. During the three-hour drive I kept thinking of remoteness. What if there was an emergency? The cell phone service was terrible there. I hadn’t told anyone where I was staying and no one had asked, not even my fiancee. I kept thinking of immersions. What would I do first? Where would I go? I would go to Pfieffer Beach, bathe in the winds rising off the bluffs, maybe swim if it wasn’t too cold. I would visit Nepenthe for a sunset and steak dinner. Besides that, I made no plans. I would go where my legs took me, find the end of the road, and stop often to take in the sights.
Cradled in the soft scents of eucalyptus trees, redwoods and pine groves, entranced by the bustling rhythms of the crashing surf, Big Sur connects me to a more primitive version of myself and a purer version of life. In the city you don’t see birds, though they abound, especially seagulls at the wharf, pigeons, and crows. Occasionally you’ll see a willet or a crane at the bay, or a flock of sparrows, but they seem disguised somehow, as if they aren’t really birds but chunks of concrete bitten out of buildings that have somehow taken flight. City birds seem distressed, even at the beaches; they seem about as confused and erratic in their movements as the people who navigate the Embarcadero, speeding up and down Van Ness, filling the cafes in North Beach, staring out at the traffic lines on Broadway. In Big Sur you can see birds again and see them in their natural element–cranes, cormorants, loons. If you’re lucky you can glimpse a flight of condors gliding across the cliffs, or watch pelicans sunning themselves on the ocean’s giant stone outcroppings.
As I passed through Monterey, crossed into Carmel, then drove South on Highway One, the landscape flowered. Tall mountains bathed in mist came into view and the entire continent seemed to shift downwards in long swooping arches, bending towards the water. Before this land was settled, it was wild. When I think of the miracle of this road, Bixby Bridge and Granite Canyon Bridge both built in 1932, I am reminded of man’s will to cut paths through nature, taming it, deeming it safe to experience in all its incremental bits. I think how by taming it we have lost it, that the true Big Sur exists not now but before the first traveller ventured here, seeing the sights for the first time, but somehow, Big Sur resists this notion. The views from Highway One still impress and I suspect will continue to impress until, as Henry Miller once said, “uranium is found in the hills.”
I wonder, though, as I drive, what the first explorers who found this area thought. Did they feel they had died and gone to heaven? For when I think of Heaven, I think of water and mountains, I think of mist bathed forests, I think of sunlight so clear and sharp it makes even the shadows seem to shine. When I caught the first glimpses of the water to my right, the sun dappling the water, forming on the water a crystalline road, my heart skipped a beat, and it seemed to me as if the world had taken a giant breath, swallowing me up in all its vastitude. The parade of colors, the riffling brooks, the unrivaled vistas of continent and boundless ocean had drawn celebrities here. Surrounded by the redwood forests, Henry Miller penned essays and towards the end of his life painted portraits here. Robinson Jeffers sat on the cliffs, perhaps, staring out at the ocean at the wheeling hawks. Jack Kerouac sped through its switchbacks in a mad dash of screeching tires and ballyhoo in his sleek black Studebaker. Movie stars, like Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, picnicked in its parks, sunned themselves at Pfieffer Beach, hiked Andrew Molera State Park’s trails, followed the creek as it widened and deepened and emptied itself into the ocean. In the experience of empty beaches, of forested winding trails, of being lifted by the spruce and ivy and thousand-year old Redwoods, they smoked and drank and made their declarations of love to the stars and birds and trees and tides and all that beauty, for “that,” as Jeffers wrote, “is but the beauty of God.” Beyond that, as if that weren’t enough, Big Sur represents, in all its simulacra, in all of its signifiers, the manifestation of dreams.
Chatter. My mind filled with voices, music, melodies, bits of lyrics, bits of verse, images. Every time I try to empty myself, my brain fills with noise–the white noise of the city. Having arrived at 1PM to the Big Sur River Inn, the first outpost on Highway One, I am too early to check-in, and although it is a sunny day, with temperatures in the mid 60’s, I am too tired to explore. I have not eaten this morning or afternoon, and the coffee I had drank on the drive has worked itself through my system. My bladder full. My eyes bleary. I need a hot shower, food, a nap.
I chose for my lodgings the Big Sur River Inn. I chose it because a year and a half ago, after abandoning the novel I had spent the better part of the previous year researching and writing, I needed to gather myself, to wash the toxins of writing that dark, depressing, violent novel from my soul. Stopping for gas one day, towards the end of that first trip, I parked in an empty stall by the station, descended the wooden steps to the banks of the creek, a sward of bright green grass surrounded by redwoods. Along the creek’s bank stood several wooden chairs, arranged in haphazard patterns, but one caught my eye, sitting as it was in the shallows. That afternoon, my heart full, my head quiet, I read Emerson’s essays on nature for hours while the water’s rhythms lulled me. In those moments all the cares of the world lifted and I found myself confronting Emerson, his thoughts of transcendentalism settling into my soul, providing the nucleus of the novel I was going to write. Dusk fell and the sky darkened, the accompanying air cooled, lifting from the redwoods and pines surrounding the embankments a smell of rapture. I sat in that chair well after dark and imagined the sound of water resembling that of crackling fire. I felt connected. Whole.
While I wait to check in, I eat my first meal at the restaurant adjacent the gift shop. The restaurant looks homey, like a cabin, with redwood floors, redwood posts, and a wood beam ceiling from which various colored sheets hang like sails in pastels of lime, yellow, turquoise, and red. I take a seat by the long stretch of windows overlooking the courtyard with its centerpiece a firepit where I imagine people gathering with cups of hot chocolate, beer, mugs of coffee, guitars strapped to their shoulders and music lifting into the brisk night air. While I wait for the server to take my order, I read the menu. In the inside flap of the laminated was written a detailed history of the inn. In 1888 Jay Pheneger acquired a 160 acre land grant from the federal government (no mention of how he came to such wealth) and christened the creek that bounded the River Inn to the South, his name. The Pfieffers, Michael and Barbara (no mention of what they did for a living), who were homesteading near Pfieffer beach and bought the property from Pheneger. In 1926, John Pfieffer, their son, acquired the land. Looking to form connections with travelers who happened upon Big Sur, later, John;s daughter Ellen opened the River Inn on the east side of the road and serving lodgers her would be famous hot apple pie. The inn became known as the Apple Pie Inn and the ridge rising above it on the east side is still called Apple Pie Ridge.
From the menu, I select a BLT on sourdough, shoestring French fries with a side of ranch dressing, and an “award-winning” Bloody Mary. The meal is simple, flavorful, yet expensive. Things here are of high quality, but you have to pay for it. With my lunch finished, I drink a $4 dollar coffee by the firepit outside, and after paying over twenty dollars for the meal, walk to the motel’s registration offices to check in.
The girl at the desk, a young woman in her early twenties surrounded by stacks of paper, talks my ear off about the weather, and I nod. She takes my credit card, offers me their rental documents to sign, and then hands me my key. “You’re across the street,’ she says. I am a little disappointed to be staying on the east-side, across Highway One, and not in one of the rooms overlooking the creek. It doesn’t matter, really. I am here. I am lodged. Everything is available to me.
Cabin 3: A single room with a queen-sized bed and adjoining bathroom with just a small sliding glass window to the right of the sink. I enter and feel as if I have stepped into a coffin, with its pine wood walls, tan carpet, and a picture above the bed of the Santa Lucias bathed in a milky fog. The heater is turned off and as I settle my things onto the small dresser table below the window, I see my breath crystallize. I turn the heater on and rotate the dial to ten, its maximum setting, and rub my hands. The room offers simple comforts. There is no TV, no phone, no wet bar, no windows, save for one, and except for a single withered leaf on the floor by the side of the bed, which, during my stay, I don’t bother throwing out, the room appears clean. On the dresser facing the bed sit various items: a tissue box, two water bottles, a small ice chest, two glasses, a digital alarm clock, a menu of motel services bound in a black three ring binder, and a Monterey Peninsula guidebook, detailing the activities, events, restaurants and retail stores for the area. I am tired. Though it is still early, around 2:45 I take a nap. The linen sheets smell freshly laundered. The room warms. I am asleep in an instant, thinking of my novel and where it needs improvement.
These are the thoughts that occupy writers’ minds, the good ones at least, maybe the bad ones. We are never truly at rest. Even asleep our minds work, the subconscious drifting in possibilities.
I awake at a little after five. The room is dark now, just a cool blue light outside. It is too late to explore the area. I feel restless. I wash my face. The water is ice cold, numbing my hands. There is no soap in the bathroom, but an abundance of towels, six in all. I have no desire to write, but know that I must so I force myself. From my leather brief bag, I extract my red journal and my fountain pen and opening the journal to an empty page I write the following: “As the year comes to a close, I find myself once again in Big Sur,” and so on. Reading over the words I am struck by the passage, “My eyes find it difficult to adjust to all the beauty here. I don’t know where to look. It’s if I’m threatened with destruction at every turn and this feeling is both frightening and oddly reassuring.” I think how true that sentiment. Big Sur kills you with its beauty; it destroys you with its inaccessible beaches; it seduces you with its mountains, its untrammeled woods, all of which reduce you to a point of nonbeing. Here, beauty exists in such abundance it is hard to know where to turn one’s head. If you stare too long at something that fascinates you, something as simple and profound as the Bixby Bridge, you get the feeling of missing something, yet you cannot turn away. It is this feeling of being connected by immersing yourself in experience, of taking one’s time, of spending one’s time in the moment, drifting downwards into a dreamy wakefulness that assists in annihilating the cold dead skin in which you’ve concealed yourself. Is that what I am doing here? Am I here to strip away the layers of dead cells that have hardened around me like a carapace? Shutting my journal I decide to read something. Having brought several books with me–Rilke, Neruda, Doctorow, Emerson, and a book on writing about nature–I select the Doctorow novel, Ragtime, with its impressive psychological insights and deft descriptions. I climb back into bed. The heater drones. I switch on the bedside lamp and finding a comfortable position with three pillows behind my back, I read.
The story of America itself prior to WWI Ragtime, is the story of a family. The major dramatic events revolve around a black ragtime piano player named Coalhouse Walker. His act of revenge, or terrorism, inflicted upon the city of New York for an injustice done to him ignites people, forcing them to re-evaluate the meaning of justice. Ironic that here I am in the countryside, far away from San Francisco, reading about the greatest metropolis in the world. Far away from the grid of streets, of homeless men shouting epithets, the slow bustle of downtown traffic, I find myself reliving its spaces through fiction.
I am a style hound, always on the hunt for lovely sentences. So, what impresses me about this novel, and in particular Doctorow’s writing, is the sentences. He writes, “It had that breath of menace which makes the beginning of the spring so unsettling,” or, “Grief and anger had been a kind of physical pathology masking her true looks.” I am amazed by his insights. But other sentences fall flat, such as “His monumental negritude sat in front of them like a centerpiece on the table.” What? At times his writing reminds me of Fitzgerald, with its copious use of modifiers and personification: “Chutes of cheerful morning sun leaned like buttresses from the high dirty windows of the ward.” I like this kind of writing. It is exuberant, alive. Such style dives deeper and deeper and deeper into experience, forming connections between things. To be able to see the light transform itself into a dancer, to personify the sun in an original way, or to describe the wind or the waves, revealing the essence of things and in turn revealing the human heart’s relation to it, yes, that is the writerly gift.
I shut the book. It is time for a drink and a bite to eat.
Located on Highway One, after a series of tight switchbacks that wind downwards, it feels, driving at night now, as if I am driving on the back of a serpent. There are no lights on the road and no houses. You drive and you see an illuminated sign on the right signaling the restaurant and you turn in to the narrow driveway, leading you to the parking lot. Above me, on the crest of this hill, stands the restaurant. Before me sits the Phoenix gift shop and on its roof above Cafe Kevah. I remember sitting for hours on the cafe’s terrace one day a year and a half ago, watching the mists draw in from the ocean, clouding the hills. I remember I followed a blue jay up the steps to Nepenthe and I wondered at the meaning of this. In fact, I saw lots of blue jays on my trip last time, and so far, not a single one.
The air is cool tonight. There is no wind. No birds. The stars are out, the Big Dipper and the moon, half a sphere up above. Like the ocean that lays at Nepenthe’s feet, this place seems to exist to bond people in a collective bliss. People come to unburden themselves, to feel free, and like the water beyond and the massive redwoods behind it on the cliffs, Nepenthe accepts everything, embraces it, strong in its conviction as a place where even the greatest defeats are made trivial in the face of beauty.
For me everything about this restaurant is a miracle. The fact that it exists at all is a testament to those who sought to preserve the dignity of artistic conveyance, for it conveys a spirit of love– after all art, no matter what form it takes, is the expression of love. Since I love words and the meaning behind words, their denotations and connotations, I learned the last time I was here that the word “nepenthe” is a Greek word meaning “isle of no care.” Once you walk up its four flights of steps, entering through a vestibule of trees, the gentle sounds of a water fountain trickling, you feel your cares melt away. Stepping onto the main patio you come to a wooden phoenix, its talons in a bed of aloe, and you get the feeling of entering a place imbued with such magic anything is possible. Here blue jays, hawks, condors or crows could descend from the treetops, land on your shoulders and sing you arias. Here shadows could shapeshift into people and then transmogrify into wolves. Like everything about Big Sur and its places, there is a story surrounding the phoenix sculpture.
The sculpture was formed out of an oak tree that once served as a gateway to the restaurant, the tree’s limbs forming a framing arch to a view of the coast. But the tree died because of overpruning and overwatering from some overzealous landscaper, and was discarded to the bottom of Mule Canyon Creek. The sculptor Edmund Kara rescued the dead oak, found in its textured lines and plumy bark the hint of talons and wings aflame. From the old oak, and all of one piece, he carved out a bird, then added bronze legs to give it stability. He transformed the tree into a phoenix, thus restoring it to a new grace then installed it on the patio to remind people that rebirth comes at the cost of dying. Fitting, how art could take from something dead and discarded, like a memory, an experience, a way of life, and reinvent it for posterity. But then, that is the beauty of art. And its power.
Standing in the courtyard, the night’s cool air spreading through the dark, you get the feeling of this being the most honest place on earth. Honesty, it’s not a word I usually associate with spaces, but there is something invitingly truthful about Nepenthe. The firepit to your left issues gentle plumes of white smoke into the night, the red glow from the smoldering embers remind you of neon signs and you think to yourself, you are still thinking of the city, even here its hold is strong. Looking out at the shadowy cliffs, the trees silhouetted in moonlight beyond you realize that even through the pitch of night, with the moon in the sky, you can still see the outline of the Santa Lucia Mountains, the cliffs tangled with sage and purple lupine, and the majestic aubergine texture of water. During the day the views are something else, heroic, but I always like to come here at night, where the beauty is hushed and in its somber state seems even grander.
The views are what drew Bill Fassett to make his lodge into a place he could share with the world. Why hoard such gifts? Why not give and give freely and in the true spirit of capitalism make some money? It was Bill and his wife Lolly who envisioned Nepenthe. Hiring Rowan Maiden, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, they built Nepenthe with material from the surrounding area–redwood, adobe bricks formed and fired by Lolly’s own hands, and local granite–creating a refuge for people to come and relax by the fire and tell stories and sing songs to one another. They would dance while the fire crackled, recite poetry while slapping hand drums. And come they did, from all over the world–poets, artists, musicians, actors, writers–sharing the bonds of creativity and love in common. Today Nepenthe is known as much for its “Ambrosiaburger” as it is for its stunning views. Here people come to, as their literature says, “To lift a cup to kindness.”
I am greeted by a waitress, a tall, lithe girl with auburn hair swirled into a messy bun. She is wearing a scarf, a dark jacket, dark pants. Without a trace of makeup she seems as assured in her loveliness as the vistas beyond the windows. I sit at the end of the bar, by the front windows in a section known as “Dirty Corner.” Here even nooks are given special significance, cracks and dens and foyers made important somehow by what happens or happened there. The “Dirty Corner,” I learn, got its name because of several poets. They congregated there, reciting dirty limericks to the bar patrons.
I order a red label on the rocks from Felipe, a burly Mexican bartender with a sheepish smile. He asks me if I like wine and I say I do. He offers me a glass of Lucia Pinot Noir, telling me its locally made, and I refuse, saying tonight is Scotch, tomorrow wine, and the next day either Gin or Vodka. After perusing the menu I order a baked chicken smothered with a wine and mushroom sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, and local grown broccolini. The chicken is over twenty dollars; the cocktail just shy of ten; hardly the prices for starving artists. But I take comfort in the space, in the quiet. I am not thinking of San Francisco, though my head still swirls with song lyrics, bits of melodies, broken conversations. My mind. I can’t seem to shut it off.
I have brought Ragtime along with me and so I take it out and open it to where I left off. I read how Harry Houdini, losing his mother, devotes his time to unveiling the mysteries of death and revealing the trickeries of those whop claim to communicate with the dead. He exposes seances for the ruses they are, switching on lights to illuminate tables floating on near invisible wires. He makes of himself a curious nuisance. I love how Doctorow structures this novel, combing the disparate lives of people who seemingly have no connections with each other but turns out to have much in common. He masterly spins his characters, culling them from historical fact, weaving them into a fictional narrative. Here we find Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Stanford White, Harry Thaw, and “the Gibson Girl” Evelyn Nesbit. I realize my kinship with Doctorow’s writing. In Somerset, my own novel, I attempted the same conceit, but on a much smaller scale, taking as the central defining moment of Somerset Booth’s life the Hartford Circus fire of 1944. The real and the fictional interest me and I realize why. At the heart of it all, that is life, we are all the same: we all have the same desires, wants, needs, yearnings, hopes; the differences among us are in degree, not in kind. The pedestrian and magical coexisting together, each informing the other, also interests me and Doctorow’s talent is his magical ability to transform commonplace experiences into great stories, full of depth and meaning. I realize that when I revisit the novel to revise it I’ll need to look at all the places where I can add greater tension, infuse more history with an imagined past so as to make the writing more vibrant.
My dinner comes. I eat and with each bite I am amazed at how incredible the food tastes. How could chicken be so tender, gravy so rich and creamy, broccolini so flavorful? It is as if I have never tasted food before and I finish everything, leaving bones and a froth of potatoes on the plate. I finish my drink. I walk outside to stand by the fire and watch the stars, the moon, feel the breath of darkness against my skin. There, sitting and smoking near the firepit, sits the hostess who greeted me earlier. We exchange tepid hello’s, talk about fire, then about art, and about my novel. I apologize to her for sounding like a cliche–a writer coming to Nepenthe for an “authentic” experience. Sensing I am flirting, she tells me about her boyfriend and I tell her about my fiance back home, and then for some reason the conversation turns to birds and sculpture. I am not cognizant of the phoenix bird behind me, just then, I am only thinking of Liz, the character in my novel who paints birds, rescues maligned birds like crows and vultures, restoring them to a new light. We talk about Brancusi and Rodin, how without the latter the former would not have found the courage to create. We talk about how every artwork is a response to something that has come before it, that each piece of art is contextualized by history–a notion I got from Jane Smiley. She finishes her cigarette and I finish mine and we return inside. Angela, she says, introducing herself. I tell her I’ll be back tomorrow. Good, she says. We can chat some more then. I check the time, 9:21. Still early, but after the long drive and the short nap, I feel tired.
I return to Cabin 3. It feels blustery now, so I turn down the heat. I settle into bed with Ragtime and hope I’ll sleep, but the noises in my head return, the bits of music, the idle conversations, bits of verse, and I keep reading and keep reading and one hundred pages later I am still wide awake. At 3 AM, I finally switch off the table light. I sink into bed. An hour later I am asleep.
(To be Continued)
All photos (c) 2011 SK Kalsi. Not to be used without permission.